Sunday, December 28, 2008

christmas thought

Last year I was unimpressed by the general level of goodwill on christmas. My theory was that people think that other people should be more tolerant and easygoing, so it makes sense to be more of an asshole than usual.

I've been pondering my theory this christmas season and while I still think I'm on to something, now I'll just speculate that we're more extreme in our behaviour. Some people feel responsible for christmas/holiday spirit, others think everyone else is responsible.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The preferences of liberals

Ticket scalping has long been a textbook example for libertarians; let them scalp the damn tickets! I was an easy target, so I've always been convinced, but I didn't give much thought to what opposition to ticket scalping actually implied. I just read a nice illustration of this issue in one of Samuel Brittan earlier books. He uses the example to illustrate the tension between utilitarianism and liberalism and why liberalism should win. I'll try summarise.

Lots of people want to watch Arsenal play each week, way more than their stadium can accommodate. Management could decide to raise prices as a way of choosing who gets the tickets and to maximise their own profit, but that would upset the vast majority of Arsenal fans. So they decide to sell the tickets cheaply to maintain goodwill (lets say they use a lottery to allocate the tickets among only Arsenal fans instead of first come first serve). Now they could -if they wanted to- use some of the proceeds to compensate the small minority who were willing to pay much more to see the game but now can't because they lost in the lottery. In this case everybody is made happy (except Arsenal's owners, but who cares about them right?). Most people are relieved not to have to agonise over how much they really want to see the game, they all have a shot of watching and the fanatics who were willing to pay lots end up with a bunch of money.

But how about letting the people who won the lottery sell their tickets? Most people also oppose that and you could make everybody happy in exactly the same way as above (give the fanatics even more money). But the two situations are not the same. The first time the lottery saves people who want to watch from the discomfort of thinking how much money they would part with and the anxiety of not knowing whether that would be enough to get a ticket. But the second time, they've already had a chance to get the ticket without stressing, so why prevent people who really want to watch from buying from the lucky ones. Now the preference of the majority is that nobody be allowed to express their own unique preferences, it's nothing to do with their own odds of watching the game.

If you think it's legitimate for the majority to prevent the tickets from being resold (and most liberals do), on what grounds would you argue that we should discount the preference of people who would prefer that nobody ever engaged in gay sex?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

outliers

Once apon a time I just knew I wouldn't like Borat. Usually when I'm sure I won't like a movie I just don't watch it and this stragey has served me well. But when people started talking about how it was this devestating critique of American society I just couldn't contain my disagreement. Ah! But of course I couldn't understand the critique if I didn't watch it! So I watched it, and I as not surprised.

You can see where I'm going with this. I haven't read Outliers, or the Tipping Point (I started it, but quickly gave up), or Blink, yet I'm not a Malcolm Gladwell fan. I'm confident I won't be impressed by Outliers. Usually I wouldn't care, but I feel obiged because of what a guru he's often presented as, so I guess I'll have to read the book.

It's easy to pinpoint where he lost me as a potential fan. It was here. He's responding to criticism from Megan McArdle. I didn't (and still don't) like the tone of his post. But I still can't really believe how he tried to resolve the disagreement, which was basically that this random blogger was disagreeing, not with him, but with two "exceedingly prestigious" Harvard economists.

I have two problems with this. First, he shouldn't pretend that these were not also his conclusions as he seems to when he says, ""Gladwell" does not attribute Irish success to falling birth rates. David Bloom and David Canning do." but what I really don't get is how he planned to respond when he discovered that another two economists disagreed. Would he be astonished? Would he immediately abandon his position?

Anyway, I enjoyed this post by Clive Crook which sounds about right to me. There's a definite tone here too, but that's ok because I agree with him:
The man has a nose for interesting tales, I grant you, but his unfailing combination of intellectual parasitism, credulity, false modesty, and self-importance repels me. In “Tipping Point”, “Blink” and those of his New Yorker pieces I have read, the formula is always the same: find a scholarly opinion; sanctify said opinion with Gladwellian approval (transforming it from a disputed theory to something “we now know”)...

... As for the idea that nature and nurture are both involved in determining one’s success or failure–am I asked to believe that this is a new insight, for heaven’s sake? I learn from other reviews that Gladwell has also arrived, through the research for this book, at the discovery that “practice makes perfect”. Yes, I was surprised too; once again conventional wisdom is turned on its head. There is a rather important academic paper about it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

what'll happen when we get defrosted?

In the comments Trevor worries about us being resurrected as slaves, or at least being a notch down on the food chain relative to transhumans or posthumans.

These worries were prompted by Tyler's post on why he's not signing up for cryonics. I don't think Tyler's worrying about how he'd be treated by the people who reanimate us (though that's part of it), but I've come across the concern a few times recently and I don't get it.

I realise that some people on the left may find this hilarious, but rich countries have already established strongly enforced laws and social norms against slavery. The reemergence of slavery in America or Europe is way down on the list of Things I Worry About.

Why would these transhumans go to the trouble of reanimating us, but not offer us the upgrades that make them so smart? We are paying for this stuff.

I think it's weird that -common in alien invasion movies too- we find advanced, super smart civilizations so threatening. As humans have gotten smarter and richer our moral circle has expanded, why would it suddenly contract if we got even smarter and richer?

more cryonics

Thinking about cryonics has never taken up much of my time. I'm not proud or ashamed of this, but compared to the other things that we lavish attention on I really do think it's pretty worthy.

I've posted before about the tragedy of talented people essentially wasting their lives, but I don't see how cryonics is one of those things that people are wasting their time on. Cryonics concerns a Big Issue and if you decide to sign up it doesn't take much time. Once you're signed up you can just forget about it. A few hours of time for a non-negligible chance of significantly expanding the duration and quality of your life.

Tyler Cowen disagrees
My current view is this: one's attention is extremely scarce and limited, as are one's affiliations. Insofar as you have the luxury of thinking "bigger thoughts," those thoughts should be directed at helping others, not at helping oneself. The real opportunity cost of cryonics is not just the money but whatever else you would have done with that intellectual energy.
Right. You could entertain yourself for days discovering what Tyler has expended intellectual energy on but I think it should be enough to note that Tyler is a big fan of chess. He's spent enough time playing and studying it that he can follow world championship level matches. I think this is great and all, but it does seems strange that he doesn't approve of people spending time thinking about the length and quality of their lives.

Also if Tyler endorsed cryonics he could probably induce quite a few people to sign up who wouldn't have otherwise, which would count as helping other people wouldn't it?

Tyler's post gets weirder. Robin Hanson responds here.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Roger Federer Turns Out To Be Awful Tennis Player

Federer's season was very disappointing. Without entertaining myself by trying to explain it away (which can legitimately be done to a certain extent), it's worth noting that he's still the No. 2 player in the world! The player ahead of him is closer to the peak of his career than Federer and is actually quite good. It's not like he's in free fall, he ended the year better than he started it.

I'm too sensitive about criticism of Federer, but some Important People have been suggesting that he retire. I'm glad that the Onion agrees with me about how stupid this is.
"After he convincingly won five straight Wimbledons, and three majors apiece in 2004, 2006, and 2007, I thought he was actually a passable player. However, it turns out that was all a fluke and he is terrible," Boston Globe columnist Bud Collins wrote last July after Federer finished an execrable second at Wimbledon. "I would rather saw off my own leg than have to watch Roger Federer play what he calls 'tennis.'" Federer's year was made worse when, after being unable to defeat Novak Djokovic in straight sets during their U.S. Open semifinals match, professional golfer Tiger Woods called Federer and ended their friendship.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Cute

Is the credit crunch suitable for children? Tim Harford has just the thing, a story of Consumerella who's credit rating turns into a pumpkin at midnight.
Once upon a time, there was a blameless girl called Consumerella, who didn’t have enough money to buy all the lovely things she wanted. She went to her Fairy Godmother, who called a man called Rumpelstiltskin who lived on Wall Street and claimed to be able to spin straw into gold. Rumpelstiltskin sent the Fairy Godmother the recipe for this magic spell. It was written in tiny, tiny writing, so she did not read it but hoped the Sorcerers’ Exchange Commission had checked it...

... All seemed lost until Santa Claus and his helpers, men with implausible fairy-tale names such as Darling and Bernanke, began handing out presents. It was only in January that Consumerella’s credit card statement arrived and she discovered that Santa Claus had paid for the gifts by taking out a loan in her name. They all lived miserably ever after. The End.

Ha!

Within -what felt like- 10 minutes of posting my bit on cryonics, Eliezer had this to say
I know more people who are planning to sign up for cryonics Real Soon Now than people who have actually signed up. I expect that more people have died while cryocrastinating than have actually been cryopreserved. If you've already decided this is a good idea, but you "haven't gotten around to it", sign up for cryonics NOW. I mean RIGHT NOW
Ummm... Well, I do feel like an idiot now, but I'm still not going to sign up just yet. I can afford to, but if I did so much my income would be taken up by sensible stuff that life would feel a bit dull. Some of the sensible stuff is compulsory and some of it is backed up by some pretty established social norms. How does diverting money from medical aid to cryonics sound? Not so good? Didn't think so.

Friday, December 12, 2008

"I can't help you with that!"

This is possibly my favourite "incredulous stare" moment (I've blogged it before). That was Greg's response to my claim that I was serious in my recommendation that he freeze himself in the hope of being reanimated sometime in the future (cryonics).

Robin Hanson has a post up on cryonics. I'm struck by how few people have signed up. Only a thousand people are signed up and only a hundred are actually frozen. Given how many billions of dollars are thrown away every year on pointless medical treatments it's crazy that cryonics is still viewed with such suspicion.

So, why haven't you signed up yet?

I haven't signed up yet but I will if I ever start earning any money. Maybe I'll trade my kidney for a lifetime cryonics policy...

Saturday, December 06, 2008

three times is a trend right?

I've seen three men with mullets in the past two weeks. Three swaggering jocks, one with a pretty, dolled up girlfriend on his arm.

What. The. Hell.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

beyond parody

I've been meaning to blog about an exchange Will Wilkinson had with Brian Leiter a while back. It's really doing my head in, Leiter is a bigshot philosopher who is just ridiculously mean about people he disagrees with. Leiter hasn't lost his mind like Chomsky seems to have (Leiter loves Chomsky though) and he's not like Michael Moore or Naomi Klein so I'm trying desperately to understand how he can be so uncharitable to people he disagrees with without simply dismissing him. I know people find it mystifying that I care so much, but I guess I'm just weird.

Anyway, I was browsing his blog and came across this

More Fun with Ayn Rand

Via this German blog, I am reminded that the 2008 Philosophical Lexicon has an amusing entry on the pseudo-philosopher du jour:


rand, n. An angry tirade occasioned by mistaking philosophical disagreement for a personal attack and/or evidence of unspeakable moral corruption. "When I questioned his second premise, he flew into a rand." Also, to attack or stigmatise through a rand. "When I defended socialised medicine, I was randed as a communist."
This is an accurate description of Rand, but it describes Leiter's blogging style so perfectly that I'm stunned at his lack of self-awareness (when I e-mailed Leiter about his exchange with Will, he attributed a slip Will made to animus). Obviously I know he doesn't think this of himself but it's jarring to read him faulting someone else so specifically.

Here's a taste of Leiter's style
It is perhaps worth remembering that the “conservatives” of each prior era in America in the last century were, without an exception I can recall, on the morally reprehensible side of every major social and economic issue:
Yip, conservatives loved communist mass slaughter. I know how Leiter would respond; either that all liberals were on the same side and he meant issue where liberals and conservatives were on different sides. Either that or conservatives were only on the right side for morally reprehensible reasons (I'm not kidding!). But you get the idea; in all debates, without exception conservatives have been morally reprehensible.

Added: On the off chance that you're a reader who skims my posts but doesn't read the comments, Leiter responded in the comments. Three of the comments are his.

And here's my name.

Stuart Torr.

maybe things really are going to the dogs

Recently a beggar asked me for money while urinating.

A few days later I heard someone answer his cellphone in his little stall in the Cavendish restroom and he flushed while still on the call.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

So, I've been evicted...

In a rather dramatic turn of events, my apartment building has been condemned and I've got till Friday to move out (I found out last Friday).

Last night I attended this endless meeting with other tenants, 4 (!) people from the letting agent, the owners mother and the owners lawyer. In two hours I learned nothing concrete, though I do have a clearer idea of what's going to happen in the next few days.

I feel a little guilty that this isn't affecting me as badly as it is the rest of the tenants. I'm lucky, it's an inconvenience but I'm glad to avoid paying rent in December. One of my neighbour's has been living there for over 30 years, she's very old and has lots of stuff. Many people had been living there for years; to be evicted on such short notice really, really sucks.

We were reassured that we'd get our deposits back, once they've inspected the flats, which is very gracious. It is reasonable to do the inspections on the ground floor, where I am, because these flats are not really affected by the damaged roof, but it's funny to think of people scrutinising my flat with a fine tooth comb just after I've been evicted because the flat is not safe for human habitation.

If the deposit is not paid out, you can expect a rather more colourful post to follow.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The problem isn't the box, the problem is YOU

I don't mean Trevor, I mean, you know, people.

I don't disagree that people assume assume negative things about people who self identify as capitalists and atheists*. But if you're talking with one of these people and feel the need to say, "I am an Atheist. But I have a strong moral core" then that's a concession to that mistake and that person will actually experience a little surge of positive reinforcement in his mistaken conception rather than feeling the uncomfortable pressure needed to change his view of atheists. At best he'll create a new small box for Trevor "Atheist. Not evil.", more likely he'll just forget and dump Trevor in with the rest of the damned, at least in the unusual situation of thinking of these things at all (atheism implies immoral), day to day, he'll likely think any atheists he knows are fine people if he happens to like them.

My impression is that qualifying some opinion you may have with, "but I'm not racist" isn't the best way of convincing the sceptical.

The term atheist is perfectly fine and those people are just plain wrong. Making concessions in how you use words firstly encourages people to press home perceived advantage but also debases language. Words don't have essential meanings but we can fight people trying to get debate freebies through misuse of language. More extreme forms of this debasement play an important role in the dystopia of 1984.

We must fight for our boxes! We must not comfort our enemies!

*(I use the atheism example here because capitalism is much more difficult to define with any precision).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

was that really necessary?

I just finished the 4th season of the wire and it was so horrible I ended up kinda mentally switching off and being less interested in what happened next. I can already hear the response; Simon is just telling it like it is and if I can't handle it then that's my problem, no doubt a result of my (undeniably) sheltered and cushy existence.

But that's not quite right. It's not like the first three seasons are relentlessly uplifting and I haven;t complained about the Wire's pessimism till now. Horrible things have been happening from the very beginning (in fact, I re-watched the first episode recently and one of the worst incidents happens there).

I haven't been watching The Wire like I watch most stuff, constantly thinking, "That's stupid. He would never have done that." I've just been watching to see what happens, I'm genuinely interested to see how each character acts in each situation. This is to the show's eternal credit, but I also think that my gut reaction of, "Oh common! This is just too randomly tragic!" means something.

On further reflection, I almost certainly wouldn't have had this reaction if one incident (horrible, but not central to the plot) had been omitted or changed.

This could mean we're back to assuming that I just need to toughen up, or that David Simon doesn't want to educate us so much as drive us to despair.

Monday, November 17, 2008

how do you feel about enlightened self interest?

Naturalistic accounts of ethics usually involve the prisoners dilemma in some way. People are motivated to be nice to people because they'll be nice back. This invites the response that this isn't morality at all since it's still selfish. Truly moral behavior involves being prepared to sacrifice your interests.

This is fair enough, but I think it's interesting how this mixes with other moral intuitions.

Say Jack gives Freddie a birthday present because he thinks it's the right thing to do. He takes care to get something his friend likes and goes through all the motions to do it in the right spirit, but just hates doing it. Hated the expense and effort and doesn't take pleasure in Freddie's happiness. Jill also gets a present but loves thinking of what gift to buy and loves seeing Freddie's happy reaction to the present.

My experience suggests we think of Jill as a better person, not just a more pleasant one.

If I'm right, then out of two people behaving identically, we think of the person who's actions are more closely aligned with their self interest as better, which i think is odd.

?

I've been confused by my reaction to Trevor's last post in which he says
I am a capitalist. But that doesn't mean I don't want the poor to do well...
I am an Atheist. But I have a strong moral core (in my humble opinion).
My reaction was that Trevor's wording implicitly endorses these common beliefs, even though I know that's what he's taking a stance against.

And yet that remains my impression. I'm sure that says something about me rather than Trevor's post. Just though I'd note it...

Friday, November 14, 2008

I’m proud to be a libertarian, pescetarian, atheist, transhumanist, compatibilist, neo-darwinian and one day I hope to join the Bayesian Conspiracy

Trevor has a post about avoiding classifying yourself. I basically agree with what I take to be point of the post. I don't want to feel compelled to agree with Ayn Rand lest my libertarian decoder ring be confiscated, but I think there's a confusion here.

I feel that I don't really classify myself as a libertarian, that's just what I am. A libertarian is someone who has certain beliefs, values etc and I share enough of them to be a libertarian. Someone who doesn't eat meat simply can't help being a vegetarian.

Trevor worries about feeling the need to defend the principles of your box, but I personally hope that people like Trevor can be counted on to defend the principles of democracy, freedom of expression and many other things.

Admitting, or even hoping, that your beliefs will mature and improve isn't the same as denying you have them.

finally

But I'm not sure why I'm only seeing posts like this now. The Obama hysteria is lunatic and the proliferation of Che style iconography is creepy. America is going through a horrible financial crisis and if the great depression is anything to go by, people will tolerate a prolonged depression just so long as the government is doing lots of stuff. The Great Depression went on forever and not only was FDR not dumped, he was reelected in, I think, the biggest landslide ever in an American election.

If Obama "does something" and it doesn't help, well at least he's tried and if it works, well then he's a hero. In either case capitalism will remain the villain. Democrats in power combined with Obama mania does not bode well for a measured response.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The String Theory

David Foster Wallace wrote what will probably always be the definitive Federer piece. I read it without knowing that the author was a big deal. I recently discovered that he'd written another famous tennis article 10 years earlier. It was about Michael Joyce, then ranked 79th in the world. My interest flagged the second I realised it was about a nobody, even though I knew that was exactly the point (Joyce was young and people though he could break through to the top 10. He didn't, the article was written right at the peak of his career).

I pressed on though and it's excellent, the kinda article that makes me wonder about the other brilliant articles I'll never read because I just don't have the energy to find them.

I've always known, in an impersonal, abstract way that being one of the best in the world at something is to be WAY beyond what I can understand. I could see what I was relatively good at and knew people personally who were just way better and I knew how unlikely it was that I could reach that level. It's also extremely unlikely that these people I know are all that exceptional.

This article is the best thing I've read that makes this understanding real. I find this very impressive and important for some reason. Here's one of his concluding paragraphs
Whether or not he ends up in the top ten and a name anybody will know, Michael Joyce will remain a paradox. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and sense of himself have allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art -- something few of us get to be. They’ve allowed him to visit and test parts of his psychic reserves most of us do not even know for sure we have (courage, playing with violent nausea, not choking, et cetera)
This guy is quickly becoming a hero of mine, I'll have to track down more of his stuff.

Monday, November 10, 2008

all possible evidence does not support your theory

Greed has been in the news recently because it apparently explains the current financial crisis. I’m not sure how this really deepens our understanding of what’s going on but it does remind me of a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while now about the relationship between greed and price rises.

A snippet of history I’m sure Trevor will enjoy is that the US imprisoned Japanese people during World War II. This was not very nice but the reason for it was clear enough, maybe they were conspiring to launch an attack from within US borders. So there was the theory (Japanese conspiracy) and one fact influencing the probability of the theory being true is weather or not there had been any Japanese attacks.

Some people took the absence of such an attack as evidence in favor of the theory. Now it’s easy to imagine the plotters attempting to lull people into a false sense of security to make the attack all the more devastating when it happened, but this is not the same as lack of attacks being evidence for the conspiracy. If it’s just “attack” or “not attack” you can’t have both counting in favor of your hypothesis. If you did, every single piece of evidence increases the likelihood of your theory being correct, which is crazy. In fact treating lack of attacks as incriminating necessarily implies that an attack would lower the odds of your conspiracy theory, which would be a strange way of looking at things.

The point is that if you have a theory (greed) and an event that you think counts in favor of your theory (price increase), then a price decrease must necessarily lower the odds that your greed theory is right (increase the odds of altruism). Most people seem reluctant to take the low prices of Wal-Mart as evidence of Wal-Mart’s altruism which is perfectly sensible because big companies are always greedily attempting to maximize profits by whatever price they set.
So I’m not saying that companies are not greedy, just that increasing prices can only count as evidence for this if you count price decreases as evidence for altruism. If you don’t think this, price increases tell us nothing about current levels of evil.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

how thrilling

Arsenal were 2-0 up in the 89th minute and are contriving to throw away their lead. O yipee.

Added: Well, Aresenal won. I wish they hadn't conceded that late goal, but they were lucky that things played out the way did. By the end they had also had many, many opportunities so I'm not going to they shouldn't have won, but they weren't the better team most of the game.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I'm relieved

It'll be over soon. At the start of the year I was terrified that we'd be seeing a Clinton Romney "showdown". I liked both Obama and McCain better, but I've been depressed by both McCain's campaign and the media coverage of it (especially through bloggers I like). McCain was basically sabotaged by his own party but my impression is that this is not how things will be remembered.

One thing that's actually pretty cool though is that immigration has barely been an issue in the election which is the issue I care most about. Naturally I actually want it to be an issue, but not in the way it'd actually play out so best just to forget about it.

Anyway, I no longer officially prefer McCain, but I'm not really endorsing Obama either. I like Obama, he's charismatic, smart and seems levelheaded. I just have an instinctive reaction against the mindless euphoria surrounding his candidacy and worry about how this will mix with the Democrat's being in power. It's easy to find cults of personality creepy if you don't like the personality, but if we like the guy, well then it couldn't be a cult of personality could it? We're reasonable smart people, unlike those crackpots who got all excited about that other guy. Worse though is that Obama seems to be quite keen on this himself.

On balance I'm reasonably optimistic and I really hope he turns out well, but I'll think I'll give the delirious celebrations a miss.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

infinite coolness wins!

I was worried that sense wouldn't prevail, but thankfully it did. I'm typing this on Greg's new I-phone. Why this thrills me so much I'll leave to the philosophers...

Friday, October 31, 2008

more moral complexity

One of the reasons my blogging has slowed recently is because I'm currently obsessed with ethics and when I type up posts they often look pretty stupid to me; or if not stupid, banal. Yesterday I decided to post anyway. I tried to link my point up with The Wire even though it's much more clearly evident in politics (as Greg mentioned). 

Whatever... 

Reading the penultimate paragraph I think it could using a little extra something. 

The reason we have moral rules like "keep promises" is because things will go better for most people in the long run if we observe them. You could reply that you could do more to help people by refusing to keep promises sometimes, but this is really where these rules earn their keep. The world is complicated place and we're stupid beings with scarce attention and motivation. Nobody, no matter how clever or altruistic, can calculate the diffuse consequences of their actions. "Don't tell lies" sticks around because it has been tried and tried and tried and has more or less stood the test of time. We break this rule when an axe murderer asks us where the children are, because in this case the evidence really is overwhelming that the consequences of honesty will be bad. A journalist doesn't know who will read her articles or how they'll react and these are the situations where honesty is morally binding, regardless of your feelings or any reasons you happen to find compelling, to fudge the truth. 

It's the fact that we can't predict the consequences of our actions that makes deliberately violating moral rules so dangerous. If an institution is dysfunctional, I'm really not sure what you're supposed to do. 

Sunday, October 26, 2008

It's hard to be good

I've blogged about how what the creators of The Wire think they're showing isn't necessarily what they show. I don't think the series is an effective critique of capitalism but this sounds just right

It's about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how ... whether you're a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge [or] lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you've committed to.

Part of this is being convinced, as a viewer on the sofa, that in a different environment you might end up doing things you consider really immoral now. It’s not like The Wire is the only fiction that does this, but it does it really well, and it does help us to feel a little less smug.

But what I really like is the sense that, if you’ve part of a dysfunctional institution, what the hell are you supposed to do? The police department in The Wire does not function well. If a death looks like it could have been an accident, they look the other way on evidence to the contrary. People in prominent positions are there because they only care about advancement and pursue that goal by doing deals with people like them and being pretty ruthless. I don’t wanna overstate the diabolicalness of these people, but that’s the flavour.

A persistent problem is the trade off between arresting low level drug dealers now and patiently building towards catching the top guys (or the simple trade off between focusing on murders or drug violations). The few passionate people often defy their bosses by resisting the gimmicky and tend to get shipped off to dead end jobs. It’s not like the good cop in Batman who just gets made fun of. Principled detectives are effectively fired.

Are good guys supposed to refuse to compromise their integrity? But that means they can’t do anything to improve things. And you can do more higher up, so maybe it’s best to play the game for years before you jump into action to clean things up. I guess it’s pretty uncontroversial that some level of playing the game while doing what you can at the margins to improve things is what they should be doing, but if it involves being dishonest and deceit (which it would) you have been morally compromised! It involves disconnecting yourself from feedback on your own actions; if trying to undermine and change the institution you’re a part of is good, then it’s tempting to see any reaction as validation of your actions. And it’s really hard for an outsider to judge who the good people are because the rules of good conduct are not at all transparent.

Good institutions are ones where success and general moral rules line up well. Most institutions are not like this, so it’s difficult to be moral.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Who knew that Human Rights Watch was so evil

How evil? It depends on what country they're in


Venezuelan officials have repeatedly denounced us as CIA stooges, right-wing partisans, and, more commonly, "mercenaries of the empire." (By contrast, in neighboring Colombia, officials have repeatedly sought to discredit us with labels like Communist, guerrilla sympathizer, and even terrorist.)

Stories that have a particular hold on my imagination are ones that involve something along the lines of, "Well, he accused me of being violent so I cut his head off to avenge the slander."

On September 18, we released a report in Caracas that shows how President Hugo Chávez has undermined human rights guarantees in Venezuela. That night, we returned to our hotel and found around twenty Venezuelan security agents, some armed and in military uniform, awaiting us outside our rooms. They were accompanied by a man who announced—with no apparent sense of irony—that he was a government "human rights" official and that we were being expelled from the country.

With government cameramen filming over his shoulder, the official did his best to act as if he were merely upholding the law. When we said we needed to gather our belongings, he calmly told us not to worry, his men had already entered our rooms and "packed" our bags.

But when we tried to use our cell phones to get word to our families, our colleagues, and the press, the veneer of protocol quickly gave way. Security agents surrounded us, pried the phones from our hands, and removed and pocketed the batteries. When we then insisted on contacting our embassies, they shoved us into a service elevator, took us to the basement, and forced us into the back seat of an SUV with tinted windows. When we asked where we were headed, they told us only that we were going to the airport.

Oh well, Chavez's means may be questionable, but at least his ends are noble...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

more from libertarian fantasy land

So, capitalism is collapsing and that's bad, we all know it's bad. It's bad because people are losing money right? And losing money is bad because it means not being able to buy things that people like, like houses.

If we accept that losing money is bad, doesn't that imply that having money in the first place is good, or better than not having it? So capitalism should be praised for enabling us to have money to lose. Funnily enough, the people celebrate the end of capitalism were never thrilled with capitalism's wealth creation capabilities to begin with. Back then they were hammering away on the finding that above a certain level, money doesn't make you happier. I'd think that those who were negative on capitalism before the crash should be more relaxed now. They should be writing op-ed after op-ed explaining that the crash doesn't really matter because of how few Americans will fall below the level where money really does matter.

Ah, but there are all sorts of subtleties to the happiness research we'd be told. For example, the endowment effect means people dislike losing money more than they like having it etc. Few people will realise though that the same subtleties also undermine the simplistic anti-economic growth conclusion that they'd been pushing in the first place and that despite money not making people happier, rich western countries are still the happiest in the world.

Unfortunately, though I think the important thing is that people will still be rich and free, I'd guess these crashes really are bad for happiness; much worse than slower, but steady growth ending up at the same point. Though my point stands, money does matter to people.

Some people are also suggesting that Ayn Rand played an important role in creating the current crisis, because of her influence on Alan Greenspan, who supposedly caused the crisis. I find it genuinely depressing that respected intellectuals think this but that's not my point here (I've been reading Leiter's Marx posts and he doesn't seem to blame Marx for anything that happened under communism). My point is that if you think (as these people do) that one person could have such a huge impact on the world economy, the real problem is the person having so much power, not that the person might make mistakes.

If one American general has sole discretion to launch a nuclear attack it'd be stupid to put all the blame on him if he does it, the system should not allow such discretion. The security of the world should never depend on imperfect individuals.

Alan Greenspan may deserve some blame for mistakes he made. But the Federal Reserve isn't exactly a libertarians dream institution, even if libertarians are running it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

the collapse of capitalism*


A few weeks ago Samuel Brittan wrote

What does the great credit crunch do to the case for competitive capitalism? It is surprising that this question is not more often asked.
I donno, I've heard triumphant told you soing. People have compared it to the collapse of communism 20 years ago and suggested that this is what Marx predicted all along. Back in the 1950's some famous intellectuals, disillusioned by the horrors of Stalinism, wrote essays in a volume entitled The God that Failed; an op-ed in the Washington post asks if prominent capitalists do something similar? (annoyingly he talks about the death of unregulated capitalism. I'm not a libertarian that denies anything bad would have happened if only governments had left well enough alone, but describing the financial markets as unregulated is crazy)

Since even in the best of times lots of people are explaining how capitalism has failed, maybe it's difficult to separate out people whose belief in capitalism was shaken specifically by the current crisis which is maybe closer to what Brittan means. I've been surprised by articles questioning capitalism by writers who I know as defenders of capitalism. They typically conclude that it isn't the end of capitalism, but still, that's more alarming than regular old doomsaying.

I haven’t read enough about the current crisis to count as well informed; I’m put off by titles like The Crisis Explained, I know I can’t evaluate the merits of various bailouts and I’ve been intimidated by how much stuff there is out there. Also, I’m just not that interested in the details. Having said all this I don’t think it’s clear that there’s much agreement on what the collapse (or failure) of capitalism would look like. I mean some criteria that would have seemed reasonable a year ago.

Does collapse require that living standards fall to more or what they were when capitalism “started”? Should capitalist states descend into violence? How about the standard of living of a large chunk of the population dropping by 30% and not recovering?

I’m not kidding. Communism’s failings involved slaughter and starvation on an epic scale. Even when people weren’t actively being killed, many were willing to risk being shot in an attempt to escape to the West.

Waterboarding may count as torture but it’s not the same as having your fingernails ripped out. Using the same word to describe different situations is apt to gloss over subtleties distinguishing them.

Even if everybody in America lost half their wealth they’d be about as rich as they were in the 80’s, which, fashion aside, isn’t remembered as a hellish nightmare.

Another thing that I don’t get is that capitalism has always been subject to boom and bust. I doubt any free market loving economists claimed that there’s never be another crash or another recession, even a bad one. So if we all expect crashes etc in the future why do people get so freaked out when something bad actually happens? This crisis may be different to previous ones, but so were all the other ones different! It may be worse than most but how bad does it need to be to invalidate the general trend of growth even taking things like the Great Depression into account?
* The post heading is the link to the Economist cartoon.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Impressiveness and signaling

I've recently had a go at doctors and physicists. My gripe is intended to cover all situations where three things are present simultaneously.
  1. Very impressive people.
  2. Umm... questionable effectiveness in doing what is supposed to be done.
  3. High status bestowed on these people.

I think this also covers a very high percentage of professional academics (and some other groups), but I'll stick with doctors for a little while.

My impression is that doctors have high status because it's so difficult to become one and because they're doing something good. The puzzle is that their status is very unresponsive to evidence that they're not very effective at doing what it's their job to do, which is improve peoples health. The signal (impressive and good) remains potent. In fact, number crunchers suggesting institutional reform to improve outcomes often get bad press and very negative reactions from doctors (their lower status, I'd guess, because they set themselves up in opposition to people with high status).

I blogged about a similar effect to do with the minimum wage a while back. Supporting the minimum wage is an effective way of signaling that you want to help the poor even if the minimum wage is discredited as a way of actually helping the poor (many economist support the policy despite agreeing that other policies would be better). Arguing against the minimum wage because it hurts the poor is an effective signal that you want to wage class warfare. Claiming that it would be better to top up low wages to whatever level doesn't change the signal.

Loving books is an effective signal about intelligence and learning, but people are loyal to books even when other things become better at doing the things books do.

Giving to charity is a signal of altruism, but many people don't much care how a charity spends the money. Again, the signal remains effective.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Paul Krugman wins the Nobel Prize

Paul Krugman wins the Nobel Prize. I'm glad he won it because his book The Accidental Theorist probably had a bigger impact on how I think than anything else I've read.

Robin Hanson and Tyler Cowen sometimes talk about "viewquakes" and I'd say I've had two in my life, one while reading Krugman's book and the other from reading some of Nick Bostrom's papers.

These days he's one of those writers I can't stand to read and that makes me a little sad, I listened to a bloggingheads he did a while ago and it's painful. I can just picture the glee with which those on the left will receive the news. . Of course this is the flip side to why I'm glad. I'm happy that I can cite a Nobel laureate in defence of my own views but he's so partisan now, most people know the new Krugman. I'm sure that many people would be horrified some of the columns he wrote in the mid 90's. He used to get lots of hate mail from the same type of person that loves him now .

I don't expect this to carry any weight with anyone, but he won the prize for work he did a long time ago, closer to when he wrote the stuff that influenced me and that's my answer to anyone who says, "but Paul Krugman wants to increase the minimum wage." he didn't always, though of course his old article isn't the only reason I'm against it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

the wire

I wrote about the wire a while back when I'd only seen the first season. I'm disappointed by how it reads now, but I stand by what I see as incredible tension between what the creator thinks he's saying and what the show actually shows. He says
.…[I]t is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy; that on its own, without a social compact, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many.
I don't know how you get that by endlessly showing how corrupt policing, justice, politics and education are. These are are very important parts of society, but they are the least capitalist.

Anyway, I'm always thrilled when a hero of mine writes something with the same general idea (but better). Here's part of what Robin Hanson thinks
The overall moral of the story seems to me largely libertarian. A renegade cop effectively legalizing drugs in one area works out great, and the show's writers have a Time oped supporting drug law jury nullification. Dire consequences follow from child labor and prostitution being illegal. The police, courts, prisons, schools, and city hall are unrelentingly corrupt and dysfunctional, because voters don't much care.
Robin points out that it's pretty disturbing that if even someone like David Simon doesn't see disconnect between his abstract theorising and the world he portrays what does it say about our beliefs? Am I just seeing what I want to see in the show and completely wrong about what I see as a fatal tension in his worldview? Are my concrete beliefs religious, stasist, racist etc and I don't even know it?

Oh my

The John Templeton Foundation asked a bunch of cool people to answer the question of whether the free market erodes moral character. I was just getting started on the essays when this bit from John Gray crashed onto my retina
The traits of character most rewarded by free markets are entrepreneurial boldness, the willingness to speculate and gamble, and the ability to seize or create new opportunities. It is worth noting that these are not the traits most praised by conservative moralists. Prudence, thrift, and the ability to press on patiently in a familiar pattern of life may be admirable qualities, but they do not usually lead to success in the free market.
This is so ridiculous that it caused me to wonder about my own sanity. Willingness to speculate and gamble is rewarded in a free market but it is also punished. Are people spending years studying and deferring consumption to become lawyers, engineers and doctors not showing prudence and thrift? Or are they not successful in the free market?? Or perhaps success just means the very most successful, incredibly high living standards just doesn't cut it. What?

Say that everybody in the world earned the same amount of money. Half spend it all on lottery tickets while the other buy food and clothes etc. The richest people will be lottery players but it's stupid to conclude that lottery ticket buyers in this world are more successful.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

blog stuff

There's a slightly different look around here. On balance I prefer it, though I don't prefer everything.

If you have any thoughts I'm all ears.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A waste of talent

The post below was initially going to be about what I see as people wasting their talent.

When I think of doctors not improving people's health I'm upset mainly by two things.
  • So many talented people are wasting their lives. In a way it's not as bad as that because we really want an impressive person looking after us when we're feeling vulnerable. In another way it's worse because they spend huge amounts of money becoming doctors and then start taking huge sums from other people.
  • When doctors resist institutional changes or better methods they are behaving immorally. The institution of promise keeping is a moral one because all our lives are improved if we keep promises. Rejecting promise keeping despite the evidence of it's beneficial effects is wrong. Keep rejecting rules that make us better off and we're on the way to just plain evil.

The first point has been bothering me recently with the moderate fuss made over the Large Hadron Collider finally becoming operational (it promptly broke). I'm as keen as anyone on being told what the fundamental nature of reality is, but bloody hell, is it really worth it? The thing costs billions of dollars! Given the number of people I know personally that spend their time on "that kind of thing" and even at CERN, I'd say there are a lot of super bright people devoting their careers to what purpose exactly? But my impression is that these people have pretty high status in society.

Which brings me to stuff like the future, life extension, transhumanism and other fine singularity related stuff. Respectable people often find this stuff silly. Fun to discuss at parties but not worth wasting time on. Here's an example where a science journalist telling Eliezer Yudkowsky what a shame it is that he's wasting his life on trying to build an AI. You can listen to the same guy discussing how awesome the LHC is and making fun of singularitarians in other podcasts (I don't mean to single him out, just a concrete, respectable example).

But wasting their lives compared to what? My instinct is to defend these assorted futurists by arguing why I'm on their side. But if (as it seems to me it is) that we build particle accelerators because of our (I suspect bogus) deep desire to know, it should be enough to note that futurists are motivated by similar desires, as well as the desire to actually improve the human condition. So why aren't we throwing billions of dollars at them?

Why oh why do we bestow such status on people who don't deserve it?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Hello, would you like some healthcare? I have newfound healthcare claimant*

Healthcare reform is a big deal in America. It was more prominent in the Democratic primaries than it seems to be now, but everybody agrees; something must be done.

Most people also agree what what counts as good; more, high quality healthcare. High quality here is a little ambiguous but I take it to mean something like, "rich people have good healthcare so lets give that to everyone." I even listened to Obama and Clinton talk about it, for a little while anyway.

The problem with healthcare is that we consume far too much of it. It's too expensive rather than people not getting enough of it. I've already blogged about my newfound healthcare scepticism. Health outcomes correlate with just about everything under the sun, everything but healthcare that is. Doctors from top medical schools don't produce healthier patients.

Don't be fooled by how few links I'm including here, there's plenty to keep you busy.

This is exactly the kind of thing that the tag line to my blog (which I now realise should be attributed, I'll get right on that) refers to. When these claims are advanced, either by me or by someone online, people usually just laugh it off, often mocking the claims/claimer.

A common response is to point out all the ways in which modern medicine is obviously a net benefit (polio has been eradicated, TB is curable etc etc), as though this is being denied. This should actually make the claims more shocking, not obviously false; if you take the stuff that works out of the whole medical package, medicine makes us less healthy.

When I think of how many talented, dedicated and good people spend such enormous amounts of time, effort and money becoming doctors and that on net they don't make people healthier I get pretty emotional. The real tragedy is that different institutional structures could be in place that would almost certainly make medicine better, but these are overlooked or actively resisted. When I read about doctors refusing to wash their hands or use separate beepers for heart attacks (see Supercrunchers and this podcast) I start to look like a character in a Stanley Kubrick movie just before a killing spree.


My point in writing this post is not that I think all studies showing these results are perfect in every way, I just don't understand why people don't care more. Robin Hanson focuses on the effects of marginal healthcare rather than healthcare in general. Whatever. Reflexive dismissal of the studies earns a very severe frowny face from me >:(

Added: I changed something. Nothing substantive.

*In case you were wondering, blogger's spellchecker spat 'healthcare' and 'newfound' back at me and this was how I tested them in Word.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

what if big brother arrived and nobody noticed?

A recent post of Trevor's made me wonder. Privacy's a thing of the past? Cripes. Being a good little Pollyanna I'm more relaxed, especially about diaries. As for people taking stuff out of context, that's actually a battle I'm quite eager to engage in. People should grow up, and if more people were more honest more often then the Outrage Olympics would get pretty old before too long.

I probably have more to worry about than many people because I'm a teacher easily Googled, what poison am I feeding impressionable young minds?!

As a demonstration of my recklessness I have no problem at all accusing most countries of not being mature democracies, even countries that have been holding elections for a while now. Thing about South Africa though, is that we've only been democratic for fourteen years, which is is more than enough to disqualify us, but there are other things too.

Just because there wasn't much violence doesn't mean it wasn't implicit. I don't question Judge Nicholson's ruling, which would seem to be tick in favor of the rule of law, but the things that Zuma and co have been saying doesn't suggest much enthusiasm for dispassionate justice.

I think saying that people don't care about the "issues" when crime and poverty are prominent gets it almost exactly backwards. Crime and poverty are the issues. The first duty of government is to provide security (justice and defence), which in turn is just about the best thing for economic growth.

Good government isn't some luxury for people like me to discuss over lattes, it's what we should be better at demanding now.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

the perfect is the enemy of the AWESOME

Apparently the i-phone doesn't have a 56 megapixel camera so we should just wait till it does.

Anyone wanna tell Greg what an idiot he is for even hesitating?

Added: 5 comments might suggest a number of idiot denunciations, but in if you didn't want to click through, this is sadly not the case. Thanks a lot guys.

Monday, September 29, 2008

rumors of bloggy's death have been greatly exaggerated

Apologies to those who do check, events have conspired to keep me from blogging.

Though Bloggy does seem to have forgotten what blogging is supposed to be about. He's got all these posts half written or swirling about in his head and he doesn't post them. Why? Because they're serious, deep posts that'll show everyone, everyone! That's actually quite tricky to blog though and it's not like I'm writing up papers to send off to prestigious journals, sooo... nothing.

So, e-readers it is then! A typical reaction to e-readers is that they suck, they could never replace books, they don't have the look, or feel, or smell, or taste of real, pure, books! We love books more than anything! The e-reading advocate is left dazed and blinking rapidly. Do we hate books? Do we want to roll in the ashes of all the books ever published? What just happened?

Sometimes, neither person actually knows what e-readers are like. The thing that gets me is how quickly some people have framed their emergence as, "is this the end of the book?" and then proceed to talk books up as though e-readers urgently need to be defeated. If people still like books they won't vanish!

But we just know what we like now, I think it's pretty sad to translate that into "knowledge" of things we don't know yet. Nobody liked books before they existed but we do now . There are zillions of cool things that could be invented they we don't have a taste for yet, but if we fetishise books, or violins, or test cricket, we'll stifle their development. The same process that made books in the first place.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Are we going to be the next Zimbabwe?

Basically no.

I do believe that things have been sliding politically, but that we're just sliding back to our "natural" level. Of course where we go from there is up in the air. I'm not massively optimistic, but that's mostly because it's really difficult to develop the kinda society we'd like. In some ways we look like a good democracy, but until a different government (with different people behind it) can peacefully be voted into power we're not one. Any suggestion that we could honestly do that I think is pretty crazy.

I'm not overly pessimistic either and think any Zimbabwe talk is massively overblown. The big problem for the moment is instability. That's bad, but I'll bet it'll settle down more or less; the Zumerites have won.

rabid partisanship

Anti-Obama of course. Well, I don't think so but I'm sure it could read like that. I read quite a lot about the election and I have two things to add.

  • The Palin choice has brought "experience" back into focus. Obama defenders are claiming that his experience in campaigning is excellent experience for president. Unfortunately I think there's something to this, but I really think it's a depressing thing to get all excited over. His qualification for power is that he's tried really really hard to get into power? And he's good at that?! Yay!
  • Even conservatives have been having a go at McCain for, "putting his own campaign ahead of the good of the country". It's reckless, damaging evil etc. I thought that Palin could doom McCain, but I wasn't judging him for the choice. You know why? Cos they have this wonderful mechanism for preventing him from hijacking the interests of the nation before he becomes president, it's called "an election". Is he somehow tricking the electorate? Nobody knows that Palin's inexperienced? I'm bombarded with people telling me "what Americans want", but they seem to like Palin. If Americans want her, shouldn't McCain be praised.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mbeki is gone

Jeeze.

Apparently I'm insufficiently grizzled and cynical.

I'll learn.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What hope do we have if we can't even bloody queue?*

I seem to be getting crankier. I hoot at people, I freaked out and one of Henry's neighbours and I recently had a very spirited conversation with a nice man in a queue.

He started the discussion by asking if I was in the queue after cutting in front of me. We differed over how close I should have been standing to the guy in front, because some people are in a rush you see, how could I be so inconsiderate. The conversation quickly became very one sided and monotonous as I repeatedly asked him how standing closer speeded things up (I had to repeat the question since he didn't answer).

If people from different cultures can be enraged by 30 cm queueing differentials I guess I should be less surprised over Motoon riots. And less optimistic about the prospects for world peace.

*If this headline doesn't seem to match my general cheery outlook, it could just as easily read, "Considering that people don't know how to join a queue, why are things so good?"

Monday, September 15, 2008

man

In a bizarre three-web-page-in-thirty-seconds whammy I discovered that the author of my favourite Roger Federer article had also written, "one of the greatest contributions to the animal rights literature.", and one of the very most excellent novels of the past 100 years. But I now know all this because he has hanged himself...

Man. I've never felt so sad about the death of someone I barely even knew existed...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Jonathan Haidt

Continues to frustrate me. My repeated claims to be a fan are probably starting to look a bit hollow, but, I am a fan! Really!

I chose not to mention something from the book that was actually relevant to the discussion Trevor and I recently had. Haidt told this story about reading Peter Singer's book, "Practical Ethics"; he was intellectually convinced that he should stop eating meat produced in factory farms, but instead of changing his behaviour he just felt a little guilty each time he bought meat. After a time he saw some video from a factory farm and was so disgusted that he actually did stop eating meat, at least until the emotional impact of the film wore off a few weeks later after which time he continued eating meat. His point was that emotion plays a huge role in morality. This is an important point, but his conclusion seems to be that this somehow justified his reaction (stop for a while then carry on). I always thought morality was about constraining our behaviour, not rationalising what we do anyway.

I bring this up now because I'm just reading an essay of his on the topic where he butchers a famous (in philosophy terms) quote of David Hume's

This research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation. I often had to correct people when they said things like "it's wrong because… um…eating dog meat would make you sick" or "it's wrong to use the flag because… um… the rags might clog the toilet." These obviously post-hoc rationalizations illustrate the philosopher David Hume's dictum that reason, "the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them."

One way to interpret this is that we rationalize the things we do after the fact. But another is that we should apply reason to stuff we care about. These are not the same thing!

Two scientists apply the dictum to their work.

Scientist A feels passionately that homeopathy is better medicine than drugs that go through double blind testing etc. So he spends his life trying to make this particular case in as convincingly reasonable way possible.

Scientist B passionately wants to find a cure for malaria and so devotes much time to studying mosquitoes and not fruit flies, which he would enjoy far more.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

correction

This is very embarrassing, but apparently Greg was joking about the name Zagaritus. My protests that I had already blogged the name and had thus put my credibility was on the line, fell on deaf ears.

Henry is the actual, respectable name.

There's still a middle name slot open for Zagaritus though!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

WOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I'm an uncle!!!

Rude little kid's interrupting the flow of deep posts I've been planning. Hmnpf.

Greg informs me that his name is Zagaritus, but it's early days yet; I imagine that Ursula may have something to say about that.

In the meantime.

Long live Zagaritus!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Wooo!

Yay! Federer's mind wandered (as it inevitably does) near the beginning of the second set and, inexplicably, when he was trying to serve it out. But, he played really well in the first set and his break at the end of the second was about as good as it gets.

So, that's 5 straight US Open's and 5 consecutive Wimbledon's. This may be Federer's most lasting record I don't think it's an arbitrary stat, though it's not necessarily the most significant either. Aesthetically I think it's pretty striking.

If you'll indulge me while I ponder non-French majors; Federer has won 13 of the last 17. Of those 4 losses, only the 2003 US Open is a pretty anonymous one (4th round loss to Nalbandian). In order, the other three involved an injury and a match point not taken, glandular fever and a gut wrenching epic, in two semis and a final respectively. My point is not to say that he deserved to win 16 of the past 17, just that 13 of 17 doesn't quite capture just how brutally difficult he is to beat over 5 sets.

Similar tales cannot be told of the French Open, but even here, only Nadal has beaten him in the past four tournaments (3 time champion Kuerten beat him in 2004) and Nadal is not your run of the mill French Open champion.

Given his style of play and the way he suddenly burst on the scene after underachieving for several years, I always worried that his bubble of greatness would dramatically burst sometime. Losing the Australian and French (the only French Open he was legitimately favoured to win) in 2005 would have been a good time, and now was a perfect time after Wimbledon. But matches like the last two are the best for Federer, he feels deep in his bones that he's got his opponents number (unlike against Nadal) and his mind is focused but the significance of the match.

Nadal is clearly the best player around right now but I really think Federer needs to miss at least one semi-final before people start claiming that he's a spent force (actually, even then, surely he'll be capable of winning majors for a few years. Who knows when things will suddenly just click like they did this time?).

Sunday, September 07, 2008

WTF!!????!!?!?!

What is it with this dude and fucking break points!?!?!?! WHAT?????

AAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Added: Given the final score, my level of aggrivation was probably a bit disproportionate. But, from the end of the first set till the last point, Murray was a Federish 1/17 on his break point chances. I'm stunned that Murray converted his first match point.

I like Nadal much more than Murray, but I'm happy that Federer's odds of winning have just gone up (and Nadal's coronation as the greatest ever is temporarily delayed). In an abstract way I'd rather Nadal simply beat Murray in a way that demonstrates his superiority but I find Nadal's resistance to break points almost unseemly. IT GETS ON MY NERVES.

Federer

He's now made it to 18 consecutive grand slam semis and 13 of the last 14 finals. I've been pondering how much of a big deal to make over the fact that he was "sick" at this year's Australian Open. Whatever you happen to think, just ponder the possibility of 14 straight finals, amazing.

Murray is slightly favoured to win over Nadal later today. Hmm... maybe, but Nadal looks like a good bet at the current odds.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

finally, some respect!

If I wasn’t sufficiently deferent in my last post, let me defer to a thought I couldn’t hope to top (though this is paraphrased, he said something like this in his podcast with Will Wilkinson).
People think there's either there is some universal moral truth or there is no moral truth at all. There's no universal moral truth that existed before us, but there are many true things that have emerged. Think about the value of gold and silver, which is more valuable? Gold is, it costs more, and this doesn't depend on your preference either way, even if you'd pay more for silver. But gold and silver have no intrinsic value outside of human society and they change value as other circumstances change.

more haidt

I feel bad about mean about the book (which is funny, since Haidt could trounce me if he ever read it).

But really, there is some good stuff. If you survey people about morality their answers fall into five more or less distinct moral categories. Harm, fairness, purity, authority and in-group loyalty. But the people doing the moral theorizing have systematically different intuitions about what’s moral. They tend to care about harm and fairness but sneer at the rest. This wouldn’t be a problem except that it’s really common for people to “refute” a moral argument by drawing out a conclusion that offends our intuitions. If that’s fine, then what are the grounds for dissing other peoples’ moral priors?

Where I seem to differ with Haidt though, is that I tend towards relying less on all these intuitions, rather than elevating moral convictions based on them. Or in other words, I agree that morality should be thought of a set of rules and norms that constrain behavior in order to maximize human flourishing and that it’s a good idea to consider all five moral foundations to do this. But we should want to ground them better. Like maybe in-group loyalty is better between mathematicians or World of Warcraft players than between Americans to the exclusion of Canadians. There’s aver reasonable hierarchy in tennis, with Federer near the top and me near the bottom that we can all agree to accept our place in, but I don’t respect any intrinsic right of someone to exert authority over me without some sort of consent. And I’d prefer purity to centre on things like truth seeking rather than menstruation.

The happiness hypothesis

Another book I really wanted to like but was also strangely unsatisfying. It’s not like there’s anything wrong with it, but I was left thinking, “yeah…?” Maybe I shouldn’t have been reading Samuel Brittan at the same time; many authors would suffer from the comparison.
The best thing about it is putting a more realistic spin on a lot of generally accepted wisdom. Sure, what doesn’t kill you can make you stronger, but it can also turn you into a gibbering wreck for the rest of your life, that kind of thing.

I liked the first half better than the second, which The Last Samurai pretty much has covered, with the bonus of pretty scenery and Tom Cruise’s gravitas. You should do as you’re told, be a clean freak and do lots of bowing and aweing.

That’s not really fair; I do take his point, but I wish he hadn’t focused on such unappealing, clichéd conservative examples. I was constantly thinking, “OK, I’ll go along with this, but hopefully next time…” It was like hoping a vertebra will click into place soon but never does.

“These pious, preachy conservatives are awesome. They’ve got it all figured out and we really should let them force their values on us. Oppression of some groups seems to be the cost of this of course (homosexuals these days), but it’s really a small price to pay.” Is what he seems to say.

I also think he weirdly misses the point when it comes to religion on happiness. Religious people are happier all over the world. Religious Americans are happier than irreligious ones and religious countries are happier than you’d expect given their other indicators. But western secular countries are the happiest countries! It’s just bizarre to focus on religion as the key to happiness rather than liberty given this. He likes lecturing people overly attached to liberty about what they’re missing and praise people who’re happy despite low living standards, but he doesn’t lecture poor countries to become free and rich. What’s up with that?

Incidentally, another common observation is that people don't get happier when they get richer. The conclusion jumped to seems to be that we should cut out the stuff we don't like (traffic, working long hours) and our satisfaction would soar! When the observation actually says that we'd be about as happy. In reality we'd be less happy for a while cos we dislike giving stuff up much more than getting it in the first place.

The real moral of his story is that tight knit communities (usually religious) voluntarily formed are the best thing since sliced bread, but despite his constant assurances that he’s a “liberal” he misses it.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Is Obama as delicious as a donught?

When many libertarian pundits see Barack Obama jaws slacken, heads tilt back, tongues flop to one side and eyes glaze over like donughts, "Mmmm... Obaaaammma" is what they gurgle.

Part of me understands this. I like him for the same reason many people don't; he's an intellectual type. Some of his speeches are thoughtful in a novel way and I like the fact that he's genuinely liberal in some ways.

There are plenty of reasons for libertarians not to like him though and I doubt he'd be such a super duper president, so why are so many so smitten? They normally hate all politicians and they love divided government (different parties in power in different branches).

If the republicans controlled congress I'd probably go for Obama, but they don't, so I'm sticking with McCain for now.

Speaking of McCain, I'm pretty excited by his VP pick. Sarah Palin seems cool (even though it looks like I have a lot to disagree with her about). It's also fun to watch democrats freak out over how inexperienced she is. I know little about politics but I buy the argument that McCain wants democrats to make a big deal over this. I wonder if their conviction that Obama is the second coming really has made them lose all self-awareness or if I'm just missing something.

Report: 93% Of Drunk Drivers Get Home Just Fine

According to a report released Monday by the National Institutes of Health, 93 percent of those who get behind the wheel while intoxicated arrive at their homes safe and sound, just like they told everybody they would.
Since I've been all judgemental recently, I may as well be all judgemental about drunk driving too.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

why unwilling?

Ugh. I need to gain control over my posts, they’re getting too long. I’ve just discarded another overly long post and this one isn't short.

The situation Trevor describes in his last post sounds pretty familiar to me. Throughout our discussion, Trevor has been very keen to focus on assertive animal rights types but in my experience what Trevor describes is far more common. The comments section over at Megan McArdle’s blog is about representative of people who actually care about the subject. There are a few passionate animal rights defenders, but mostly people who are positively irritated by the fact that McArdle blogs about it at all or thinks ethics is involved. They are not much soothed by her repeated assurance that she doesn’t think meat eaters are bad people.

Otherwise, I think it’s very strange that there’s such pressure on people not to stand up for what they honestly believe. I mean it’s not like people are shy about invoking morality when promoting their cause. Imagining that we’re bravely speaking truth to power is also popular. Seen An Inconvenient Truth or Wall-E? Spoken about the Iraq war?

Seriously, don’t we admire people who used moral arguments to battle slavery, apartheid, sexism etc etc? If we abstract away from any particular issue, don’t we think it’s desirable that people think carefully about the issues and then argue for what they think is right? Why should this be different in this case? Why should anybody care if it makes people feel uncomfortable?

Telling our kids that they should stand up for what they think is right isn’t the same as telling them to stand up for this list of things that I think is right. Surely the main reason people object in the case of animal rights is not because of principle but that they happen to disagree.

Trevor says
Effectively you are saying, I believe it is wrong to eat [farm-factory produced] meat and by eating it you are effectively endorsing cruelty to animals
Umm... isn’t this what’s actually happening? Or if not endorsing, saying that it’s okay. Doing business with a company is a sort of endorsement of its practices. We shouldn’t buy stock in "Confederated Slave Holdings" (a favourite of Mr Burns) and we shouldn’t sell arms to the Sudanese government. I don’t know Trevor’s position on this for sure, but I’d guess that he approved when people refused to do business with Apartheid South Africa. Whatever meat we choose to eat we’re essentially saying, “I am willing to tolerate this much [indicating size using hands] suffering for my enjoyment”. We should be explicit about this rather than pretending that meat grows on trees.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Thoughts on China and reproduction issues seamlessly woven together

China has been much on many peoples’ minds recently, mine included. Though I don’t have any especially deep thoughts here I do have some shallow ones.

China’s growth over the last 30 years is like the greatest thing ever, or at least since the Collapse of (proper) communism. I instinctively disapprove of a (still) poor country spending so much money on showing off (they also do this with their space program), but I’ve gotta admit that it’s a pointless gripe in the case of the Olympics. China is poor, but it’s so big that it doesn’t matter much, and the average Chinese citizen really cared, so it was a bargain. The forced removals were a bigger problem, but there’s no reason to signal the Olympics out on this score.

All this said, I still think the government is a nasty piece of work and I see lots of blood in my crystal ball. I’ll be bold; I think China will keep growing like it has been for a few more years, until it hits the magic Weingast income per head and then unrest will break out. Thing may work out more or less, but it won’t be pretty.

Without going into their naughtiness too much, and keeping in mind that many (most?) westerners actually approve of the policy, I think the One Child Policy is a terrible, horrible policy. I think the idea is intrinsically wrong, but the kind of human rights violations which were inevitable from the moment it became law are appalling. There seems to be another way of ensuring low fertility rates; developing a liberal, rich society.

Speaking of reproductive rights, I’ve been listening to a few feminist podcasts from blogging heads. I didn’t know, or had forgotten, just how important abortion is to most feminists. I was shocked by the things that these intelligent people will say. Abortion should legal and state funded right up until delivery??! Abortion is okay because it’s an appropriate response to having your body invaded? What. The. Fuck? This has the effect of losing my sympathy and any interest in anything else they may have to say (though I do go for the invasion story in the case of rape and where the mother’s life is in danger and maybe a few other examples).

Unless we’re “pro-choice” on infanticide too, I cannot fathom thinking that aborting a fetus after 9 months is okay. As for the invasion thing, while I get that much sex is had without the intention of getting pregnant, it is one of the things that can result and people know this.

But insisting that other people pay for your abortion I think shows real contempt for people who disagree with you. I don’t really get the hardcore pro-life view that forbids even a morning after pill, but the fact of the gradual development of the fetus necessarily makes drawing a line about when abortion is and isn’t okay a fuzzy difficult and problem. We shouldn’t expect all decent people to agree. Forcing some people to pay for abortions that they believe fall on the wrong side of that line is really, really nasty stuff. It makes me a little queasy.

Another problem I had mirrors one related to animal rights. There’s nothing intrinsic about feminism or vegetarianism that makes them part of some overarching left wing worldview that encompasses global warming, massive welfare payments, the Iraq war and a mandatory vote for Obama. The more details like this you fold into your views the less compelling it becomes, necessarily.

I think Tracy’s right that we spend too much time pondering the morality of issues most people never encounter, and this does include abortion, but millions of abortions are carried out each year. The fact that decent people disagree and that it’s a horribly difficult question to resolve even minimally satisfactorily makes it a perfectly reasonable issue to get all excited over in an election campaign.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Discover Your Inner Economist

You'd think I'd really love this book, but I only liked it. It's really well written, interesting and did make me think. I do think Cowen does has deep insights on just about everything, but the whole time I just couldn't shake the feeling that he's really out of touch with regular folk like me. It's strange considering that he's traveled widely, avoids touristy spots and likes to hang out with the locals; in other words he knows way more ordinary people than I do.

I don't doubt that his advice on how to choose good restaurants, appreciate art and read intimidating books is very good, but I think I really get the sense that he thinks that either we want to read Remembrance of Things Past and Dante's Inferno or that he feels we should. But I ended up feeling that the advice didn't apply to me much. For example, we are encouraged to ask, "Is this the best possible book we could be reading right now?" if not we should move on. This is better advice for people who can legitimately evaluate books in a way that most people can't. Most of us have read only a small percentage of "the cannon" so finding a book reasonably described as the best book you could be reading is dead easy, but we don't actually want to read the best stuff. We may want to want to, but we don't actually want to.

More useful would be tips on how to "improve" your reading from where you are now. What process can I go through that will teach me to actually want to read those things and have grave doubts that this would involve jumping right to Ulysses. In other words the advice is better suited to people who are actually doing fine on their own.

added: Should make slightly more sense now.

Monday, August 25, 2008

comment splat

Fortunately for readers, I don’t really have the energy for another epic post with any attention paid to minimal coherence. Trevor’s recent posts did inspire some thoughts though. So here’s a rambling comment splat.

“The thing is people don't like feeling like they are being morally judged, which is probably a large reason why vegetarianism gets under the skin of others.”

I think it’s strange that vegetarianism seems to have a bigger effect on people than most of our ethical views. We have moral views on so many things! Judgment is always implicit when people act in ways that conflict with out moral views. Don’t get me wrong, I realize that this does upset people, but generally we expect our friends and family hold at least some different moral views from us and judge us accordingly. What does Trevor think of the people who think he’s immoral for not being a teetotaler? Check out the comments section of vegan posts on Megan McArdle’s blog; where the hell does that kind of stuff come from?

“Is it a problem making people feel uncomfortable about things that you believe to be true?”

I think I could easily misinterpret this, but my understanding is that Trevor wasn’t exactly shy about his views on apartheid (which was good!), so I find the question puzzling.

“As I said, this kind of thing gives me `impending doom' because I find the idea of being very accepting of different points of view very appealing.”

This combined with the comments about how I’m not a liberal and wanting to run naked through the fields makes me want to clear up how I understand liberalism and permissiveness. In terms of what I think it’s morally acceptable to do, I am incredibly permissive. Way beyond the average person. There is an important proviso however, which is that our carefree frolicking shouldn’t harm others!! If we don’t have this constraint, then being tolerant of other points of view quickly becomes tolerance of stuff we normally don’t much approve of.

“Do I think that if I had read enough and thought about it enough, I would still believe what I do. I would like to think not, but that is probably what I think.”

I guess I agree with the sentiment here and call me a quibbler, but I think if we think our beliefs would change if we studied up then either we should simply believe what we think our views would change to, or if we expect our views to change, but don’t know how, we should simply give up our belief without replacing it. If we think our views would change after study, I don’t even know if we can really be said to hold the views we think we do.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Update

Trevor has been doing some fine naval gazing over at his blog in the past few days (this is my idea of a compliment if it isn't clear). Check it out.

I may post some further thoughts on our discussion in a bit. But I think the debate itself has pretty much run its course.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

which one do YOU think is the greater weakness?

Remember my post on the nausea inducing answers that Edwards and Clinton gave to the "what is your biggest weakness" question? Apparently oblivious to the suffering caused by answers like his, Edwards lamented his powerfull emotion response to suffering in others.

Well wouldn't you know it, Edwards has not only been cheating on his wife for years, he had been using money from an anti-poverty charity to take his mistress on the campaign trail with him.

Being a lying, cheating, thieving bastard sounds almost as bad as feeling sorry for people.

Commentary

I have been doing a terrible job of keeping up with current events recently, during the Olympics too! So here's some now.

All hail Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt!! (the links are very random if you were tempted by them, there are rather a lot of articles about these guys out there) I only saw one race live :( but even reading the race reports has been exciting, and I don't even care about swimming and had pretty much lost interest in athletics.

Breaking the 200m world record is surely the most amazing of all, I was shocked (and a little) sad to see the record go. It's probably the most impressive record set since Bob Beamon's long jump, and long jump seems to be much more about luck than the 200m, so I'd say it was more significant. I think Johnson's run counts as the more amazing feat, the record that he tore to shreds was the longest standing record at the time, and Bolt just pipped it.

Of course I enjoy pondering the relative merits of the two athletes. I think it's too close to call, though personally I go for the highest peaks over things like consistency or competing in many events and Bolt surely has this. Can't fault Phelps for much though can you? I'd also guess Bolt is more likely to be doping.

I suppose we should all hail Rafel Nadal too... Fine, go ahead, do it, hail him. Federer's lame performance since Wimbledon notwithstanding he lost the no. 1 spot in the best way possible. Till now, Nadal has been by far the best player never to have been no 1. And it's not like Federer succumbed tamely in the Wimbledon final.

There was something else. Shit. What sport related story would I have meant to blog?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Green-Clad Olympic Archer Steals Gold Medals From Rich, Gives Them To Poor

Yesterday, while I was watching some archery "highlights" I got to thinking about how stupid it is that Robin Hood could hit the back of his other arrows. Olympians don't come close even with fancy equipment.

The Onion seems to have had similar, but funny thoughts
In almost every case, archery-related schemes were used to secure the medals, although some were more difficult for him to obtain than others.

An epic four-way fencing match broke out during the Women's Saber medal ceremony, with the archer taking on the three American women in a clash of blades that spilled out onto the balcony and across the Beijing rooftops. Germany's Ole Bischoff, winner in the Men's 81kg judo event, threw the archer through a nearby table and down a flight of stairs before his feet were nailed to the ground by arrows. And the Chinese women's gymnastics team was almost impossible for the archer to catch.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

"Many of us are not suicide bombers"

I think Trevor dealt with the exasperated tone of my last post very well. I’ve also been impressed by the fact that Trevor is actually willing to change his views which is pretty unusual.

Having said that, I don’t want to let Trevor off the hook so easily. I’ve been a “vegetarian” for three and a half years and I’ve been having conversations with Trevor about this right from the start. I’ve also been blogging my views on animal rights for about two and a half years and my fundamental position has been the same this whole time! Trevor often comments on these posts. Over this time I’ve read books and articles on animal rights, ethics, evolution, philosophy and politics and considered how the content should impact on my views. This inspired blog posts and is reflected in other posts I have written.

In other words, few laymen in the history of the world (I mean this in relative terms) have taken as much time and effort to make his views on animal ethics consistent and open to public scrutiny. I cannot fathom how Trevor could have failed to be more aware of what they were. In fact I actually began to worry that the views I had blogged were completely different so I trawled through the archives to check. Not only are they more or less the same, Trevor had read them, hence my pointing this out in my last post. Aware that I might be babbling incoherently, I've linked to books and articles (especially this essay) where the case is made better than I could ever make it. Since Trevor recently said on his blog, “be your own biggest critic” I thought this was fair game.

Given the narrow focus nature of this debate I tried to put the vast majority of what can be said on the subject to one side in favour of explaining what I thought was the simplest and best way of making a decision not to eat meat understandable. Not philosophically compelling in a way that could be published in journals of moral philosophy. Not how this decision could be grounded in a consequentialist, deontological or virtue ethical moral philosophy and with no reference to meta-ethics. All of these things can be done mind you, but I thought that wouldn’t help Trevor gain an intuitive understanding of a decision not to eat meat so I consciously didn’t bring them up. Not that I could make these arguments well anyway, that's what professional philosophers are for.

So what I chose was to take something that Trevor already believed and add one empirical fact, and tada! We’re done! These are of course
  • Animal suffering is morally relevant. Less is better than more. As Trevor said “I am opposed to cruelty which leads to unnecessary suffering.”
  • Most commercially available meat depends on practices that cause considerable suffering.

It follows that

  • To the extent that eating this meat supports these practices, its better not to eat it.

Trevor seems excited by the fact that this doesn’t logically rule out eating meat that didn’t involve suffering (which is true and not denied by me). So it seems to me that Trevor has shifted to not understanding these viewpoints.

  • Given how much meat is as a result of suffering a good general rule to adopt is to not eat meat. In support of this view is the evidence (now sited several times) that a resolution to eat humanely raised meat tends to result in tolerance of eating non-humanely raised meat. Trevor may think well, we should just be stricter on ourselves. Fine, but he should also accept that it could be easier, practically to just not eat meat

    We endorse moral rules like “don’t lie” and “keep promises” even though we know that there are plenty of cases were we’ll justifiably break these rules.
  • Even humanly raised meat is likely to involve suffering because of the incentives and humans involved. We’re often appalled to hear of abuse of prisoners, the elderly and the mentally ill. There are famous stories of students abusing other students put under their power. Given how easily we abuse other humans (Trevor laments this often) I find it bizarre that Trevor thinks this wont happen on many farms promising humanely raised meat.

    I also wish that Trevor showed such enthusiasm for free markets in other contexts. I agree that it could provide humanely raised meat, but I also think that the only way this would happen in practice is if there was a very broad base of consumers who were active in punishing companies for being mean to their animals. This doesn't sound much like Trevor, who sounds like he'd be happy with a pretty sticker, or not. A free market doesn’t guarantee great food in places where consumers can’t tell the difference between good and average food. This is easy to check empirically by comparing the food in Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg.
  • The belief that telling a host “I’m sorry, but I’m a vegetarian” is more tactful than, “I’ll only eat meat you provide if it meets these stringent criteria”.
  • Choosing vegetarianism as one of the best ways of reducing your carbon footprint, which many people regard as a moral issue.

Again, it’s not just that Trevor is not won over by these points, but that he doesn’t understand how people can hold them in good faith.

I’m not clear on this, but I think Trevor is retreating to his understanding the views of “most vegetarians” as what he was talking about. Most vegetarians are probably vegetarian for economic or religious reasons. The kind Trevor finds so objectionable are much more visible than other vegetarians because they’re loud and obnoxious, so we need to correct for this overrepresentation in our mental view of the category. The same is true of feminists, atheist and as is very often noted, Muslims! Have you heard? They’re not all suicide bombers!

It’s pretty common for lefties to practically define a libertarian as someone who is opposed to any kind of social safety net. These same people enjoy hating “ultra-libertarians” like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek who, err, supported social safety nets! This is exactly what Jeremy Strangroom (who I really like) did in this book. But these lefties don’t suddenly claim that these guys are not libertarians, Friedman is the most famous libertarian of the 20th century. The answer is just to expand your understanding of libertarian to include Friedman and half the people who self identify as libertarian! What Trevor seems to be doing is the equivalent of saying, “but Friedman wasn’t a libertarian!” and this is true for particular definitions of libertarian, including the definition that they oppose safety nets. Some libertarians do prefer “classical liberal”, but in the real world, we just need to deal with the fact that people think of us as libertarians.

I used to not call myself a vegetarian because of the fish thing. Trevor simply must accept that the reason I changed is because of social pressure to do so (of course I could resist this and continue to annoy people with my pompous explanation of what a Pescatarians is). I do this even though I know in advance that people in the future will get a kick out of pointing out that fish are animals.

But in the end, the views of the average vegetarian are irrelevant if we’re trying to understand why a person might not eat meat. For this it’s only necessary to understand the best reasons. Same goes for feminism, patriotism (maybe I should relentlessly explain that my understanding of patriotism involves hating people from other nations), and atheism, whatever.

Trevor seems to be trying to catch me out by apparently believing I’ll eat humanely raised meat once presented with it. I said that I don’t even have a moral issue with eating human flesh. But I will almost certainly never do it. In an earlier discussion Trevor mentioned something about not liking the idea of eating chimps and dolphins even though he realised that this distinction isn’t especially principled. I have never said “I don’t understand why Trevor doesn’t eat chimp” or, ”I’ll provide Trevor with a delicious chimp bicep.”

It seems I’m being punished for keeping the discussion so narrow. I do have a (relatively small) problem with raising animals with the sole goal of eating them. But this is different from having a problem with eating meat. Stopping on the side of the road for a yummy bit or road kill is different from raising a pig for food.

I think the view that painlessly killing animals is OK is defensible even though I don’t hold it myself. There is a substantial literature arguing both sides of this issue (and note that the anti-death side does not depend on animal suffering!!). There is not a big literature defending factory farming. This is why I didn’t pursue it, I consider it a distraction, it’s complicated and I’d say indeterminate. Just look at the problems we have with other moral problems. Even with my anti-death stance, I just don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s also worth pointing out that even if I thought that the “pro painless death” side was more likely to be correct say 60%. I believe that a 40% chance of the other side being right would be a good enough reason to be concerned over the view. I’ve said before that these issues are involved. I’d guess the anti-death view is one that Trevor doesn’t understand, but then he should study up rather than treating people who hold this view as weird. It would be really bizarre for Trevor to declare, “I have a very poor understanding of people who hold the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.” even if he didn’t understand it.

I agree that a maximally healthy diet will probably involve meat. But nobody eats a maximally healthy diet. There are several Olympic gold medallist vegan athletes. The empirical issue I was pushing is that an average person is much more likely to be eating too much meat than too little and yes, this probably applies to Trevor too.

A few posts back Trevor expressed some anxiety over giving up some of his favourite foods. I think it’s a mistake to view our current preferences as significant and static. Kids rocking out to Britney don’t want to enjoy the Beatles or Bach right now, but most kids do move on and are glad for it. I still miss meat sometimes, but not nearly as much as I did in the beginning.

Trevor gives the impression of wanting to argue for a conclusion he already holds. This is the biggest mistake of all. I’ve blogged about that a lot and so has Trevor. It shouldn’t count as surprising that we can find ways not to be convinced by an alternative view, but this is possible for every single question, even questions of physics. There are no universally compelling arguments. None. Not ever. Really weird views persist because people want them too.

Finally, it’s true that some people as just vegetarian because they like feeling all moral and superior. They’re annoying and stuff, but equally some people choose to go vegetarian because on reflection, they really, truly, honestly, in good faith believe it’s the right thing to do and there are some real costs to doing so. Some of us liked meat, it’s inconvenient sometimes, we don’t like putting hosts out and it really is true that we have to deal with people who get annoyed with us for daring to say that ethics had anything to do with our decisions. These people really do like us less because of this and we know it! I’ve met far more vegetarians who even after discovering my position comically emphasise how they don’t go round trying to convert people. Why the hell is this? People are constantly trying to persuade others of their ethical views without apologising for saying something that others disagree with. Why should this case be any different?

Added: A link!