Monday, June 29, 2009
Friday, June 26, 2009
Earlier, we discussed the notion of superhero externalities in our post about "reigning" in superheroes. Specifically, I had mentioned the following:
One involves the damage to public and personal property caused by super-battles, which we discuss at some length in our post about superhero insurance. Another is the constant violation of civil liberties. Often superheroes, such as Batman, will forcefully "coerce" criminals for information and will use sophisticated spy technology (see The Dark Knight film) to monitor suspicious citizens. A third involves the notion of escalation (this is particularly evident in Batman -- see Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Returns, Ego, the Killing Joke), whereby the mere existence of a superhero actually breeds more creative and dangerous supervillains.
However, superheroes and supervillains (and all metahumans) have the potential to do much more than this. In fact, there are many ways in which those with access to specific powers or technologies could take advantage of the the market and economy. Of course, many superheroes choose not to, viewing such acts as violations of their vows to uphold the law.
Nevertheless, it is generally regarded that as more metahumans turn up, there is a significant danger of having them abuse their powers. And not just in your standard, smash-and-bash, hold-em-up-for-ransom ways. Lex Luthor has often paid vast amounts of money to weaker metahumans in exchange for new, alien technology, which he would then use simultaneously to promote his villainous schemes and to profit his billion-dollar company, Lexcorp. In a recent Detective Comics storyline, Hush (though not a metahuman) used his surgical prowess to disguise himself as Bruce Wayne and siphon off millions of dollars from Wayne enterprises. In Garth Ennis' The Boys, superheroes are portrayed as careless automatons, who receive millions of dollars from comic book publishers and toy companies, as well as government pardons. All they have to do in exchange is occasionally save a hostage and support certain political candidates.
Here are some other ways that heroes, villains and metahumans could use the market to their advantage:
1) Insider Information. The superhuman community has access to a wealth of valuable information that is kept comfortably hidden from the general public. Every superhero in the Marvel universe is kept abreast of Reed Richard's latest gizmos or Dr. Strange's latest potions or Tony Stark's latest weapons upgrade. This goes on in the DC Universe as well. The Justice League watchtower contains technology that most humans could not even wrap their minds around. This includes technology that was given as gifts by the New Gods. Also, let's not forget Batman and his Brother Eye, an autonomous, global surveillance system that has the capability of watching over every superhuman on Earth.
Suppose that you were a recently admitted member of the Justice League (or of Checkmate) and had access to this technology, as well as, possibly, plans and schematics for constructing new, similar devices. Or suppose you took a call for a space battle and as a result gained access to an entirely new gadget that not even the Justice League had previously seen. You would stand to make a fortune from selling these plans to Earth companies, especially Lexcorp. This would ensure your termination from the League, but as we all know, fighting crime doesn't pay.
2) Insurance and Asymmetric Information. One of the biggest problems with market insurance systems is the notion of asymmetric information. Often those who take out individual insurance policies have access to information about themselves that insurance companies do not. If you are a heavy smoker, for instance, you pose a significant health risk that would warrant your insurance company to charge a higher premium. Of course, many people do not tell their insurance companies that they are smokers. Extrapolate this scenario for the superhero community. If you are someone like Spider-Man, who often gets injured in battles against supervillains, you are a risky candidate for insurance. However, to my knowledge, insurance companies in the Marvel Universe do not yet underwrite for superheroes. That is, there is no question on the insurance application that asks, "Are you a superhero, supervillain, metahuman, crime fighter, or vigilante of any kind?" As such, Peter Parker would likely be able to get away with utilizing more health care for a cheaper insurance premium.
I am sure that there are plenty of other ways that superhumans, heroes and villains could use the market to their advantage. I open it to the readers to name some others. Again, the most creative answer will win a prize.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
A bit of back story first for those not familiar with Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Incognito. Zack Overkill is under quite a bit of pressure these days. A former supervillain (and one of the most ruthless), Zack made the decision to rat out his former boss, the Black Death (a villain even more notoriously ruthless than he). In order to protect himself, he enrolled in witness protection and now serves as an ordinary file clerk while attempting to suppress his inner desires to, well, villainize.
Unfortunately for him, Zack got careless and began spending his nights running around town, stopping burglaries and robberies, in order to escape from his monotonous daily life. When word got out of his nighttime antics, two supervillains were dispatched in order to bring him in. In the process, Zack's only "friend" from the office, Farmer, was killed.
Now Zack needs an escape route. Feeling he has been discovered and facing pressure from both sides (the law enforcement officials who put him there and his former gang led by the Black Death), he considers his options for escaping witness protection (and his likely death). Finding Farmer's credit card, he considers crafting himself a fake I.D. and escaping using his former friend's identity.
Would Zack actually be able to pull this off? Possibly.
Identity theft, as many of us know, is a major problem. 8.3 million Americans claimed they were the victims of some form of identity theft in 2005. And it's bad enough when criminals steal the identity of living people. But there is also a form, known as Ghosting, in which criminals assume the identity of a dead person. It is the rarest form of identity theft, particularly because it is quite difficult to accomplish successfully.
Ghosting is particularly difficult in the modern, technological age. This is due in no small part to the advent of computerized records, search engines, and quick spread of information between agencies, especially compared with the 1970s and 1980s, when the United States filed birth certificates and death certificates separately. Furthermore, DNA imaging and fingerprinting technology has made catching Ghosters a much less harrowing and lengthy process as it was when fingerprints were not all stored in an electronic database and DNA testing was less sophisticated.
Nevertheless, there are criminals who frequently scan obituaries for names and addresses of recently deceased, and then are able to purchase their personal information off of the internet. For example, the Social Security Administration has a Master Death Index which allows users to enter some basic information about a deceased individual (name, birthdate, etc.) and receive his or her social security number. They might also just steal some documents from the person's mailbox, which might include credit card numbers, etc.
If we look at Zack Overkill's situation, we see that it is not completely infeasible for him to assume Farmer's identity to escape his pursuers and the Witness Protection Program. First of all, it just so happens that Farmer was about the same age as he was. Identity theft is significantly easier to accomplish when the victim is the same age as the criminal, otherwise it would arouse suspicion. If Farmer was 70, for instance, Zack might be pulled into an interrogation office upon trying to flee the country with Farmer's birth certificate.
Moreover, Farmer was a loner who, it seems, did not have many close friends or family members and lived a fairly boorish lifestyle. Although his death was fairly public (police and hospital rushed to the scene of his death, so there must be at least a hospital record of his death and autopsy) and well-known by those who had seem him the most (there was an office party held in his memory in the latest issue), this does not necessarily imply that news of his death had spread to all the appropriate agencies. In fact, many successful Ghosting attempts occur because family members of the deceased often neglect to call the Social Security Administration and the credit card companies to inform them of the death. For example, in 2007 MSNBC reported this story about a man whose identity was stolen and sold merely two weeks after his death, in part because the family had not notified the proper agencies. And this is not unreasonable. Usually, when someone dies, families spend time grieving, rather than worrying about administrative tasks. Unfortunately, this makes it easier for the Ghoster.
Therefore, since it was unlikely that Farmer's relatives or friends took the time to notify the credit bureaus, it is entirely possible that they might not yet be aware of his death. Hence, Zack Overkill would be in a prime position to steal his identity.
And hey, there's got to be a reason they call him "Overkill."
But how effective are ninjas once superheroes are thrown into the mix? The Hand have frequently found themselves in conflict with the likes of Daredevil, Wolverine, Electra, and other costumed heroes (including the New Avengers and the X-Men). In all of those cases, the heroes have come out on top, resoundingly trouncing the Hand and their well-trained enforcers. Granted this is usually the outcome whenever a criminal organization goes up against a hero or heroes, but the amount of energy required to train hand ninjas makes these losses even more devastating.
Let's break it down. In order for a single Hand ninja to be an effective enforcer, they require a certain baseline level of skill. To be effective, the average hand ninja needs to be able to at least take out one average street thug with a gun. But the training required for a ninja (who fights primarily with short range melee and thrown weapons) is obviously greater than the training required for the average street thug. In order to be a threat, a Hand ninja needs to learn the use of multiple weapons and martial arts styles quickly and effectively. The ninja also needs training in stealth. By cultivating these skills, a well-trained Hand ninja will be able to negate the inherent advantage provided by using a firearm, allowing the Hand ninja to dispatch his/her enemies with style and efficiency. But this can only be achieved by having a ninja train extensively for many months with several masters of respective styles and skills (swords, shuriken, stealth, etc.).
It also seems likely that the Hand will need to recruit individuals into their service who are outstanding physical specimens. Proper ninjas need a baseline amount of speed, strength, and dexterity that not every human being possesses. As a result, the Hand would need to screen and recruit applicants prior to their ninja training. And in some cases, the Hand ritually murder their trained ninjas and resurrect them to give them superhuman strength and endurance. This ceremony takes at least a day and requires the efforts of a dozen of the Hand's gifted sorcerers. All in all, this is a lot of time and energy invested into a single Hand ninja.
And then Wolverine kills several hundred of these ninjas in a single day. The investment hardly seems worth the return.
To produce a single ninja requires at least several months and the continuous effort of multiple ninja trainers. Hundreds of man-hours are expended. And Wolverine merely needs to flick his wrist to negate all of that effort.
In a world where heroes can wade through your well-trained sycophants, it certainly seems more economical to hire random thugs with some marksmanship training and provide them with automatic weapons than to imbue hundreds of ninjas with mystical powers. Sure, undead ninjas are cooler but if they're just going to be torn apart anyway why not save yourself the time and effort of training your cannon-fodder?
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Maybe Pepper forgot to file a claim in time. Or maybe COBRA does not cover individuals who lose their jobs to former supervillains who fend off alien invasions and subsequently dissolve said individual's company.
Over in the Ultimate Marvel universe, where J. Jonah Jameson is not the mayor of New York City, some former Daily Bugle employees are musing over the loss of their newspaper and the effect that the recession had on the newspaper industry.
Of course, the recession is not the primary reason for the Bugle being shut down. Instead it was Ultimatum: a "massive tidal wave [that] crashed down on the island of Manhattan, killing millions of people in the blink of an eye." With a large chunk of New York City now completely obliterated, including the Bugle building itself, it is quite difficult for Jameson and his crew to remain in business.
Supernatural disasters aside (boy, I bet Jameson wishes he had taken out a Supernatural Disaster Insurance policy), Jameson acknowledges that the recession would have forced the Bugle to close shop anyway. And he's probably right--the newspaper industry is not doing too well in the face of the latest crisis.
Take a look at the following graph from the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), which depicts quarterly newspaper print ad sales (via Techcrunch).
Indeed, ad expenditures have been on a fairly steady decline since 2006, and took yet another sharp turn in the final quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009.
These numbers do not look good. According to the NAA, total print advertising expenditures fell from about $8.4 billion in Q1 of 2008 to approximately $5.9 billion in Q1 of 2009. This represents a 29.7% decline in print revenues.
And this is just print. Online sales fell by an unprecedented 13.4% in Q1 of 2009, dropping from about $804 million to about $696 million. Total print and online newspaper ad expenditures fell from about $9.2 billion to about $6.6 billion--a 28.3% decline.
It is no wonder that Jameson and the Daily Bugle staff were worried. Many newspapers have been forced to either shut down production or institute massive cuts and layoffs due to the lost revenues and diminished readership. In February, the San Francisco Chronicle announced that it was cutting a significant amount of jobs following a 7% decline in circulation in the 6 months leading up to September 2008. Denver's Rocky Mountain News also was forced to close.
In April, the New York Times company announced an 18.6% revenue loss to $609 million from $747.9 million and a debt of $1.3 billion. The Tribune Company (Chicago), the Los Angeles Times, and the Baltimore Sun all filed for bankruptcy in December of 2008.
Would there have been much hope for the Bugle if Ultimatum never had occurred? Likely not. Although the Bugle had a website, it seems as though the company used much of its operating costs on print production. As far as I am aware, the Bugle, in particular, seemed wary of establishing a prominent online presence, considering itself to be a traditional newspaper. In addition, with Jameson at the helm, rather than focusing on expanding to new media and acquiring new sources of revenue, the Bugle frequently relied on cheap journalism and scare tactics (particularly involving Spider-Man) to earn a buck. This only works so much in the face of a recession.
Sure enough, however, the Bugle could have tried several things. They could have converted to a "web-first" organization, pouring more resources into online media rather than print. Compared to last year, there was about a 7% drop in newspaper circulation, while web site viewership increased about 10.5% in Q1. Although ad revenues are dropping even online, they were pretty strong in 2006, while print ad revenues were declining. The Bugle could have taken advantage of some creative forms of advertising, including deals with mobile phone companies, social media companies (Facebook, Twitter), etc. Perhaps, as Jameson is realizing now, they might have even sold more newspapers if he were to cease portraying Spider-Man as a menace. People like reading about heroes.
I open the floor to the readers. Is there anything the Daily Bugle could have done to keep in business? What measures could it have taken to help its survival?
Monday, June 22, 2009
This is a glimpse at what will happen if we do not take the appropriate measures to alleviate economic conditions. No one is safe.
Not from the Ecocomic Recession.
Here, Destroyer tells the menacing Scar that he made a blunder by summoning multiple villains to cooperate. The reasoning is having all of them in one place would make it easier for him to kill them all. Turns out, he was right. Scar's ego forced him to neutralize the other villains just so he would experience the glory of defeating Destroyer himself. Of course, this ultimately led to his demise...
When you think about it, Superman doesn't need the rest of the Justice League.
In conventional wisdom, every member of the Justice League has a particular strength. Green Lantern can handle weird and alien threats. Aquaman can talk to fish. The Flash can handle armies of lightly armed minions in a heartbeat. Wonder Woman usually takes point on mystical threats. And Batman is the World's Greatest Detective.
If we consider each of those types of crime-fighting an output, we see that each member of the Justice League is a uniquely skilled producer of that output. Sure, Batman can beat up henchmen almost as well as the Flash can. But Flash can do it better. If Batman specializes in detective work, and Flash specializes in henchman-stomping, the two of them produce more Justice on net than if one tried to do both.
But what if we bring Superman into the equation?
Superman's slower than Flash (only just), but his super-strength and invulnerability make him better at dispatching minions. He's more capable of dealing with aliens than Green Lantern. And with his X-ray vision and super-hearing, you could make the case that he's a better detective than Batman.
So why does Superman need the rest of the Justice League?
For that, we turn the pages back to 1817 and the principle of comparative advantage, as publicized (though not first documented) by economist David Ricardo. Comparative advantage dictates that, even if one agent can produce two types of goods more efficiently than another agent, it benefits both parties for the efficient agent to specialize and trade for the other.
Ricardo gave the mundane example of a trade between England and Portugal in wine and cloth. Portugal could produce both wine and cloth more cheaply than England could. However, Portugal would benefit more from producing wine and trading with England for cloth, rather than trying at autarky.
Scenario One: Countries Refuse to Trade
Units of Wine Produced per Year
Units of Cloth Produced per Year
Scenario Two: Portugal Produces Wine, Trades with England for Cloth
Units of Wine Produced per Year
Units of Cloth Produced per Year
In fact, both Portugal and England would benefit more – the “global” production of both wine and cloth increase.
Bringing it back to comics, let's say tomorrow, the Justice League wakes up to two threats on their table:
1) A number of spatial anomalies have cropped up in Earth's orbit; and
2) A number of Sun-Eaters are approaching Earth.
And let's say everyone is out on vacation except Superman and Green Lantern.
It takes Green Lantern 8 hours to dispatch a Sun-Eater and 6 hours to close a spatial anomaly. It takes Superman 4 hours to do either.
Scenario One: Superheroes Refuse to Trade
Spatial Anomalies Closed
Scenario Two: Green Lantern Closes Spatial Anomalies and Superman Dispatches Sun-Eaters
Spatial Anomalies Closed
It's a slim margin, but the Justice League can dispatch one extra Sun-Eater by letting Superman specialize - even though Supes is objectively better than GL at handling both threats. And since letting even a single Sun-Eater through spells trouble for Earth (it does eat the Sun, after all), it’s a profitable decision.
So maybe Superman is better at everything the Justice League does than any given member. But that doesn't mean he can get by without them. He operates best as a floating agent, filling in where any team needs help and letting the specialists do the rest. This maximizes the output that the Justice League specializes in – Justice.
Friday, June 19, 2009
Ecocomics is proud to announce that we will be exchanging guest posts next week with the writers of OverthinkingIt. On Monday, they will be posting on Ecocomics about the Justice League and comparative advantage!
To the uninitiated, OverthinkingIt is a website that subjects popular culture to a level of scrutiny that it probably doesn't deserve. The writers have an arsenal of wonderfully funny and imaginative posts on a variety of pop culture topics. Ever wonder about the science behind Back to the Future? How about the Ghostbusters and their start-up funds? That and plenty others are available over on OTI. Some other highlights include:
The Hubbert Peak Theory of Rock, or, Why We're all Out of Good Songs
The Blockbuster Bell Curve: Are We Running Out of Good Movies Too?
We are extremely excited to have have them here as well as the opportunity to contribute on OTI next week. Stay tuned on Monday!
Thursday, June 18, 2009
There are so many that sometimes criminals decide to join together forming syndicates, gangs, and even worldwide terrorist organizations. I'd like to focus on some of these organizations and examine their structure and use of resources.
Let's start with the Maggia. The Maggia are the super-powered mafia of the of the Marvel Universe. Imagine Tony Soprano with an electric whip that spins really fast. Split into loosely connected criminal families, the Maggia controls lots of illicit activity in the Marvel universe including drug trafficking, robbery, and gambling. Most of the time, they keep a low profile and compete with the Kingpin to control illicit dealings in America. Most of the time.
On occasion, the leadership of the Maggia can cause the organization to hit a snag. Count Nefaria (Michael Corleone flying around wearing a cape acting like Al Pacino in "The Devil's Advocate") led his Maggia family to great fame and utter destruction by launching into bold (and ill-conceived) plans to hold the United States hostage.
His decidely hokey approach to organized crime (I don't believe I ever saw sentient animals in tights in the film Goodfellas) has resulted in continuous trouncings by Iron Man, the Avengers and the X-Men at the cost of great financial losses. His investments in radio controlled Ani-Men, super-powered henchmen, and weapons of mass destruction rarely returned the same financial windfalls achieved by other Maggia family leaders Silvermane and Hammerhead who used much more traditional means of gathering revenue. Never once did his grand schemes have their intended outcome. Instead he was blown-up, depowered, blown-up, incarcerated, and finally blown-up.
When his daughter Whitney Frost followed in his foot-steps as Madame Masque, she didn't have much better luck. She managed to maintain her Maggia family's stability slightly better than her father but still managed to get deposed, replaced as Madame Masque, incarcerated, shot a bunch of times, and apparently drowned. Currently, she is serving as super-human gang leader The Hood's fairly creepy consort/assassin. She started as a mafia leader and became a booty call for a man who constantly wears sneakers and wraps a blanket around his head.
Luckily, the Maggia is sub-divided into families, so the economic excesses of one branch do not necessarily affect the other. However, it's likely that the absurd behaviors of more public Maggia leaders will affect the popular perception of the rest of the organization. This makes the Maggia seem less threatening as a whole and may affect their ability to protect and maintain their criminal enterprises. After all, who wants to pay protection money to a man connected with a guy who uses a rotating whip?
If there is anything we can glean from recent comic book events, it is that superheroes are no longer friends to the public. In fact, it would seem that, particularly in the Marvel universe but certainly not limited to it, this could not be further from the truth. For example, the recent events that have taken place in Secret Invasion have led to widespread public discontent with Tony Stark and SHIELD, followed by the installation of Norman Osbourn, aka the former Green Goblin, into a highly powerful political position (Dark Reign).
The reasons for such resentment are clear. In an ideal world, a bad guy would try to rob a bank and a handsome, strong man in a cape and tight blue spandex would show up and apprehend him before anybody is harmed. He would then hear thundering applause from bystanders, smile for a photo-op, and deliver the bad guy to the local authorities before going on his merry way.
Unfortunately, the world is not so simple. There are negative externalities imposed by superheroes. In other words, there are external costs to the public that accompany their very existence and continued fight against evil. In the case of the superhuman community, these costs come in several forms. One involves the damage to public and personal property caused by super-battles, which we discuss at some length in our post about superhero insurance. Another is the constant violation of civil liberties. Often superheroes, such as Batman, will forcefully "coerce" criminals for information and will use sophisticated spy technology (see The Dark Knight film) to monitor suspicious citizens. A third involves the notion of escalation (this is particularly evident in Batman -- see Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Returns, Ego, the Killing Joke), whereby the mere existence of a superhero actually breeds more creative and dangerous supervillains. Another still is the potential that at any given moment, a being as powerful as Superman could choose to enslave or destroy the world (a fear exhibited in particular by Lex Luthor). Mark Waid has a wonderful new series, Irredeemable, which addresses this very concept.
The point is that comic book universes are becoming less black-and-white, and public opinion on our traditional superheroes is waning. We have briefly touched upon some ways in which the public could minimize these externalities. It seems as though the most commonly used means (albeit with varying degrees of effectiveness) involve the legitimization of superheroes and supervillains. Here are a few examples from recent comic history.
The Thunderbolts. The concept of the Thunderbolts has always fascinated me. Basically, it is a group of "former" supervillains who have been enlisted to work for the government, and most recently during post-Civil War delegated with the task of hunting down unregistered superheroes (below). The most recent line up prior to Dark Reign included Norman Osbourn, Venom, Songbird, Bullseye, Penance and others. Indeed, this was conceived as an effective way to deter villains from a life of costumed antics, pumpkin bombs, and eating people, by offering former bad guys a chance at redemption. If successful, this would reduce the damage that supervillains impose on the community.
The Superhuman Registration Act. The Superhuman Registration Act of 2006 was a bill that was passed during Marvel's Civil War series. The law requires that those with superhuman abilities--acquired naturally or through science--, access to magical powers, or possession of sophisticated technology (i.e. Iron Man) officially register their identities with the government, thereby declaring themselves weapons of mass destruction. Their identities would become public knowledge, but they would be given the right, by law, to continue as superheroes. This has many implications. Superheroes would have to adhere to state and federal laws, and would no longer have the unregulated ability to violate civil liberties. More interesting, superheroes would be more accountable for damage and destruction that they cause. This means that if Spider-Man registered (which he did not) and accidentally destroyed a civilian's apartment, the government could then locate Peter Parker and force him to pay some damages. Beyond this, tax codes could be amended to include a "superhero tax" or simply a larger tax for known metahumans. So, the idea of the Superhuman Registration Act is to simultaneously provide incentives for superheroes to minimize externalities and to provide a sense of security to the public.
Spider-Man will claim that his opposition to the law stems primarily from his concern for the safety of his family. Yeah, right. He's worried about being taxed.
Advertising and Branding (The Boys and Booster Gold). If nothing else, The Boys is all about superhero excesses. From the very first issue, we see a careless hero kill an innocent civilian, without so much as an ounce of interest or remorse. We discover later in the series that most of the superheroes in this universe have endorsement deals and exist primarily as a money-making function (incidentally, mostly through the selling of comic books and action figures). In this particular series, the goal was not to minimize any externalities. In fact, the money-making schemes by evil corporations are apparently what launched and exacerbated the whole superhero mess.
But, the notion of branding is applicable even in other comics. For example, during DC's 52, Booster Gold maintains several corporate sponsorships, acting as the poster boy American hero (and making money from it). Despite the fact that this tarnished his reputation with other heroes, Booster did have an extremely large incentive not to be careless. Should he have needlessly imposed exorbitant costs on the community for property damage or had been discovered for a civil liberties infraction, he would have likely lost some sponsors. Instead, he had to maintain his public image.
These are just a few examples of externalities and possible solutions in comic books. Anybody have any other examples or potential solutions?
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Setting out to find actual, real-Earth statistics on amusement park injuries, I came across a report from the National Safety Council for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA--I'm sure Way's acronym is not a coincidence), which reports similar data based on an annual survey. Below I have reproduced some of the data for the years 2005, 2006, and 2007.
|Year||Characteristic||Total||Children's Rides||Family and Adult Rides||Roller Coasters|
|2005||Estimated Number of Injuries||1,713||192||1,131||390|
|2005||Injuries per Million Patron-Rides||0.9||0.8||1.0||0.9|
|2006||Estimated Number of Injuries||1,546||177||943||426|
|2006||Injuries per Million Patron-Rides||0.9||0.7||0.9||0.1|
|2007||Estimated Number of Injuries||1,309||134||759||416|
|2007||Injuries per Million Patron-Rides||0.7||0.5||0.7||0.9|
As we can see here, the number of injuries in each year is less than the total number of injuries in the FAAPA data. Also, roller-coaster related injuries seem to account for a smaller proportion of the total injuries than they do in the Umbrella Academy universe. This is probably not due to any significant variation in methodology--the IAAPA data is taken from facilities that operate fixed-site amusement park rides and the table reproduced shows the ridership-based injury estimates. The FAAPA data also likely focuses on fixed-site rides.
I suppose the point is that the FAAPA data includes damage caused by the Terminauts and other such superhero/supervillain-related attacks. However, I wonder if these can really be considered ride-related injuries. Does anybody know whether the IAAPA data includes injuries or fatalities that occur through indirect sources? Suppose a robber decided to hold up an amusement park and wounds some civilians riding the carousel. Would this count?
No wonder that there exists an association against amusement parks. They're not all fun and games in comic books.
Monday, June 15, 2009
We've spoken before about the link between poverty, economics and crime. Consider the panel above, suggesting that rampant unemployment in Liberty Hill has contributed to the surge in violent crime and death. Well, it looks like there is more real-Earth evidence that links harsh economic times to crime. Specifically:
Emerging research from sociologists, journalists, trade journals, and law enforcement suggest that certain types of crime are rising and began rising in early 2009/late 2008 when the pains of the recession first began being felt. This has led some analysts to investigate a link between the two, theorizing that the anxiety, suffering, and loss of the financial meltdown has made criminals more likely to commit crimes.Of course, the majority of these crimes are not violent crimes (as suggested in Ink), but rather crimes associated with a financial gain or incentive. According to USA Today, robberies and burglaries are on the rise and have been increasing 39% and 32% in 2009. Vehicle theft has been increasing 40%, drugs and prostitution have been linked to an increase in foreclosures, and domestic violence against women has surged since 2009. In addition, there has been a rise in insurance fraud and identity theft. Nationwide's 2009 survey demonstrated that 10% of the respondents had missed payments due to identity theft.
In fact, violent crime seems to be the only type of crime that is decreasing (at least in certain areas). According to Freakonomics, murder in New York has fallen compared to last year by 21%. Rapes are down by nearly as much.
Add to this the fact that police departments across the country are feeling the economic squeeze. McClatchy reports "Declining sales and property taxes are forcing law enforcement agencies across the country to postpone buying equipment, cut recruitment classes, freeze overtime and redeploy staff to save money." So the police officers that are still on staff end up having less of an incentive to effectively fight crime, as depicted in the following panel.
What are the implications of this recession for the major comic book universes? Well, one thing that I had not considered until recently is that mutants, aliens living on Earth, and all metahumans in general might be increasingly tempted to use their powers and abilities for evil rather than good. The recession could actually breed more supervillains, albeit ones likely interested in holding people hostage for ransom and robbing banks. If you're someone with the power of invisibility and you have just lost your dead-end job, have barely enough money to sustain an even meager living in New York, and are struggling with the difficulties and prejudices involved of being a mutant, you might consider walking into a bank and taking some cash. Consider Alan Moore's depiction of the Joker's origin in The Killing Joke. Here, the Joker was just an ordinary man, struggling with a career change and trying to make it as a comedian. Down on his luck and deprived of the funds to support his family, he agrees to be part of a heist against a chemical plant. He has a run in with the Batman and we know the rest. And he wasn't even superhuman!
So what can be done about the recession, crime, and supervillain problem? It seems to me that a crucial measure would be to encourage those on-the-fence metas to take up a life of heroism rather than villainy. This means offering monetary incentives and rewards for fighting crime. We've seen the likes of this scheme before with such organizations as the Thunderbolts, which employs "former" supervillains as employees of the government to catch unregistered, unlicensed superheroes. But we also see it here with the Tattooed Man, a former Green Lantern villain who has now apparently reformed and is enjoying a perks of being a superhero, being an official member of the Justice League of America, and who is apparently receiving money for his work.
I did not quite catch in this issue how the Tattooed Man is receiving a "payday," but I assume it is something similar to Booster Gold during 52, who received endorsement deals from companies and made some advertising revenues. Essentially, he promoted himself as a flying billboard. Indeed, the point is that the Tattooed Man now has an incentive to be a superhero. That means he is not causing trouble for the Justice League. It also means that he is helping to foil bank robberies, murders, heists, evil dark deities' schemes to take over the planet and force human beings into submissive obedience, and pretty much the whole gamut of comic book crimes.
Governments should do everything in their power to offer some sort of payment for these metahumans. This can even go beyond an actual paycheck, but include additional on-the-job benefits. As the Tattooed Man noted, he receives many extra perks for holding an official Justice League club card. It's just like being in a labor union. I am sure that the Tattooed Man now has health benefits, a pension plan, job security, influence on union policy, and discounts at all major alien technology outlets. These are the sorts of benefits that could deter wayward metas from a life of broken bones and exorbitant medical costs on account of being pounded by Superman. That in addition to reducing the potential supervillain population and helping the United States government alleviate its steadily augmenting crime problem.
It can be argued that, figuring the Batman is indisposed, Scarecrow assumes the costs of waiting are low. But surely the Professor must have considered that Nightwing, Robin, Spoiler, Batgirl, Huntress, etc. might have arrived to stop him. Besides, he could not have missed the fact that there are some crazy Batman impersonators running--one of which having a robotic suit, wielding guns, and exercising a much more harsh brand of justice than the original Batman.
If I were Scarecrow, I would have gone ahead and pushed the button. Too many villains have their plots foiled by mistakely underestimating the costs of waiting. Besides, I wonder if infecting only a portion of Gotham's population and having those people attack the rest of the uninfected in a mad panic would have been more satisfying. He might have been able to achieve a similar wave of fear and saved some gas for future use.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
1) The probability of killing Batman given that three villains attack him separately should be equivalent to adding the probabilities--or 6%.
I never actually said this--in fact, I did not mention the probability of them working separately at all. Suppose the Joker attacks Batman on Monday, Two-Face on Tuesday, and the Riddler on Wednesday. In effect, this means the three villains would be attacking Batman separately. The probability of killing Batman in this case would actually be 5.88%. It would be a geometric series of probabilities. In other words, the probability of killing Batman on the third day (by the third villain) would be equal to:
sum(1-p)^(k-1)*p, where p=probability of killing Batman that day and k=the day #
--> (1-0.02)^(1-1)*0.02 + (1-0.02)^(2-1)*0.02 + (1-0.02)^(3-1)*0.02
==0.0588 --> 5.88%
2) Diminished returns does not apply in this situation.
Upon reevaluation, I concede that the probability equation I offered for cooperation does not work for this scenario. The probability of killing Batman given cooperation among Batman villains should exceed the probability of killing Batman if they were to attack him separately. So if instead of attacking on separate days, the Joker, Two-Face and the Riddler were to plan a coordinated, simultaneous attack, the probability should exceed 5.88%, as dictated by the concept of synergy (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts).
However, this should only be the case up to a point. I am surprised to see that so many commentators seemed to ardently deny the theory that as you add more villains, the marginal effectiveness would diminish. If adding more villains to the plot increased the probability exponentially (or even linearly), then this means that eventually there is a number such that the probability of killing Batman is 100%, or that death is certain. This cannot be the case for Batman--who survived an attack by OMACS, who lived through an attack by the Black Glove, and who survived Darkseid's Omega Sanction. Further, this means that if the battle hits this point of absolute insurmountable odds, then adding more villains could not possibly increase the probability of death (being that it is already 100%).
Instead, the graph should be convex (increasing returns) up to a certain point and then switch to being a concave graph (diminishing returns). That is, cooperating up to a certain number of villains should increase the marginal probability of killing Batman, but after that point the marginal probability should start decreasing. This would be an "S" curve, similar to a learning curve or a logistic function. It should look like the following shape:
As an example, suppose that Batman is fighting the Joker and Two-Face. If the Scarecrow suddenly joined the party then Batman would have a significantly harder time fighting the three of them simultaneously. But now imagine Batman fighting 100 villains. If one more villain joins the party (making it 101), does this last villain induce the same marginal probability increase as the Scarecrow did? I certainly don't think so. In a battle with 100 villains, there are two outcomes. The first is that Batman withstands the 100 villains by himself, in which case adding one more would increase the probability of killing him, albeit not by much. The second is that Batman loses the fight against 100 villains, meaning that the 101st villain would have been ineffective.
Finally, this is, after all, the Batman universe we are discussing here. Cooperation means not only that the villains have to forgo their already significant hostility towards one another (which would involve a cost), but hatch a plan predicated on compromise. And as many commentators pointed out, compromise is not particularly easy for these villains. These are the sort of people who each want to play a prominent role in the demise of Batman. Yet they all have different talents and different means of achieving that goal, all of which cannot be fulfilled in a cooperative plan. The Scarecrow, who prefers psychological means of destruction, would not be able to poison Batman with fear gas and let him destroy himself, while letting Deadshot shoot him in the head from a distance. The group would have to sustain the interest of each individual member (who have short attention spans) and keep close monitor of these villains as their numbers increase. As the group surpasses a certain point, there becomes a huge potential for villains to become contentious, get in each others ways, foil the plan, or weigh the group down. It is not unlike working on a school project with a group who, though having equally effective means of achieving a goal, cannot agree on the particular method.
3) This sort of analysis should not be applied to Batman villains since it assumes they are rational actors, when they are in fact, irrational.
First: I already mentioned this in the previous post.
One of the distinguishing features about most of the notable Batman villains is that they all have distinct neuroses and pathologies that render most of them utterly incapable of working together. It is not a rational decision, rather that most of these rogues have deep-rooted psychological afflictions, many of which mirror some aspect of the Batman. As such, they have different motivations and goals, different means to achieve those goals, and different reasons to kill Batman.As such, the analysis is purely academic. We know that the Joker is not actually making utility calculations in his head when he is deciding. The post was designed for fun and to engage the readers in debate. In no way am I actually prescribing that writers start figuring these calculations into the books or start having the characters engage in mathematical debates.
Secondly, by extension, arguing that this sort of analysis should not be applied to Batman given the nature of their villains' irrationality also implies that economics should not be applied to real-world, human decisions. Human beings are also irrational. Our preferences do not always make sense and our decisions are not always exercised with rational caution. If every human being acted rationally, nobody would have ever won a tic-tac-toe game in the history of human civilization. Yet, we still apply economic theory, as we do political theory, social theory, psychological theory, etc. as a guidance in an attempt to explain the world with the means and evidence available to us.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
We've discussed the decision of whether or not Batman villains should cooperate. Now consider another fun issue: lets suppose some of them do, in fact, work together and somehow manage to capture the Batman. There is now another decision that has to be made by each: whether or not to betray the partner.
Let's talk about Two-Face this time. As discussed in the previous post, the benefits of betrayal are obvious. Two-Face could claim full credit for killing Batman, could win the respect of the Gotham underworld, could elicit fear from the elite, and could potentially acquire some wealth and technology from the Batcave that he would not have to share with, say, Mr. Freeze (I can't think of a conceivable reason for that pair to team up, but I haven't used Mr. Freeze anywhere yet).
This situation is a nice example of the Prisoner's Dilemma. So, let's do a really quick summation of this two-player (Two-Face, Mr. Freeze), two-choice (Cooperate, Betray) game in Batman terms to show that it would actually make sense for the two of them to continue to cooperate, even though neither will. We must again assign some utilities for each player. I have done so, as the following normal-form game matrix represents:
|Mr. Freeze -->>|
In this matrix, Two-Face is the player on the left and Mr. Freeze is the player on the top. Each has the choice of either cooperating after capturing Batman or of betraying the other. In each cell, the numbers represent the utilities awarded to the respective players given their choice of action.
If both villains cooperate with one another, they each enjoy a utility of 5 from killing Batman and ruling Gotham (5,5). If Two-Face cooperates but Mr. Freeze betrays, then we will assume that Freeze will eliminate Two-Face, thereby winning all of his utility. In this case, Two-Face would get 0 utility and Mr. Freeze would get a utility of 10 (0,10). If Two-Face betrays but Mr. Freeze cooperates, then the opposite happens: Two-Face gets a utility of 10 and Freeze gets 0 (10,0). If they both betray each other, I'm going to assume that they'll either kill each other (in which case they'd both get 0) or they'll both walk away alive, but each would get less utility than they would have if they had cooperated (obviously they'd prefer not to engage in a near-death battle with one another, so they would lose something). Lets award each a utility of 3 in this situation (3,3).
If this is the scenario, each player would rationally want to betray the other. To see this, we must note that Two-Face and Mr. Freeze are hopelessly self-interested. They only care about their own utilities and not that of the other player. Now assume Mr. Freeze decides to cooperate. So we are restricted to the "cooperate" column of the table above. Looking at Two-Face's utilities in that column, it is clearly a better decision for him to betray, as he would be receiving a utility of 10 as opposed to 5. Let's say Mr. Freeze decides to betray, so we are now in the "betray" column. The best decision for Two-Face is still to betray, as he would receive a utility of 3 instead of 0. Hence regardless of what Mr. Freeze does, Two-Face would still want to betray him. The same is true for Mr. Freeze given Two-Face's actions.
Both players will choose to betray each other and (3,3) is the Nash equilibrium outcome. This means that neither Two-Face nor Mr. Freeze can benefit by deviating from his course of action alone. The dilemma, however, is that there exists an outcome in which both players are strictly better off. If both choose to cooperate, then each receive a utility of 5, which is greater than 3. Thus the outcome (5,5) is the Pareto Optimal point. It is the outcome of the game in which one player deviating would necessarily mean that somebody else is worse off.
So, what we have is a scenario in which Two-Face and Mr. Freeze teamed up and were successful (for some reason). Now it would benefit both of them to continue working together, but neither of them will actually do so. Hence they'll walk away with less than what they could have. As the Prisoner's Dilemma demonstrates, Nash Equilibria are not necessarily Pareto Optima. It's sort of funny to think about, actually. Batman can still claim a small victory even in his death.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Jeph Loeb has a tendency to depict Batman villains in a strange way. In The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, we see the bulk of his rogues gallery actually working together to achieve a common goal. In fact, the latter has Two-Face actually conducting a sort of mock trail in his lair with all of the villains (including the Joker) in attendance, watching and participating as Two-Face prosecutes witnesses as part of his deranged scheme.
Of course, this is ludicrous. One of the distinguishing features about most of the notable Batman villains is that they all have distinct neuroses and pathologies that render most of them utterly incapable of working together. It is not a rational decision, rather that most of these rogues have deep-rooted psychological afflictions, many of which mirror some aspect of the Batman. As such, they have different motivations and goals, different means to achieve those goals, and different reasons to kill Batman. In fact, it's been argued ad nauseum that the Joker may not even want to kill Batman, for this act would extinguish his very nature of being. The one truth is that, barring certain less-insane villains like the Penguin, most Batman villains have a burning desire to find, identify and kill the Batman on their own.
Most people would intuitively argue that it would make more sense for these villains to pool their skills and cooperate in order to finally rid the world of Batman. However, the decision to work alone is not entirely irrational. In fact, we can use very basic tools of utility and game theory in order to work out such a decision for a Batman villain (let's say the Joker, being the most insane and distinguished) and show that cooperation is not necessarily the optimal choice.
First, we have to make certain assumptions. Specifically, we need to assign probabilities of capturing Batman and figure out how much these probabilities increase due to the addition of a new cooperating villain. We also need to assign utility values for the Joker for each scenario. Let's start with utilities.
For not killing Batman, we can obviously assign the Joker a utility of 0.
For capturing Batman on his own, let's assign the Joker a utility of 10.
For capturing Batman with the help of x other villains, the utility would be 10/x.
The last one is sort of tricky. This means that if the Joker cooperates with one other villain (say Two-Face) and together they manage to kill Batman, then the utility for each would be 5. In effect, this means that the villains "split" the utility of 10.
Many of you might be wondering why it is that the more villains there are, the less utility one of them receives from killing Batman. Well, consider the pathology argument above. Obviously, if we factor in the Joker pathology, his utility for killing Batman with cooperation would be less than that of capturing Batman on his own, but greater than 0 as Batman would still be out of the picture. The thing is, as more and more villains enter the party, the Joker will feel less and less accomplished if they wind up killing Batman. Again, it is his very essence of being. He wants nothing more than to kill the Batman on his own, so it should make sense that the satisfaction he derives diminishes as more rogues are brought on board for the mission.
Aside from pathology, there are other reasons why the Joker's utility would diminish as such. One is that the villain who finally achieves victory would be held in the highest esteem among the criminal underworld and feared the most by the Gotham elite. Victory over Batman is largely a symbolic projection of status to the rest of Gotham City--and this is something the villains all desire. Therefore, if the Joker were to finally kill Batman, he would effectively "rule" Gotham.
Consider an even more tangible reason. The villain who kills Batman would gain access to his identity. He could therefore do with this identity anything he pleases. Assuming Nightwing and Robin won't be a problem to neutralize, the Joker could gain access to the batcave: a goldmine of wealth and technology. He could further auction off Batman's identity to the highest bidder. Even though he would be dead, I have no doubt that most of the villains would want to purchase this information to exact revenge on Alfred, Dick, Tim, etc.
For all the reasons then, it makes sense for the Joker's utility to diminish as more villains are added. The more rogues that take party to the death of Batman, the less the Joker will feel satisfied, the less influence he will have over Gotham City, and the less actual benefits he will reap after his death. For simplicity's sake, I assume that the villains "split" the utility of 10.
Now, let's assign the probabilities. I'm going to assume that each Batman rogue has a 2% chance of killing Batman alone (and this is being very, very generous and neglecting the individual skills of each rogue for simplicity). You would then think that adding villains to the scheme would increase the probability of killing Batman by 2% with each new rogue. Except, this ignores the economics law of diminishing returns, which states that as you increase the factors of production, the marginal benefit of those factors decreases. Usually, this applies to outcomes which are continuous (such as production of goods) rather than binary (to kill or not to kill Batman), but we can apply diminishing returns in this case to the probabilities. The theory is that as you add villains, working together will prove more difficult and planning more arduous. Therefore, the probability of getting Batman will increase, but by a marginally smaller amount with each villain added.
Thinking of probability as output, let's assume that in each state,
p = 2*y^0.9, where
p = probability of killing batman and
y = number of villains involved in the scheme.
Hence, we have a diminishing returns function. If there is only one villain involved in the scheme, the probability of killing Batman is 2%.
If there are 2 villains involved in the scheme, the probability becomes:
p = 2*(2)^0.9 = 3.73% (the probability increased by 1.73 percentage points)
If there are three villains involved, then:
p = 2*(3)^0.9 = 5.38% (probability increased by 1.65 percentage points)
And so on and so forth. Now armed with the knowledge of probabilities and utilities, let's conduct an analysis of whether it makes sense for the Joker to team up with Two-Face and the Scarecrow. We must analyze the expected utility of each scenario (teaming up and working alone).
First let's calculate the expected utility of working alone for the Joker. The equation is:
EU = p * (Uk) + (1-p)*(Unk) where
EU = expected utility
p = probability of killing Batman
Uk = utility of killing Batman.
Unk = utility of not killing Batman
We know that for the Joker, the utility of killing Batman alone is 10 and the probability of killing Batman by himself is 0.02. Hence:
EU = 0.02*(10) + (0.98)*0 = 0.2
Hence the expected utility of the Joker killing Batman on his own is 0.2.
Now, we analyze the expected utility of the team-up. We know that the probability of the Joker, Two-Face and the Scarecrow killing Batman is 0.0538. The utility would be 3.33 each. Hence:
EU = 0.0538*(3.33) + (0.9462)*0 = 0.179
Hence the expected utility for the Joker of the trio killing Batman is 0.179.
Since the expected utility of the trio killing Batman is less than the expected utility of the Joker doing it by himself, the Joker should prefer to work alone. Hence using simple economics, we have shown that it makes perfect sense for the Joker not to cooperate with other villains. Of course, this is incredibly simple and there are many other issues to consider. One of these issues is whether it would make sense for the Joker to cooperate, but then backstab the other villains. This issue will be considered in a subsequent post.