Monday, 22 August 2016

Denmark Street


Denmark Street, home of guitars, keyboards, and all things needed to start your very own band. Ever since Crossrail started, there have been rumours that the music shops are going to be ejected and replaced by something less funky that pays more rent. This visit round, I'm sure there were more restaurants than before. The young lady who sold me a set of light gauge steel D'Addorio strings for my trusty acoustic told me that most of the musical retailers have twenty-year leases on their shops. Doesn't mean someone might not come along and give the leaseholders bucket-loads of cash to sell, but the point is she didn't say "Oh yes, we're living from month month, no-one knows."

Apparently people come from all over the world to the famous Denmark Street to look at and buy musical instruments. I've looked at one and off most of my life. To someone who has never seen it, it must look deliciously tatty and romantic. After all, what matters is the National Steel in the window, not the window.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Women aren’t magic, it’s the man who thinks they are

There’s a lovely Truffaut movie called Day For Night (La Nuit Americaine) which you should see. Jean-Pierre Leaud appears in it, of course, as a young member of the cast. He spends the first half of the film asking everyone he meets: “are women magic?” The answer I like is given by an older man in the film crew: “either all women are magic, or none are”. Women aren’t magic, it’s the man who thinks they are. And if one is, he will think they all are, but let him think that one is not magic, but mundane and with feet of clay, and all the others tumble to the ground as well.

Men who think that women are magic believe crap like this:
“It’s an overwhelming emotion you have about another person, an emotion that you can’t truly explain but you can’t get rid of. It makes you want to be with that person, hold them, touch them, have sex with them. It shows itself as an exchange of energy, a polarity, that excites your soul. Love makes you feel great and totally transforms life. Love is worship of the other person, the woman who is divine for you. Love is the power house behind our lives, it is the reason we live.”
I know. Similar things have been said about opium, cocaine, heroin and Prozac. For our purposes notice that "worship of the other person, the woman who is divine for you”. Divine = magic.

Believing that women are magic is one of those things that divides the world into two, like deadlifts, programming, and contemporary art. Knowing that women are not magic, however, does not mean that we "love them for who they are”. That’s a Blue Pill fantasy. It means they get treated just like regular people, that they are held accountable to the same standards of behaviour as men.

Imagine you had a detector that told you, infallibly, when another person, male or female, was a drunk, an addict, a self-harmer, a congenital liar, had a personality disorder, or was a bully, a user and abuser, or a taker not a giver, in other words, imagine you could tell if someone was exactly the sort of person you should avoid. Do you honestly think you would find your way to the Red Pill?

No. You wouldn’t. But you might be deafened by the sound of that alarm going off. Because the weaker and needier you are, the more people will be inclined to use you. Never Give A Sucker An Even Break isn’t just the title of a W C Fields movie: it’s a moral attitude. “If the Lord had not meant them to be sheared, he would not have made them sheep.” You’ll be surprised who said it. The truth is that a large proportion of people think that caveat emptor gives the tradesman permission to cheat, since the customer has been warned to watch out for cheating.

Once you know that women are not magic, and it’s you that makes them so in your own eyes, then you have two choices. The first is to keep them out of the house: relationships, sure, but no hanging her dresses in the wardrobe and putting her eye-shadow in the bathroom. That way, when he gets tired of her shit, he can stop seeing her and get another one. That was my life.

The second is to let them move in the tampons, cushions and knickers, abandon any plans for a Saturday reading and sleeping in the shade, and be prepared to engage on a non-stop war of attrition about what he does with his time, money and resources, moderated by the occasional sexy time. That’s other men’s lives.

If a man wakes up in the middle of a marriage, he has to tough it out, and the Red Pill / Game will help. Some Woken Marrieds understand that they wouldn’t have done it if they had known then what they know now. Woken Singles aren’t going to get married or have children. But there’s a few allegedly Woken Men who insist that Men Without Women are cowards, wimps, virgins, and fat, basement-dwelling players of Dark Souls. According to these blowhards, Real Men knock out a couple of kids, put up with all the shit his wife / baby mama gives him, while trying to keep his daughter from turning into a hooker and his son from turning into a crystal meth addict.

Heard that before? Yep, it’s the same old guilt trip as the twerp at the top of the page pulls in the rest of his article. Only the insults differ. These guys can’t live without female validation. Like those mavens who complain that without religion, society is lost and life is meaningless.

(These blowhards are not the men who think of persuading, managing, supervising, co-operating with, conflicting and even having rows with, other people as their work or vocation. To these men marriage is another source of their life's purpose, not a distraction from it. While they may not always enjoy every moment of their marriages, these men are in a meaningful sense happily married, as they get to do what they enjoy. These men don't often show up in the Sphere, and when they do, they don't really understand what the rest of us are complaining about. What we think of as an irritating distraction and endless random noise are to these men the very stuff and purpose of life. This doesn't mean these men are Red Pill, it just means they like all that distraction and noise.)

Women do not maketh the man, any more than men maketh the woman. In a materialist society, women can gain value by associating with high-status men, and men can lose value by associating with low-status women. That’s not what we’re talking about. A person, male or female, has to have an identity that comes from within themselves, though how it is expressed may change according to the economy and society they find themselves in. When the toys change, somehow they use the new toys to express the same person, not to create a new one.

That’s the hardest lesson anyone has to learn: that in the end, their identity and value is theirs to create, and only theirs to create. It can’t be sub-contracted to women, priests or gurus. Of course we swipe ideas from anywhere to create our identity, that’s what culture is for, and the choice is ours. It can’t be someone else’s. Ask me how I know. And yes, that sounds like Going Your Own Way, and it is. A man can Go His Own Way and lead a mainstream life, but it has to be his choice, not something he sleep-walked into, or did because he couldn’t think of anything better.

A world without magic (or religion, which is kinda the same thing) is an acquired taste. It’s for grown-ups, like Cranach paintings, whisky and John Coltrane’s Live At The Village Vanguard. But it’s worth it.

Postscript: When I have talked about women not being magic, I have been referring to them as people. Of course women can be magic, as having a beautiful smile, or a fluid walk, or a fascinating face, or almond eyes, and many other things, and this is to find them magical or fascinating as art works, on a par with the figures in paintings, photographs or movies. Call this “objectification” if you want, it is certainly aethesetisation, as we do to sunsets and landscapes, or cityscapes, when we abstract an image from the whole and present that for attention in itself. In this sense women can be magic, but in this sense as well, the magic lies in the gaze of the viewer, not in the thing viewed. Some people don’t find almond eyes fascinating, after all.

Monday, 8 August 2016

An Introduction to Andrew Gelman's Garden of Forking Paths

The Garden of Forking Paths is an idea introduced in a paper by Andrew Gelman and Eric Lokin that should be understood by everyone who uses statistics and analyses data.

Context for those unfamiliar with statistics. For a long time, and in many journals even now, research would only get published if it was “statistically significant”, which usually meant that the result had a p value of less than 5% (a figure chosen arbitrarily). The p-statistic can be calculated from the data and a hypothesis about the distribution of the data. This gave rise to the practice of “p-hacking” or “fishing” – looking through data, excluding this and grouping that, recalculating the p-statistic, until one found a result that had < 5%, which they then published. Many of these results turned out to be un-reproducible by other researchers.

In the old-school approach, a researcher is supposed to formulate an hypothesis, and run an experiment to test it. If the results of the experiment are insufficiently probable under the hypothesis, the hypothesis has to be rejected. What counts (classically) as "insufficiently probable” is a value of the p-statistic greater than 5%. What you’re not allowed to do is throw away data you don’t like and change the hypothesis to suit the data that’s left. That’s downright dishonest. You have to take all the data, and there are complicated rules about what to do when subjects drop out of the study and other such eventualities. This is how the old-school founders worked. Much of their work was in agriculture and industry, and R A Fisher really did divide his plot of land on an agricultural research station, treat each patch of soil, plant the potatoes and stand back to see what happened. He had no previous theories, and if he did, the potatoes would decide which one was better.

In epidemiology, political science, social science, longditudinal health and lifestyle tracking surveys and other subjects, the experiments are not as simple nor as immediately relevant, and may even not be possible to conduct. The procedure is often reversed: the data appears first, and the hypotheses and statistical analysis are done afterwards. This is how businessmen read their monthly accounts and sales reports. Often those businessmen are expecting to see certain changes or figures, and when they don’t, want to know why (“We doubled advertising in Cornwall, why haven’t the sales increased? What are they playing at down there?”). Researchers in social sciences and epidemiology also come bristling with pet theories, some of which they are obliged to adopt by the prevailing academic mores.

Under these circumstances, the data is scanned by very practised eyes for patterns and trends that the readers expect to find. If there seem to be no such patterns, those same eyes will look a little harder to find places where they can see the patterns they want, or at least some patterns that make sense of the lack of expected results. Researchers looking at diet know but cannot say that the less educated are less healthy and eat worse food, because they cannot afford better. So the researchers scan the data and blame bacon and eggs, or whatever else is believed to be eaten by the lower classes. This saves the researchers' grants and jobs.

However, the next survey fails to find that eating bacon and eggs did not alter the health of the people who ate it. Though nobody will ever know, this is because, in the first sample, the people who ate bacon and eggs were mostly older unemployed English people who did not exercise, whereas in the second survey, they were mostly Romanian builders in their late twenties who also played football at the weekends.

What happens in this practised data scanning? It is a series of decisions to select these data points, and group those properties, and maybe construct a joint index of this and that variable. It may include comparing the usual summary statistics, looking at histograms, time series, scatter graphs and linear regressions, and maybe even running a quick-and-dirty logistic regression, GLM or cluster analysis. All this can be done in SAS or R, and much of it in Excel, in a few moments by a reasonable analyst. Speaking from experience, it does not feel any more sophisticated than looking at the raw numbers, and so, because familiarity breeds neutrality all this is seen as part of the “observation process” rather than the hypothesis-formation and testing process. (Methodological aside: Plenty of people still think that observation is a theory-free process that generates unambiguous “hard facts”, or that it is possible to have observations that may involve theories but are still neutral between the theories being tested, and so “relative hard facts”. The word has not got out far enough.)

These decisions about data choice and variable definition are what Gelman and Lokin call the “Garden of Forking Paths”. Their point is that to get the bad result about bacon-and-eggs we took one path, but we could have taken another and not found any result at all. And if we used all the data, we would have found nothing. The error is to present the result of the data-scanning, the walk down the Forking Path, as if the whole survey provided the evidence for it, instead of a very restricted subset of the data chosen to provide exactly that result.

The Forking Paths we take through the Garden of Data in effect create idiosyncratic populations that would never be used in a classical test, or which are so specialised that it is impossible to carry over the result to the general population. The decisions that are made almost unconsciously in that practised data scanning seem to produce evidence for a conclusion, but the probability of obtaining that evidence again is minimal. That is the key point. When the old-school statisticians did their experiments on potatoes, they could be fairly sure, based on what they knew about soil and potatoes, that the exact patch of ground they chose would not matter. Another patch would yield different results, but within the expected variations. The probability that their results would be reproducible was high. When researchers walk along a Forking Path, they risk losing reproducibility and therefore a broader relevance.

That’s why so many attention-grabbing results are never reproduced: because the evidence lying at the end of the Forking Path was itself improbable. Nobody cheated overtly, they just chose what made a nice story but didn’t then check on the probability of the evidence itself. Practised data scanning, or a good stroll through the Garden of Forking Paths, can give you a good value for
P(Nice_Story | Evidence), but P(Evidence) can be almost zero, and so the P(Nice_Story) =  P(Nice story | Evidence)*P(Evidence) is also nearly zero and Nice_Story, really is just a fiction.

The difference between outright p-hacking and practiced data scanning is subtle, but it is politically important. p-hacking is clearly dishonest, and heaven forbid pharmaceutical companies should do it. Forking Paths is just, well, an understandable temptation. Gelman and Lokin stress how natural a temptation it is, as if to excuse it, but of course, if it is a natural temptation, the Virtuous Analyst will take care to resist it.

What Virtuous Analysts want to know is: how does one take a pre-existing data set and avoid the Garden of Forking Paths? Isn’t that an analyst’s job? Isn’t that why businesses have all that data? Because in amongst all that dross is the gold that will double sales and profits overnight? So suppose as a result of a thorough stroll round the Garden, I find what my manager wants to hear: that when sales of product A increase, sales of product B decrease. Product B, of course, is his, and product A belongs to a rival in the same organisation. This result holds only during periods of specific staff incentives in larger stores and not during the school holidays, and that makes up 65% of the sales during those periods. Everywhere else during those times, there is no relationship, and in the small stores at all times there is no relationship. That’s what I tell my manager, with all the caveats. It’s his decision whether to simplify it for the higher-ups. The Virtuous Analyst does not anticipate political or commercial decisions, but leaves that to the politicians and commercial managers.

Virtue sometimes hangs on a nuance.

Monday, 1 August 2016

The Vanishing Abandoned Citroen

Informing the council about a nuisance never does any good. They need you to establish a “history” of the bad activity and that can take months. I called the animal people out one evening many years ago because of a dog that had been left alone in a house two doors up and would bark non-stop all night. Two people turned up and promptly said that they were not going to knock on the door as the dog was clearly dangerous and would I keep records of how often this happened so they could talk to the occupants. Gee thanks. I’m paying taxes to feed and house you guys?

Anyway, the other week I got fed up of the heap in the photographs bringing the tone of my street down and more to the point taking up a parking space, so I trotted out, took some photographs, and filed an online report with the Council. I expected to hear nothing, or possibly to be told I would be arrested for a hate crime as the owner was Diverse, or something. Indeed, the next day, a Man From The Council called me and said mine wasn’t the first complaint about the car, he had finally located the owner who lived locally and had dropped a card through his door. Abandoned cars mostly get crushed, so I get that the Council doesn’t want to be hasty, but my caller was talking about “building up a history” and when bureaucrats do that, I assume nothing will happen for at least a year.

The next evening….. it was gone. The owner must have moved it. God alone knows what value they attached to it, but clearly it as enough to make them move it before the Council crushed it.

Miracles.