Overwrought

Somebody calls the FBI about a young bearded guy reading lefty literature in a coffee shop. The FBI contacts the young bearded guy, who consents to be interviewed. Agents visit him and he is taken aback to discover that they look and talk like cops rather than ironic twenty something bookstore employees. They ask him some questions, explain why they are interested, and leave. He later telephones one of the agents to provide more information about what he was reading in the coffee shop. That’s it. Then the guy publishes an online column in which he frets about the dire state of our country.

His article is actually more revealing about his own dire intellectual state, and perhaps that of self-identified future journalism students generally. The person who reported him to the FBI may have been malicious or foolish, and most such tips about possible terrorists are undoubtedly smoke, but how is the govt supposed to know which tips are bogus? There is no alternative to checking them out. The FBI has done a lot of bad things but this isn’t one of them. If it really were a police state they would have done more than ask him a few questions and leave, and he probably would not have written publicly about the experience.

On the other hand, a published article about a run-in with the feds looks good on the aspiring journalist’s resume.

(via Politech)

The Sun King

This account by the Duc (Duke) de Saint-Simon on the life of Louis XIV. of France is quite interesting and in some parts also pretty amusing:

His natural talents were below mediocrity; but he had a mind capable of improvement, of receiving polish, of assimilating what was best in the minds of others without slavish imitation; and he profited greatly throughout his life from having associated with the ablest and wittiest persons, of both sexes, and of various stations.

Glory was his passion, but he also liked order and regularity in all things; he was naturally prudent, moderate, and reserved; always master of his tongue and his emotions. Will it be believed? he was also naturally kind-hearted and just. God had given him all that was necessary for him to be a good King, perhaps also to be a fairly great one. All his faults were produced by his surroundings. In his childhood he was so much neglected that no one dared go near his rooms.

His mind was occupied with small things rather than with great, and he delighted in all sorts of petty details, such as the dress and drill of his soldiers; and it was just the same with regard to his building operations, his household, and even his cookery. He always thought he could teach something of their own craft even to the most skilful professional men; and they, for their part, used to listen gratefully to lessons which they had long ago learnt by heart.

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Drifting Polls?

William Sjostrom explains elegantly why opinion-poll results may show spurious variation over time and should not be taken at face value.

Decisionmaking Bias

Megan McArdle blogged:

I’m hearing a fair number of comments along the lines of “Wow! She’s not jaw-droppingly hideous the way she said she was!” I don’t recall ever really mentioning my appearance. . . how did I convey the impression that I was 300 pounds and covered with warts? Of course, I suppose it’s better to set up low expectations than to disappoint.
This is a good illustration of a common decisionmaking bias that behavioral economists call anchoring. In this case, McArdle’s occasional self-deprecating wisecracks were the only information about her appearance that many readers had, and skewed their expectations in the direction of “low.” Some of those readers were therefore surprised to learn that she is actually quite attractive.

Other examples of anchoring abound. In my own experience, traffic became systematically faster on a stretch of local expressway when a “Minimum Speed 40” sign was removed. When I met women through personal ads, I found that any explicit mention in my advertisement of a personal characteristic that I considered negative, and wanted to avoid in prospective mates, was likely to generate at least one response from somebody who considered it positive. (For example, “dislikes Clinton” might have a brought a reply from a two-time Clinton voter.) The existence of anchoring bias implies, among other things, that it’s wise in negotiations to mention desirable, even exaggerated, outcomes and avoid mentioning undesirable ones (make low initial bids and high initial offers); that you should avoid joking about death or lawsuits with the doctor who is treating you in an emergency room; and that platitudes about accentuating the positive and minimizing the negative may have an empirical basis.