Five Ways to Improve International Soccer

I have been watching some soccer games recently and hearing how Americans largely find soccer boring, noisy, full of sissies taking dives, and controversial officiating, the following suggestions occur to me:

    1. Allow each team captain three opportunities over the course of the entire match to request an instant replay where any of the following are at issue:
      •  A goal was denied due to a penalty of any sort. (Think U.S. v. Slovenia.)
      •  The captain believes that a call or failure to call a handball, diving, or offsides was improper.
      •  A corner kick is denied where the captain believes the defender last touched the ball.
      •  A player is given a red card and the captain believes it was unfounded.
      •  The captain believes the ball did or did not cross the plane of the goal line and was improperly called.

The replay officials would require clear and convincing evidence of an error to reverse a call.

  1.  Have the clock kept by official timekeepers on the sideline with control of any scoreboard clocks. They stop the clock every time the ball crosses the plane of the sidelines and any time the official’s whistle blows and start the clock when the ball is back in play. This eliminates unpredictable stoppage time at the end of matches and also would probably allow the halfs to be shortened to 35 or 40 minutes while yielding the same amount of actual play.
  2. Allow unlimited substitutions.
  3. Give an automatic red card to players penalized for diving. They are removed from the match immediately and the side must complete the match without a substitution.
  4. Make the goal 22 cm higher and 44 cm wider. (This adds one diameter of the ball on every side, which ought to lead to more scoring.)

Bonus idea: Forbid artificial noisemakers of any sort in the stadiums.

There you have it. Five simple suggestions that would, I think, greatly improve international soccer and which would resolve many of the greatest complaints among those who are interested in soccer, but not yet committed fans.

Something to think about?

I’ve just finished Ernle Bradford’s “Hannibal,” part of the Wordsworth Military Library. Finally I think I have a grasp of why Hannibal is important to world history and, as it turns out, it has little to do with elephants and the Alps.

On page 95 Bradford writes:

The one thing that Fabius [Roman Consul turned dictator] had to do, he realised, was avoid defeat. The victory that he must aim for was not the traditional one upon the battlefield – something that the genius of his opponent rendered unlikely – but success achieved over a very long period of time, if need be. The presence of his troops must be used to reassure the allies and their cities that Rome was watching over them. Time and the extent of the land itself must be made to work for him. The Carthaginian’s [Hannibal’s] army must be reduced slowly, its morale snapped, and its opportunities for engaging him in a straightforward battle reduced to a minimum.

The delaying tactics led to a 17 year war that was fought on two continents – Europe and Africa – from Spain to Macedonia. While Hannibal pretty much had his way with the Romans whenever they engaged in battle, Hannibal ultimately lost. The question is, which side of the current-day conflict is Hannibal and which side is Fabius?

Early in the war with Hannibal, Rome had it’s political strife. After Hannibal crosses the Alps, rests, and then takes it to the Romans, for example at Lake Trasimene in 217 BC, Fabius’s strategy of delay is attacked as intentionally prolonging the war, leading to the election of Gaius Terentius Varro to co-consul. As Bradford writes:

Varro was a plebeian of ultra-democratic opinions who had managed to get voted into office by the people for his defamatory attacks on Fabius the dictator. His arguments, and those of his supporters, will be familiar to those who have observed the pattern of similar politicians in later centuries: the nobles had been seeking war for many years, and it was they who had brought Hannibal to Italy. It was their machinations, too, that were spinning out the war, when it might be brought to a victorious conclusion; the consuls had employed the arts of Fabius to prolong the war, when they could have ended it. The nobles had all made a compact to this effect; nor would the people see an end to the war until they had elected a true plebeian, a new man, to the consulship.”

The newly elected co-consuls don’t see eye-to-eye about things and this division of leadership and intention leads to the disaster at Cannae.

Whether current-day Varroses would do the same is something to think about. The uncanny “repeat of history” suggests that human nature has not changed over the course of 2200 plus years. It is therefore unlikely that it will change in the next three or four.

Who is more right or less wrong?

This article describes how firms should price their product. In the introduction is this gem:

How much should you charge customers for your product or service? This, of course, depends on the nature of your business. There are no specific formulas. You must do some research to find an appropriate price for your specific product.

Yet, we teach price theory assuming that there are specific formulas, specifically Marginal Revenue should equal Marginal Cost. Always. The trick is accurately measuring marginal revenue and marginal cost.

The article goes on to offer a few other ideas:

“Make a list of similar products or services and how much other companies charge for them.”

This sounds like “know your demand,” which is one component of determining profit maximizing price and quantity. However, simply knowing what other firms are charging, i.e., market price, does not necessarily tell the firm owner what marginal revenue will be, unless the firm’s demand is perfectly elastic.

The next step in determining price:

“Review Your Costs…the cost of goods or raw materials, the amount of staff time (including your time) it will take to produce the product, as well as the amount of administrative time to invoice your customers and collect payments. You also need to include general operating expenses and administrative costs (or G&A) — when calculating the cost of your product or service.”

Hmmm…the first set of costs are part of marginal cost, which we teach should be considered in profit maximizing output and pricing decisions. However, general operating expenses and administrative costs sound like fixed cost. Economists claim that fixed cost have no impact on the profit maximizing quantity-price decisions, and to consider fixed costs will guarantee that the firm owner will not maximize profit.

Finally, the article suggests a rather ad hoc markup over cost:

“Mark up for Profit…The amount of the markup varies by industry, service, potential liability and general overhead. Generally, you should at least double your fixed costs to get a selling price. In retail, this is known as “keystone” pricing. When retailers apply a discount of 10-40 percent for a sale on their products, they still make a profit because they used keystone pricing.”

The optimal markup does vary by industry, according to the Lerner condition, but the “doubling of fixed costs” doesn’t sound like what we teach in firm theory. Once again, the general overhead (fixed cost) is being used to determine price, which is incorrect. The so-called “keystone” pricing may yield positive profit, but would not pass muster in my price theory course.

I wonder who is “more right” and who is “less wrong” – the article’s author or us economists? I will, of course, go with the economic theory, but perhaps the difficulties in accurately measuring demand (and hence marginal revenue) and cost (and hence marginal cost) are so insurmountable that firm owners resort to rules-of-thumb. I fight my brother (who is a small business owner) in this area all the time.

I wonder if the article provides a net positive or not.

A SNIU and Email Privacy

I just thought of an interesting application of p2p networks that could be used to create greater email privacy. I decided to quickly publish it here to create prior art for the idea so that no one could legitimately patent it.  It’s motivated by the fact that email that is in storage receives a lower level of protection from government surveillance than does email while it is actively in transit. This means the fewer places your email is stored, the more private it is. In the ideal system, the email would only be stored in the sender’s and in the recipient’s systems and nowhere else. This is such a system.

The idea is that users, Alice and Bob, would download a p2p application and run it on their internet-connected computers (along with thousands of others). The p2p application would interface with their email programs of choice to handle delivery and receipt of all their email. When Alice sends an email to Bob, Alice would actually send only an email notification to Bob (not the full text of the email) and Bob would have to type in his personal password to retrieve the text of the email.

The p2p application in the meantime would have broken the text of the email up into a bunch of tiny little parts. Parts so small that, if read in isolation, they would provide almost no useful information about the jist of the message. As a simplified example, suppose 500 people are running the application. Then the email might be broken into 100 pieces and the pieces sent randomly to these 500 users (with little tags allowing for reassembly by someone with all the parts, namely Bob). Lots of duplicates would be sent to account for the fact that someone who received part of the email might go offline when Bob asked for that particular part.

This way, the full email is never stored all in one place except on Alice’s computer and on Bob’s computer. Everyone in-between only has tiny little meaningless pieces.

Of course, one problem I can think of is: what if someone could spoof being Bob, call her Eve, and could ask the network to collect up all the pieces of the message from Alice? Presumably the notification Alice sends Bob could be designed to only interface with Bob’s password and so even if Eve has a copy of the notification or if she fakes one, she would also need Bob’s password for the network to try to collect all the pieces of Alice’s email. (There are obvious ways this is similar to and ways it could incorporate private/public key encryption schemes.)

Besides being an idea for protecting privacy, it’s also a substantial non-infringing use (SNIU) of peer-to-peer (p2p) networks. Let’s not squash these networks before people more skilled than I think of more of the cool ways to use them for good.

Update (5 mins later): It also occurs to me that if Eve places herself at Bob’s ISP and captures everything going to Bob’s IP address, then she might be able to collect all the individual pieces of the email from Alice. So, the pieces should probably themselves be scrambled by an encryption algorithm that would make it really hard to put them all together, even if you had them all. Nonetheless, I think we’ve stilled achieved the goal of there being fewer stored copies of the email, which was the point. Additionally, to the extent that Eve has to use an active wiretap to intercept the pieces, the law provides Alice and Bob with greater protection from such active interception. (Dumb distinction, I know. I didn’t write our email privacy laws.) (Yet.)

How the government spent money way back in 1907

The Feb. 24, 1907 NYT reports that the 59th Congress (1907-1908) will spend a little more than $1 billion per year – the most to date. In 1907 the economy was estiamted to be approximately $34b, and the federal government was spending approximately 3% of the economy per year. The per-capita cost of the federal government was approximately $12.50 ($268 in 2005 dollars), whereas in 1879-1880 the cost per capita was $7. Today, the per-capita cost for the federal government it is approaching $10,000 (ouch) and federal government spending amounts to appproximately 20% of the nation’s economy.

What’s driving the run-up in costs in 1907? The military. The largest increase in appropriations was for the navy: in 1897 the navy was appropriated $30m, in 1907 the total was $102m. The story offers that spending on the navy in 1907 was $20m more than the spending during the Spanish-American War of 1898-1899. The largest proportional increase in spending was for fortifications ($24m over two years).

The article does have this to say about the increases in government spending:

If the wealth of the country, rather than its population, is considered, the cost of Government is now at a much less figure on $1,000 per capita [of national income] than ever before in the history of the Republic. The fact that big Congressional appropriations are no longer political issues shows that the people care little for economy in administration so long as there is general prosperity. At the close of each Congress the minority seeks to show that there have been great extravagances in appropriations. The presentation made by the ranking Democrat of the Appropriations Committee receives space in the newspapers, but seldom attracts more than one editorial paragraph in the way of comment. [emphasis added]

I like the use of the word “Republic” – we don’t see enough of that word these days.

Note: The Republicans held the majority after the 1906 elections.

What’s Wrong With Google Aiding Chinese Censorship? Plenty.

Doug Tygar has pointed out that Google’s efforts to assist the Chinese government censor the web are not yet perfected. Tygar points to an example of a technological glitch that, to me, also illustrates why one should have moral qualms about Google’s actions to aid the Chinese government.

tiananmenprotestorthumb When using Google.cn’s Image search for ‘Tiananmen’ (capitalized) one currently receives almost exclusively images of the lone student protestor halting a line of Chinese tanks as well other images of the Tiananmen square protest. Presumably this is not what the Chinese government wants.
thetiananmenthumb However, when one uses Google.cn’s Image search for ‘tiananmen’ (uncapitalized) one currently receives almost exclusively non-descript scenic images of The Tiananmen (the entrance to the Imperial Palace Grounds). Presumably this is what the Chinese government wants both searches to produce.

(I’ve archived both pages for when Google fixes this.)

If you take a look at both of those pages you get a graphic illustration of what censorship looks like. Information related to non-violent political dissent has vanished, as if it never happened, and as if we have nothing to learn from acknowledging, recalling, or studying it. Anyone is entitled to put their head in the sand if they so choose, that’s freedom. But when a government decides on behalf of all of its citizens that they must not be allowed access to such materials, that’s the opposite of freedom.

Given two questions put to Google recently by John Battelle, we should be even more concerned:

“Given a list of search terms, can Google produce a list of people who searched for that term, identified by IP address and/or Google cookie value?”

“Given an IP address or Google cookie value, can Google produce a list of the terms searched by the user of that IP address or cookie value?”

I put these to Google. To its credit, it rapidly replied that the answer in both cases is “yes.”

Combine that ability with the Chinese government’s desire to imprison people who search for the wrong sorts of things and Google agreeing to assist the Chinese government in its censorship efforts becomes all the more disconcerting. Will Google turn over this information about Chinese dissidents? Let’s hope not. Chinese prisons do not have a sterling reputation for humane treatment of prisoners.

But even if they don’t go that far, there is a fairly simple pair of arguments that explain the logic behind the outrage over Google’s censorship of google.cn. Maybe Google didn’t think it through like this, so I’d like to help them out with the following:

  1. If a government engages in a comprehensive campaign to censor information related to non-violent a) political dissent or b) religious expression then that government is engaged in a morally reprehensible course of action. (Premise)
  2. If a corporation willingly and knowingly provides essential assistance to a government in a morally reprehensible course of action, when refusing to provide that essential assistance produces no greater harm, then that corporation is itself engaged in a morally reprehensible course of action. (Premise)
  3. The Chinese government is engaged in a comprehensive campaign to censor information related to non-violent political dissent and religious expression. (Premise)
  4. Therefore, the Chinese government is engaged in a morally reprehensible course of action. (Follows from 1 and 3).
  5. By (among other things) implementing filtering technologies at google.cn that censor information related to non-violent political dissent and religious expression, Google is willingly and knowingly providing essential assistance to the Chinese government in a morally reprehensible course of action, when refusing to provide that essential assistance would produce no greater harm. (Premise)
  6. Therefore, Google is itself engaged in a morally reprehensible course of action. (Follows from 2, 4, and 5).

I welcome counter-arguments or challenges to any of these premises, but I currently believe all the premises are uncontrovertibly true, and consequently that the above argument is valid and sound. I hope Google comes to the same set of beliefs.

Privacy Research Released

For the last year I advised a team of School of Information Masters students (Joshua Gomez, Travis Pinnick, and Ashkan Soltani) on their research into the privacy practices of popular websites. Today they have publicly released their findings on their website: knowprivacy.org.

They found that there is a mismatch between consumer expectations and website privacy practices and posting a privacy policy alone does not bridge that gap. In particular, they’ve shed light on the use of third-party tracking via web bugs. We were surprised to learn that many of the most-visited sites on the internet state in their privacy policies that they do not share information with third parties, but then also state that they allow third parties to place web bugs on their site. Perhaps that’s not “sharing,” but inviting the third parties in to do the collecting themselves achieves the same result: users visit one site and are unaware that information about them and that visit winds up in the hands of an unknown third party.

They also found a surprising dominance by Google in the web bug space. Google operates several trackers and at least one of their trackers appears on 92 of the top 100 most-visited sites in the United States. When one looks at a larger collection of domains (nearly 400,000) that contain at least one web bug, they found a Google tracker on over 88% of those domains. While other tracking companies have good coverage of the most-visited sites, no other company came close to Google’s dominance when the domains considered was broadened.

Through a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, they also received data on actual consumer complaints to the Federal Trade Commission and compared those complaints with those gathered from the California Office of Privacy Protection, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and TRUSTe. Here they found that consumers want control over the information gathered about them and are particularly sensitive about the public display of that information. One of the take-aways from this is that while the FTC has, in the past, thought about privacy in terms of “harm” users are largely concerned instead with a lack of control.

The full report makes sound recommendations for both website operators and regulators to try to address these issues. The group received some recognition as a finalist in the Bears Breaking Boundaries Science, Technology, and Engineering Policy competition, and a group of outside judges at the School of Information’s Final Project Showcase awarded them a James R. Chen Award for their work. Today, the New York Times has a piece on their research entitled: Google is Top Tracker of Surfers in Study.

Convert .mp4 from Flip Video to Ogg Theora .ogv

The Flip Video UltraHD camcorder records files in a .mp4 format. I wanted to convert them to Ogg Theora format. How do you do that? I did far too much searching for an answer to this question for the answer to be this easy:

apt-get install ffmpeg2theora

and then:

ffmpeg2theora vid00001.mp4

That outputs a file called vid00001.ogv and you’re done. Find further information about the fabulous ffmpeg2theora at its website.

Economics: Why crime doesnt pay

Crime doesn’t pay only if you are at the top.
Economists have always held the view that crime happens because on average it does pay. However a study conducted and published by the University of Chicago which studied a gang in a four year period from 1991-1995 have put this view into doubt. What they did was that they tracked the income and the expenditure as well of a particular criminal gang who’s business was in dealing in cocaine. What they found was really quite surprising even though the gang was dealing in huge sums the average gang member received less than the minimum wage at the time. This meant that most gang member’s would have to have part time jobs as well as their gang jobs.

The study was done over a four year period, at the start of the study in 1991 the gangs monthly income stood at $18, 000 this then increase in the four year and at the end of the study it was over $68 000. The cost of the actual drugs to sell took up 15% of the gangs expenditure however other costs such as funeral costs, and “compensation” to killed gang member’s families which was $5000 a death took up a large proportion of the gangs expenses.

Small time dealers in the gang would earn no more than $200 a month. When the gang was in gang disputes and war fare with other rival gangs mercenaries were often hired were given more money because of the increased pay was due to the increased risk of death and were given up to $2000 a month.

The study looked also at the risk gang member’s faced and found that gang member’s in the 4 year study had a one in four chance of being killed the study calculated that the average life a gang member was worth was no more than $7k.

As we can see it doesn’t pay to be a gang member… But it does if you are the top dog. Messrs Levitt and Venkatesh who conducted the study said that it was all based on the winner takes all…  Member would start at the bottom and work their way to the top… It was found that 20% of the revenue the gang made was given to a few top gang members. The leader of the gang was earning $100, 000 a year.

The risk of getting to the top is very risky and staying top dog once you get there is not guaranteed as all the other underdogs fight to take your place.