Archive for the 'WTF?' Category

WTF?! Indeed!

Like most bloggers, I assign each of my posts to one or more Categories, which are listed in small print somewhere near the top of the post. Among the categories I use are “Economics”, “Politics”, “Policy”, “Math”, “Logic”, “Cool Stuff”, “History”, “Oddities” and “WTF?”. The last of these is perfect for this post, which is written to call your attention to Peter Leeson‘s rollicking new book WTF?!: An Economic Tour of the Weird.

(Edited to add: I see now that the jacket copy on Leeson’s book describes it as “rollicking”. Apparently I’m not the only one who thought this was the right adjective here.)

Leeson, some of whose work I’ve blogged about here in the past, takes us on a tour of some of the world’s seemingly most inexplicable behavior — both historical and contemporary — and uses economic insight to render that behavior explicable after all. His explanations are generally plausible and provocative, though I’m sure many an insightful reader will find plenty to argue with. That, after all, is part of the fun.

Here are the blurbs from the back of the book:

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Killer Instincts

So help me out with this.

1) Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel sure that it’s not uncommon, when a guy is murdered for a pair of shoes, or for the 23 cents in his pocket, that we tend to read commentary about how this murder is made particularly tragic and/or reprehensible by the fact that the killer gained so little.

2) The murder of schoolteacher Katie Locke is being widely condemned as particularly tragic and/or reprehensible because the killer had sex with her corpse, which was apparently his goal all along.

Do you see my problem here? How can a good outcome for the killer make a murder both better and worse?

Alright, let’s ask what the key difference is. Here’s one: Robbing a corpse (or a soon-to-be corpse) is a zero-sum game. What the robber acquires comes from the pockets of the heirs. Sex with a corpse is probably a positive-sum game; it’s unlikely to interfere with anyone else’s plans.

Unfortunately, that only makes things even more unsettling. It leads to this syllogism:

  1. People feel better about a murder when they learn that the killer stole $10,000 from the heirs as opposed, to, say, 23 cents. This suggests that they care more about the killer than they do about the heirs, who could be pretty much anyone.
  2. People feel worse about a murder when they learn that the killer got some satisfaction even if it came at nobody’s (additional) expense. This suggests that they care a negative amount about the killer.

Put all that together, and these people must be pretty much seething with hatred for the world at large.

Or to put this another way: It appears (taking the murder as given) that people want killers to achieve their goals when and only when those goals are achieved at someone else’s expense. That’s pretty much the definition of “anti-social”.

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Innumeracy Watch

Did Stanford university surgeons fail first grade arithmetic? Or do they just assume the rest of us did?

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Dear Old Golden Rule Days

ssyShortly before I started Kindergarten, my mother purchased a book called “Steven’s School Years”, with pockets to store my report cards and school projects, and questionnaires for me to fill out at the end of each school year.

I was not diligent about filling in the questionnaires, and they remain mostly blank. But had I been forced to, I wonder how I would have answered the following question, which was to be answered annually at the end of Grades 1,2,3,4,5, and 6:

(According to my mother, my ambition at age three was to be an electric drill, and sometime after that a rabbit. No other records of my early career inclinations seem to have survived.)

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Quote of the Day, Election Edition

From Katharine Q. Seelye of the New York Times, writing with no apparent sense of irony about Rhode Island gubernatorial candidate Serena Mancini:

She favors raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation, for example, and opposes making Rhode Island a “right to work” state. Her chief focus is creating jobs.

If you doubt the existence or direction of bias at the New York Times, ask yourself when you’re next likely to read a Times piece that says something like:

She favors widespread deregulation, for example, and opposes all taxes on capital income. Her chief focus is alleviating poverty.

Wait, that’s an imperfect analogy, since (unlike the passage from Ms. Seelye) it actually makes sense. Let me try again:

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Monday Puzzles

Click image to solve puzzle.

So it turns out that if you take a notion to create a crossword puzzle, put it on your blog, and include a “submit” button so that solvers can send you their answers, then — at least if your skill set is similar to mine — writing the code to make that “submit” button work will be about twice as difficult and three times as time-consuming (but perhaps also several times as educational) as actually creating the crossword puzzle. I certainly learned some hard lessons about the difference between POST and GET. But it’s done and (I think) it works.

To do the puzzle online click here. For a printable version, click here. If you do this on line and want to submit your answer, use the spiffy “Submit” button! (And do feel free to compliment the author of that button!). The clues are subject to pretty much the same rules that you’d find in, say, the London Times or the Guardian.

I will gather the submissions and eventually give proper public credit to the most accurate and fastest solvers. Feel free to submit partial solutions; it’s not impossible that nobody will solve the whole thing.

Let’s try to keep spoilers out of the comments, at least for a week or so.

I have one very geeky addendum to all this, leading to a second Monday puzzle — one that might be easy to solve for a reader or two, but most definitely not for me. Unless you’re a very particular brand of geek, you’ll probably want to stop reading right here. But:

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And for Five Points, Explain the Universe

I’m starting to prepare a midterm exam for Principles of Economics, and for inspiration I looked at an exam given by a colleague who taught this course about fifteen years ago. There I find the following question, worth 3 points out of 140:

What happened in the Great Depression?

I wonder if you lost points for failing to mention that Clark Gable won the Oscar.

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Friday Puzzle

Flightstats.com is a website that reports the on-time performance of individual airline flights. If you look up, oh, say, USAirways Flight 464, you’ll find this assessment:

Now the puzzle: How, exactly, does one go about controlling for standard deviation and mean?

Hat tip to Michael Lugo at God Plays Dice

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