Saturday, November 21, 2009

Millionaire Show's Tournament of Champions

"Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" has had a different feature the past two weeks. They brought back the ten highest scorers over the previous two-month period for what they called the "Tournament of Champions", or "Tournament of Ten". During each show one of the ten gets to answer a question for a million dollars. If the contestant answers and gets it wrong, he/she goes down to $25,000, from the original amount won on the show.

The odds favoring answering seem overwhelming here. The first few contestants were at only $50,000, so they were risking only $25,000 for a chance to win a million. This seems to be a no-brainer at first blush, but there is a kicker. If anybody ahead of you also gets the million-dollar question, then you go back down to your original amount won.

The guy in the #8 position had the question "how many people have ever lived on the earth"? The choices were 50B, 100B, 1T and 5T. He guessed (the only contestant to do so) 100B and was right. Then he had to wait the next seven days while one-by-one the other seven took their shots at their respective questions and the chance to knock him back down to his 50K.

What is interesting mathematically is how do you assess your probabilities when guessing? Without the chance of getting knocked back down, it is easy: 3/4 chance at losing 25K, compared to 1/4 chance of winning an additional 950K. But say at position #8 you assume there is a 90% chance that you will not survive as the winner. Now the odds look like this: 3/4 chance of losing 25K, 1/40 chance of winning 950K, and a 9/40 chance of staying where you are. The odds now put you at only 5K ahead (18.75K expected loss vs. 23.75K expected gain).

As it turned out this 90% assumption would have been way too high, as all the other contestants were too risk-averse to hazard a guess (even though 7 of the 9 would have guessed the right answer had they been bold enough to guess). The bartender who sweated out all the others from the #8 position ended up winning the million!

The plans of the final contestant raised an interesting issue. She wanted to create scholarships for needy children. This altruistic motive actually presented the interesting point that the mathematical approach was valid for somebody with this motivation. That is, one can say that she will do four times the good with four times the money (she was at 250K), so the math works.

By contrast, when you are using the money for your own purposes, rather than for others, it is false to say that four times the money will make you four times happier. Indeed, I think one can assume that many lottery winners actually end up with miserable lives, because they don't know how to handle the sudden riches. If somebody offered me a sure $100K, or a 50-50 shot between nothing or a million, which would I take? Mathematically it is a no-brainer, but we are talking human reality here, not math. If I was thinking solely of myself, I would likely take the sure 100K, because that is enough for me to achieve any goals I can conjure up. This is essentially what 9 of the 10 contestants did, they took the sure money they had, rather than risking even part of it for the big score.

The final show was quite special. The last contestant was a very classy lady from the South, and though she had the right inkling she declined to guess, and it was obvious after that that she and the bartender had bonded over the period of the taping of the 10 shows, and in fact one of the things he wanted to do with his winnings was take the Southern lady skydiving. An interesting sidelight here is that the bartender said he knew the answer to the question, and expected the lady would get it.

A whole new game theory dynamic enters in here if you open up the possibility of collusion between the contestants. Total winnings for the two combined would be only $1,050,000 if #1 guessed right, while if she walked away that total would be $1,250,000. I don't for a minute think that there *was* collusion, but the game theory analysis is interesting. Given the history to that point, that the questions were hard, yes, but that most contestants had the right answer but were too risk-averse to guess, it would be rational for #8 to reason that there was a good probability that #1 would guess and get it right (she had been brilliant during her earlier time on the show). Why not offer her a good chunk of his million in exchange for her walking away?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

On Pandering, Part Four, Foreign Policy

Some years ago I heard the editor of the Wichita Eagle describe his paper's approach to news as "relentlessly state and local". He said this without any hint of embarrassment, but if Paul Simon is to be believed, the editor should have been greatly embarrassed at his paper's policy of ignoring national and international news.

In his book "Our Culture of Pandering", Simon documents how foreign affairs have been covered less and less in recent times. He asks the question, "which is more important, the O.J. Simpson trial or the fall of the Berlin Wall?" The answer of course is self-evident, but you wouldn't know it by measuring media coverage of each. Air time and ink were weighted overwhelmingly on the side of the Simpson trial. Many other examples can be given, but the conclusion is inescapable that the U.S. media is seriously failing in its responsibility to inform the public.

Simon says that when a constituent complains about money going for foreign aid, he asks what percentage of the budget the complainer thinks goes for this purpose. The usual answer is in the neighborhood of 15-25%. In fact, less than 1/2 of 1% goes for foreign economic aid. Of the 22 wealthiest nations, the U.S. is dead last in % of GDP going for foreign aid!

Chicago columnist Steve Chapman hit the nail on the head when he said that "We often resemble one of those talking dolls that has an inexhaustible voice but no capacity for hearing". That is, we like to boast of being the greatest country in the world and we like to tell everyone else what they should be doing, but we put precious little effort into *listening* to others and learning what their needs really are, as opposed to what we think they are.

What it comes down to is that both politicians *and* the media are guilty of failing to show enough interest in foreign policy. Politicians here get elected by focusing on domestic issues, not foreign issues. Most elected Presidents have little interest in foreign affairs (Bush Sr. being a notable exception), and they don't give it the attention it needs.

The education system comes into play here also. I have long felt that any high school student should have to identify the countries of the world as a condition of getting a diploma. At least to some reasonable level, say 70%, the traditional dividing line between passing and failing.

In a world that we know is shrinking rapidly, it is insane to continue this pandering to the isolationist tendencies of most Americans. Let's wake up and join the world community!

E Pluribus Unum?

I don't usually agree with Pat Buchanan, but he is a thoughtful person and I usually find his columns thought-provoking and worthy of attention. Yesterday's column is no exception.

Buchanan writes of Major Hasan and his divided loyalties. He notes that "conflicts in identities and loyalties are common in the cauldrons of war". He gives examples to back this up, such as in the Mexican War Irish Catholics deserted the Union army to fight beside Mexican Catholics.

But his conclusion after this analysis is quite sobering. It is this: only in this era has "religious, racial and ethnic diversity" been declared to be "not only a national good but a national goal". Up to now we have believed in the "e pluribus unum" concept of out of many, one. But now we celebrate diversity.

Now, there is nothing wrong with diversity in certain aspects. But when it comes to a country, history teaches us that diversity is a recipe for failure. In the last ten years I have made it a point to pay attention to trouble spots around the world, and it has been quite a depressing eye-opener to see how many of these trouble spots are due to different ethnic groups which just can't get along. And not only that they can't get along, they too often insist on killing each other and even engaging in genocide.

So, a fair reading of history tells us that Buchanan is right in his analysis. He writes that "America is unraveling. No longer are we one nation and one people". He continues: "There is no American Melting Pot anymore. It was discarded by our elites as an instrument of cultural genocide. Now we celebrate America as the most multiraical, multiethnic, multicultureal country on earth." Then he concludes, "And yet, we are surprised by ethnic espionage in our midst".

He concludes, "Eisenhower's America was a nation of 160 million with a Euro-Christian core and a culture of its own. We were a people then. And when we have become, in 2050, a stew of 435 millions, of every creed, culture, color and country of Earth, what holds us together then?"

What indeed. History teaches us that only homogeneous cultures are stable cultures.

Omar Khadr

Omar Khadr is a Canadian citizen who was captured in Afghanistan at the age of 15, based on allegations that he threw a grenade which killed a US soldier. Though the evidence against him is shaky at best, he has been held in Guantanamo for the past seven years, and has undergone torture for the first part of that time.

By chance I happened onto a C-SPAN broadcast last night of argument before the Canadian Supreme Court of the case involving Khadr. Khadr's lawyer was asking that the Canadian court system require Canada to "request" his repatriation from the US. He acknowledged that Canada couldn't *require* the US to act, but apparently he had reason to believe that the US would comply if repatriation were requested.

The basis for the request is that Canada was "complicit" in the torture, in that the Canadian government sent agents to question Khadr, knowing he had been tortured prior to the questioning. "Complicit" seems to be a word that has special meaning under Canadian law, as it was used repeatedly. Under the Charter (Canada's equivalent to our Bill of Rights), he has certain rights by virtue of this complicity.

The problem is fashioning a remedy to fit the wrongdoing. It is a unique case and the attorney could offer no precedent to help the Justices. However, the trial court and the court of appeals have both ruled for Khadr, so he does have that going for him.

Several observations spring to mind:

1. Most of the questioning was done by three female Justices, leading me to wonder about the gender makeup of the court. Looking it up just now, I see that 4 of the 9 Justices, including the Chief Justice, are women.

2. A graphic stated that the Court has allowed cameras since 1981.

3. The questioning was mild-mannered and deferential, compared to US Justices.

4. The attorney for Khadr was simply outstanding, fielding a barrage of questions without hesitation and without stuttering. His name is Nathan Whitling, kudos to Mr. Whitling for his stellar advocacy.


By coincidence, I heard on NPR this morning of a ruling by the Canadian Supreme Court in another unrelated case. It involved a female ski jumper who was being denied the chance to compete in the Olympics, even though she has jumped farther than any Canadian male. The report stated that ski jumping is the only Olympic sport, winter or summer, still closed to women.

Apparently the aforementioned Charter guarantees equality of the sexes, but the Court nevertheless ruled against the ski jumper because it was the International Olympic Committee setting the rules, and not the Canadian government.

Friday, November 13, 2009

On Gun Control

A column today by Jacob Sullum asserts that had Major Hasan's victims had firearms, some deaths could have been prevented. This analysis may be correct, but it is horribly short-sighted. He apparently advocates allowing everybody to carry guns wherever they may be; this ignores the fact that the instances in which carrying a gun contributes to more violence and death far exceeds the instances in which violence and death could be prevented.

Think of how many instances of heated arguments there are compared to instances of mass shootings as Major Hasan committed. A thousand to one? A million to one? Think of the hundreds of road rage incidents in this country every day. Think of the hundreds of barroom arguments there are every day. Any one of these instances could easily escalate to deadly violence if one of the participants had a firearm.

One can only conclude that limitations on firearms save many more lives than it costs.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On Pandering, Part Three, Social Security

I once wrote to my Congressman expressing concern about the health of the social security system. I received a letter back promising that my benefits won't be cut. This missed the whole point of my letter, which was to point out that changes needed to be made if the system was to remain viable.

This illustrates several problems. One is that members of Congress are so used to people contacting them with personal concerns, that they react by rote as if all communications were in this category. It also illustrates that Congressmen have become little more than errand boys, doing favors for constituents and looking into problems constituents are having with government agencies. There is little time to actually legislate.

Perhaps no issue is more prone to pandering than social security. Nobody wants their benefits cut, and nobody wants to pay more taxes. But how else to keep the system healthy? In "Our Culture of Pandering", Paul Simon says that when President Clinton held two forums on social security, he said "only" two things were not on the table: increased taxes, and decreased benefits. Huh??

True leadership is needed on this important issue, someone who is willing to tell people things they don't want to hear, but that they *need* to hear. Simon says that when Harry Truman proposed the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after WW2, only 14% of American people supported the idea. Had Truman followed public opinion instead of being the leader that he was, we would never have had a Marshall Plan.

A sensible plan for social security would be to tax *all* of a person's income, instead of only the first so many dollars. This would correct the regressiveness of the tax system caused by the social security tax hitting lower income people the hardest. Other ideas readily present themselves, when we become willing to look at the issue in an honest, non-partisan way. All we need are leaders who are willing to do this.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Pandering, Part Two

As a further introduction to this subject, I can't help but think of a study I read about some years back. (I think it was in the groundbreaking book "Megatrends", but I haven't been able to verify this yet.) Anyway, the study looked at literature (I believe) since the start of this country. The conclusion was that up until WW2, the main theme in literature was personal character. Since WW2, that has pratically disappeared as a theme.

This shows the difference betwen now and the "olden days" (pre-WW2). In days of old, people cared about their personal character and their reputation for character. It was the most important thing to most people. I don't have stats for this, but I think it's fair to say that libel lawsuits were much more common in those days than they are now. This reflects the importance of one's reputation for personal character back then. When someone destroyed that reputation by spreading lies about you, then you had suffered a grievous wrong and had a viable lawsuit to pursue (or, you had a duel to fight).

The only significant libel lawsuit I can think of in my lifetime (i.e., post-WW2) is General Westmoreland's suit against CBS for its special report on Vietnam, in which it claimed that the military had deliberately reported inflated enemy body counts to articifially prop up sagging public support for the war. Westmoreland ultimately dismissed his suit, after his deputy testified at trial that the CBS report was in fact true.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Pandering, Part One

Last Sunday my blood boiled watching the Sunday morning talk shows on ABC and NBC. In both we had a moderator who was badgering an administration representative to get them to admit that a tax increase would be necessary. This represents the worst of journalism in the U.S., a subject which I will explore in a later post in this series. It also illuminates the pandering of politicians in not being willing to admit to unpleasant realities, a subject I will also explore in a later post.

But something in Treasury Secretary Geithner's response struck a chord I want to explore now. First, Geithner said that this is no time now to talk about raising taxes, while we are still in a recession. So far so good. But then he said that Obama is committed to his campaign rhetoric, which is that any family making less than $250,000 a year would not be subject to any tax increase.

I say this latter position presents a serious pandering issue. Implicit in this is that Obama is saying that any family making less than $250,000 a year is not rich. This is utter nonsense. Think how many families the world over would be tickled to death to see a small fraction of $250,000 a year. The fact that in American politics the $250,000 figure would get thrown around as the gateway to being considered rich just shows how spoiled rotten Americans are. Surely America is way past its prime as a civilization if we cannot recapture the energy and frugality and resourcefulneess which made us great, and stop feeling entitled to a mountain of luxuries just because we exist.

What would an honest, non-pandering response look like? Perhaps something like this: "In our democracy the tax rates are subject to constant review and revision, based on changing conditions and changing understandings and changing social policies. Some rates will inevitably rise, and some will fall, as a consequence of this continuing analysis. What we pledge is that any increases will not hit those families which can afford it least, these being the families in the lower half of the income spectrum."

Of course, this sort of thoughtful analysis will never be offered by anybody in American politics, as it would be the kiss of death for anybody who did. The stupid media in this country would sound bite it down to "Obama to raise taxes", and that would be the end of the road for Obama's effectiveness.