Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for November 2010

Avoid bit.ly and similar services

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I find myself writing yet another comment advising against use of bit.ly and other link-shortening or redirecting services. For easier future reference, I publish the core of the comment here instead:

bit.ly and similar services should be avoided: Many of us wish to have an idea where we are going before we click on a link, these third-party services can (at least in theory) be used to spy on or mess with the surfers, and there is an increased risk of phishing, rick-rolling, lemon-partying, whatnot.

The one good thing that bit.ly does is to shorten URLs in contexts (notably plain-text emails) where the length could be a problem. In WordPress this does not apply, however, seeing that normal “a href” constructs can be used. For that matter, speaking for myself, I would rather take the full URL even in an email.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 29, 2010 at 6:14 pm

Apartment frauds

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I am currently looking for a new apartment (my current being both over-priced and provided by a less than white-vested landlord—he, however, is not the topic of this post). Doing so, I stumbled upon an everything-included 65 m^2 apartment at a mere 300 Euro—not entirely unheard of, even in the middle of Cologne, but certainly a rarity where some catch could be suspected: Possibly, the location was smack on top of a discotheque? Possibly, the ad was a bait-and-switch from a dubious realtor?

No: A first electronic contact resulted in a return email, describing how the apartment’s owner, Laurentiu Marian Ganea, had to relocate to London for a few years and needed to let the apartment.

All-in-all, not entirely implausible, but with an added tale of the sole key being in London with the owner and a discrepancy in the names used, the situation remained suspect. I refrained from an early judgement, however: The great amount of detail included seemed to give the offer some realism.

Now, in a first step, I wrote a pleasing email, wanting to live up to the owner’s stated “perfect person” criterion (I would certainly be highly selective in his shoes). Within 12 minutes of sending, I received a surprisingly lengthy answer that made me very, very suspicious: The problem with the key was solved, UPS would handle this through some sort of escrow and, by all appearances, he had settled on me as his tenant. Really? Would anyone in his right mind give the key to an apartment with electronics and furniture in it to a complete stranger? Why was he not more choosy, considering that he could offer an extremely good deal, which should have had the people lined up to apply? Why did he seem to stress the benefits of quick action? Even with his relocation issues…

(Also, the UPS solution is slightly suspect, in and by it self, UPS being a not uncommon tool for fraudsters.)

Next step: See if his name was known to detective Google. It was. One page declared him the new star on the fraudster skye.

Well, as the saying goes: If it seems too good to be true…

As an aside, in the future, I will likely consult detective Google at an early stage as a matter of course. The time wasted on a failed search is shorter than that wasted on writing emails or hunting someone down on the telephone.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 21, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Two measures—both alike in quackery

with 5 comments

When I land in discussions of IQ, it is often manifestly clear that two thirds of the debaters have no clue about the topic. In an attempt to straighten out a few question marks, I will below present an analogy. The topic as a whole is far too wide for a single blog post, but I can recommend IQ Comparison Sitee and some of La Griffe du Lion’s writingse to those who want a basic introduction respectively some discussion of other aspects. (There is plenty of more material on the Internet, including academic papers. Google is your friend.)

Now, one of the most common ways of dismissing IQ is to point out that there are high-IQ people who have failed utterly and that there are low-IQ people who have succeeded—“obviously” IQ is just quackery.

IMO, a very appropriate analogy is height in basket ball. Consider that:

  1. Countless other factors play in, including how hard and well the athlete trains (the two are far from the same…), what his physical characteristics in other areas are, how he fits in the team—and whether he is at all interested in basket ball.

  2. It is possible to be an NBA player without being tall: Muggsy Boguesw played for 14 seasons at a mere 5 ft 3 in (1.60 m). (Numbers here and elsewhere copied from Wikipedia.)

  3. Great height is no guarantee for anything: Robert Wadloww stood a full 8 ft 11.1 in (2.72 m)—but was hard-pressed to walk. Despite being the tallest man on historic record, theoretically able to dunk while keeping his heels solidly on the floor, he never played an NBA game.

  4. Michael Jordanw, by many considered the greatest player of all times, was far shorter, at 6 ft 6 in (1.98 m).

Obviously, height in basket ball is just quackery…

No: As anyone who thinks the situation through, looks at more statistics about height (e.g. heree), considers the advantages under the basket, whatnot, soon realizes, great height is a major advantage and lack of height is corresponding disadvantage. This in particular when considering the statistics in light of how few men reach 7 feet compared to those who reach 6 feet.

In conclusion, I will look at two side-issues:

  1. I have seen speculated that there is a certain “comfort interval” of roughly 30 IQ points within which people are sufficiently compatible to handle each other well: Someone with an IQ of 130 gets along well with people down to roughly 100, but has problems with those at 90; someone with an IQ of a 160 plays well down to 130, but has problems with someone at 120; etc. (Obviously, there is unlikely to be an abrupt change, but rather a gradual worsening.) This can go a long way to explain why many of the very highly intelligent have problems in life, including mental issues, problems in romance, surprisingly poor career developments, whatnot. (Speaking for myself: Yes, I find that when I am too far ahead of someone else, communication problems, differences in interests and world-view, etc., become disproportionally likely.)

  2. Feynmanw is often taken as an example of an “ordinary” man who became a Nobel-prize winning physicist—his IQ being “only” 125.

    Apart from 125 being more than one-and-a-half standard deviations above the mean, this number is highly likely to be misleading. Consider e.g. that anyone can have a bad day and score low, that he may not have taken the test seriously, or that he may have had his mind elsewhere, causing careless mistakes. Notably, I have spent a lot of time solving puzzles of various kinds (including questions from real IQ tests), and have found it to be important to know what level of difficulty the puzzle has: Different difficulties require different approaches and meta-reasoning—and a world-leading physicist could easily have over-estimated the difficulty of the questions.

    Most notably, many IQ tests have a strong verbal component (the more so in the past) and there is reason to suspect that Feynman’s verbal IQ was far from stellar. At the same time, a physicist needs math ability, spatial thinking, and similar. Going by the books by him that I have read, I would only be mildly surprised to hear him going below 100 in verbal IQ—and shocked if he went above average + one standard deviation (i.e. roughly 115). He may then very well have had mathematical and visio-spatial IQs and a “g” on a genius level while still scoring just 125 overall.

    Certainly, based on his books and accomplishments, Feynman was very, very far from average in raw intelligence—and a claimed IQ of 125 would point to a test that needed refinement or something having gone wrong. (Note that this would hold true even if IQ was a more flawed proxy of intelligence than I consider it to be: A man on his level should have no problem scoring higher on a well-made IQ test, be it in my world or in the world of Stephen Jay Gould.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 20, 2010 at 10:57 pm

International Men’s Day

with one comment

In March, I wrote about the intense attention the International Women’s Day received in Sweden, also stating

In contrast, I did not even notice when the International Men’s Day (November 19) went by—in fact, I only became aware of it when looking up the Women’s Day in Wikipedia today…

Well, November 19 is at our door again—and I almost missed it, despite having intended to write a post on the issue… In all fairness, I have not really paid attention to media the last few days, but I doubt that I would have missed a media attention of the size the Women’s Day had.

I recommend that those who are interested throw an eye at the Wikipedia articlew. To everyone I give the recommendation to use the 19th to contemplate that there are men in this world who have problems too—indeed, in some countries, e.g. Sweden, a strong case can be made that women have the better deal.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 18, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Publishing of censored comment

with 5 comments

I am currently involved in a discussion on a German bloge, where the following comment has been censored without a stated reason:

Ich habe selten so viele Fehlschlüße, Faktenfehler, offensichtlich inkorrekte Argumente, und Weigerungen Argumente anderer zu entgegnen gesehen, wie bei dem Piratenweib. Mit diesem üblen Kreationismuspropaganda, die Evolution ist ein Theorie—und somit, per Implikation, nicht Fakt!—geht es aber langsam zu weit.

Ich weise auf http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory hin, wo erläutert wird, was eine Theorie ist. Ich zitiere insbesondere, aus dem Zweiten Hand, eine doppelt relevante Aussage:

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not “guesses” but reliable accounts of the real world. The theory of biological evolution is more than “just a theory.” It is as factual an explanation of the universe as the atomic theory of matter or the germ theory of disease. Our understanding of gravity is still a work in progress. But the phenomenon of gravity, like evolution, is an accepted fact.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

To do damage control, I re-publish it here. I note that the author would have done very well to pay attention to this comment—but that she utterly fails to do so.

I may or may not write a later blog entry detailing some of the disturbing ideas and errors of reasoning she has presented in her post and the ensuing discussion.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 18, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Trolling or honest interest?

with 2 comments

Every now and then, I encounter a particular type of commenter who puzzles me:

She (women appear to dominate) asks a vaguely formulated (or otherwise open to interpretation) question, without giving any actual input to the discussion, awaits the resulting answers—and limits her involvement to statements like “Please clarify.” and other means of eliciting further reactions from other readers. Often this is combined with a statement of having an “honest interest” in others opinions.

Now: Is this a subtle form of trolling or really a sign of honest interest?

To give a specific example: I am currently semi-involved in a Swedish discussion on objectification, how women’s looks affect their career chances, and similare. A late-comer to the discussion is the commenter “Tanja”, whose three comments to date (in translation, no attempts to improve the original language) consist of:

I have not had managed [bothered, had the endurance] to read all the comments right now, but I wonder one thing. You men who are annoyed [angered] about good-looking women having advantages – how much time, work, and money do you invested in looking good? [I contend that she has misunderstood what the men actually say, but that is a different matter.]

The thinking with me is that there is obviously an opinion that men are disadvantaged in the area “get advantages for being good looking and sexy”. I wonder how many of the men who complain over not having access to a lot of privileges like good-looking women have themselves tried to look good. I am genuinely curious.

As exalted as over what? Feel free to explain.
Besides this I still would like to have an answer to my question.

This with regard to a long comment thread and three comments (two by me) explicitly addressing her—the shortest of which is longer than her own longest.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 17, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Price segmentation

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About six months ago, I encountered a blog on price discrimination at hair-salonse. With one late-comer stating that “This is an aspect I hope to explore in my research on gender-based price discrimination for my microeconomics class at Harvard University.”, it is high time for me to write a long-planned post on price segmentation—which is the true explanation behind this discrimination: Women, as a group, are willing to pay more, and that is the reason for the difference in prices. (See also below and some of my comments in the original discussion.)

To illustrate the principle of price segmentation, assume that a company manufactures a three-geared bicycle and wants to determine the right price: If a higher price is chosen then each bicycle sold will give a higher profit—but fewer people will be willing (or, at all, able) to buy it. Assume that the number of bicycles sold at a certain price in Euro is n(p) = 100,000 – 200p and that the total cost of manufacture, marketing, etc. amounts to 300 Euro/bicycle. (These are unrealistic and simplistic assumptions, but they serve well as an illustration.) We can now write the profit as (100,000 – 200p) (p – 300 ) = 160,000p – 200p^2 – 30,000,000

Starting with a price of 0, we have a pleasing 100,000 bicycles “sold”—but a horrifying loss of 30,000,000 Euro. No wonder: Each bicycle gives a severe minus. Using the realistic minimum price (= the cost) of 300 Euro, we see a profit of 0, at 40,000 units sold. Now, by increasing the price by 1 Euro, we can increase the profit by almost 40,000 Euro—gaining 1 Euro from each of 39,800 bicycles, instead of 0 Euro from 40,000. Another price increase brings almost the same amount (39,400), for a total of 39,600 bicycles at a gain of 2 Euros each and 79,200 Euro in all. Another Euro gives another 39,000 and a total of 118,200. Etc.

Increasing the price further and further gives a growing profit—we have fewer buyers, but a greater profit per buyer. At a price of 400 Euro, a full 2 million Euro from 20,000 items is reached. Here, however, we have a maximum: Increasing the price further leads to a smaller profit, as the loss of customers has a greater effect than the price gain. Indeed, at 500 Euro, the profit is back at zero, because not one single bicycle is sold. (The mathematical function works for even higher prices, with an increasing loss, but is now entirely unrealistic—we cannot sell a negative number of bicycles.)

This makes the manufacturer very sad: He knows that there are people willing to pay more than 400 Euro—but he cannot charge them more without losing other customers and reducing his profits. He also knows that there are people who do not buy at all at 400 Euro who would be willing to do so at a lower price—but he cannot lower the price without lowering his profit on the existing customers.

Or can he? Yes, he can! This is where price segmentation comes in: People with different willingness to pay are charged different prices for varying reasons, some based on actual value added, some on different needs, some on stupidity or gullibility on behalf of the customer, some on border-line (or outright) fraud.

Among the many options available to the manufacturer, he chooses the following: He manufactures an ungeared basic model for 250 Euro to be sold at a price of 300 Euro, the old model at the old cost and price, and a “de luxe” bicycle with twelve gears at cost of 350 and a price of 500 Euro. Now he has his previous profit, plus the additional profit from those willing to pay extra, plus the additional profit from those who can now afford the inferior bicycle. (However, also with a minus from those who would previously have bought the mid-ranged bicycle, but now opt for the low-end one. Minimizing such losses is a question for another discussion, but take note of factors like perceived status, brand recognition, deterrents in form of artificial quality reductions, whatnot.)

To give an indication of how powerful price segmentation can be: What profit would result if every potential customer bought a bicycle at the highest possible price using the original function? We then have to add 200 * 0 at 500 Euro, 199 * 200 at 499, 198 * 200 at 498, …, 1 * 200 at 301, and 0 * 200 at 300—amounting to 4 million Euro, to be compared with the original 2 million. (Where we assume that all prices are integers. Allowing prices like e.g. 300.94 makes no change in the big picture, but would lead to more complicated calculations and, possibly, the need to discuss assumptions about fractional bicycles.)

Examples of price segmentation can be found everywhere: In the cereal aisle in a supermarket, in a computer store, at the hair-dressers, … Some examples can be less obvious, my two favourites being DVDs and books:

DVDs are originally sold at very high prices, often more than 20 Euros at release. Those very eager, irrational, or wealthy buy at that price. The price then drops by and by, with those less eager, irrational, and wealthy eventually buying at a lower price. In the end a DVD may be dumped for 5 Euros or less, before it disappears from the market—or is marked up again, because the decision is made that it is better to refocus on the true fans and late comers willing to pay a higher price than on the masses.

Books, OTOH, are divided into hard-cover and pocket books: They both have their advantages and disadvantages (and I, personally, consider the pocket book to be the superior format in most cases), but the former sells for thrice the price of the latter. Why then does anyone buy hard-cover? Easy: The hard-cover books are released about a year earlier, and the true segmentation (as with DVDs) is one of time: The customer pays for the privilege of reading the book earlier—not any inherit superiority of the hard-cover format.

Even rebates to seniors, children, and students are usually done with an eye at price segmentation (although altruism and PR can be factors): Customers who would otherwise be hard-pressed to pay are given a leg up; others still pay the full price.

Returning to the example with hair-cuts: Why would women be charged more? Because of a patriarchal conspiracy? No. The true reason is simply that men and women, as groups, are willing to pay different amounts of money for a given hair-related service (and that they often want different services). Correspondingly, it makes good business sense to segment the market based on the sex of the customer: Increase the price for men and they will desert to self-service land; do so for women and they will remain as customers—with the occasional complaint about too high or unfair prices. Similarly, women are more likely to go to a fancy “hair architect”, while men tend towards someone who admits to being a cutter of hair; women want extras of various kind; men want it plain and simple; etc.

As an aside, the issues of competition and niches is very important in practice. For instance, in the original example, the presence of a competitor selling an equivalent or superior bike at 390 Euro could give the function n(p) a radically different look when that price was approached, possibly making the original “ideal” price of 400 Euro entirely unrealistic. It would also be possible that the three given market segments would each be dominated by a different manufacturer.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 13, 2010 at 12:43 pm