Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Deals with the Devil and Information Paradoxes

Ghost Rider: Heaven's on Fire #3 by Jason Aaron and Roland Boschi (2009)

Apocalypse is coming in the world of the Ghost Riders and this is stirring up some major problems for Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch. Not the least of which of these problems concerns an effort by Danny to make a contract with the Devil for the fate of the world--a contract that, according to Johnny, is built against Danny's favor.

This deal concerns Zadkiel, a renegade angel who through devious means has recently taken over Heaven, and the Antichrist, who was last seen wandering around Wall Street. Having obtained his new position of power, Zadkiel plans on unleashing his own, cruel brand of apocalypse upon the world. However, before he can wield "ultimate power over all creation," Zadkiel must first hunt down and kill the Antichrist. You see, the Antichrist is destined to bring about Satan's biblical apocalypse in the future and Zadkiel can't have anything standing in his way of his own Armageddon.

Of course, the Ghost Riders are trying to prevent this from happening, which means that they have to find the Antichrist before Zadkiel does and keep him out of harm's way. It's an interesting situation where in order to save the world, the Ghost Riders actually have to save someone who is supposed to help destroy the world anyway.

Obviously, it is also in the Devil's interest to keep his son safe. Given this convergence of goals, he and Danny strike a deal. The latter agrees to surrender his soul for all eternity and bring the Antichrist to safety. In exchange, the former promises to provide the Ghost Riders with the location of the Gateway to Heaven and means for using it. This way the Riders can attempt to defeat Zadkiel themselves.

Unfortunately, Danny didn't seem to think the deal through.

In order for the Devil to honor his end of the deal, he must first have the knowledge that his son is safe. He can't have the Ghost Riders mount an attack on Heaven while the Antichrist is still vulnerable on Earth (though again he seems to be doing pretty well for himself in the finance world). Yet having this knowledge before offering his payment means that he has no reason to offer the keys to Heaven anymore. Sure Zadkiel is an impediment, but there could be a number of actions that Satan might take if reunited with his son. Using their collective power, he could organize an attack on Heaven himself so that he could usurp Zadkiel's power. Alternatively, he could use his son as leverage to strike a deal with Zadkiel for a joint-venture rule of Earth. Or he could actually honor the deal, but merely use the Ghost Riders as pawns to defeat the angel and then stage his attack.

What's even worse for the Ghost Riders is that they have every reason to think the Devil is lying if he does divulge information. This is why Johnny is skeptical--he believes the Devil is merely tricking Danny for his soul by offering false promises. It is clear that the fact that Danny would agree not only to bring in the Antichrist but give up his soul for information that might not even be valid is characteristic of his foolish hubris.

Were it Johnny in the situation (and assuming his soul hadn't already been sold), he would have acted differently. Johnny is a very prudent customer. He would have at the very least requested assurance of the validity of the Devil's claims prior to offering payment. He might have asked the Devil hint-type questions, i.e. to prove that the Gateway does exist (I'm not even sure he's convinced it does), to give evidence that it's in a particular area, etc. Something that would convince the Ghost Riders that they were not being set up.

This situation represents a paradox that has applications in intellectual property. In fact, it has a name! It is called the Arrow Information Paradox. What it basically states is that with information commodities, a consumer has an incentive to be as aware as possible of the value and content of any information before deciding to purchase it. Unfortunately, having knowledge makes that information less valuable. This is why it is so difficult to create information markets. For instance, suppose a musician could pay someone to write music for him. The problem is that he is not aware of whether the music will be awesome and catchy or sound like...say, Nickelback. So he asks the writer to play him a piece of the song for assurance. However, now that he knows what the song sounds like, he could reproduce it for himself and thus has no reason to purchase it.

Back to our Ghost Rider example: suppose Johnny is unwilling to sign a deal to surrender his soul unless the Devil provides more information about the Gateway to Heaven. Well, then the Devil might or might not do so depending on how desperate he is for Johnny's soul (and to see his son alive). If he does offer some conciliation, then the value of that information suddenly drops. If, for example, Johnny is suddenly made aware of the location of the Gateway, perhaps he could then find it and figure out how to utilize it himself. The deal with the Devil would consequently be worthless.

What's interesting is that in reality, there actually exist social mechanisms to help dissolve the Arrow Information Paradox. Honor is one huge element. People of certain trades or in certain groups usually adhere to a community code--a law that might be unwritten, but is generally well-known and followed. This is one reason why up-and-coming musicians don't steal other groups' music even though it might not be copyrighted. There is a code of musicians. Moreover, there is the scourge of shame and humiliation. If the public found out that one musician stole another musician's song and claimed it as his or her own, then it is very likely that he or she would face endless ridicule, which might affect sales. Basically, there are ways that society keeps the misappropriation of information in check.

Usually , the Devil has a similar social mechanism and adheres to some sort of code (thank you Tenacious D!). There is no fourth-world legal system that would punish the Devil for breach of contract, like if he backed out on the deal with the Ghost Riders. However, if people found out that Satan was a constant deal-breaker, then why would they continue to offer up their souls to him?

The difference in this scenario, however, is that there is no such social mechanism. We're talking about a situation where the outcome is most likely Armageddon. If everything goes according to plan, Satan won't be needing to make any more deals for souls. Hence, he doesn't exactly care to give the Ghost Riders accurate information, unless his ultimate plan is to use them as pawns.

Furthermore, there is no social mechanism to incentivize the Ghost Riders to honor their end of the deal. If the Devil provided Johnny with some hints about the Gateway, but Johnny figured out the rest on his own, there would be nothing to stop him from keeping his own soul.

It's this very weird stalemate that can only mean one thing: the end of the world. Unless, foolish old Danny was right all along and accidently saves the day with his lack of knowledge of information paradoxes.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Batman and Branding

I think Grant Morrison has been reading up on his ecocomics. I can't prove it, but I do have this scintilla of evidence:

Batman and Robin #5 by Grant Morrison and Philip Tan (2009)

We've seen plenty of doppelgangers trying to steal the mantle of the Bat before. But this time, it looks like the Red Hood and Scarlet are ready to get serious by using some economics! Here, Hood is seen reading an book by an economics Nobel laureate about branding and marketing. "That's all Batman is now--a brand, a logo, an idea gone past its sell-by-date. We're the competition," he says.

If this notion of superheroes as brands sounds familiar, it might be because we've actually written about it before--particularly in our post on superhero franchising, but also in our posts on Spider-Man's failed advertising attempts, superhero decadence, superhero supermodels, superheroes using twitter, and minimizing superhero externalities.

It's nice to see some of these characters (even if they are villainous) discovering the importance of economics. However, I wonder if the Red Hood's plan will work here. I mean the Batman franchise is one of the longest running in the world in the superhero industry. It is generally known and trusted. It would take some major discrediting for a new brand to dominate the market. Add to that the fact that the Bat-franchise is relatively resistant to shocks due to changes in leadership, which is precisely what Hood is trying to exploit.

Tough market, guys. But I like your hustle. I mean, really, what can go wrong?

Oh yeah, that.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Crazy Villainous Schemes Involving Insurance Fraud: Diablo Edition

Amazing Spider-Man #607 by Joe Kelly, Mike McKone & Adriana Melo

Yesterday, we posted a short profile of the former construction tycoon and current owner of The DB, Dexter Bennett. We had mentioned that 20 years ago or so, Bennett had a falling out with his business partner, Bernie Mayer, which had caused him to resign from his position with the company. The falling out had to do with some mysterious backdoor deal that Mayer had made with an unknown party in order to acquire cheap materials.

It turns out that this shady dealing involved one of the most convoluted and ineffective villainous plans I have ever witnessed throughout my history of reading comics. Now, comics are no strangers to intricate and sometimes nonsensical plots, especially by weaker villains. But this one has to make a list somewhere. There should be a Guinness Award in the Marvel Universe for such things--and this would certainly win one.

The charmer you are looking at in the panel depicted above is Diablo. Diablo is typically a Fantastic Four villain but has decided to make his way over to the Spideyverse in this instance. He is equipped with the ability to transmute elements, which allows him to create various materials and potions in order to perform actions largely outside the realm of modern science. He can create sleeping potions, hypnotic powders, and things like that. Basically, he is one part alchemist, two parts crazy evil scientist. The catch? Most of his creations only last for a temporary amount of time before they explode, disintegrate, or just fade from existence.

In this plan, Diablo had used his talents to create a whole bunch of steel, which he then sold to the Bernie Mayer at extremely cheap rates. Suspecting that something was amiss, Dexter Bennett did not support the deal. And this was incredibly astute of him for it turns out that this steel was geared to explode in exactly 20 years from the time of its creation. That's right, this plan would take 20 years to live out...

Indeed, Spidey. Why did that psycho go through all this trouble of making and selling 20,000 tons of steel and sitting around for 20 years until it was rendered useless? And then attempting to murder the owners of the construction firm he sold that steel too? (By the way, this is what led Spider-Man to his tail in the first place).

The answer is a major insurance ploy. Diablo had concocted a scheme to sell faulty steel to Bennett and Mayer, knowing that they would then use that steel to construct a major office know what, let me outsource this to Spidey and the Black Cat:

OK, so here is where the insurance comes into play. Go on...

Wow. Were you guys as blown away by that as I was? Let's recap what we have just learned about the bulk of Diablo's diabolical insurance scheme in terms of what I imagine to be his to-do-list:

Diablo's Evil To-Do List:
1) Create 20,000 tons of faulty steel set to expire in 20 years.
2) Sell 20,000 tons of faulty steel to famous construction company
3) Somehow get involved with / start forty different, unconnected small businesses and secure permit for a seemingly innocuous NYC office building
3) Persuade this construction company to use this steel for construction of seemingly innocuous NYC office building
4) Take out massive property insurance policy for all forty businesses.
5) Wait 20 years.
6) Find and kill owners of famous construction company from 20 years ago and hide their bodies so as to make them appear suspicious for the impending destruction of seemingly innocuous office building.
7) Watch building get destroyed.
8) Somehow collect on over $9 billion of insurance money, without bearing any of the suspicion since it would all be placed with those greedy, corrupt construction folks.

If I'm reading this plan right (and admittedly the details are a bit vague, so I'm making several assumptions here), then there are so many things that are so exaggerated and elaborate that it's hard to believe Diablo is any sort of scientist (even if it is an evil alchemist). Even Doctor Octopus's ludicrous schemes have some semblance of logic. This is just plain silly.

First, let's talk about this insurance policy. Spidey and Black Cat throw around the term "catastrophic," but this is not to be confused with catastrophic health insurance, or high-deductible health plans, designed to cover, well, catastrophes in health. No, this seems like Diablo or these companies or whoever merely took out a whole bunch of property insurance policies that cover things like magic steel explosions.

One thing that confuses me about this is the payoff of $9 billion. That seems like an awful lot of money to me. As a comparison, following the attacks of 9/11, the insurance companies paid out up to $4.6 billion for the World Trade Center's destruction. And this was after a trial in which the insurance companies, in an effort to pay less, argued that the collapse was caused by one incident, whereas leaseholder Larry Silverstein claimed it was two, distinct attacks. Note that this was only about $5 billion AND it was for two different events AND it was for the WTC, two of the tallest buildings in the entire world. The fact that Diablo stands to collect $9 billion seems highly suspicious to me and it's a wonder that it did not seem so to anyone else.

Second, how is it exactly that Diablo got himself in a position to collect all of this money? The building in question, according to Black Cat, contains "forty separate small insignificant operations carrying wicked huge insurance policies." She also mentions that the companies are "seemingly unconnected." To me, this suggests that there is, in fact, a connection and that this connection is clearly Diablo. So then is the implication that Diablo created forty different small businesses for the purposes of later destroying them and collecting insurance checks? If he did not physically create them, then he must be somehow involved with their management and finances such that he serves as the insurance policyholder. Either way, there seem to be forty semi-phony companies that exist to pay Diablo off. And what's more is that these businesses have had to operate consistently and earn profit for over 20 years. That's quite a lot of work for one supervillain and frankly I didn't realize that Diablo had the business sense to keep it going. AND we're in a recession. Jeez!

There is no doubt that Diablo's plan focused entirely on making money. There is no Joker-like sensation of foiling the superhero and there is no seeking of power and fame here. This is strictly about stealing dough and being rich. I realize that many villains are not too effective in this area, but there are much more obvious ways that Diablo could have pulled this off that would not have involved waiting 20 years and the operation of 40 small businesses as a prerequisite.

Here's an idea: Make and sell more steel! This is a guy with the power to make things that nobody else can make. And he's demonstrated that he is capable of selling these things. So, um, why not just keep doing that?

How about this one: Make money from your businesses! Again, Diablo has some sort of financial connection to these 40 operations, whether he physically owns them or has somehow persuaded them to pay him lots of money. He is clearly at the very least a shrewd operator, since these businesses have been profiting for over 20 years and the collective insurance payout between them has amassed to $9 billion dollars. The guy can just make money legitimately, but instead he decided to spend two decades trying to see the fruition of a plan that is as faulty as the steel with which it was based on.

As Spidey mentioned, it turns out that behind all this convoluted foolishness, Diablo is nothing more than a simple crook. And the real tragedy is, he's not even a good one.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Economics of Love (as told by T-Rex)

In today's Dinosaur Comics, T-Rex ponders the economics of romance. Specifically, he discusses the notion that there is an extremely high probability that someone exists in the world that is a better match for you than a mate you may currently be involved with. One of the reasons for this is that people tend to (but do not always) end up with those whom they have met through close proximity, i.e. friends they might have known since childhood, classmates, co-workers, people they might have met at a bar or party, etc. The problem is that if one is trying to maximize a happiness utility equation, then proximity serves to impose a pretty significant constraint on the optimization problem.

Were it an unconstrained equation, the maximum happiness would likely be greater. That is, there is a greater change of you finding an even better match--and hence deriving a greater level of satisfaction--if you were completely unrestrained. If you didn't have a job, responsibilities and such, and you could spend your entire life in pursuit of true love. And you would have a greater change of finding it.

At a more micro level, suppose your entire realm of existence constituted a particular bar filled with people. Further, let's say you spotted someone very attractive heading into the VIP area. You tried to go after that person, but the bouncer would not let you in under any circumstances. That is a constraint that's preventing you from meeting someone who very may well be the love or your life. Really, the greater area and time you can cover, the more of a chance you have of meeting this person.

Then, however, T-Rex considers another issue. He claims that if you've been with someone for long enough such that you've developed a considerable amount of history (and that this person makes you very happy), then even if you were to meet someone who you were more compatible with, it would not rationally make sense to trade up. According to Rex:

Let's say you're happy with Person A (95% perfect) and you meet Person B who is 99% perfect. It doesn't make sense for you to leave Person A for B if you've been with them for years! You lose out on all your shared history, and that's like a times two multiplier! [...] Romance with a times two multiplier!

The thing is that this argument depends on a little more than how long you have already been in a relationship. In fact, it makes some implicit assumptions. The first thing it assumes is that love/satisfaction is an constantly increasing function of time. Moreover, it seems to be an exponentially increasing function in this case. What T-Rex seems to be saying here is that as time goes by, you build a history and develop shared experiences with your significant other. These experiences give you pleasure as they occur, but moreover they continue to give you pleasure after they occur so long as you can share and relive them with that person. In a way, you're compounding these events. If you suddenly left this person, then you would no longer have someone to share these experiences with and hence they would lose some meaning. Consider an inside joke with your girlfriend or boyfriend. This joke would obviously not bring you the same satisfaction if you retold it to someone else. I believe this is why T-Rex refers to the cost of leaving Person A as "losing out on all your shared history."

Of course, depending on your view of romance, this might work differently. For instance, the "love/time" relationship might be more in shape of a logistic curve.

reprinted from
First, the curve increases slowly (likely to reflect the start-up costs of any relationship: anxiety, learning new things about them, etc.), then increases by a larger amount (to reflect the comfort stage of a relationship) and then it levels off (when you start getting bored). With this curve, it is entirely possible that an individual reach a level in his relationship where new and shared experiences bring little to no additional pleasure. It is even possible for curves to start to decrease! It is at this point that people consider leaving to find new, potentially greater experiences.

For simplicity, let us assume that the love curve is increasing and exponential (i.e. increasing returns to scale). Then, you would intuitively assume that you would only want to leave Person A for Person B if your love function with B increased at a higher rate than with A. However, this is really only true if you have enough time left in your life span in order to realize these benefits.

This brings us to another crucial element of what T-Rex is saying. Since there is a cost associated with breaking up with Person A, then in the short-run you would lose out. However, since satisfaction is increasing with time, then it would make sense in the long-run to leave Person A given that you do have the time to compensate for the loss you experience. Consider the following graph that reflect this:

In this graph, Person A is the red line, Person B is the blue line, and Person C is the green line. Suppose that you meet Person B relatively early in your life span. As you can see, it is possible that in the long run, Person B's function would cross Person A's function (at age x) and attain a greater happiness in the long-run. However, suppose you meet person C. Despite the fact that person C's function is increasing more rapidly than Person A's and B's, the fact that you meet person C so late in the game does not leave you enough time to hit the same level as A or B (before your unfortunate death at the hands of the end of the graph).

Therefore, if we make the assumptions that we did in this argument, then T-Rex is certainly right about having an incentive to stay given that you do not have the time to reach that level of satisfaction with anyone else. However, if there is enough time, then just the opposite could be true.

Ah, the good ol' romance multiplier. Incidentally, I'm a relatively young guy. I keep trying to make this argument to people I break up with, and they only end up getting mad at me. What's the deal?

Update: This also varies based on whether you're trying to simply attain a higher level of happiness in the long-run or whether you're trying to achieve an overall greater total happiness throughout your life. If the latter, then before breaking up, you would want to make sure that you have enough time in your life to both attain a higher level of happiness than you would with Person A and sustain that level of happiness for a while until death.

Extremely Rich Character Sighting: Dexter Bennett

Amazing Spider-Man #607 by Joe Kelly, Mike McKone & Adriana Melo

Here's a question for the readers: How rich do you suppose Dexter Bennett is? This guy claims to have been responsible for about 50% of the new construction in the 1980s. Remember that the construction industry in comic books is a highly profitable organization--more so than on real-Earth. The reason being simply that there are devastating blows to major DC and Marvel cities occurring basically every single day. On Monday, Bullseye might blow up a building, on Tuesday the Green Goblin might pumpkin bomb a bank, on Wednesday Galactus might try to take over again, and so on. It's become quotidian.

The 1980s was a particularly significant decade in overwhelming destruction. There were major events/storylines such as "Secret Wars", "Hulk in Exile," "Mutant Massacre," "Armor Wars," "The Evolutionary War," "Inferno," "Atlantic Attacks," and so forth. And those are just the major events. They don't take into account your run-of-the-mill pumpkin bombing.

So when Dexter Bennett says that he was involved in a huge chunk of construction in the 80s, we know that he must be loaded. About 1/2 the time New York City gets completely leveled by one of the aforementioned events, his company is there doing all the building repairs and restoring everything back to normal so that the villains can knock it all down again. Now of course we don't know how much of this sort of post-apocalyptic reconstruction is typically done by private companies like Bennett's. It might be a public works effort. In fact, there might be some sort of task force standing by with shovels waiting to rebuild after the next attack. Also, we don't know what Bennett exactly means by "new construction" -- it might imply that his business dealt exclusively with new endeavors, not renovation.

If he was involved, though, this could be one of the richest men in the world. Not only would have have made a ton of money from operations, but he claimed that he had only gotten into the business for "tax shelters only." The implication here is that he was already independently wealthy, but didn't own a business. Can you imagine how much money this guy must have? He may have more assets than Tony Stark. He certainly does now since he has extra cash to throw around to purchase newspapers (Dexter Bennett is now the owner of the DB) and Tony's assets have been seized by Norman Osborn.

It's a wonder that Bennett did not become a supervillain himself. After all, we know from one of our earlier posts that millionaires = crazy. Actually, Dexter Bennett is so sane that he backed out of a deal his partner made that he knew to be criminal. And boy what a deal it was. More on this later...

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sub-Mariner Joining X-Men is Metaphor for Disney/Marvel Merger

Now bear with me for a moment...

An experienced, well-known force of nature joins up with a newer group that's getting all the attention right now. And then Namor joins the X-Men. This can't just be a coincidence.

Let's break it down. Namor the Sub-Mariner is a powerful remnant of a bygone age that began in the 1940s. So is Disney. Namor chooses allies based on circumstance. Over the years he's allied himself with the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the Defenders, Wolverine, and now the X-Men all based on necessity. Namor integrated himself with these groups to improve his effectiveness. Disney is likewise responsible for numerous mergers. In the Disney's time of need, they allied themselves with Pixar to create something greater than either of them could have accomplished alone. That's the very spirit of the Avengers isnt it? Namor and the Avengers joined forces to defeat Attuma and Disney and Pixar teamed up to create Wall-E. Both titanic achievements for sure.

Both Disney and Namor started out in the water and moved out on to land. Namor is an Atlantean and Disney made "Steamboat Willie." Similar aquatic origins at the same time.

Namor and Disney are both characterized by iconic images involving revealing undergarments that expose your junk.

Coincidence? I think not.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Supply of Water in Metropolis

Superman #692 by James Robinson and Fernando Dagnino (2009)

As is the case with most cities in the DCU, things are not going to well in Metropolis. Superman's gone, the city's new protector Mon-El has apparently been killed, and the citizens have lost their faith in superheroes. To top it off, the city's sewer system has been completely destroyed in a recent battle.

Seems like a fairly basic repair job, right? I mean bombs go off in the sewer systems of Gotham and Metropolis all the time (speaking of which, it would seem as though villains tend to love spreading poison through water supplies so you would think the cities would have learned to increase patrol of the sewers). Except, this time the bomb was "laced with encoded nanotechnology [so that] no sooner does a speedster or power ring start fixing the sewers than the nanobytes undo that reconstruction." S.T.A.R. labs, Mr. Terrific and Will Magnus (genius scientist who created the Metal Men) have been unable to do anything.

We've discussed the economic effects of something like this happening before. It's pretty basic. When an external force causes the supply of a good to decrease, price goes up. Take a look at the following detailed chart, which demonstrates this effect:

Indeed, if such destruction did occur then Metropolis would certainly be facing higher prices for water. Although, I think Robinson might be portraying too bleak a picture in this book. Yes, there would be some major hygiene issues and city residents would have to give up on showering for a while...

Yet, it seems to me that despite not having running water throughout the city, drinking water could be shipped in mass quantities from neighboring states. Given the severity of the situation, I think the government could subsidize the costs of transportation. After all, we've seen that DCU governments are not exactly the most frugal. They're willing to dish out loads of cash to fund anti-alien squads when the Justice League is a phone call away. Why not add a line item in the budget for some basic sustenance until this whole mess is straightened out?

Also, what happened to the lucrative bottled water business? I thought that people were drinking that stuff even before Metropolis's sewer system was destroyed. Unless there is only one major bottled water company, it uses "municipal sources" and not springs, and it only has one plant that happens to be located in Metropolis, I think it's a safe bet that there will be plenty of water to drink.

Really, people should not be lumbering down the streets suffering of dehydration. Moreover, Governor Klein should not have to ration the consumption of water. What's worse is that street thugs have now apparently tapped a new black market by selling small quantities at exorbitant rates. I feel like this might be an exaggeration of what would happen in this situation. There would be some discomfort, but as always in Metropolis, everything would work out.

Finally, the price of water has apparently soared to such levels that it now as a street value higher than gold. Granted, I don't know what the "street value" of gold is, but just to give you an idea of what this means, here's a chart on the current market value of gold:

reprinted from

Monday, October 12, 2009

Tongue Tip

reprinted from

Here's a new twitter experiment created by one of our friends and aimed at catching those words that you think you know but are just out of reach. From the creator, this is how it works:

TongueTip is an experiment in crowdsourcing the thesaurus. While a traditional thesaurus is normally useful, it has one major flaw: it requires a synonym as a point of entry. What if you can't think of a word that means what you're trying to say? That's where TongueTip comes in. Simply tweet @TongueTip with a description of the word or phrase you're trying to come up with, and TongueTip will repost your request to the TongueTip feed. Everyone following the feed will see your request, and if someone thinks they might know the word(s) you're looking for, they can reply to the TongueTip tweet; their suggestion will be automatically forwarded to you via direct message.

TongueTip is only a few days young and needs more followers, so go try it out!!! You can check it out here.

Squad K and Irresponsible Spending

Supergirl #45 by Sterling Gates, Greg Rucka and Jamal Igle (2009)

We know that governments (both local and federal) have a history of irresponsible spending habits in comic books, particularly involving concerns of safety from metahumans and aliens. This one, however, is near the top of the list of just complete waste of resources. Though, that does seem to be the point of the book.

Currently, the Superman family is having some troubles. Ever since the creation of New Krypton, a few misguided murders, and some puppeteering from General Lane and the furtive Project 7734, the DC Universe has been so scared of damage or a hostile takeover by the Kryptonians that Earth has agreed to fund an international, anti-Kryptonian unit known as "Squad-K." These guys are equipped with the very best of technology--armor, guns, ammunition, etc.--in order to deal with this looming threat. Kryptonians have been officially declared enemies of Earth and are not allowed to be present within its atmosphere (not even Superman!). When they do breach this code, Squad K shows up to exact punishment.

I don't need to tell you just how expensive this would be. Not only are these guys apparently well-trained and well-equipped, but they are prepared enough to be anywhere that Supergirl, Nightwing, Flamebird, and any other threat presents itself. So, as the case in this comic, when there are Kryptonians in Paris, Squad K has to be in Paris--and fast. That either means that there are some serious transportation expenditures going on, or that there are troops stationed just about everywhere primed for attack.

Let's forget about the absurdity of the xenophobia that justifies this coalition for a second and assume that we agree Earth needs to protect itself. Yet, doesn't Earth already have such a coalition? One that has proved itself effective time and time again for decades? An organization that has demonstrated nothing but selflessness and complete devotion towards the mission of keeping Earth safe from exactly this sort of thing? I'm referring to the Justice League, of course.

Now, New Krypton has been going on for quite a while and frankly I've been out of touch with the happenings of the Justice League ever since Infinite Crisis. For all I know, the League could have been off fighting some space battle for the past several years. But really this should not be the case. After all, the Green Lantern Corp. had even paid a visit to New Krypton in order to allay some international concerns about its intentions. Clearly, at the very least, the Justice League is cognizant of the situation at hand.

Another reason might be that Earth has grown so suspicious of Kryptonians that its paranoia has extended pretty much to all aliens, including those comprising the Justice League. However, this is also pretty silly. First of all, Superman is currently not a part of the League, is he? He's been off at New Krypton for quite some time leading its armies. Any concerns his influence somehow guiding the actions of the League should be long pacified.

I suppose the public could suspect that New Krypton and the League could be colluding, but towards what end? It is one thing for them to suspect that Superman had persuaded his friends to grant New Krypton enough autonomy to try and establish a self-sustaining society. But to suspect that this courtesy goes beyond that is ludicrous. Superman or no, he would never be able to convince the League to stand back while New Krypton planned any more destruction. If this were the case, then why did the League not ally itself with every other race of aliens who invaded? Folks attack Earth all the time and the public, as fickle as they are, hardly suspect the League of involvement. Darkseid just attempted to take over Earth and the people were more than happy to place their trust in a group of aliens to take care of the situation. For some reason, this particular wave of anxiety has destroyed any sensible judgment that the people of Earth might have had. And not just moral judgment--economic judgment!

Again, it seems to be the point of the book that all of this is irresponsible, but this is just too much. Even for Earth. Call the League! That's what they're for.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Game Theory, Signaling and Comic Book Crime

reprinted from
by David G. Klein from the New York Times (2009)

Can Batman devise a scientific way to fight/reduce crime?

A recent article by Robert H. Frank in the New York Times described a more cost-effective method of reducing crime in the United States that borrows from game theoretic principles and the effect of signaling. The theory, proposed by Professor Mark Kleiman, basically says that rather than attempting to deter criminals by offering more severe punishments, law enforcement officials should instead attempt to increase the odds by which they are apprehended.

This is based on the premise (and apparently some empirical data) that most criminals are not rational actors in the sense that they would be deterred if the expected punishment was greater than the expected benefit of committing the crime. Instead they are "more like impulsive children, blinded by the temptation of immediate reward and largely untroubled by the possibility of delayed or uncertain punishment."

However, Kleiman argues that if a criminal were to think that the probability of being caught were high enough, then even more modest punishments would likely be enough to make him or her think twice about committing the crime in the first place.

If we were to accept this premise, what then would be an effective method of increasing the probability of criminals being apprehended? Kleiman argues that this could be done by using the effect of signaling--that is making the criminals think that by engaging in a crime, they would likely be caught. One method he suggests is publicizing a criminal priorities list. The game would work as follows:

Suppose that all drug violence in a city is committed by members of one of six hypothetical gangs — the Reds, Whites, Blues, Browns, Blacks and Greens — and that the authorities have enough staffing to arrest and prosecute offenders in only one gang at any one time. Mr. Kleiman proposes that the police publicly announce that their first priority henceforth will be offenders in one specific gang — say, the Reds (perhaps because its members committed the most serious crimes in the past).

This simple step quickly persuades members of that gang that further offenses will result in swift and sure punishment. And that is enough to deter them.

With the Reds out of action, the police can shift their focus to the Whites. They, too, quickly learn that violent offenses result in swift and certain punishment. So they quiet down as well, freeing the police to focus on the Blues, and so on.

But why don’t the Reds, seeing that the police have moved on, start committing violent offenses again? The reason is that they always remain atop the enforcement priority list. If they start offending again, police attention will again quickly focus entirely on them.

It is an interesting proposition to be sure, but would this method work against comic book supervillains? Suppose Batman and Commissioner Gordon read Professor Kleiman's new book and decided to employ these tactics on the Gotham villains. Let's say they take a group of notable supervillains--The Joker, Two-Face, The Penguin, Mr. Zsasz and The Riddler--and make a priorities list, which they intend to signal to them. By severity of past crimes, lets assume the ordering is (you can debate this if you want; I imagine people will argue the fact that I put the Riddler as more severe then Mr. Zsasz, but there should be no arguments that The Penguin is dead last).:

1) The Joker
2) Two-Face
3) The Riddler
4) Mr. Zsasz
5) The Penguin

Here's the problem with this method. Batman is already a signal. Everything he does, from the batsignal to the bat-tracking devices, is meant to deter criminals. He uses fear to thwart them. After all, this is the importance of dressing up like a bat. Otherwise, he would just be some goofball with a fetish.

reprinted from

Yet, this signaling unfortunately had the opposite effect of what Batman had originally intended. He may stand as a symbol of fear and deterrence for ordinary street thugs (which is incidentally what he started out fighting), but his actions have produced an unintended consequence of breeding more insane villains and "freaks." Indeed, this has been explored in numerous books including The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, Batman: Ego, and others.

The idea is that many of these villains have motivations other than the immediate reward of the crime. They like having Batman chase them. They try time and time again to outsmart him. For many of these villains, it has become a game to try and thwart the Batman. His very presence in the city, rather than deterring them, has actually and somewhat counter-intuitively inspired them to commit more clever crimes. And without that game, these villains tend to revert back into catatonia. In one story called "Going Sane," The Joker, after thinking he had killed Batman, actually ends up retiring from crime, changing his name to "Joe Kerr," getting reconstructive plastic surgery, and moves into suburbia to live a quiet and peaceful life. Once he finds out Batman hadn't been killed, he mutilates himself and gears up into action once again.

Given these motivations, it is unlikely that Kleiman's strategy would work against the Batman villains should he order his list as he did above. If Batman publicizes pursuing the Joker above all else, he would not be deterred in the slightest. In fact, I'd bet that other villains, in an attempt to grab Batman's attention, would start committing more crimes.

However, this does not necessarily mean the signaling strategy is hopeless. It might be able to achieve some benefits for Batman if used appropriately. For instance, although many villains see Batman's presence as motivation, there are still supervillains who unequivocally want him gone. Consider our list above. The Penguin and Mr. Zsasz two such villains.

Let's look at The Penguin. During Batman's peak, The Penguin operated primarily from behind the scenes. Rather than being out on the street, he owned and operated a "legitimate" business--a restaurant/night club. Sure the club was a hot spot for villains and sure he laundered lots of money through the business, but The Penguin did not want to be caught. That's why he was Batman's primary source of information regarding the other villains. Yet, when Batman went missing after the events of Batman R.I.P., guess who formed a major crime gang and tried to take control of all of Gotham City? That's right, the Penguin is now one of the major problems that Dick Grayson and the crew have to deal with.

So what would happen if Batman decided to order his list another way? Instead of having the most dangerous villains first, suppose he decided to put The Penguin and Mr. Zsasz as top priorities. Then, those two would probably stop committing as many crimes. With them out of the way, as the argument goes, Batman would now be able to focus his attention on The Joker, Two-Face and the Riddler without expending anything on additional resources or sidekicks. It's a cost-effective way of getting rid of the guys on the sidelines--those that really want Batman dead--and focusing on the truly insane ones. The problem, of course, is unlike the gangs mentioned in the NYTimes example, that these latter villains will not be deterred. However, even a small amount of sideline villains out of the way is a bonus.

The other major problem is that, as mentioned above, we don't know how these latter villains will react. It is entirely possible that the signaling efforts of Batman and Gordon will cause them to commit more crimes that are more clever or dangerous in an attempt to win Batman's attention. It is also possible that with Batman's attention elsewhere, they will simply get bored (until such time that the Penguin and Mr. Zsasz are completely out of commission). We don't really have a great way of knowing.

Given Batman's circumstances, I can't think of a great scientific means of fighting crime effectively. He's a bit trapped--if he continues his war on crime, villains like The Joker are born and remain in play. If he retires, then the city becomes weak and vulnerable to villains that, despite not being The Joker, are just strong enough to resist capture by standard law enforcement.

Can anyone devise a way that Batman should/could be fighting/reducing crime effectively?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Value of Life

"The Question" in Detective Comics #857 by Greg Rucka and Cully Hamner (2009)

Hmm...I don't know about that, Tot. I think people who sell human lives think of them as a pretty damn expensive commodity. After all, they know just high highly valued human lives are and are cognizant that certain types of people value them so highly that they'd be willing and able to pay very large sums for them. It's a money maker.

Economists value lives too, but in a different way. Actually, they have done considerable work on this. Of course, the economic "value of life" is a statistical in nature and should not be confused with value in the sense that "life if priceless." Rather, "value of statistical life" estimates see what people would be willing to pay or sacrifice to reduce the probability of death. The thing is that most of us (unless you were someone like, say, The Joker) would be willing to give up all of our wealth to avoid a 100% probability of death. Yet, when it comes to smaller probabilities, individuals make trade-offs between monetary wealth and safety every day. People pay for health insurance, get vaccines, buy alarms for their houses, etc. Similarly, people accept small risks in order to not expend anything. When someone jaywalks, for instance, that person is subject to a tiny increase in the probability of death for the payoff of saving a few seconds of time. These implicit trade-offs are what make up the value of a statistical life.

Economists, policymakers, federal agencies and others use such estimates to evaluate the potential benefits of public policy programs, particularly those involving health, environment, workplace safety and transportation regulations. There are numerous studies and methodologies to arrive at these estimates. Some use surveys that flat out ask what individuals would be willing to pay to diminish the probability of death. Others look at data on individual expenditures and purchases to construct variables that portray willingness to pay (i.e. pay for safety) or willingness to accept (i.e. get paid for a risk). For instance, this paper looks at the trade-off between worker fatality risks and wages using BLS data on worker deaths by occupation and industry. It estimated a value of $4.7 million for the full sample used, $7.0 million for blue collar males, and $8.5 million for blue collar females.

I haven't kept up with the research, but most estimates I have seen tend to hover around $7-$8 million or so. In June 2008, the EPA had estimated the value of a statistical life to be $6.9 million (about $1 million less than five years ago), which prompted the media to have a field day about the devaluation of human life.

Here's an NBER paper about general problems and uses of value of life estimates.

What do you suppose the human traffickers that Renee Montoya is hunting charge for lives they sell? I know that this is a different value than the one we just discussed, but do you think it's more than $7 million?

Edit: Apparently it's much less, according to a comment. The lesson here is that the economics in action movies are generally unreliable.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Superheroes and Paternity Lawsuits

It has recently occurred to me that superheroes have been discovering long-lost children for quite a while. Batman found that his genes had been used to make a rather irate Damian al Ghul. Wolverine found out the baby he thought had died had become the murderous Daken. Cable was revealed as Scott Summers' time-lost son, Nathan Summers. Nightcrawler was revealed as the child of Azazel (a demon lord of limbo) and Mystique. The Incredible Hulk was recently introduced to Skaar. Hidden familial relationships have been popping up in comics for quite a while. Wolverine even has at least one other child he doesn't know about (does anyone remember the "Wolverine: The Jungle Adventure" special by Simonson and Mignola?).

Further complicating these revelations is that these superhero dads frequently have tumultuous and often negative relationships with their children. Damian tried to murder Robin (Tim Drake) a few hours after being brought into the bat-cave. Daken has slit Wolverine's throat more times than even Daniel Way could count. These are not relationships that are likely to culminate in father-son picnics or games of catch.

In light of the fact that there are so many strained father/child relationships in comic books, it makes me wonder why there aren't many more lawsuits aimed at these unwitting deadbeat dads. After all, in all of these relationships, the father has not contributed to child-rearing. Neither financial nor emotional support was given to these children during their development.

Granted each of these cases is very complex and is not analogous to most paternal situations. Can Scott Summers be expected to pay back child support for a son who was raised in the future? Regardless of moral obligation, I would be hard pressed to find a legal precedent to support any litigation against Cyclops. But though these father/child relations are strange, does that mean that the comic book dads involved are excused from the obligations that are placed upon normal fathers? I'm not sure that's fair. I don't think Scott Summers should be allowed to abandon his clone wife and his son to hang out with X-Factor, only to help kill his clone wife, regain custody of his son, get his baby infected with the T-O virus, and send him into the future. I think we need more accountability than that.

Clearly the lack of paternal interaction has caused some anger issues in these long lost children. Damian al Ghul is quasi psychotic and at the very least has severe anger issues. Nightcrawler became a priest (if that's not rebelling against being sired by a demon, i don't know what is). Daken is a mass murderer with a particular love for cutting pieces off of his father. Cable just shoots lots of things, period. These children act out, in part because of the lack of support provided by their fathers.

But if these children really want retribution against their parents, wouldn't the path of legal recourse be more satisfying (and significantly less likely to result in bodily harm)? And if these wayward children don't take legal recourse against their estranged fathers, does it encourage comic book dads to send their children into the future (or another dimension, continent, etc.) to avoid their financial and parental obligations? Is that the message we want to send? We need to encourage men like Reed Richards (arrogant and emotionally distant though he may be) who stick around and support their children.

It's just the right thing to do.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ecocomic Recession Watch: Ultimate Armor Wars Edition

Ultimate Armor Wars #1 by Warren Ellis and Steve Kurth (2009)

Let it be known that you can always count on comic books to show you just how much worse life can get. While real-Earth is suffering from a global recession, the Ultimate Marvel Earth is dealing with the after effects of a large-scale attack by Magneto causing the complete destruction of Manhattan and the death of millions of people in addition to an economic collapse. I kid you not, things are so bad that Tony Stark is down to his last hundred million dollars. Stark Industries is all but gone. What ever is Tony going to do for money in this dark and dreadful age?

The answer may shock you...

That's right. The situation is so dire that Tony Stark has resorted to podcasting his thoughts (which in this book are mostly amusing drunken ramblings) in order to make a little extra cash.

It's actually pretty brilliant. I'd pay for them all.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Unified Theory of Superman's Powers

Via Qwantz, This is the name of an extremely fun new physics paper by Ben Tippett, proposing that the gamut of Superman's abilities can actually be reduced simply to one comprehensive power. Here is the abstract:

Since Time immemorial, man has sought to explain the powers of Kal- El, a.k.a. Superman. Siegel et al. Supposed that His mighty strength stems from His origin on another planet whose density and as a result, gravity, was much higher than our own. Natural selection on the planet of krypton would therefore endow Kal El with more efficient muscles and higher bone density; explaining, to first order, Superman's extraordinary powers. Though concise, this theory has proved inaccurate. It is now clear that Superman is actually flying rather than just jumping really high; and His freeze-breath, x-ray vision, and heat vision also have no account in Seigel's theory.

In this paper we propose a new unified theory for the source of Superman's powers; that is to say, all of Superman's extraordinary powers are manifestation of one supernatural ability, rather than a host. It is our opinion that all of Superman's recognized powers can be unified if His power is the ability to manipulate, from atomic to kilometer length scales, the inertia of His own and any matter with which He is in contact.

All the major hits are there: super strength, super speed, super senses, x-ray vision, freeze breath, heat vision, and even his ability to disguise himself as Clark Kent.

I wonder about two things. One is whether there is any way to incorporate his weakness of not being able to use super sight on lead into the theory, or whether that (as I suspect is the case) is just an arbitrary limitation of his power? The other thing is if I accept this unified theory, are there any other other powers that Superman should have at his disposal that we do not see him using all that much? For instance, it's been a while since physics, but Magneto's ability to manipulate magnetic fields should probably also allow him to induce or at least fiddle with electrical currents, right? But I feel like that's not something we see him do all that much. Are there analogous powers for Superman that are consistent with the unifying theory?

If you're interested about the physics of superheroes, you should definitely read (if you haven't already), the wonderful book by Professor James Kakalios, aptly titled The Physics of Superheroes. It's been years for me--I think I might reread!

The Broker and Gotham City Crime

Streets of Gotham #4 by Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen (2009)

Earlier, we had written about an interesting character that writer Paul Dini had created. A new, shadowy figure lurking around the streets of Gotham. Someone so sinister and cunning that he easily ranks among the most dangerous of Batman's rogues gallery.

I, of course, am referring to The Broker.

As a refresher, The Broker is an independent real estate agent that caters exclusively to supervillains and criminals. Whenever the Joker needs a new amusement park or abandoned toy store, he calls up The Broker. Whenever Two Face needs a new Double Mint Gum factory, he gives The Broker a ring. Whenever Clayface needs a does Clayface take residence anyway? The point is that The Broker is the go-to guy for villain hideouts and lairs.

With the latest issue of Streets of Gotham, Dini and Nguyen develop a rich and elaborate back story for Gotham's new entrepreneur. We learn a good deal about the character's day-to-day operations, his history, and his motivations. And we get a pretty decent sense of the economics of the whole thing as well. Here are a few things that we have learned to expand upon our previous study of The Broker (and crime in Gotham):

First thing is sort of an obvious one: Gotham City has a lot of poor people and the recession isn't exactly helping. More importantly, however, is that in light of all the small businesses suspending operations and families being displaced from their homes, there are lots of abandoned buildings throughout the city. Because of this, it actually seems that The Broker's business is relatively recession-proof. In fact, the economic downturn is actually helping him with his venture. The number of supervillains doesn't exactly drop during a recession--it actually might be increasing. Further, these villains are only going to increase their number of financially-motivated crimes. As such, they're gonna needs hideouts, especially those new villains who need to make names for themselves (i.e. BoneBlaster).

One minor nitpick, however: I don't think "Bruce Wayne" is giving money to keep the "fat cats" happy. We've seen that Hush's deviously charitable plan was to donate funds each month to seeminly poor businesses and organizations that could use the money to stay open, such as the Monarch Card and Novelty Company. Sure, this isn't equivalent to investing money in organizations that help the poor, but I'd hardly call them fat cats.

Second thing we've learned: The Broker is a total badass. This is important since one of my suspicions in the previous entry was that The Broker would have to charge extremely high fees to his clients to compensate for any risks associated with his occupational hazards. That is, the guy is working with major supervillains here and he operates notably outside of the law. He risks being sought out by the police for the illegal trading of abandoned property, he risks being sought out by Batman for information on the villains he sells to (which actually does happen in the issue), and he risks being low-balled and harmed by the very villains with whom he is dealing. As such, he needs to charge a higher price for his time, energy and variable costs. Of course, the problem with that is once you start charging really high prices, it gives the villains even more of an incentive not to pay. The risk factor thus increases.

The good news is that The Broker makes it work in two ways. One is that he seems to have already built a significant reputation, which makes use of the economic concept of signaling. The other, more important quality is being a badass. Look at what happened when The Great White Shark (yep, a real villain) tried to skip out on paying a commission and a finder's fee. The Shark's henchmen get shot in the head by one of The Broker's snipers, forcing the Shark to pay up or...wait for it...sleep with the fishes.

By the way, just to give you an idea of how high these prices are, after the incident above with The Shark, The Broker ended up receiving a finder's fee of $3 million. It is extremely tough to persuade villains to pay you $3 million for simply finding a boat. The Shark actually had to go through the trouble himself to dispose of the yacht's previous owner. All The Broker did, literally, was find him the place. For that, he charges $3 million. The only way this plan could work consistently enough such that he could continue to maintain his business would be if he was an extreme badass. More badass than you or I could imagine, and more badass than is depicted in this comic. By the way, for more on badass, see Mark's post on the effect of bad-assity on the success of comic superheroes.

The third piece of information we learn involves a bit of Gotham City history. Ever wonder just why there are so many abandoned amusement parks throughout the city? I mean, it seems like every day The Joker or The Scarecrow gets a new one to play with. Turns out, there's a reason!

Apparently, right around World War I and then subsequently during the Great Depression, Gotham was a bleak and dark place plagued by rampant crime and depression. Indeed, it doesn't seem all that different now, does it? However, the one form of escapism that proved even more effective than drugs and alcohol was amusement parks. An early string of amusement entrepreneurs started a chain of successful parks, which eventually bred more competition and led to the creation of even more parks for cheaper admissions fees. According to Dini, "By the mid fifties, Gotham boasted no less than three zoos, five amusement parks, and I don't know how many wax museums and reptile farms." People came in droves and used the amusement industry to essentially drown their sorrows. This continued to be the case for the next several decades as the industry continued to expand.

At some point, however, it looks like there was another economic downturn which had led to massive factory closures and unemployment. As a result, people were no longer able to afford coming to amusement parks and began turning more to crime. One by one, these parks closed down.

Dini does not really go into the specifics as to the cause of these factories being closed, so I cannot really elaborate further (unless I missed something). Suffice it to say that this is where the abandoned factories, toy shops, amusement parks, wax museums, and all the other popular villainous hideouts come from. Likewise, this is where the source of The Broker's income also comes from.

So now we know a little more about The Broker and Gotham City history. Although in this context The Broker's operations make more sense, I am still a little bit skeptical on how he manages to sustain them. My intuition is that the villains most likely and most in need of his services would be the low-grade, up-and-coming ones. These are the guys that likely don't know Gotham well enough to find a hideout on their own, need one desperately (especially in times of recession), and don't exactly have time to waste on seeking out abandoned reptile museums. On the other hand, the big-time villains like Joker and Two-Face seem to already have the means to find these lairs easily. They have henchmen who they already pay to do things just like this. They've been around for a while and know both the layout of the city and common police patrol routes. Finally, it is much easier to conduct business with the small guys than the big guys.

At the same time, your smaller villains don't have the means to pay The Broker his extremely high fees. Indeed, if he dealt more with small-time villains, I imagine there would be less risk and his fees would be lower. Still, I doubt he would be making enough money to keep this business going without the big-time villains.

Furthermore, if he is dealing with enough big-timers such that he is able to keep his venture running, I can't imagine that any amount of badass short of being Batman himself would be enough to be able to handle it for so long. As shrewd and keen-witted a businessman as he is, my sense is that The Broker would eventually fall.