Friday, February 23, 2007

some questions

Why are people so irrational when it comes to politics? A possible evolutionary argument is that it was often a matter of life or death to be on the right side of a decision affecting the tribe. To be convincing in your arguments you have to be utterly convinced yourself. Our suspicion of foreigners is a case where our evolutionary heritage was probably important; tribes that were friendly to outsiders probably got killed by them. This is the answer I'd go for, but I'm also suspicious of this kind of evolutionary argument.

Why is free speech such a firmly established principle in western societies? Even people trying to undermine it usually pay lip service to the principle. What makes it different from other forms of freedom that are not generally accepted in western countries? It's easy for libertarians to get depressed about politics because nobody agrees with us :( But free speech should be enough to make us smile.

some tips

If you want to be a great intellectual one day, you probably shouldn't spend your mornings singing to the cat. You should also avoid finishing off your persuasive philosophical argument against an imaginary foe with the phrase, "blah blah blah".

Thought it might come in handy.


How does America look to people living in desperately poor countries? Do they spend their time longing to be like Paris Hilton or Brad Pitt, or do they just like the idea of being able to afford nice food and a TV?

Another way of putting it is; how concerned are Somalians about American inequality? Not much would be my guess, why the hell should they be? This might be a pointless exercise, but imagine traveling back in time to have a word with an average member of the proletariat. Tell him that after 150 years of capitalism the average worker (who will still be classified as poor) will work fewer hours than bourgeois scum (many will choose not to work) yet still live in 3 bedroom houses (not overcrowded) and be able to afford plenty of good food and nice clothes. Then explain all the cool gadgets that he will own, the medical care he will receive and holidays he could enjoy.

Then explain that rich people will still have LOTS more wealth. This extra wealth is normally spent on better health care, gadgets and holidays. It will probably not be possible to explain the differences in quality but I have my doubts that leather seats and wide screens will really outrage our coal shoveller. I think he would be astounded that these people will still be referred to as poor (assuming you can convince him that it’s true).

The idea that a poor worker from 1850 would damn 2007 America because of inequality is bizarre.


Compare these statements:

  • The vast majority of violent criminals are men.
  • The vast majority of men are not violent criminals.
Both these statements are true. What does this allow us to say about men in general?


People are status conscious. They care about their rank in society’s pecking order and being at the bottom is bad news. Some lefties argue that only inequality within a society is important not between societies (this allows them to maintain strict immigration controls and argue that nice, just societies can be significantly poorer than the US and UK, yay!).

The obvious way to fix this problem is too import lots of people who would be happy to be on the bottom rung of society and unlikely to be able to leapfrog current citizens within a generation. All pre-immigration citizens would immediately have their relative social status improved. Their wages may decrease slightly, but that should be compensated for by the satisfaction gained by suddenly earning more than others.

The trouble with this is that some immigrants work really hard which means they earn more than “natives”. Not only do these people not help the status of natives, they probably make them feel bad, “why does he earn more than me when he can’t speak English and never went to school?”

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Overcoming bias is one of the best blogs out there, reading it makes think about bias all the time. Bias everywhere!

One bias that seems to especially common and outrageous to me is the way people talk about capitalism and socialism (or Marxism).

So many people fall over themselves to say that “true socialism” hasn’t been tried yet and that Marx would be horrified by the distortion of his message etc.

When the same people talk about capitalism they explain that, in theory, the invisible hand does such and such but then emphasize the theory bit, "because it doesn’t quite work out that way in practice."

Doesn't the whole defense of Marx rest on theory rather than practice? Does comparing real world socialist experiments with capitalist experiments really giver heart to socialists? What am I missing?

This little rant was triggered by browsing this book by Jeremy Stangroom who I have always thought very highly of.

Dan Dennett says that weakness often resides in rhetorical questions, I finish off with two.

problem of evil

I recently wondered why theists are so unconcerned by the problem of evil and commented on the weirdness of the responses. Cristi asks:
surely you've read the philophies that try to answer that question? and i'm not talking about one's that include fallen angels.
This is exactly the attitude I find so strange (assuming I understand Cristi correctly).

There are many, many answers to the problem of evil (I've only read a few), some of them are less weird than others but even Christian philosophers who have no problem dismissing the theory of evolution by natural selection agree that the argument from evil is a very powerful. Religious philosophers believe it has been refuted, atheistic philosophers disagree but I have never been able to get a theist to take the argument seriously (this could be because of me I suppose).

Incidentally, Christopher Hitchens also dismisses the argument and he's more militant in his atheism than I am.

BMT? Maybe he's just lazy

Here's an interesting, offensive article. Apparently female tennis players are more likely to make unforced errors on important points than other points. This is interesting, but I'm more interested in the fact that men are as likely to make unforced errors on every point.

When pundits talk about big match temperament (BMT) I usually take it as a sign of a lack of professionalism rather than a special ability. If someone is capable of "stepping it up" in the big moments he's capable of stepping it up every moment but doesn't for some reason. I think that some players are just very good and can afford to slack off half the time, so it doesn't surprise me that players with “BMT” are often great players because they’re the ones who get away with it.

If my theory is true then BMT isn’t actually something to be proud of.

As athletes get paid more, competition gets stiffer and players become more professional. There’s a big incentive to play your best on every point. It looks like this has happened for male player. Maybe women’s tennis just isn’t competitive enough.

I’m not sure why both men and women play more defensively on big points though.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Creative destruction

I recently read Tyler Cowen’s book on the effect of globalization on world culture. He tries to explain both the good effects and the bad effects. When he deals with the good effects his arguments are well reasoned, his methodology sound and his facts correct. When he deals with the supposed ill effects of globalization on culture however, everything falls apart, it seems that he will include any story if it counts against globalization.

I'm being silly of course, though I was quite shocked by his trashing of Silence of the Lambs.

The book's balance probably prevents it from reaching a wider audience. I wish lecturers in humanities departments would read it; I wonder how they would respond to a book broadly praising the effects of globalization on culture written by someone so passionate about the culture that globalization is supposed to be destroying.

Here are some of the points I can now remember (I should have written them down at the time):

  • Most of the cultural products that we now worry about only exist because of the integration of different cultures.
  • Homogenizing effects usually occur along with increasing diversity. The best places to find obscure books or musical recordings are often in Virgin Megastores or Waterstones outlets. As a language dies out other languages often adopt some of its features and become larger and richer.
  • Cultural diversity between different areas diminishes but diversity within cultures increases, so individuals have larger choices to satisfy their particular tastes.
  • As a cultural form dies out, ways of thinking caused by that culture die with them destroying particular types of creativity. Cross-cultural contact could reduce global diversity. Cowen suggests that it might be best for Americans if some cultures remain untouched by modernity so long as they can enjoy their cultural products, though he doesn’t think this is best for the people living in those cultures.

I imagine that a lot of people have this last point in mind when criticizing globalization. It almost seems like he’s giving into the critics but right at the end of the book he says:

Cosmopolitanism must resort to a value judgment to overcome the force of this critique. I will define this value judgment as the view that poorer societies should not be required to serve as diversity slaves [emphasis in original]
This is what I’ve thought when people complain that traveling to different places is not as interesting as it once may have been. This is true and may be regrettable, but entertaining rich tourists isn't a good reason to stop globalization.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


I stole a pen from the UCT office I registered in.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

religion and violence

In the comments Cristi says:
I think you have to want to commit a violent act first.
GT and I are more inclined to place the blame squarely on religion's shoulders. Here is my attempt to agree with Cristi (without changing my views of course).

The vast majority of individuals in all populations are non-violent and it's difficult to prod most of them to violence. Violent acts are usually committed by young male losers. There are always people on the margins of crime who judge the costs and benefits of violence to be equal. If murder or rapes rates go up, the extra murders and rapes are likely being committed by those people on the margins, the ones who initially had the greatest propensity to violence. This is probably true no matter what the extra incentive to violence is. Incentives could include rising rates of return to violence, few available women or texts that appear to demand violent acts.

So Cristi is probably right that those who fly planes into building were naturally more inclined to violence than most people, but that doesn’t mean that religious ideology isn’t the thing that pushed them over the edge.

Addendum: There's not my context given for Cristi's quote above. This would have been better
I don't think people commit violence just because their ideolgy says that it's okay to do so. I think you have to want to commit a violent act first.

Monday, February 12, 2007

problem of evil

I recently commented on theists’ attitude to the problem of evil. By far the weirdest articles I find are theodicy's countering the problem, I doubt there are many other academic topics where fallen angles feature prominently. Here's a new one.

random quotes

Arnold Kling found a nice quote from Milton Friedman:
The two chief enemies of the free society or free enterprise are intellectuals on the one hand and businessmen on the other, for opposite reasons. Every intellectual believes in freedom for himself, but he’s opposed to freedom for others.…He thinks…there ought to be a central planning board that will establish social priorities.…The businessmen are just the opposite—every businessman is in favor of freedom for everybody else, but when it comes to himself that’s a different question. He’s always the special case. He ought to get special privileges from the government, a tariff, this, that, and the other thing…
This one is from Marginal Revolution. In response to this quote
Private insurance would be available through a mechanism Edwards calls "Health Markets."
a reader writes
Did anyone else crack up at reading this? Let me guess:

"Patients and insurers will reward health care providers with what Edwards calls 'Money.' Americans will monitor their health through what Edwards calls 'Doctor Visits.' They will secure access to this money through a mechanism Edwards calls 'Having a Job.' Decision to provide or purchase various medical service will be determined by what Edwards calls 'Supply and Demand.' People will arrive at health care providers in what Edwards calls 'Vehicles.'"


I love technology, I really do. But I still reserve a special kind of hatred for technology that screws up for no goddamned reason…

Friday, February 09, 2007

can crimes be motivated by atheism?

Atheists like to claim that religion is behind things like the crusades and 9/11. Theists like to claim that atheism is behind most of the greatest crimes of the 20th century. Here's an article that makes the latter case:
The crimes of atheism have generally been perpetrated through a hubristic ideology that sees man, not God, as the creator of values. Using the latest techniques of science and technology, man seeks to displace God and create a secular utopia here on earth.
It's true that if God doesn't exist then we have to think about ethics for ourselves and people will choose different visions, but what does atheism itself have to do with the particular moral system chosen? Atheism doesn't cause anything and atheists certainly are not trying to displace God. The argument quoted only makes sense to me if you already believe in God, which atheists don't.

Atheism signifies which belief does not exist in the atheist mind. Whatever you say about "true religion" there are bits of paper saying various things, is it really controversial to suggest that the "true" meaning is not immediately obvious to everybody?

Are there other reasons why atheism is the driving force behind evil acts?

Philosophy of religion

Issues that should be possible to resolve but turn out not to be:
  • Was Hitler an atheist?
  • Do atheists need faith to be atheists?
  • When is it appropriate to use the terms atheist and agnostic?
  • My personal issue; why are believers so unconcerned about the problem of evil?


What is Jane's point? I eventually followed all the bloody links but I can't work it out. She ponders Ampersand's (?) question:
Should criticizing (and even making fun of) the political positions of the Catholic church, the Pope, and the conservative Christian movement be “within the window” of acceptable views? Or should criticizing the Pope — even on perfectly true grounds, such as pointing out that he supports pro-life and anti-gay policies — be outside the window of what it’s politically acceptable to say and to criticize?
and says
... my admittedly limited knowledge of Non-Coastal-Elite-America indicates that in most of the country, slagging off the Pope, or indeed making fun of religion qua religion, is mostly verboten.
Oh, so that's settled then. She then goes on about how stupid atheists are for disagreeing with views often derived from religion simply because of their religious origin.

Can anybody with loads of spare time to waste set me straight?

Grammar Greg?


Bloggers I like continue to irritate me. Chris Dillow thinks it is fine for footballers to earn £50,000 a week:
Take Thierry Henry. His wealth is as legitimately earned as you'll see - it comes from his vanquishing evil.
but in the same blog post he goes on to say
I'd rather ask another question of the left. Can you imagine a feasible society in which inequalities are acceptable, and no reason for state action?
I suspect the difference between me and the managerialist left is that I (just about) can.
I take his "just about" to mean that it might be possible but it's unlikely that any existing society will contain justified inequalities. But it's clear that he thinks that Henry deserves more income than other footballers, let alone acursed middle managers. Besides, I didn't think anybody still believed that a just society is a totally equal one, but Chris seems to think that is the standard view of the left. He's also against inheritance rights:
What's more, it's possible that people have a right to the income they earn - it's the self-ownership principle. But it's much less likely... that they have a right to inherit money.
My "right" to inherit money is not the same thing as my parents right to give their money to me, or do whatever the hell else they wnat with it. Its odd comming from a person who thinks people should be able to spend their money on hard drugs and prostitutes (which I agree with).

Whoops, here's the link.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sniper draws mustache on crosshairs

Here’s a funny picture from the Onion:

Atheism vs agnosticism

It's tough to win someone over in the God debate, and I don’t really ever expect to, but I do think it should be possible to make progress on the appropriateness of the terms agnostic and atheist. Apparently this is too much to hope for and people like Jane Galt irritatingly call themselves "agnotheists" and stuff like that.

Anyway, here’s another attempt. At the end of the day most people assign a rough probability to the existence of God. The mysterious nature of God doesn’t change the fact that P(God) is between 0 and 1. So it should be possible to compare your P(god) with some other everyday probability and then choose the everyday probability you consider closest to your P(God) and then use similar language about both probabilities.

For example, P(heads) = 0.5 and I am “agnostic” about the result of the next toss. P(lottery win) is very low and easy to calculate if I buy one ticket. I am not “agnostic” about winning the lottery, I believe I won’t. If I say, “I believe I won’t win the lottery” people won’t jump down my throat because I MIGHT win the lottery; I know I might!

Jane Galt thinks that P(God) is vanishingly small (which is exactly the same as the atheists she finds so objectionable) yet she can’t bring herself to say, “I believe God doesn’t exist” because somehow that would imply that she thought she could prove that P(God) = 0.

Shouldn't she should know that Dennett and Dawkins don’t think they can disprove the existence of God. If she were Christian would she refuse to call herself one because there are some dogmatic, unpleasant Christians?

Sporting greatness

What are the various biases is it important to keep in mind when thinking about sporting greats.
  • The most obvious one is bias towards your particular hero; I’m unlikely to convince anybody that I’m able to overcome this bias.
  • There seems to be a generational bias, particularly in tennis. A currently dominant player is often labeled the greatest, especially by his/her peers.
  • The opposite is sometimes true, I doubt some people will ever be able to admit that someone is greater than Pele (I think this is a particular problem in the arts with people like Shakespeare or Beethoven).
  • Sportsmen are paid MUCH better now than they were 40 years ago and the pool of talent is MUCH bigger. This means it’s likely that super talents are both more likely to exist now and more likely to be recruited into a particular sport.
  • It’s more difficult to truly innovate AND be effective now because almost everything would have been tried as a result of the above factors.
  • Rivalries can distort thinking about greatness. Say Federer was a WORSE player and lost half of the finals he played in. Players like Roddick and Hewitt would be considered potential greats and worthy rivals. Some people would think of Federer more highly as a result of this change which would be ridiculous.
  • Comparisons between today’s top players and past greats will always be difficult because relative incentive structure has changed so drastically.

What have I left out?

I think the best way of comparing top players from different eras would be to read all the match reports written at the time each player was active. Even then it would be important to take into consideration development in the style of sports writing; I’d guess that there is a trend towards reports being more worshipful these days.
Bottom line: In the absence of exceptional cases like Donald Bradman perhaps, it is pretty much impossible to sort these biases out.


I find that I have a lot to say on the topic of sporting greatness. I know this is intensely boring for most people so take note and I apologize in advance.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

federer the great

Roger Federer has now reached 11 consecutive grand slam semifinals and 7 finals. His record in finals is 10-1, better than any other “great” (I’m sure plenty of people have won each of the finals they played in though). This is the second time in two years that he’s won 3 slams in a row and he is the first man to win 3 slams 3 times each.
Some journalists have started to speak of him as the greatest ever rather than the greatest talent (though this is surely based on the expectation of future success). If he never wins another slam, that talk will surely fade away. Some commentators suggest that he will have to win the French open before he can count as one of (!?) the all time greats, though I take them to mean plausibly the greatest ever. I find this odd because Borg is considered by the many of the same people as the greatest ever despite never winning the US open (he was in the final 4 times).

When Federer wins his 11th slam I think there should be a debate about the criteria for tennising greatness. Laver fans will stress the two grand slams which they know are probably safe for a long time to come. Borg fans will emphasize the rivalry from other greats like Connors and McEnroe, his early retirement and dominance on grass as well as clay. There will be a few Sampras people who maintain that the all time slam total is the most important thing. Federer fans will probably emphasize how fast he won his slams.

I’ll blog about sporting greatness again soon.


Sometimes I'm bored by music; I know there are a thousands CDs that I would probably love but I just can't be bothered. Other times I feel like I'm discovering new stuff and just can't wait to try the next thing.

Blogging is the same. Recently I haven't even bothered to read half the blogs on my blogroll (this may seem a little difficult to believe). The past few days there just hasn’t been enough time in the day to keep pace. Of course both states of mind result in limited blog posts…

My beautiful English

Yesterday I was singing the praises of Clint Eastwood's excellent Mystic River to Christelle. She seemed confused and told me that she had never heard of the film. "But it has loads of famous people in it!" I cried. "Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon…" "Ohhhhh… Mystic River! Not Mr. Grivver."

Friday, February 02, 2007

genes, IQ and stuff

Whenever I discuss IQ with Tracy she says something like, "of course some people are brighter than others, but what's the point of measuring it? Why tell people that they're superior?" Well, here's why. Being able to determine a persons intelligence or other attributes should work to the advantage of the stupidest and laziest. Imagine in the future it will be possible to directly test for intelligence, laziness or susceptibility to alcoholism via a brain scan or something (and to predict the probability of your future child suffering from them). Parents could then insure their kids against stupidity. I'm not talking about the kind of stupidity and laziness that I suffer from, I mean the more serious kind. This blog post suggests that homeless people in America often have an extreme lack of conscientiousness rather than victims of gross injustice.

This insurance would only work if these qualities have a large genetic part otherwise it would be too easy to game the system. So if genes are very important it is easier for the unlucky people to cash in.

There are other ways it is better. It's nice to be tall, beautiful and clever, but being tall is not an achievement and is nothing to be proud of. The same thing goes for intelligence, it's just luck. We all figure out pretty quickly who's good at what at school and by overemphasizing the role of hard work in success we encourage talented people to feel morally superior in a way they're not.

The nurture side encourages us to look for bad parents or lazy students where there aren't any. Sometimes there isn't anybody to blame.

Also, making it more expensive for parents to insure high risk kids would be like a non-coercive eugenics as people on the margin chose not to have those kids. This could have big long term effects by (slightly) counteracting the evolutionary effects of people with genetic defects (things like poor eyesight) being able successfully reproduce for the first time ever.