Saturday, September 19, 2015

Scott Alexander reviews Chomsky

I recently listened to Napoleon the Great, by Andrew Roberts. Roberts is a fan, not just of his military genius, but of his general moral magnificence (his fawning in the BBC series is embarrassing) so it’s necessary for him to do some defending of Napoleon’s rigged plebiscites. The rigging wasn’t terribly subtle with 99.94%, 99.76% and 99.93% “voting” in Napoleon’s favour.  Roberts spends quite a lot of time explaining the various ways the rigging was organised, but ends up concluding that he had impressive popular support anyway. It was as if he was imagining subtracting a few % from the ridiculous figures and thinking that 90% is still pretty great. Napoleon obviously was very popular for a lot of his reign, but I don’t remember hearing any reason to believe those figures were anything other than completely worthless. Evidence of popularity has to come from elsewhere and even then, putting a % on it is probably hopeless.

This is what came to mind when I was reading Scott Alexander’s review of Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman. He chastises C&H for their obvious distortions and describes pretty accurately their way of deceiving. He mentions a bunch of prominent examples where exactly the opposite of C&H’s thesis happens. He brings up Chomsky’s Cambodian genocide denial and how he is unconvinced by Chomsky’s later pathetic squirming in his own defence. He thinks the book inexcusably biased in places.

But Scott is still convinced by the overall argument of the book that the American government is as evil as Hitler’s, Stalin’s or Belgium’s from back in the day (including the current US govt. The book was published ages ago but Chomsky’s views haven’t softened). Why? Because, “Chomsky and Herman are both academics, and they’re both relentless. When they try to prove something, by golly, it stays proved. This is a good thing, in that the book deals with very controversial topics and anything less would be unconvincing.” I think this means lots of references. Scott talks about the trade-off between successfully shifting people’s opinions and maintaining balance, but “I think C&H handle this impossible balancing act better than most.”

But when he actually checks their claims independently he finds “This is a really different story than C&H’s version. C&H never lie per se, but they leave out things as significant as a giant foreign invasion happening during the middle of the events they’re describing.” And he seems to realise that this might be true in other places.

My point is, if you know that the way they marshal evidence and argument is sometimes bogus, and it is easy to find more examples, why are these references worth anything? Why take the authors word for it that the sources really support what they say it does? It sounds an awful lot like saying, “sure Napoleon and Saddam Hussein didn’t really win 99.94% or 100% of the vote but their election results are still super impressive.” The fact that they felt the need to rig in the first place is evidence that there is something wrong with their case. 

Anyway, Scott Alexander is still awesome, but it is a useful reminder that even your heroes are fallible. I just wish that he hadn’t used his own status increase the status of a liar like Chomsky. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Blog post requests (blog post kickstarter? This probably already exists right?)

I've bought a couple of short e-books for $2. In the case of Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation it was because I actually wanted to read the book, but other times it was because it was cheap and it was being talked about on Twitter.

It's pretty great that new books can be so cheap, but sometimes (probably often) I'd rather read a blog post by someone I really like on a specific topic. I would feel funny emailing Tyler Cowen offering to pay $5 for him to write a blog post on why Roger Federer is better than Nadal, but why couldn't there be some sort of Kickstarter like webpage where I make the request and Tyler can see the request and set a dollar value that it would take for him to write a post on the topic? I could fund the whole thing myself or other people could pledge their 50c or whatever to get the post funded. And if the target isn't met they're not even out this trivial sum.

I can imagine objections to this, but I haven't thought of one that makes it seem like a bad idea. I mean, Tyler (or whoever) gets a thousand emails a day anyway, so people could email him their requests and then he could only post the ones he would consider writing about on the site and at whatever price he considers appropriate. This would prevent the page being swamped by requests for posts on abortion, gun control, the gold standard or whatever. If he is worried about appearing to blog just for the money, he could make it clear that the money is going the charity of his choice.

What am I missing?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

abstract principles

If an abstract principle is any good it should coordinate available concrete information in an unambiguous, coherent way. This works best in maths and some of the sciences (though some branches of physics don’t do as well as you might think). In social science it’s basically impossible to articulate abstract principles that will satisfy everyone, but that doesn’t mean we should try or that we think of better or worse abstract models. In the case of economics I often see people moving quickly from noting shortcomings of economic models as if that somehow supported their own opinions. The weaknesses of the models show that economics is hard, not that you know better.

In the case of economics, there are a bunch of economic principles which economists basically agree on and many people can accept when stated as a general principle, but get totally overridden when comes to particular cases. Here’s a list of 15 economic principles from a speech given by a journalist I really like. Some of the principles are obvious enough to seem like common sense rather than “economics” but people, including politicians, deny them all the time! My past few posts may be boring but I don’t really expect that there is a lot to get worked up about one way or another. This post is different though. I’m trying to argue that we’re wrong to let the emotional effect of special cases override abstract ideas we should believe are true. 

Maybe the most obvious one is that demand curves slope downward. In general, raising the price of something lowers the demand for it. There are some obvious exceptions to this rule like luxury products where low prices can be seen as a bad signal about quality which can affect demand. There are also less obvious exceptions to the principle like the idea of a “Giffen good”. If the price of a staple food like rice increases people might buy more of it because they have less money for nicer food and rice is still the cheapest thing around. How far do these exceptions go in invalidating the idea that demand curves slope downwards? Not that far I say, maybe we need to stay on our toes when applying the principle but still, I think that not assuming it’s generally true would be crazy. 

Now how about the demand curve for labour? Does that slope downwards? If putting it that way is a little boring, how about, “should we get rid of the minimum wage?” If it seems really obvious that we shouldn’t get rid of it, why is that? Does raising the price of labour not reduce demand for it? Or do we think of rich employers and poor employees and see that it’s just obvious that employers should pay more?
Now maybe the potential downsides of a minimum wage are worth the costs, but if you think it’s obvious that a larger minimum wage won’t result in less job seekers finding low skilled jobs, your belief is in tension with a pretty fundamental economic principle. I have seen lots of arguing in favour of the minimum wage, but I see much less recognition of this basic tension.

On Monday Eugene Fama shared the Nobel Prize partly (primarily) for his work on the efficient markets hypothesis. “Efficient” makes it sound like markets are “good” but the EMH is compatible with bad outcomes. The idea is that markets are good at taking the available information into account. Basically, when someone tells you about a hot new stock that you have to buy you can basically just ignore them. The trouble is that in conversation when someone is trying to convince you about their stock, they will definitely have more information about it than you. They will be able to give you a detailed argument in favour it that you will not be in a position to pick apart, but you are still justified in ignoring their advice. The world is a complicated place and there are lots of people out there smarter than you trying to be clever about what stock to pick. The odds that your salesman is the special one, who really knows, are really low.

I’d guess that most educated non-economists (and plenty of economists) think that the EMH is just plain wrong and many think that it’s so obviously wrong that they are genuinely surprised  to discover that it’s actually a thing. There are some people who do seem to be special and there are apparent exceptions where the EMH doesn’t seem to hold. But the fact remains that it is incredibly difficult to beat the market. Lots of very clever people devote their lives to doing this and very few succeed. Just like some exceptions to demand curves sloping downwards doesn’t mean we should chuck away the basic idea, same with EMH, even if the dude selling you his stock is really convincing. Once you give up on the quest for exceptionless certainty these principles are very powerful and can help understand the world and I think we should resist the emotional appeal of cases that seem to clash with them. 

P.S. Link to the 15 principles is there now. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

concrete and abstract thinking

In my last post I argued that we often know something in a general, abstract sense, but we often let let the influence of specific events override these more abstract beliefs. The general truth that we’re unlikely to die in a terrorist attack is not refuted by the occasional attack killing some people, but people act as if is. This is bad.  

This is not to say that it’s always better to think abstractly. Stalin knew that “one death is a tragedy, a million death is a statistic”. Thinking abstractly about “ a million deaths” means we don’t appreciate the horror implied. We’d actually do better to imagine specific people being affected.

One way to think of what science (and philosophy?) is trying to do is to discover abstract models which are generally applicable. People might become extremely skilled at something and this skill involves implicit understanding of deep principles, but a scientist wants to make these principles explicit so they can be applied in different situations, or even create different situations.

There are some domains where we have been able to do this very well, like maths and quantum physics (I was tempted to write “hard” sciences, but that would be circular since I take it that what make a science hard is the lack of ambiguity in how the model relates to lower order building blocks of the domain). Developing an unambiguous conceptual framework for observations is difficult because the world is very complicated. Economists have tried really hard to make economics more scientific but basically it really isn't a science in anything like the sense of physics or chemistry. Most economists know this well enough, but some don’t. The mathematical nature of academic economics can be pretty misleading, especially with macroeconomics.

Another reason why constructing abstract models that coherently integrate available data is that it is just so easy to think up general principles and then to screen info that you consider to confirm your big idea. Conspiracy theorists are the ultimate masters of this. Conspiracy theorists are usually armed with a ton of “facts” while normal people do not actually know much about the supposed events and are not usually in a position to refute the crazy person point by point. Conspiracy theorists imply that if you can’t refute their points you should believe their conclusions if you want to call yourself a rational person. But usually we are perfectly justified in supposing that a man really has walked on the moon and that 9/11 was not actually plotted by George Bush.

A while back I wrote this blog post comparing evolution and religion as conceptual frameworks explaining how life got to be the way it is. People who believe in evolution are usually not phased when a new evolutionary puzzle pops up because they’re confident that the explanation will fit within the framework of natural selection. We’re right to think this, but it’s not that paranoid for sceptics to think that the detailed story is being constructed specifically to fit with evolution when a different theory might fit more naturally (God, of course).

Finally, our minds are just not designed for our concrete actions to be consistent with our abstract beliefs. Some animals have some sense of of the future and past and slightly distant places and humans have developed this capacity much more than any other animal. The very fact that we are able to think abstractly comes from our need to think about the future and far away things. Initially this would have had adaptive value because it helped us to plan for the future and coordinate our actions, which is good for hunting and avoiding being killed by other tribes. But the ability is mostly used for presenting good images of ourselves to improve our status and get desirable mates. It’s easy to think of examples of people who profess idealistic values but whose day to day behaviour is not consistent with these values. So long as we don’t get caught, it is usually to our benefit that our concrete behaviour is not consistent with our abstract beliefs.

Monday, October 07, 2013

trees and forests

I started writing this intending to make a particular point but then the post got long and I can’t be bothered to edit it back down to size, so maybe I’ll write a follow up.

Sometimes we get so worked up about specific facts that we lose sight of more general truths. We should want the big picture and the low level detail to be part of the same, coherent story but this is really difficult, especially when we want to argue for a particular conclusion.

Take bad calls in sport. Our reactions are wildly inconsistent if they go for or against us. When they go against us we’ll go into detail about why this particular case is particularly inexcusable. When a bad call goes our way (and there is no possibility of arguing that the call was actually fine) we are more likely to get philosophical, “Well, that’s the nature of the game. These things balance out in the end.” Unless the ref is actually fixing the match, the second reaction is actually sensible and the first reaction is just plain wrong. We all know that refs make mistakes all the time and we simply don’t care when the mistakes are not important, but these mistakes are no less blameworthy than the important ones. It’d would be a sign of a genuine problem if the mistake rates were different in big situations (even if they were lower!), but I’ve never seen this argued for.

The conceptual framework you use should take the available information into consideration. If you know that refs makes mistakes then your general beliefs about refs should reflect this. Another example is free speech. Most people I know think the principle of free speech is a good thing. This is not undermined by the cases where people use the right to say or write ridiculous, immoral things. But I quite often see people saying things like, “the right to free speech doesn’t include the right to be offensive.” Not only does it include that right, that is almost the very definition of free speech. Since it would be the government that enforced any prohibition on offensive speech, a definition of “Free speech = speech the government decides is not offensive” is hardly reassuring. Now perhaps free speech is actually a very bad thing because of all the offence flying about, but then you need to argue against the principle of free speech, not try to stop individual assholes spouting hateful crap.

How about terrorism, or shark attacks? Individual instances of both have such a powerful grip on our imaginations that actual policy responses to them are *ridiculous*. I’ve read articles suggesting that in the US many people would choose to drive instead of fly if they could so the extra number of deaths from car accidents may be higher than the number of deaths from the 9/11 attacks. If the goal is not to die, we are mistaken to drive when we would otherwise fly.  

We are not always wrong to let individual facts influence our general beliefs about something or someone. It doesn’t matter if a person doesn’t murder people as a general rule; one murder is enough to justify a generally negative opinion of him. And of course we are not justified in dismissing particularly salient events if it turns out that they are norm. This is the whole point of the saying, “the plural of data is not anecdote” (*It definitely isn't! What is the plural of data?) . There is a reason why we collect proper data instead of just telling compelling stories.

There are plenty of cases where the visceral, detailed events seem to directly contradict what the data tells us. In these cases we need to actively resist the emotional force of particular events and let more impersonal, abstract truths guide our beliefs. Failure to do this has bad consequences, like massive overreaction to terror attacks.

But if you agree with all this, in what other areas do you think we tend to make the same mistake?

Friday, August 24, 2012


Something that has bugged me for ages is the hero worship of Noam Chomsky. In my most memorable (not because it was good, it wasn't unfortunately) post I dismissed Chomsky as having lost his mind. I think it's obvious that he's lost his mind, but people, especially young clever people still adore him and it really irritates me.

Anyway, I came across this exchange the other week between Chomsky and another annoyingly liberal columnist George Monbiot. I imagine there are many (like literally hundreds of thousands) people who are big fans of both men, so I found this hilarious. I hope it made Chomsky fans squirm a bit.

Inspired, I decided to actualy check out one of the disputes for myself. In 2005 Chomsky was voted the worlds greatest public intellectual in a Prospect poll. They also published articles for and against Chomsky. In the against article Kamm quote Chomsky from his first book, “what is needed [in the US] is a kind of denazification.”

Chomsky likes to reply to his critics and had this to say in his response, "Proceeding further to demonstrate my “central” doctrine, Kamm misquotes my statement that “We have to ask ourselves whether what is needed in the US is dissent – or denazification.”"

This struck me a weird thing for Chomsky to do because it was pretty high profile (as far as these things go I guess) and is easy to check. So I did. Kamm's quote is correct and Chomsky's is "not even wrong", since he just quotes another part of the page.The bit Kamm quoted is right there on the page. So Chomsly misquotes his own book in a high profile exercise in moaning about people misquoting him.

Now obviously denazification could be exactly what Americans need, and he does kind of suggest it even as he moans about the misquote, but there is no possible way that he is not deliberatly trying to mislead his readers into believing that he didn't actually say that. It took me less than 5 minutes to check, but I guess he knows that hans fans don't do that kind of thing, and those that do don't care because his genaral point "still stands", or something.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Since I've been giving him a hard time recently I figure I may as well pile on.

Just like I don't much care that Agassi was on crystal meth I don't much care if Tiger had an affair. I'm more interested in how he deals with it. If you're gonna make a billion dollars turning yourself into a walking, talking brand then the pleas for privacy sound lame to me. I discovered that he named his yacht Privacy which strikes me as obnoxious. It's not like he goes easy on reporters or fans when they violate his rules on the golf course, so I don't see why he feels entitled to anything. He's a celebrity, he knows the rules.

I also think it's funny that they're sticking to the story that she smashed the rear window in order to get to him. Hey maybe that's what really happened, but it strikes me as massively implausible.


A common response to the motoons was to emphasize how wrong they were but also to denounce the violent response. I?m not sure if that is a defense of free speech or not, the issue is whether the motoons should have been legal not whether murder in response is good. I assume that it is mostly some sort of groveling apologetic defense of free speech, often preferring to focus on the evil of the cartoons. In other words very understanding and indulgent of the reaction and it makes me a little queasy. Anyway take a look at this

Monday, December 21, 2009


Given that this is my second post of December I realise this is a bit of a case of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, but it's probably worth making it a little more formal. I don't plan to do much blogging in the forseeable future.

Obviously I could have a change of heart at any second and if there are still any readers checking the site for updates, my recommendation is that you add me to your RSS feed. On a related note, if you don't have an RSS feed you should set one up! I use Google Reader but there are others...

Blogger says this is my 942nd post but it counts unposted drafts which I can't be bothered to count so it's probably in the low 900s. I've always appreciated (and been flattered by) the fact that anybody would come back after a few visits, so thanks!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

the three gorges dam

Trevor's being pleasingly indoctrinated in libertarian theology by Virginia Postrel and is talking about it on his blog. Most recently he wonders about the value of grand projects like the Three Gorges Dam in China.

Way back Trevor defended projects like this and, though the post is sceptical, it still sounds like he's tempted by them.

The project reminds me of District 6, which is remembered as one of the greater injustices of apartheid. We're not conflicted about this big government project because it was racist and evil in concept as well as having bad consequences. But surely the main problem was that it was forcing people to leave their homes; it messed with a functioning community and all the individuals lives. Without this you don't have a great crime.

I know that the goals in China seem nobler, but if you're forcing people to move how can you avoid the same evils? I'm not denying that the benefits may be great, but our moral intuitions usually oppose harming one person to benefit another if the harm is very large (we're okay with taxes and other smaller things).

Friday, November 20, 2009

the new south africa

Seeing hundreds of chickens crammed into a truck or attached in some ingenious way to a bike or something is a reasonably common sight in poor countries. Today I saw a slightly different version of this. A shiny new polo packed with hundreds of chickens crowding the driver. It really looked very odd. I wish I could have gotten a photo.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Friday, November 06, 2009

killing orcs

In my post on Iglourious Basterds I said
In a way I think we're being tempted to indulge in sick fantasies and think it's OK because it's happening to Nazi's.
I think I should have left out the "in a way". That's how the film was (misleadingly) marketed.

The idea of righteously slaughtering enemies does seem to appeal to us. Lot's of fiction panders to this. It always bothered me in Lord of the Rings the way killing orcs is treated. It's one thing to kill them in war when they're the aggressors, but orc slaughter is often treated as a good thing in itself even when a particular orc isn't threatening. Humans are encouraged not to show mercy or take prisoners because of how mean the orcs are. We're okay with it because they really are nasty pieces of work, they're literally created that way! specifically so we don't feel bad about enjoying their suffering. It's not like individual orcs have a choice in anything, what if some of them were sensitive poets, what the hell are they supposed to do? Defect to the humans? Yeah right.

Orcs are not just bloodthirsty and hate filled, they're ugly and smell bad. Even though they're pretty intelligent, we're encouraged to think of them as lower than animals and that it's a moral duty to exterminated them. A service done for the world and the future. Given what we know about how humans treat outsiders and how genocides usually proceed in real life, is it wrong of me to find this a bit creepy?

(I know it's "just fantasy" and I am a big LOTR fan. But I do think it's true that films like this are appealing to a dark side of our nature.)

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The first derivative of belief

I'd say the two main questions I have in mind when I blog are, "what can I as a layman do to make my beliefs more reliably true?" and, "what things are important to think about".

Recently I though of a way of conceptualising trying to deal with both goals in choosing what to write and think about. Imagine a function defined by the difference between what I believe and what people in my social circle actually believe. I blog with the intention of maximising the first derivative of this function (setting the second derivative to zero). This could involve me changing my mind or people I know changing theirs, either way.

So take beliefs about global warming, I agree with basically everyone that it's happening and humans are responsible, so f(t) = 0 and this has been stable for some time so f'(t) = 0 too. So I don't blog about it. When I watched An Inconvenient Truth, see yet another global warming book on the shelves or watch a nature documentary I get frustrated, not because I disagree with the factual stuff, but because everybody already knows and agrees!! I'm guessing that this kind of book/documentary would often be defended on the grounds that many people (like republicans) are global warming deniers. This is true, but if changing their minds is the goal, why are these products so nasty about these people? So I think I come off as a climate sceptic, but I disagree mostly with the approach many environmentalists take to the debate (I think the mainstream should more about carbon taxes than drowning polar bears). So since my beliefs about that topic are different and that's what I'm more interested in talking about.

My beliefs about god are very different from most people I know so f(t) = (large amount), but this difference is also pretty stable so f'(t) = 0. So I don't blog about it much anymore. I used to blog about it more, but that's because I hoped to convince people to change their beliefs. I may still want that, but accepting that it's not going to happen lead to less blogging and thinking about that.

Immigration, economics, politics and vegetarianism are all topics where my beliefs are very different from most of the people I know and I believe that there is more scope for some convergence in views (my views on economics and politics are more fluid than my views on immigration and vegetarianism, so I don't always blog with the sole intention of changing other views to mine).

monetizing eyeballs

Was just relistening to an old Will Wilkinson podcast and one of the topics was how Facebook was going to make money. At the time of the podcast Facebook had tons of traffic but not all that much revenue. It's an issue of monetizing eyeballs you see.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


I feel like I'm in danger of raging against an argument that nobody makes. But I've been so annoyed by Oliver Kamm's objections to wikipedia for so long that I may as well just get it out of my system a bit. Here are some of the things he's said

Wikipedia deserves worse than contumely and derision, for it is pernicious in conception rather than merely flawed in execution.
I accept of course that there are many good articles alongside others that are a total disgrace... But the balance of good and bad articles is beside the point. The ethos of Wikipedia is destructive, because it is by design a forum that anyone can join in. Knowledge isn't democratic.
Beside the point?!!?? How can the fact that there are millions or great entries be beside the point!?? His complaint would carry some weight if the good and bad articles were randomly distributed, but they're not. Entries on the merits of some fancy new pharmaceutical or the crisis in the middle east are going to be less trustworthy than entries giving biographical info about some moderately famous person or the basic info and summary of a movie.

I suppose the fact that it's as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica is also beside the point, because any particular bit could be deliberatly change to something wrong.

A source of an amazing range of information (as well as information about where to get further information) that's as likely to be right as most other sources. Yip, better get rid of it.


Crystal meth is not a performance enhancing drug. Agassi was taking it in 1997 which were not, to put it mildly, his glory days. He started the year ranked no. 8 and ended it ranked no. 110.

But the tennis doping body "wants answers".

People also got very upset that Marina Hingis took cocain.

Remind me again why nobody cared that Obama took cocain? If we get all upset about a tennis player taking drugs in the distant past, why don't we care about the president taking drugs in the distant past.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

(Moderate spoiler alert)

Saw it last night and I found it a weird sort of experience. I fell asleep for a chunk of it (it's long and often quite boring), but also I was also strangely gripped while I was awake. I was glad that it ended the way it did; if you choose a fantasy route, you may as well go all the way. Mostly I just felt repulsed, but in a dazed, attentive sort of way.

In a way I think we're being tempted to indulge in sick fantasies and think it's OK because it's happening to Nazi's. At least that's how it tries to sell itself, but it's weirder than that.

Here's what Tyler Cowen said, which is interesting, but a little difficult to make out. Steve Sailer's take is longer, easier to understand and also interesting.

cool quote

From Slavoj Žižek, I don't know much about him but I see his books in Exclusive Books. I think he's a radical leftist and Stalin and Mao apologist.
We shouldn't fetishise democracy - after all, you can have democratic elections where the majority votes for a rightist populist, and when it does, you have the right to treat the government as illegitimate. I don't think that this formal electoral procedure should be taken as equalling legitimacy.
in the same interview he says
I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn't afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it. Do whatever is possible.
In other words, kill people who disagree with you, they deserve it.

Friday, October 30, 2009


A few weeks ago we the matrics had their valedictory. Since there are only 13 of them, each student got to hear a little speech about themselves and an award at the end. One got a toy microphone because he talks so much, etc.

At the end of the ceremony the matrics gave each of the teachers an award too in the same spirit. I won the "meat" award because I'm a pescetarian (they actually used that word) and I was presented with some wors. Ever since then I've had kids coming to me asking why I'm a vegetarian and then explaining why that's a stupid reason. They usually extremely confident (otherwise they wouldn't approach me, especially the ones I don't teach) that their point refutes my position.

What is it about vegetarianism that inspires this kind of reaction? The matrics know I'm a vegetarian because I went up the Orange River with them so they saw me avoiding meat. It gets mentioned in front of the school and then people investigate further why? It's not exactly like I've shoved it in their faces. But it still gets people so worked up.

I'm also unsure if people expect they're making a point I hadn't heard before when they tell me that humans have incisors. I can't tell.

we are doomed

is a book Tyler is reading. I like the title a lot. Apparently it's not about global warming (which is what I immediately thought of) but cultural decline. This is a view I don't really get, but I'm used to it. But apparently the author's complaint is that popular culture today doesn't measure up to exalted standards of... Carol Burnett and Saturday Night Fever. Huh?

I don't know exactly what's going through this guys head, but I imagine he's mentally comparing Carol Burnett to Jerry Springer and Cheaters not The Wire and Rome. There is just so much great stuff to watch these days that I think it's embarrassing to make such a display of your own ignorance.

It's a variant on people moaning about blogs for being self indulgent opinionated crap*. This may describe most blogs including mine, but there are lots of good blogs out there. I sometimes get the impression that these people think that being a blog reader necessarily means reading blogs chosen at random.

I wonder why people who deplore pop culture today find the idea of making some sort of effort to find good stuff so offensive. The point of reading or watching high quality stuff isn't that it's easy surely, so why demand that a randomly chosen example meet your high standards. Why isn't it enough that it's there and can be found by those who care to look?

*I'm prepared to defend this aspect of the bloggosphere to a certain extent too.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

war and noble savages

I'm one of the people who think that humans are naturally pretty violent and that modern society constrains this tendency. I think that when tribes fought with each other it usually had a very bloody outcome. Many people disagree and think humans are naturally peaceful and that modern society has corrupted us into becoming more violent. The noble savage vision of humans.

I've often heard and read that when hunter gather tribes fought it was mostly ceremonial and conflict would generally end when the first person was killed. The thing that strikes me about this vision, is that it is still extremely violent but modern standards!

Assuming this view of tribal war is true, and these confrontations happened every couple of years, most people would end up seeing several of their tribe members killed in these ceremonial battles over their lifetimes, which if you scaled up to modern populations would result in astronomical death rates.

America is a violent place by developed country standards with a murder rate of about 10 per one hundred thousand people per year. Having that murder rate in a hunter gatherer society would mean that a typical person would never know anyone who was killed.

The noble savage account is still pretty damn savage.

Monday, October 26, 2009

the trivial benefits of consumer culture

I find a common pattern emerging in discussions I have about the merits of the free market. It's a feature of stuff produced in the market (I think) that there are trends towards variety in products and each individual product generally getting better, in quality and features. I already feel myself getting into trouble as I think many people will object to the quality claim and think that increased choice is actually a bad thing. But let's say we grant the premise.

Recently I used TV series as an example of this trend and my friend agreed that they were getting better and that there are lots of them but claimed that the benefits were trivial and so didn't matter.

But even if we grant that the benefits are trivial to each individual, it doesn't follow that they don't matter in the grand scheme of things and I think this attitude is where we can easily get into trouble.

In politics I think it's really easy to get into the habit of seeing any individual expense as a negligible part of total spending. A corrupt official might rationalise his corruption as costing each taxpayer only 5 cents. Even homeless people wouldn't miss 5 cents! It doesn't make a difference to anyone else but it makes a big difference to me! I doubt this is the exact thought process but I'm sure something of this attitude is involved. It's very different emotionally if there are highly visible victims.

But when it comes to politicians, I think we can agree that stealing a million rand from the general taxpayer should be treated with the same severity as stealing a million from only a few people. It's really important to establish the convention against corruption because a generally corrupt government is terrible for a country's citizens even if a single instance isn't a big deal.

Similarly, trivial benefits widely spread do add up. And while we wouldn't (and don't) notice if one of these benefits vanishes (or fails to materialise), we should take seriously the protection of the system that encourages these trivial benefits to proliferate.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


The Chesterhouse prize giving was a couple of weeks ago. One of the awards was to the winner of our history essay contest who spoke about his essay. The topic was Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement in the run up to the second world war.

It was the standard story that I was taught and exists in the popular consciousness. Chamberlain was a coward who could have prevented the second world war if he'd invaded Germany after Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland. Even though I know the story I'd forgotten the sheer amount of contempt for Chamberlain. I shouldn't have, the word appeasement is still dirty and most people know where it comes from.

What struck me most about the talk is how uneasily this view sits with anti-Iraq war opinion. I think the standard story is more or less right in each case, but it's more or less the same story in each case.

I think the moral of the story is that there are no easy answers in situations like this. There's just a choice between bad options.

My impression is that many people are perfectly comfortable with this tension.

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