All posts by Alexander Van Berg

Poor Design

Cinema Fan Edit: A Blockbuster Of A Miss

Desolation in a future dystopia. Bridge scene from Blade Runner 2049.
Desolation in a future dystopia. Bridge scene from Blade Runner 2049.

This post is only going to be useful for those who have seen both Blade Runner films.

I’m not a Blade Runner franchise fanatic by any stretch of the imagination.  (In fact, I mistakenly thought the character Deckard was “Dreckard”.)  That said, in my opinion, the two released films have been very high caliber.

I recently saw Blade Runner 2049, and I feel one hole in the soundtrack is so large, I had to categorize this under “Poor Design”.  I feel like this improvement should have been almost instinctively apparent to the creators.

The existing score is extremely high quality.  But as I viewed the film, I couldn’t believe (and still can’t believe) they didn’t fade in the original Vangelis Love Theme from the original Blade Runner during K’s soul-crushing breakdown on the bridge in Blade Runner 2049.

This would have knocked the scene completely out of the park, cemented the scene’s status as classic cinema, and even moved the needle as it pertains to the entire film’s critical rating.

If you have access to both materials (video is NSFW), you can easily see what the fan edit would be.

Poor Processes

Critical Media Studies II: It’s The Government, Stupid

Following up on my previous post, there’s certainly no shortage of curious COVID-19 mainstream media coverage deserving of an actual examination.

Below is a recent headline from the Los Angeles Times:

First and foremost, the article is an op-ed.  This concept alone may deserve a separate discussion.  In principle op-eds are a useful feature for a newspaper to have.  In reality, it allows a newspaper to renounce all editorial responsibility for printed content.

In this particular case, a Los-Angeles-area doctor is describing how her patience is at an end, and as more COVID-19 patients are rolled through the door, she has rapidly diminishing compassion for each new individual that she treats.  The doctor goes on to illustrate this dying compassion for one such patient as she describes her interactions with that patient and the treatment provided.

The Los Angeles Times is essentially rubber stamping a point of view that it’s OK for doctors to not have normal compassion for an individual patient, based on the previous 1,000 patients that were rolled through the door.

Was this patient a revolving-door patient that got admitted to this hospital a dozen times?  No, of course not.  As far as the reader can tell, that was his first visit to the hospital.

In the article, the doctor made a great case for why she is angry and for why she is frustrated with the situation as it pertains to the aggregate.

The problem is that she is misapplying that blame to a single individual.  The individual is responsible for what they have done as an individual.  They’re not responsible (as far as we know) for the previous 1,000 patients that were admitted.

Furthermore, that doctor’s completely incorrect state of mind is easily demonstrated by asking the following question: Would this doctor have low compassion for that individual patient if that patient had been the only COVID-19 patient at that hospital?  Of course not.  You can bet the doctor wouldn’t even remember the patient, much less condemn him.  In both cases, the individual patient is exactly the same.  The frustration the doctor is having is purely with the aggregate.

The entity that typically deals with problems as they pertain to the aggregate is the government – in this case the federal government.  The government handles public policy.

As it happens, the CDC (up until recently) has exercised virtually unprecedented executive authority, stating people did not have to pay their landlords due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  This type of declaration had every veritable hallmark of a “We’re All Gonna Die” emergency.  The thing is that, if that were true, such extraordinary measures aren’t really that different than just mandating people take the vaccine.  The point is that, as it pertains to COVID-19, there’s no question the federal government clearly understands the concept of extraordinary measures.  In fact they have already taken them – just not the ones many doctors want.

If a medical professional is angry about the aggregate situation, there is an entity that’s responsible for addressing those concerns, and that entity is the government, and the more dire they believe the situation is, the more of a government responsibility it is.

The aggregate problem is not the responsibility of an individual patient – no matter what they did or did not do wrong.

The doctor in the op-ed articulated a significant complaint, but she did not direct it to the proper channel.  She did not direct her anger and frustration to the proper channel.

Newspapers should never rubber stamp a point of view that endorses doctors assigning the wrong level and the wrong dimension of blame to a single patient.

 

Poor Processes

A Million Shades of Gray & Critical Media Studies

There is an old maxim: Newspapers are meant to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comforted.

Looking back to the 1st Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, extraordinary protections were provided to the press.  We can presume the authors of that document had slightly loftier goals in mind – things that go beyond “the affliction model”.  Perhaps things like general edification of the public.

If life has a million shades of gray, then the affliction model of news reporting is like trying to take a photograph of life with a camera that can only print colors as either full black or full white.

Take the following headline that has made its way around the different news outlets recently:

The headline and story are tinged with a notion that so-called “anti-vaxxers” have no integrity.  Specifically, that their actions and statements, on their deathbed, are incongruent with their stated philosophy.  However, there is a difference between being desperate, and having no integrity.

Some people who are against the death penalty suddenly become curious about it when a family member is massacred.  However, that doesn’t mean they were “wrong” in the first place, or never had any integrity.  What it actually means is they are having a very strong emotional reaction to something.  Strong emotional reactions lead to irrational thinking.

In my opinion, anti-vaxxers are wrong in their calculations when it comes to COVID-19.  But desperate requests on one’s deathbed doesn’t automatically make the original point of view incoherent, disingenuous, correct, incorrect, or anything else.  It just means that someone is having a strong emotional reaction to being on death’s doorstep.

The counter-example is some people who are dying of cancer (or some other terminal illness) will resort to paying con artists who offer miracle cures.  We can’t deduce from their desperation that they were wrong their whole lives, if for example, they had previously said these same scam artists should be shut down by authorities.

Great Design

3 Stock Market Ideas Contrary To Conventional Advice

A popular user post courtesy of reddit's wallstreetbets. Tattoo commemorates one user's massive gains of several hundred thousand dollars on an underdog stock.
A popular user post courtesy of reddit’s wallstreetbets. Tattoo commemorates one user’s massive gains of several hundred thousand dollars on an underdog stock.

 

Above I’ve posted an image from a user post in reddit’s wallstreetbets.  If you’ve been following financial news at all, you’ve surely heard about the frenetic run-ups in various underdog “meme stocks”.  These stratospheric gains have materialized due to massive crowdsourced interest in bidding these stocks up, which in turn has led to complicated secondary effects that have pushed the prices up even further, and this has made some people a lot of money.  In some cases, near-bankrupt companies are able to sell additional stock at those highly-inflated prices, rake in an unusually large amount of proceeds, get out of dire straits, buy some time, regroup, and inch closer to a self-fulfilling prophecy where that company might actually be valuable in the future.  I would definitely not recommend this line of investing for most people, but I think it’s genuinely noteworthy because of the sheer audacity of the movement, its disregard for conventional wisdom, and its discovery and belief in a new idea – whereas previously, people were simply set in their ways and couldn’t see anything of interest.

With that said, in my opinion, conventional stock market commentators, gurus, and authors have largely overlooked some of the best and simplest ideas for the average DIY stock market investor.  Below I’ll list 3:

1.)  Don’t just learn about stocks – learn about options also.  The stock market is never perfectly priced, which is why people buy certain stocks.  They buy them because they’re betting the price will rise, and that’s generally to say those stocks are mispriced.  Likewise, options can be mispriced, and this leads to a second area of potential profit.  Additionally, options can help people shape their risk and their bets more accurately.  Stocks are like a hammer, which is a useful tool, and options are like adding a bunch of extra tools to the hammer.

One of the most common things a retail investor does is buy stocks and then hold them indefinitely.  That investor is literally leaving money on the table each and every year by not selling call options for the stocks that they own.

In my opinion, one of the greatest sins committed by stock market gurus is this sin of omission.  It’s almost a crime when they don’t mention anything about simple option strategies that would bring in easy, ultra-low-risk money for many investors.

2.)  Strongly consider starting out in a Roth IRA or standard IRA.  The reason is pretty straightforward.  These IRA accounts only allow you to deposit $6,000 per year, only allow 3 day trades per week (until you’ve built up extra funds), and disallow the borrowing of stocks (which carries unlimited risk).  Thus, you’re much less likely to lose your life savings in the blink of an eye, before you’ve even had a chance to get the hang of the stock market.  In that sense, IRA accounts create very useful guardrails for those new to the stock market.

There are penalties for early withdrawals from an IRA account.  However, if you were planning on doing this for your long-term financial health anyway, that generally wouldn’t be an issue for you.

Although this entire second point sounds like common sense, to the point you’d expect it to be an axiomatic rule-of-thumb, I can’t say I’ve ever heard it promoted anywhere.

3.)  If you’re looking to day trade, and you’re not 100% certain that you’re a superstar day trader that can generate a ton of money right away with high certainty, give strong consideration to doing it in an IRA account.

This is completely unorthodox.

To start, you will first need to build up additional funds to access full day trading privileges.  A minimum of $25,000 is the FINRA requirement.  The reason to go through all this trouble to day trade is two-fold:

First, profits in Roth IRA accounts are 100% tax-free, except for the very obscure UBTI, which you probably won’t be dealing with.  (Standard IRA accounts have their major tax advantage on the front end.  Roth IRA vs a standard IRA is a big decision, but the point is both offer a major tax advantage.)

Second, tax accounting for day traders is a nightmare.  This is beyond what most people would ever want to spend time on, and so you will be spending money having someone else do it for you.  But, if you can make your day-trading profits completely tax-free, no IRS return will ever necessary for those funds (barring extremely obscure exceptions like UBTI).

Poor Processes

A Crime In Two Parts: Consumers vs AEP

The 2021 winter storm in Texas has led to extraordinary problems and also extraordinary outrage.  The human side of the problem is actually a crime in two parts.  One involves production and state-wide operational management (i.e. ERCOT).  The other involves distribution of any available electricity at the local level by the local utility/retailer (whom, incidentally, ERCOT is quick to go way out of their way to subtly and pre-emptively throw under the bus).  For us, that means AEP Texas.

AEP Texas deserves to be hit immediately by a class-action lawsuit and wiped out of existence for all time. 

I suspect ERCOT officials will actually be called as witnesses to condemn AEP Texas in this lawsuit.

So there is no confusion, if space aliens came down to Earth and smashed the Texas power grid, such that even 5 watts of energy were still left, AEP Texas had better be up all night figuring out how to split that 5 watts evenly among Texas consumers.

As it happened, many consumers in Texas (living in areas where there were zero downed power lines) were left wondering, contemplating, and also desperately praying for when this fabled “rotating” and “rolling” might actually start.  To their credit, AEP Texas exceeded even their own previous boundaries, delivering a remarkable moonshot by providing continuous power to some consumers during this historic power failure, simply by playing the role of judge, jury, and executioner in determining which other consumers would play the role of permanent whipping boy.  In doing so, they effectively guaranteed an uninterruptable supply of power to the newest Texas lottery winners.

Puns abound: Consumers should “just chill”.  Were you “frozen out” by AEP during this winter storm?  Perhaps the best and most hopeful pun of all is that process servers should serve up a “cold one” to AEP’s top brass.  God willing, this will occur immediately, and I would be willing to cut to the very front of the line to sign on to this lawsuit.

Finally, there’s a silver lining in some clouds, and I did happen to scrape together a nominal amount of useful information during this catastrophe.  Apparently our old (and thankfully broken) generator was something of a poison-pill-trojan-horse-monstrosity for any electronics in our house.  By default, generators create “dirty” electricity that’s vastly more chaotic than the clean sine wave electricity coming off the power lines.

It looks like the best generators are the ones that have a dual-fuel option, and also provide low THD (i.e. a relatively clean sine wave), and this narrows down the product selection greatly.

The following two dual-fuel generators are supposed to be back in stock this March:

CHAMPION 200991

WESTINGHOUSE WGEN12000DF

Points Of Controversy

Provocative Questions: Wet Blankets & Ultra-Blind Vaccine Studies

Do these activists strike you as the type of people who waited in line all day to volunteer for a trial vaccine study?  Photo by Ellen Schmidt of Las Vegas Review-Journal

 

Preliminary COVID-19 vaccine trials have yielded incredible initial results.  We are being told that the vaccines are 90%+ effective so far in these trials.

The effectiveness of the common flu vaccine is much lower.

Unless I’ve missed something, while these results are scientifically possible, we are not hearing too much in terms of possible bias in the studies.

The roughly 50% of the American population that is hesitant or unwilling to receive the COVID-19 vaccine most likely shares a giant overlap with the portion of the population that is generally against any and all precautionary measures.

That segment of the population will almost certainly expose themselves to higher levels of COVID-19 doses/loads, more often.

The problem here, if I’m not mistaken, is that higher infective doses can overwhelm vaccine protection.

“…in 2006, a large outbreak [of mumps] occurred among highly vaccinated populations in the United States, and similar outbreaks have been reported worldwide. The outbreak described in this report occurred among U.S. Orthodox Jewish communities during 2009 and 2010… Transmission was focused within Jewish schools for boys, where students spend many hours daily in intense, face-to-face interaction… Conclusions: The epidemiologic features of this outbreak suggest that intense exposures, particularly among boys in schools, facilitated transmission and overcame vaccine-induced protection in these patients.

That is to say, when those dogmatic individuals are likely excluded, voluntarily, from the COVID-19 vaccine studies, is the COVID-19 virus really getting a fair chance?

Is this really a fair fight?

Or, are these preliminary results nothing more than a demonstration of a good vaccine matched up against a tamed, muzzled COVID-19 virus with the kid-gloves on?  (Imagine the typical vaccine study volunteer.  Can you really visualize this volunteer casually attending “super-spreader” events?  Or, more likely, would you visualize him washing his hands, social distancing, and generally being paranoid and reducing possible infective doses all day long?)

Or perhaps said differently, might the flu vaccine be 98% effective if it were only administered to people who washed their hands all day long, wore a mask while in public, engaged in social distancing, and just generally engaged in preventative measures that reduced the frequency and volume of infective doses/loads? And yet, as it pertains to the common flu, people never lived their lives that way.

A double-blind study means that, initially, both the subjects and the researchers do not know which subjects received the placebo and which received the test vaccine.

For a real-world test, yielding real-world expected results, would we not need an (highly unethical) “ultra-blind” test, where subjects not only don’t know whether they received a vaccine or a placebo, but additionally, they also don’t know that they’re even in the study and that they’ve been given something?

Anti-Mask protest in Madrid.  Attribution unknown.

Miscellany

Systemic Risk

With the holidays fast approaching, experts are predicting one of the harshest periods yet with respect to COVID-19.  This is probably all the more likely now that there are reports and rumors of vaccines that will probably be viable and probably be available, in the future.  With this new information, people’s defense shields, on the whole, are probably lowering as the holiday season approaches, and this may re-illustrate, or unfortunately illustrate definitively, why COVID-19 is different than the common flu.

It’s not exactly rocket science.  The most dangerous difference between COVID-19 and the common flu is COVID-19 has a far greater potential to jam up the health care system – specifically, our hospitals.

Since a vaccine would obviously reduce infections, we can strip out the issue of vaccination altogether, and simply look at what percentage of people need hospitalization after infection.

For the flu, apparently the rate is 1.05% for the previous season.

For COVID-19, on the other hand, we have seen rates ranging from 6.6% to 20%.  (It’s not even clear if the staggering 9% hospital re-admission rate for COVID-19 is factored into the above calculations.)

Again, this is once you are infected, so a vaccine makes no difference at that point.

COVID-19 puts more infected people in the hospital.  Too many people in the hospital and the system breaks.

The 2020 holidays haven’t even started, and we are already approaching a breaking point.

Finally, although risk to the entire system obviously implies risk to the individual, even a partial stress to the system carries significant additional risk to the individual – due to the highly unpublicized reality that hospitals are already imperfect to begin with – even in the best of times.

This is certainly very real – you do not want to be hospitalized, for any reason, with a hundred other patients who have COVID-19, plus any number of non-COVID-19 patients, plus a staff that’s operating under Apocalypse Now conditions.

Vintage Quotes

Analysis of 2017 Harper-Strickland MLB brawl, which featured the confluence of sports psychology, sociology, and maybe even psychiatry.

I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.

Isaac Newton


A Christian attacks a Muslim in the Central African Republic. The CAR has witnessed the displacement of 1 in 5 of its citizens and is now reportedly in stage 7 ("Preparation") of 10 in the 10 stages of genocide. Photo by Jerome Delay, AP.
A Christian attacks a Muslim in the Central African Republic. The long-running CAR conflict is primarily over religion, and 1 in 5 of its citizens has already been displaced. The CAR is now reportedly in stage 7 (“Preparation”) of 10 in the 10 stages of genocide. Photo by Jerome Delay, AP.

Great Design

The English Snob

I’m kind of secretly a snob when it comes to the English language, which wouldn’t be as funny if I were actually fully and completely proficient at English.

Be that as it may, there are at least 3 things that need correction in American English, and they all stem from the same discrepancy:  There is an accepted paradigm that states that language should support ease of use, but yet there is sometimes a lag in the implementation of that paradigm.

 

1.) The first correction is to completely rescind the rule that states that numbers below 11 (some say only below 10) should generally be spelled out.  An counterexample of this is right above where I wrote the numeral ‘3’ instead of the word ‘three’.  Notice how it’s easier to read?  Easier-to-read trumps everything else.

In some cases, small numbers are actually easier to read as a word.  However, in my experience, it’s mostly when there are two sets of numbers being thrown around, and it’s possible to segregate one set (usually the smaller one) by spelling those numbers out.  The bottom line is whatever makes it easier to read is what should be adhered to.

 

2.) An example of the second problem can be found here in a local news story, at the very bottom:

Cameron and Starr counties did not report case numbers as of press time Sunday, with the former routinely skipping Sundays to report activity on Mondays.

Now, in 2020, why do we still tolerate word puzzles in our English-language publications?  If for some reason I wanted to struggle with a printed game, I’d look for something like a crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or maybe even some sort of Mensa challenge.

No one should ever be forced to pause, and use an ounce of mental energy, to figure out what “former” and “latter” are referring to.  Rather than just spell out what they’re saying, these authors are punishing us, and the question is why are we still accepting it?

Stylistically, the “former”/”latter” grammatical construct must literally go the way of the dinosaur, and be renounced unless it’s actually used to replace a sizeable amount of text.

 

3.) What exactly is the Anti-Vaxxers’ philosophy?  Admit it, you had to think about that term Anti-Vaxxers’, didn’t you?

The special-case apostrophe-with-no-s isn’t helping anyone.  It’s not perfectly clear, it causes people to waste mental energy, and adding an extra ‘s’ to the end of the word doesn’t make it especially vile.

In the worst case, there is no problem with the reading of the improved version.  However, I admit that the worst case does sound a little different – but it’s worth it!

“The Anti-Vaxxers’s philosophy…”

If it comes down to saying something that sounds a little different in the worst case, and having to spend mental energy thinking about what words actually mean, saving mental energy should always win, and will eventually win anyway.

 


  Note the British English spelling.  Totally inconsistent use of British English should be acceptable in cases where British English spellings are deemed easier to the eye in terms of comprehension.

Points of Controversy

Very-Low-Brow Game Theory

or… Useless Information: How And When Anti-Vaxxers Are Right

COVID-19 has made a huge impact on the world and the United States, and so-called “Anti-Vaxxers” have been an integral part of the story.

As far as I can tell, Anti-Vaxxers could only be correct in two scenarios:

1.) A world dystopian enough that the government would supply toxic vaccines – either through malice, ignorance, or incompetence.  I think it’s premature to adopt that worldview currently, so I don’t subscribe to it, but I don’t discount the possibility that it could be correct in some possible dystopian future.

2.) If various Eastern religions tell us that each individual has their own truth, then game theory is the mathematical accounting of that idea.  A unique scenario is actually arising in about 6 months or so, where, if an individual happened to view life as an amoral, zero-sum application of game theory, then for a brief moment in time, non-Anti-Vaxxers would have an incentive to secretly promote Anti-Vaxxer philosophy so as to increase the likelihood that they and their loved ones would receive a vaccine and could then get on with their lives (at least to some extent as compared to the present).

It’s strangely whimsical and hard boiled at the same time, but mathematically it seems to be correct.

First, it would probably have to be done secretly.  Otherwise there could be a stigmatic cost to the particular individual, and that could outweigh the benefits.

Second, people are very polarized on this, and their minds are fairly made up, but in general I suspect people who believe in vaccines believe in them in an almost irreversible manner.  Thus, only the “marginal Anti-Vaxxer” would probably be in play.  The idea would be that some Anti-Vaxxers might be suffering from FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) due to constant COVID-19 headlines, and the idea would be to undo all of that.  Furthermore, a marginal Anti-Vaxxer can get a vaccine, and then lie to everyone and claim they never received one – this may be tempting.

Third, this is all predicated on the idea that vaccines will be limited at first.  Most people believe that will be the case.

Fourth, it goes without saying that there is a social cost to millions of people not getting vaccinated, and then risking death or taking up hospital resources.  That cost then trickles down to the individual, so after the individual (and their loved ones) are vaccinated, they no longer have any incentive to spread propaganda.

(For the purposes of this analysis, “loved ones” would include anyone in the individual’s life who the individual has a significant personal stake in remaining healthy.)

Fifth, there’s no question that the impact of the individual’s propaganda effort is small, so it’s assumed that the individual has nothing better to do.  Given the unemployment numbers, and what many people are reported to be doing currently, it could be argued that that’s the case.  (That I would ever write a blog post this useless, and that you would read it, could also be supportive of that idea.)  Each individual will vary, and if there were something more enriching that the individual were likely to do, then the model doesn’t hold for that individual.

Sixth, would it make sense to go full-blown Anti-Vaxxer during the entire crisis?  Not necessarily.  The problem is that it’s not known when a vaccine will become available!  Thus, if it keeps getting delayed, the cost of doing this could become exorbitant.  However, this is sort of an open question with an amorphous shape, since the individual may not be spending his time on something more useful anyway.

Thus, the chart would look something like this:

To be completely honest – and this is likely the only real value in the above analysis – I think people acting on the above whimsical idea could be a fairly interesting concept for some sort of comedy some day, although not necessarily specific to COVID-19.  COVID-19 carries too much negative baggage due to the tragedy and trauma it’s already caused.

So would I partake in something like this?  Nope, not at all.  First, it’s just too reprehensible.  (Moral concerns are generally incompatible with the tenets of game theory; only people who truly don’t care can succeed in such a model).  But second, if I were being completely honest, another reason is that these mathematical benefits are too small to see.  The larger and more pronounced the benefits – for example, the certainty between life and death – the more likely the individual will be tempted, if not compelled, to act.