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A great story on The Morning News about a guy who is trying to preserve his spoiler-free existence in the face of meddling Internets, bus riders, and Amazon delivery guys:

Well, don’t you worry. This book will be on your doorstep tomorrow afternoon, ready to read.

I, of course, could read the book–YOUR book–right now.

And I gotta admit, it WOULD be fun to be one of the first people in the world to know how it all ends.

Hmm. So, maybe I’ll just read the last page…


Hah hah. I’m just yanking your chain. That’s not how it ends. Or maybe it IS, and I’m just saying it’s not so you’ll be doubly surprised when you finish it. You never know.

I really did read the last page, though. The final word is “haberdashery.” You can verify that when you get the book. Tomorrow. A full day after I had it.

I gotta tell ya, though: Now that I know how it ends, I kind of want to read the whole thing. If I start right now, I could probably finish it and get this book in the mail to you by Wednesday. You wouldn’t mind waiting a few extra days, would you?

Also, I dog-ear pages to save my place. I hope that’s OK.

j/k. I wouldn’t really read this book. 1,000 words about fairies? Yeah, no. Besides, who has the time? Some of us have to work for a living. For instance, I bust my hump 60 hours a week schlepping your books around.

Besides, I’d rather see the movie anyway. That chick who plays Hermione is smoking hot. I’d quidditch, if you know what I’m sayin’.

 Including analysis of the ncessary and sufficient epistemic conditions for an arbitrary statement to qualify as a spoiler:

  • Did your comment spoil my reading experience? Yes.
  • Was my experience any less spoiled because you didn’t know your comment was true? No.
  • Was my experience any less spoiled because you really, truly, honestly, swear to God didn’t mean to spoil the experience for anyone? No.
  • Was my experience any less spoiled because I knew your comment was true only by accident? Nope again.

Read it.  (Spoiler alert.)


This guy wrote a column about The Hunger Games and gave away many details of the plot, some of them big-time spoilers.  Then he wrote a column about how he was actually doing his readers a favor because spoilers actually increase the enjoyment of the book.  For example

The suggestion is that there is a trade-off in the pleasures available to first-time readers or viewers on the one hand, and “repeaters” (as they are called in the scholarly literature) on the other. First-time readers or viewers, because they don’t know what’s going to happen, have access to the pleasures of suspense — going down the wrong path, guessing at the identity of the killer, wondering about the fate of the hero. Repeaters who do know what is going to happen cannot experience those pleasures, but they can recognize significances they missed the first time around, see ironies that emerge only in hindsight and savor the skill with which a plot is constructed. If suspense is taken away by certainty, certainty offers other compensations, and those compensations, rather than being undermined by a spoiler, require one.


The positive case for spoilers is even stronger if you are persuaded by those who argue, in the face of common sense, that suspense survives certainty. This is called “the paradox of suspense” and it is explained by A. R. Duckworth: “1. Suspense requires uncertainty. 2. Knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation precludes any uncertainty. 3. [Yet] we feel suspense in response to fictions we know the outcomes of” (“The Paradox of Suspense II—The Problem,” The Journal of Film, Art and Aesthetics, Jan. 14, 2012).

and some other related arguments. Even if you accept these arguments, they amount to saying that there is a qualitative difference between the spoiled reading and the fresh reading and you want to have both. But this does not vindicate the spoilage. The problem with the spoiler is that it deprives you of the fresh reading. Spared the spoiler, or suitably alerted, you could have had both.

Now maybe you have time for only one reading. And so the counterargument could be that if the spoiled reading is in fact better than the fresh one then the spoiler saves you the effort of self-spoiling (settle down Beavis!) and gets you straight to the good, i.e. spoiled, stuff.

But notice what this says about the author of the novel. The author invented this whole story. She created the entire spoil-fodder. Indeed the spoiler only exists because the author chose not to “spoil” it himself by informing the reader right away what’s going to happen later. Either that is because this makes for a better story, or because the author is incompetent. In other words, putting a naked spoiler into your column and claiming that it makes the story better is tantamount to saying that the author is a hack. Not

If “The Hunger Games” is so shallow that it can be spoiled by a plot revelation, the alert doesn’t save much. If “The Hunger Games” is a serious accomplishment, no plot revelation can spoil it.

Deerstalker dash:  Alex Frankel.

Dawkins couldn’t be more dull when he is playing the heretic.  When he is excoriating heretics, on the other hand, he is sharp as a tack:

Misunderstanding Number One, which is also perpetrated by Wilson, is the fallacy that “Kin selection is a special, complex kind of natural selection, to be invoked only when the allegedly more parsimonious ‘standard Darwinian theory’ proves inadequate.” I hope I have made it clear that kin selection is logically entailed by standard Darwinian theory, even if the B and C terms work out in such a way that collateral kin are not cared for in practice. Natural selection without kin selection would be like Euclid without Pythagoras. Wilson is, in effect, striding around with a ruler, measuring triangles to see whether Pythagoras got it right. Kin selection was always logically implied by the neo-Darwinian synthesis. It just needed somebody to point it out—Hamilton did it.

Edward Wilson has made important discoveries of his own. His place in history is assured, and so is Hamilton’s. Please do read Wilson’s earlier books, including the monumental The Ants, written jointly with Bert Hölldobler (yet another world expert who will have no truck with group selection). As for the book under review, the theoretical errors I have explained are important, pervasive, and integral to its thesis in a way that renders it impossible to recommend. To borrow from Dorothy Parker, this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force. And sincere regret.

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.

From the wonderful Letters of Note.

Josh Gans gives a handy benchmark model where the answer is no.

MODEL 1: Wholesale Pricing

Suppose that a book publisher charges a price of p to a retailer. Then, based on this, the retailer sets a price to consumers of P and earns (P – p)(a – P).

In this case, the retailer’s optimal price is:

P* = (a + p)/2

Given this, the publisher’s demand is Q = a – P* or Q = (a-p)/2. The publisher chooses p to maximize its profits of pQ which results in a price of p* = a/2. This implies that the final equilibrium price under the wholesale pricing model is:

P* = 3a/4

MODEL 2: Agency

Under an agency model, the publisher sets P directly while the retailer receives a share, s, of revenues generated. The publisher, thus, chooses P to maximize its profits of (1-s)PQ. This generates an optimal price of:

P* = a/2


Regardless of s, the price under the agency model is lower than the price under a wholesale pricing model. The reason is that the agency model avoids double marginalization. The comment here does not reflect other effects arising from ‘most favored customer’ clauses that can apply in both wholesale pricing and agency models and are discussed further in Gans (2012).

Not 100% sure this is real.  Here’s his blurb for Miss Timmins School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy:

“Beautifully written, atmospheric…contains entire worlds.  I couldn’t put it down.”
—Gary Shteyngart

And Flatscreen by Adam Wilson:

“OMFG, I nearly up and died from laughter when I read Flatscreen. This is the novel that every young turk will be reading on their way to a job they hate and are in fact too smart for.”
—Gary Shteyngart

He even blurbs his own blurb:

“Gary Shteyngart’s blurbs are touching, funny, and true.  This is a blurber to watch”

Here’s some blurb-related research I’d like to see.  There is a widespread suspicion that editors write the blurbs and the blurber just agrees to sign his name to it.  It would be great to use text-pattern-recognition software to group blurbs according to apparent authorship and check whether this is really true.

From a science fiction writer, who should know.

So, yeah: In a film with impossibly large spiders, talking trees, rings freighted with corrupting evil, Uruks birthed from mud (not to mention legions of ghost warriors and battle elephants larger than tanks), are we really going to complain about insufficiently dense lava? Because if you’re going to demand that be accurate in a physical sense, I want to know why you’re giving the rest of that stuff a pass. If you’re going to complain that the snowman flies, you should also be able to explain why it’s okay to have it eat hot soup.

Read on for the Flying Snowman theory.

This article surveys the  frontiers of toilet-reading science.  Few downsides, some upsides.

No writer owned the arena of toilet reading more than Henry Miller. He read truly great books on the lavatory, and maintained that some, Ulysses for instance, could not be fully appreciated elsewhere. The environment was one that enriched substantial works – extracted their flavour, as he put it – while lesser books and magazines suffered. He singled out Atlantic Monthly.

Hume has been locked out of the room and he is not allowed to re-enter in the form of Parfit having a dialogue with Cho and Kreps.

That’s from Tyler’s review of a book called On What Matters Vol. I (a title, which in my opinion can be gainfully edited down to “SW Swell.”)

We are reading it in my Behavioral Economics class and so far we have finished the first 5 chapters which make up Part I of the book “Anticipating Future Preferences.” In Ran Spiegler’s typical style, perfectly crafted simple models are used to illustrate deep ideas that lie at the heart of existing frontier research and, no doubt, future research this book is bound to inspire.

A nod also has to go to Kfir Eliaz who is Rani’s longtime collaborator on many of the papers that preceded this book.  Indeed, in a better world they would form a band.  It would be a early ’90s geek-rock band like They Might Be Giants or whichever band it was that did The Sweater Song.  I hereby name their band Hasty Belgium. (Names of other bands here.)

Many of the examples in the book are referred to as “close variations of” or “free variations of” papers in the literature.  And Rani has even written a paper that he calls “a cover version of” a paper by Heidhues and Koszegi.  So to continue the metaphor, I offer here some liner notes for the book.

In chapter 5 there is a fantastic distillation of a model due to Michael Grubb that explains Netflix pricing.  Conventional models of price discrimination cannot explain three-part tariffs:  a membership fee, a low initial per-unit price, and then a high per-unit price that kicks in above some threshold quantity.  (Netflix is the extreme case where the initial price per movie is zero, and above some number the price is infinite.) Rani constructs the simplest and clearest possible model to show how such a pricing system is the optimal way to take advantage of consumers who are over-confident in their beliefs about their future demand.

A conventional approach to pricing would be to set price equal to marginal cost, thereby incentivizing the consumer to demand the efficient quantity, and then adding on a membership fee that extracts all of his surplus.  You can think of this as the Blockbuster model.  The Netflix model by contrast reduces the per-unit price to zero (up to some monthly allotment) but raises the membership fee.

Here’s how that increases profits.  Many of us mistakenly think we will watch lots of movies.  Netflix re-arranges the pricing structure so that the total amount we expect to pay when we watch all of those movies is the same as in the Blockbuster model.  Just now we are paying it all in the form of a membership fee.  If it turns out that we watch as many movies as we anticipated, we are no better or worse off and neither is Netflix.

But in fact most of us discover that we are always too busy to watch movies. In the Blockbuster system when that happens we don’t watch movies and so we don’t pay per-unit prices and we Blockbuster doesn’t make much money. In the Netflix system it doesn’t matter how many movies we watch, because we already paid.

My only complaint about the book is the title.  (Not for those reasons, no.)  The term “Bounded Rationality” has fallen out of favor and for good reason.  It’s pejorative and it doesn’t really mean anything.  A more contemporary title would have been Behavioral Industrial Organization.  Now I agree that “Behavioral” is at least as meaningless as “Bounded Rationality.”  Indeed it has even less meaning. But that’s a virtue because we don’t have any good word for whatever “Bounded Rationality” and “Behavioral” are supposed to mean. So I prefer a word that has no meaning at all than “Bounded Rationality” which suggests a meaning that is misplaced.

(My approach to blogging is to send myself emails whenever I have an idea, then sort through those emails when i have the time and decide what to write about. Some ideas have gathered dust over the past year and its time to use them or lose them.)

When do you give up on a book?  It’s an optimal stopping problem with an experimentation aspect.  The more you read the more uncertainty gets resolved the more you learn whether the book will be rewarding enough to finish.  You stop reading when the expected continuation value, which includes the option value of quitting later, falls below the value of the next book in your queue.

So here’s an interesting question.  Is that more likely to happen at the beginning or near the end of a book? Ignore the irrational desire to complete a book just because you have already sunk a lot of time into reading it. (But do include the payoff from finding out what happens with all the threads you have followed along the way.)

It easily could be that the most likely time to quit reading a book is close to the end.  Indeed the following is a theorem.  For any belief about the flow value of the book going forward, if that belief leads you to dump the book near the beginning, then that same belief must lead you to dump the book nearer the end.  Because the closer to the end of the book the option value is lower and there is even less chance that it will get better.

It sounds wrong because probably even the most ruthless book trashers rarely quit near the end.  But there’s no contradictipon. Even if the option value rule implies that the threshold quality required to continue reading is increasing as you get deeper into the book, it can still be true that statistically you most often quit reading near the beginning of a book.  Because conditional on a book being dump-worthy, you are more likely to figure that out and cross that threshold for the first time early on rather than later.

In the last of our weekly readings, my daughter’s 4th grade class read Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Pit And The Pendulum” (a two minute read) and today I led the kids in a discussion of the story.  Here are my notes.

The story reads like a scholarly thesis on the art and strategy of torture.  My fourth graders had no trouble picking out the themes of commitment, credibility, resistance, and escalation as if they themselves were seasoned experts on the age-old institution.  We went around the table associating passages in the story to everyday scenes on the playground and in the lunch line. Many of the children especially identified with this account of the delicate balance between hope and despair in the victim:

And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave. The thought came gently and stealthily, and it seemed long before it attained full appreciation; but just as my spirit came at length properly to feel and entertain it, the figures of the judges vanished, as if magically, from before me; the tall candles sank into nothingness; their flames went out utterly; the blackness of darkness supervened; all sensations appeared swallowed up in a mad rushing descent as of the soul into Hades.

We had a lengthy discussion of  how the victim was made to wish for death and one especially precocious youngster observed that the longing for death cultivates in the detainee what is known as the Stockholm Syndrome in which the victim begins to feel a sense of common purpose with his captors.

By long suffering my nerves had been unstrung, until I trembled at the sound of my own voice, and had become in every respect a fitting subject for the species of torture which awaited me.

Here Poe gives a nod to the eternal debate about the psychology of torture. Does psychological stress of torture bring the victim to a state in which he abandons all rationality?  There in the hush of the elementary school library, the children were insistent that Poe was right to suggest instead that torture, judiciously applied, only heightens the victim’s strategic awareness.

In light of that observation it came as no surprise to the sharpest among my students that the instrument to be used would leverage to the fullest the interrogators’ strategic advantage in this contest of wills.

It might have been half an hour, perhaps even an hour, (for in cast my I could take but imperfect note of time) before I again cast my eyes upward. What I then saw confounded and amazed me. The sweep of the pendulum had increased in extent by nearly a yard. As a natural consequence, its velocity was also much greater. But what mainly disturbed me was the idea that had perceptibly descended. I now observed — with what horror it is needless to say — that its nether extremity was formed of a crescent of glittering steel, about a foot in length from horn to horn; the horns upward, and the under edge evidently as keen as that of a razor. Like a razor also, it seemed massy and heavy, tapering from the edge into a solid and broad structure above. It was appended to a weighty rod of brass, and the whole hissed as it swung through the air.

Still we were, every one of us, in awe of Poe’s ingenious device.  The pendulum, serving both as a symbol of the deterministic and inexorable march of time, and a literal instrument of torture inheriting that same aura of inevitability.

I asked the youngest of my students, a gentle and charming, if somewhat reserved little girl to take her reader out of her Hello Kitty book bag and read aloud this entry, which I had highlighted as one whose vibrant color and imagery was sure to endear the students at such an early age to the rich joys of literature.

What boots it to tell of the long, long hours of horror more than mortal, during which I counted the rushing vibrations of the steel! Inch by inch — line by line — with a descent only appreciable at intervals that seemed ages — down and still down it came! Days passed — it might have been that many days passed — ere it swept so closely over me as to fan me with its acrid breath. The odor of the sharp steel forced itself into my nostrils. I prayed — I wearied heaven with my prayer for its more speedy descent.

This was the moment of my greatest pride in our weekly literary expeditions as I could tell that the child so was overcome with the joy and power of Poe’s insights into the art of interrogation, that she was nearly weeping at the end.

The story concludes with Poe’s most hopeful verdict on the limits of torture as a mechanism. Our victim persevered, resisted to the very end, and his steadfastness was rewarded with escape and rescue.  Likewise, the little boys and girls went back to their classroom and I detected that they were moving unusually slowly.  I surmised, I must say with a little pride, that they were still deep in thought about the valuable lesson we had explored together.  Indeed many of them confided in me that they were eager to tell their parents about me and the story I picked for them and everything they learned today.

My daughter’s 4th grade class read The Emperor’s New Clothes (a two minute read) and today I led a discussion of the story.  Here are my notes.

The Emperor, who was always to be found in his dressing room, commissioned some new clothes from weavers who claimed to have a magical cloth whose fine colors and patterns would be “invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.”

Fast forward to the end of the story. Many of the Emperor’s most trusted advisors have, one by one, inspected the clothes and faced the same dilemma. Each of them could see nothing and yet for fear of being branded stupid or unfit for office each bestowed upon the weavers the most elaborate compliments they could muster.  Finally the Emperor himself is presented with his new clothes and he is shocked to discover that they are invisible only to him.

Am I a fool? Am I unfit to be the Emperor? What a thing to happen to me of all people! – Oh! It’s very pretty,” he said. “It has my highest approval.” And he nodded approbation at the empty loom. Nothing could make him say that he couldn’t see anything.

The weavers have succesfully engineered a herd. For any inspector who doubts the clothes’ authenticity, to be honest and dispel the myth requires him to convince the Emperor that the clothes are invisible to everybody.  That is risky because if the Emperor believes the clothes are authentic (either because he sees them or he thinks he is the only one who does not) then the inspector would be judged unfit for office.  With each successive inspector who declares the clothes to be authentic the evidence mounts, making the risk to the next inspector even greater.  After a long enough sequence no inspector will dare to deviate from the herd, including the Emperor himself.

The clothes and the herd are a metaphor for authority itself.  Respect for authority is sustained only because others‘ respect for authority is thought to be sufficiently strong to support the ouster of any who would question it.

But whose authority?  The deeper lesson of the story is a theory of the firm based on the separation of ownership and management.  Notice that it is the weavers who capture the rents from the environment of mutual fear that they have created.  They show that the optimal use of their asset is to clothe a figurehead in artificial authority and hold him in check by keeping even him in doubt of his own legitimacy.  The herd bestows management authority on the figurehead but ensures that rents flow to the owners who are surreptitiously the true authorities.

The swindlers at once asked for more money, more silk and gold thread, to get on with the weaving. But it all went into their pockets. Not a thread went into the looms, though they worked at their weaving as hard as ever.

The story concludes with a cautionary note.  The herd holds together only because of calculated, self-interested subjects.  The organizational structure is vulnerable if new members are not trained to see the wisdom of following along.

“But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said.

“Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?” said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, “He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.”

“But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.

Herds are fragile because knowledge is contagious.  As the organization matured everyone secretly has come to know that the authority is fabricated. And later everyone comes to know that everyone has secretly come to know that.  This latent higher-order knowledge requires only a seed of public knowledge before it crystalizes into common knowledge that the organization is just a mirage.

And after that, who is the last member to maintain faith in the organization?

The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has got to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.

I don’t have a Kindle but I noticed that people were complaining so much about the absence of page numbers on early versions that Amazon has restored page numbers in the latest Kindle software. This adherence to tradition (in which I include prudish Professors and Editors who demand precise page references in Bibliographies) destroys a unique advantage of eBooks that could make them more than just a fragile, signal-jamming replacement for old fashioned pulp.

Suspense requires randomization. If you are reading my paper-bound novel and I want to maximize your suspense I am constrained by your ability to infer, based on how many pages are left, the likelihood that the story is going to play out as staged or whether there will be another twist in the plot. It is impossible for me to convince you of a “false ending” if you are on page 200 out of 400. The bastard publisher has spoiled it for me because 1) he has, without my permission, smeared page numbers all over my handiwork, and 2) refused to add bulk by randomly insert blank pages at the end to help me fool you.

Now Kindle, and eBook readers in general allow me to shuck that constraint. I can end the novel at any point and you would never know that the end is right around the corner. I could make it 1 page long. Imagine the effect of that! I could make it grind to a halt on page 200 only to surprise you with a development completely out of the blue that takes another 200 pages to resolve.

But no, you can’t handle the suspense. You call yourself a reader but you are really just a page counter. You begged for your time-marking crutch and Amazon obliged. Your loss, my novel goes back in the drawer.

P.S. Emir Kamenica gets some of the blame for this post.

Q.S. Quote from my buddy Dave: The key is to have a useful term–for example, I have stopped using the term “page number” and now use the term “oprah” to refer to the location in printed matter. I encourage you to start using this in the classroom. “All right, please turn to Oprah 31”)

David Mitchell is a stammerer who wrote beautifully about it in his semi-autobiographical novel Black Swan Green. Here is Mitchell on The King’s Speech.  In the article he talks about his own strategies for coping with stammering:

If these technical fixes tackle the problem once it’s begun, “attitudinal stances” seek to dampen the emotions that trigger my stammer in the first place. Most helpful has been a sort of militant indifference to how my audience might perceive me. Nothing fans a stammer’s flames like the fear that your listener is thinking “Jeez, what is wrong with this spasm-faced, eyeball-popping strangulated guy?” But if I persuade myself that this taxing sentence will take as long as it bloody well takes and if you, dear listener, are embarrassed then that’s your problem, I tend not to stammer. This explains how we can speak without trouble to animals and to ourselves: our fluency isn’t being assessed. This is also why it’s helpful for non-stammerers to maintain steady eye contact, and to send vibes that convey, “No hurry, we’ve got all the time in the world.”

(Gat Gape:  The Browser) Incidentally, I watched The King’s Speech and also True Grit on a flight to San Francisco Sunday night while the Oscars were being handed out down below. I enjoyed the portrayal of stammering in TKS but unlike Mitchell I didn’t think that subject matter alone carried an entire film.  And there wasn’t much else to it.  (And by the way here is Christopher Hitchens complaining about the softie treatment of Churchill and King Edward VIII.)

True Grit was also a big disappointment.  I haven’t seen Black Swan but I hear it has some great kung fu scenes.

My duaghter’s 4th grade class read the short story “The Three Questions” by Tolstoy (a two minute read.)  This afternoon I led a discussion of the story. Here are my notes.

There is a King who decides that he needs the answers to three questions.

  1. What is the best time to act?
  2. Who is the most important person to listen to?
  3. What is the most important thing to do?

Because if he knew the answers to these questions he would never fail in what he set out to do.  He sends out a proclomation in his Kingdom offering a reward to anyone who can answer these questions but he is disappointed because although many offer answers…

All the answers being different, the King agreed with none of them, and gave the reward to none.

So instead he went to see a hermit who lived alone in the Wood and who might be able to answer his questions.  The King and the hermit spend the day in silence digging beds in the ground.  Growing impatient, the King confronts the hermit and makes one final request for the answers to the King’s questions.  But before the hermit is able to respond they are interrupted by a wounded stranger who needs their help.  They bandage the stranger and lay him in bed and the King himself falls asleep and does not awake until the next morning.

At it turns out the stranger was intending to murder the King but was caught by the King’s bodyguard and stabbed.  Unkowingly the King saved his enemy’s life and now the man was eternally grateful and begging for the King’s forgiveness. The King returns to the hermit and asks again for the answers to his questions.

“Do you not see,” replied the hermit. “If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug those beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business. Remember then: there is only one time that is important– Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”

We are left to decide for ourselves what the King will do with these answers. The King abhors uncertainty. This is why he discarded the many different answers given by the learned men in his Kingdom. The simplicity of the hermit’s advice is bound the appeal to the King. It is certainly a rule that can be applied in any situation. And it is indeed motivated by acknowledgement of uncertainty in the extreme.  The Here and Now are the only certainties. And it follows from uncertainty about where you will be in the future, with whom you will be, and what options will be before you that the Here and Now are the most important.

(The hermit is not only outlining a foundation for hyperbolic discounting, but also a Social Welfare analog.  Your social welfare function should heavily discount all people except those who are before you right now.)

But what would come of the King were he to follow the advice of the hermit? Imagine what it would be like to live like that. Would you ever even make it to the bathroom to brush your teeth? How many opportunities and people would distract you along the way?

If the hermit’s advice were any good then surely the hermit himself must follow it. Perhaps the hermit was a King once.

My daughter’s 4th grade class is reading a short story by O. Henry called The Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen.  (A two minute read.) In about an hour I will go to her class and lead a discussion of the story.  Here are my notes.

In the story we meet Stuffy Pete.  He is sitting on a bench waiting for a second gentleman to arrive.  We learn that this is an annual meeting on Thanksgiving day that Stuffy Pete is always looking forward to.  Stuffy Pete is a ragged, hungry street-dweller and the gentleman who arrives each year treats him to a Thanksgiving feast.

But on this Thanksgiving, Stuffy Pete is stuffed.  Because on his way to the meeting, he was stopped by the servant of two old ladies who had their own Thanksgiving tradition.  They treated him to an even bigger feast than he is used to.  And so he sits here, weighed down on the bench, terrified of the impending arrival.

The old gentleman arrives and recites this speech.

“Good morning, I am glad to see that the vicissitudes of another year have spared you to move in health about the beautiful world.  For that blessing alone this day of thanksgiving is well celebrated.  If you will come with me, my man, I will provide you with a dinner that should be more than satisfactory in every respect.”

The same speech he has recited every year the two gentlemen met on that same bench.  “The words themselves almost formed an institution.”

And Stuffy Pete, in tearful agony at the prospects replies “Thankee sir.  I’ll go with ye, and much obliged.  I’m very hungry sir.”

Stuffy’s Thanksgiving appetite was not his own; it now belonged to this kindly old gentleman who had taken possession of it.

The story’s deep cynicism, hinted at in the preceding quote, is only fully realized in the final paragraphs which contain the typical O. Henry ironic twist.  Stuffy, overstuffed by a second Thanksgiving feast collapses and is brought to hospital by an ambulance whose driver “cursed softly at his weight.” Shortly thereafter he is joined there by the old gentleman and a doctor is overheard chatting about his case

“That nice old gentleman over there, now” he said “you wouldn’t think that was a case of almost starvation.  Proud old family, I guess.  He told me he hadn’t eaten a thing for three days.”

Social norms and institutions re-direct self-interested motives.  Social welfare maximization is then proxied for by individual-level incentives.  But they can take on a life of their own, uncoupled from their origin.  This is the folk public choice theory of O. Henry’s staggeringly cynical fable.

Check out Michael Chwe’s book Folk Game Theory:  Strategic Analysis in Austen, Hammerstain, and African American Folk Tales. It’s a study of game theory in the context of literature and of literature through the lens of game theory.  But it’s more than that.  Each of the stories in the book illustrates what happens out of equilibrium.

The fox gets tricked by the rabbit because the fox has not understood the strategic motivation behind the rabbit’s actions.  The master pays the price when he underestimates the slave.  A folk tale is an artificially constructed scenario which purposefully takes the characters off the equilibrium path in order to teach us to stay on it.

By recovering a “people’s history of game theory” and gaining a larger understanding of its past, we enlarge its potential future. Game theory’s mathematical models are sometimes criticized for assuming ahistorical, decontextualized actors, and indeed game theory is typ- ically applied to relatively “neutral” situations such as auctions and elections. Folk game theory shows that game theory can most inter- estingly arise in situations which are strongly gendered or racialized, with clear superiors and subordinates. By looking at slave folktales, we can see how the story of Flossie and the Fox is a sophisticated discus- sion of deterrence. We can see from Austen’s heroine Fanny Price that social norms, far from protecting sociality against the corrosive forces of individualism, can be the first line of oppression. We can see from Hammerstein’s Ado Annie how convincing others of your impulsive- ness can open up new strategic opportunities. Folk game theory has wisdom which can be explored just as traditional folk medicines are now investigated by pharmaceutical companies.

Jonathan Weinstein does a very good Dickens.  A fun read.

“There are many other purposes of charity, Uncle, but at the risk of my immortal soul, I shall debate you on your own coldhearted terms. Your logic concerning gifts appears infallible, but you have made what my dear old professor of economic philosophy would call an implicit assumption, and a most unwarranted one.”

He is the author who wrote this on his website:

Q. How can I get Neil Gaiman to make an appearance at my school/convention/event?
A. Contact Lisa Bransdorf at the Greater Talent Network. Tell her you want Neil to appear somewhere. Have her tell you how much it costs. Have her say it again in case you misheard it the first time. Tell her you could get Bill Clinton for that money. Have her tell you that you couldn’t even get ten minutes of Bill Clinton for that money but it’s true, he’s not cheap.

On the other hand, I’m really busy, and I ought to be writing, so pricing appearances somewhere between ridiculously high and obscenely high helps to discourage most of the people who want me to come and talk to them.

He’s busy, for sure.  Too busy to agree to every appearance request.  And so he does need to discourage people who want him to come and talk to them.  But does he have to use high prices to discourage them?  He could always just decide how many appearances he is able to fit into his busy schedule and agree to that many, saying no to everybody else.  No need for prices if he is just rationing his time.

But maybe he wants to make sure that his scarce time is allocated to the audiences that value it the most. That’s not greed, that’s efficiency.  Then instead of rationing by saying no, he should hold an auction.  He chooses the same number of appearances as in the rationing mechanism (just based on the cost of his time), but now those appearances go to the highest bidders.

But maybe his optimal quantity of appearances cannot be determined independently of demand.  If the auction fetches a very high price then he knows that the marginal willingness to pay is much higher than his marginal opportunity cost and he should increase supply.  As a result his marginal opportunity cost increases until it rises above willingness to pay and he stops there.  Now he is even more busy.  But that’s efficient.  And the price is lower.

But opportunity cost is a slippery concept.  Agreeing to additional appearances means lower prices.  The lower price is therefore an opportunity cost of the marginal appearance.  When Neil Gaiman takes this into account, equating his marginal opportunity costs to marginal willingness to pay means raising prices.  Now that’s greedy.  But on the other hand any way of increasing consumer surplus necessarily lowers Neil Gaiman’s profits, so its also (Pareto) efficient.

People have analyzed strategic thinking long before the academic field of game theory started in the 1950s.  I argue that Jane Austen’s six novels, among the most widely beloved in the English language, can be understood as a systematic analysis of strategic thinking.  Austen’s novels do not simply provide interesting “case material” for the game theorist to analyze, but are themselves very ambitious and wide-ranging theoretically, providing insights not yet superseded by modern social science.

That is the abstract of a talk that Michael Chwe will give at UCLA on April 23.  Unfortunately for those of us who can’t attend, there doesn’t seem to be a paper available.  But Michael Chwe is an extremely creative and broad-minded theorist so you can bet that it’s going to be good.  And if we can’t read his thoughts on Jane Austen, there’s always Michael’s paper “Why Were the Workers Whipped?  Pain in a Principal-Agent Model.”

You are an ambitious, young Presidential-wannabe.  This makes you a trifle immodest and you decide to write an autobiography, Volume 1.  It’s going to set the stage for your Presidential bid.   Some may say you have yet to do anything so said volume may not sell too well, even though you have an exotic cocktail of a family background and were President of Harvard Law Review.   They may be right so you are not willing to pay a lump sum fee to employ an agent to sell your manuscript: not only might your book not work out, you would be stuck with a bill from an agent to add to your law school debts.

Luckily for you, pretty much every guy who writes a book is in the same position as you: immodest enough to write a book and yet knowing that it might not sell.  So, there is a standard contract that is signed with a book agent:  they work for you to get you a contract and if the book actually sells they get 15%.  This way you share the risk: if the book fails, at least you do not also lose the amount you paid the agent; in return, if it succeeds, you do not get to keep all the benefits.  The 15% contract gives you a form of insurance. Plus, it gives the agent the incentive to work hard, helping to alleviate the moral hazard problem.

Miracle of miracles, the book does actually sell eventually.  It lies ignored but you become kind of famous anyway and then people buy it.  Now you’re ready for Volume 2.  Is the old book agent contract still the best option for you?

Well, Volume 2 is almost certainly going to fly off the shelves.  You do not need to share the risk.  All you care about is the getting the best price and you don’t need protection in case of failure as it ain’t going to fail.  Best just to go with a great negotiator.  In fact, a well-connected Washington lawyer might be just the thing.  You just pay him upfront and he calls his contacts.  And he’s done it before.  It’s expensive if your book fails and you don’t get the rest of your advance or even have to give back the chunk they gave you.  But Volume 2 is your road to the Presidency, Volume 1 was just laying the foundation.  Everyone will read it as you’re intriguing and you’ll get to keep your advance and even get royalties.  Now, you can afford to be President as your law school debts are paid and you can even send your kids to a spiffy private school.

Agatha Christie didn’t decide who did it until most of the story was already written.

I always assumed she just knew who did it, in the same way that, well, a murderer knows exactly who they want to kill. Certainly, at the end of her books, she always made you feel that the story couldn’t have happened any other way. It had only ever seemed otherwise because you couldn’t see it. But it turns out that for many of her books, Christie often ran through multiple scenarios for the victim, the method of death, and the identity of the murderer. Curran finds that even the denouement of Endless Night, in which you innocently follow the narrator until you find in the last few pages that he is the murderer, was one of the later parts of the plot to be sorted out.

Isn’t that the easiest way to do it?  Just like multiplying numbers is easier than factoring, it would be simpler to take some facts as given and thread a murder plot through them than to start with the plot and think up facts that fit.  After all it is supposed to be a surprise in the end.  Writing the facts before you know the mystery ensures you don’t give away the surprise.  via kottke.

One case in which dropping copy protection improved sales.

It’s been 18 months since O’Reilly, the world’s largest publisher of tech books, stopped using DRM on its ebooks. In the intervening time, O’Reilly’s ebook sales have increased by 104 percent. Now, when you talk about ebooks and DRM, there’s always someone who’ll say, “But what about [textbooks|technical books|RPG manuals]? Their target audience is so wired and online, why wouldn’t they just copy the books without paying? They’ve all got the technical know-how.”So much for that theory.

More here.

Addendum: see the comments below for good reason to dismiss this particular datum.

Responding to the message “Salinger is dead.  Happy now?” His debut novel, King Dork is about a kid who, in an unavoidably Holden kinda way, hates everything about the cult of The Catcher in the Rye.

That said, unlike Tom, I didn’t hate “The Catcher in the Rye” when it was first thrust upon me by numerous parents, teachers, priests, counselors, and other authority figures. I knew I was supposed to revere it, to identify with Holden, and to keep it close to my bosom and all that. “Finally,” I would say, obediently following the script provided by helpful, smiling, over-eager adult facilitators, “someone who understands…” Maybe I even kind of meant it. And they would pat me on the head, or on the back, depending on how tall they were in relation to me. Eventually, though, I began to wonder. What does it mean when you’re in a room full of people who all have the same, exact opinion on something with little or no divergence? It’s kind of creepy, whatever it means.

That’s the title of David Mitchell’s forthcoming novel. It’s been a few years since Black Swan Green, his last.  Here’s  the blurb on Amazon:

The author of Cloud Atlas‘s most ambitious novel yet, for the readers of Ishiguro, Murakami, and, of course, David Mitchell.

The year is 1799, the place Dejima, the “high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island” that is the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window to the world. It is also the farthest-flung outpost of the powerful Dutch East Indies Company. To this place of superstition and swamp fever, crocodiles and courtesans, earthquakes and typhoons, comes Jacob de Zoet. The young, devout and ambitious clerk must spend five years in the East to earn enough money to deserve the hand of his wealthy fiancée. But Jacob’s intentions are shifted, his character shaken and his soul stirred when he meets Orito Aibagawa, the beautiful and scarred daughter of a Samurai, midwife to the island’s powerful magistrate. In this world where East and West are linked by one bridge, Jacob sees the gaps shrink between pleasure and piety, propriety and profit. Magnificently written, a superb mix of historical research and heedless imagination, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a big and unforgettable book that will be read for years to come.

Here’s a review from someone who got a pre-release copy.  It’ll be released June 29, 2010 and I’ve pre-ordered already. (If you are looking for something to read and haven’t read these already, I recommend Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas.)

Is it an infinite number of monkeys, or is it infinitely-lived monkeys?  If what you want is Shakespeare with probability 1 it matters.  Because Hamlet is a fixed finite string of characters.  That means the monkey has to stop typing when the string is complete.  If we model the monkey as a process which every second taps a random key from the keyboard according to a fixed probability distribution, then to produce the Dithering Dane he must eventually repeat the space bar (or equivalently no key at all) until his terminal date.

If that terminal date is infinity, i.e. the monkey is given infinite time, then this event has probability zero.  On the other hand, an infinite number of monkeys who each live long enough, but not infinitely long, will Exuent with probability 1 as desired.

(If your criterion is simply that the text of Hamlet appear somewhere in the output string, then a) you are sorely lacking in ambition and b) it no longer matters which version of infinity you have.)

Mortarboard Missive: Marginal Revolution.

He is the singer and songwriter for The Mr. T Experience and he wrote King Dork.  His new book, Andromeda Klein is not as great but still good.  His next book is a King Dork sequel called King Dork, Approximately.  And a film adaptation of King Dork is in development with Will Ferrell producing.

Here is the inteview. And here is Frank Portman’s blog.

Compared to non-fiction.  Co-authorships leverage specialization.  Certainly there are heterogeneous strengths in fiction writing and this should create gains from collaboration.  But we don’t see it.  I can’t think of any great work of fiction that was co-authored.  There must be a good reason.

  1. Writing style is crucial in fiction.  Multiple voices would make the work feel disjointed.  They could try to collaborate on the writing process and together create one voice but maybe this puts too much of a drag on the creative process.
  2. Still, there are some who are good at imagining plots and characters and others who excel at the stage of actually writing once the idea has been conceived.  Why don’t we see this kind of partnership?
  3. I bet there are great partnerships like this but we never know it because the partners agree to a single nom de plume.

My bottom line is that, ironically, the attraction of great fiction is a connection with the author.  When we read beautiful prose or get turned on by an ingenious plot twist, we think of the author and we enjoy being close to the mind that created it.  Multiple authors would confuse and dillute this feeling.

James Joyce’s Ulysses? The Great Gatsby?  Something challenging by Thomas Pynchon? Something whimsical by P.G. Wodehouse?

No, the smart vote  goes to Isaac Asimov’s Foundations Trilogy.

The latest fan to come out in public is Hal Varian.  In a Wired interview, he says:

“In Isaac Asimov’s first Foundation Trilogy, there was a character who basically constructed mathematical models of society, and I thought this was a really exciting idea. When I went to college, I looked around for that subject. It turned out to be economics.”

The first time I saw a reference to the books was in an interview with Roger Myerson in 2002.  And he repeated the fact that he was influenced by Foundation in an answer to a  question after he got the Nobel Prize in 2007.  And finally, Paul Krugman also credits the books with inspiring him to become an economist.   A distinguished trio of endorsements!

Asimov’s stories revolve around the plan of Hari Seldon a “psychohistorian” to influence the political and economic course of the universe.   Seldon uses mathematical methodology to predict the end of the current Empire.  He sets up two “Foundations” or colonies of knowledge to reduce the length of the dark age that will follow the end of empire.  The first Foundation is defeated by a weird mutant called the Mule.  But the Mule fails to locate and kill the Second Foundation. So, Seldon manages to preserve human knowledge and perhaps even predicted the Mule using psychohistory.  Seldon also has a keen sense of portfolio diversification – two Foundations rather than one – and also the law of large numbers – psychohistory is good at predicting events involving a large number of agents but not at forecasting individual actions.

As the above discussion reveals, I did take a stab at reading these books after I saw the Myerson inteview (though I admit I used Wikipedia liberally to jog my memory for this post!).  And you can also see how Myerson’s “mechanism design” theory might have come out reading Asimov.  I enjoyed reading the first book in the trilogy and it’s clear how it might excite a teenage boy with an aptitude for maths.  The next two books are much worse.  I struggled through them just to find out how it all ended.  Perhaps I read them when I was too old to appreciate them.

The Lord of the Rings is probably wooden to someone who reads it in their forties.  It still sparkles for me.

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