Monday, March 31, 2008

Posts I like

A while back I suggested that we should expect a rich country with high levels of immigration to have higher levels of poverty and inequality than countries that don't. This creates pretty perverse incentives; a country can look like it does better by the poor simply by keeping immigrants out. Anyway, hero economist Lant Pritchett has suggested checking out GDP per "natural" (people born in a country) in addition to GDP per capita. America does the best which doesn't surprise me....

Robin Hanson has a post arguing against keeping up with the news. I've watched too much CNN, Sky News and BBC recently, and it sucks, so much. The point of these networks is that they have news gathering resources that useless bloggers lack. Yet they run the same 3 stories all day, as though that was the only interesting or important stuff going on. You can get way more depth, breadth and balance from 20 minutes online. Besides, half the interesting footage comes from camera phones these days, YouTube will do just as well....

I'm continually amazed that Marx doesn't just remain popular, but that people are not more impressed by the difficulty of doing what Marx really intended. Here's a paraphrased exchange

“You studied philosophy?” I ask, just making conversation.

“A little… but you wouldn’t find me spending $35 on this,” he scoffs. (Well, that much is right: It would’ve been cheaper on Amazon even after shipping.)

“Oh?” I reply, “What do you have against Rawls?” He says something to the effect that it’s necessary to move beyond “utopian liberalism” propped up by “fantasy scenarios” and develop more “pragmatic” theories. This strikes me as rather unfair: Whatever his faults, Rawls—especially later Rawls—is not justly characterized as a “utopian,” and to dismiss the Original Position as a “fantasy scenario” rather seems to miss the point—pace Dworkin’s clever quip about hypothetical contracts not being worth the paper they aren’t printed on. Still, I’m intrigued by the unlikely prospect that this Dupont Circle bookshop is employing a conservative or libertarian of some sort. What political philosopher would he suggest we look to for a non-utopian, pragmatic vision?

“Karl Marx.”

Ah. Of course.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Things that I’ve changed my mind about

I don't take this list to be especially significant. It's one of the more annoying points to make in an argument that while I understand where you're coming from - I used to believe the same thing! - I now see where I went wrong. I am not impressed that C. S. Lewis used to be an atheist. But here's a list, roughly in order of personal significance.

  1. Stopped believing in God (I was very religious).
  2. Became a "vegetarian" (some fish and other seafood) and general animal rights nut.
  3. Went from regular lefty to dogmatic libertarian (this meant changing my mind on many other things as part of the deal; most eye openingly, for no particular reason, about the minimum wage. This also leads to no. 4.)
  4. Used to be very anti-gun. Now I think gun laws are too restrictive.
  5. Inexplicably used to be against getting a cell phone.
  6. Hugely revised my worshipful attitude towards modern medicine in general and doctors in particular.
  7. Admitted to myself that I generally hate the type of movies they show at Cinema Nouveau and most plays.
  8. Changed from being Liverpool to Arsenal supporter (situation is still fluid though).

That'll do for now.

Added: Not sure how I forgot this, but very recently I changed my mind about free will. I now think we have it. This is difficult to rank though, because I've spent ages thinking about the question, but I've never been emotionally invested in either position.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fearmongers, Warmongers Gather For Annual Mongering Conference

Check it out.

Added: Stuff it, here it is

Approximately 550 mongers in the fields of war, hate, and fear mongered together at the Washington D.C. Marriott last week as part of the 34th annual mongering conference. According an itinerary released by the National Mongering Council, the three-day summit featured monger-building activities from 9 a.m. to noon, optional night-mongering seminars, and three meals a day to promote social mongering. "This is the greatest collection of mongering minds in our generation, making the conference a prime target for any number of horrific biological and terrorist attacks," fearmonger Gerald Sachs mongered. "Of course, with the current political and social climate, the main question is whether next year will be anywhere near as mongerly." None in attendance could confirm whether they would be present at next week's fish- and whoremongering conference in El Paso, TX.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Even less country for old men: sub zero!

I just finished the book. I bought it for a few reasons. Most importantly I was certain I'd enjoy it (I did), I also wanted to read some good American fiction because I think lack of awareness of American authors is a weird cultural blind spot in the circles I move in, and finally I wanted to find out if the apparent deepness of the film was intentional and if it was, what it was.

The movie is a brilliant adaptation, probably the best I've ever seen. It not only manages to stay incredibly true to the spirit of the book, but uses the different medium to flesh it out in various ways. Otherwise, what was the point?

  • The idea that all our fine ideas are so closely tied to the sloppy, gross bundle of meat that are our bodies is very unsettling (and I'm not even talking about the fact that the ideas come from the same sloppy, gross slab of meat).
  • Given all our fine thoughts it's very unfair that it can all be torn away in such a crude, physical way, which is usually so very far beyond our control. And the bits that we do control can so easily conspire against us to give horrible results despite our very best efforts.
  • Given all the uncertainty and unfairness it's especially crucial not to be careless. Everything we do is a moral choice and is important and we need to be careful, humble and respect the wisdom of past generations who built everything that we were born into. Things often considered naive and quaint, like respecting your elders and telling the truth in a simple, blunt way (and owning up to the consequences).
  • Given all the injustice and pointless suffering in the world it's natural to cling to some form of belief in karma, and when we discover that this is not, in fact, the way the world works it's easy to fall into despair.

All of this is very fine and it can be easy to be conned into forgetting that things are not actually getting worse. Depressingly relentless horror stories in the news shouldn't distract from the fact that people are much less likely to die violent deaths than they ever have been, and the rights and dignity of more people are respected now.

He's right not to sugar coat how bad life can be, and that we shouldn't fall for comforting myths about death, but he's wrong to despair, people have been battling these things and they've been making inroads. His vision should be seen as a call to action, not an excuse for giving up.

Doing nothing is the new doing something

Trevor points out that a policy of doing nothing is still a policy. Yes! The right one!! My argument was that doing nothing should be the default position that requires very compelling reasons to be overridden. But, even this assumes that we're debating within a framework of comparing costs and benefits (a utilitarian framework), which, when stated explicitly, almost everybody denies they are doing (see points 5 and 6.). I think we have certain rights that may not be overturned by a compelling cost benefit analysis.

An example of this principle that traditional lefties usually accept (and I don't think is much different from other areas we have discussed) is freedom of speech. People defending free speech don't think that every allowed utterance improves society. We know that the right will be used to promote poisonous views, yet the principle of free speech is amazingly well respected in the west. Of course it is periodically challenged by people who think that the harm done by some forms of expression outweighs the benefit of being free to make them. This is a reasonable view, but it is not one that is compatible with the underlying principle (though this is usually denied).

As for me, I don't enter into a cost benefit analysis whenever the argument is presented by the press because of some new outrage.

Clinton's Schedule Released

Some highlights

  • Feb. 16, 1993, 10:15 a.m.—Pick Cambridge, VT as village that will raise Chelsea during her father's term.
  • March 11, 1993, 8:59 a.m.—Take deep breath; 9:00 a.m.—Introduce new, shorter haircut to American people.
  • April 27, 1994, 3:00 p.m.—Finish The New York Times crossword puzzle during Nixon's funeral.
  • Dec. 20, 1995, 7 p.m.—Attempt to decorate White House Christmas tree, then put down box of ornaments, say "This is bullshit," and walk out.
  • Jan. 25, 1996, 4:15 p.m.—Document Shred-a-Thon '96.
  • Aug. 21, 1999, 4:38 a.m.—After screening The Sixth Sense, order Secret Service to check on every noise you hear during the night.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The siren’s song

is impossible to resist; seamen who hear it would clamber overboard and drown trying reach the sirens. Odysseus desperately wanted to hear the song but understood the dangers so he ordered his men to tie him to the mast of the ship and that they not untie him not matter how much he demanded or threatened.

I kinda view desire for government involvement like this. We see some problem and are irresistibly drawn to a solution (which often requires government enforcement). But the world is a complicated, imperfect place; there are indefinitely many problems which all have many possible solutions.

I've been writing a lot recently about how to go about forming opinions. And while there are better and worse ways to do this, the central lesson (I think) is humility and skepticism about our own views. Even peer reviewed papers on relatively simple and well posed scientific questions are not very likely to be true. The implications of a particular government policy are often impossible to know and the fact that people sitting around at a pub all agree that policy A is a good idea doesn't mean they it'll work like they hope, or any better than a different group of people sitting in a different pub nodding along with proposed policy B.

This skepticism means that even if we can all agree that something is a problem we should be very wary of proposing solutions. An example is forced removals to clear the way for a dam. Trevor doesn't mind so much if the benefits outweigh the costs, but how can the costs (or the benefits for that matter) possibly be quantified?

Some problems don't have solutions, some might have solutions that we'll never find and other problems may have solutions that we can't even imagine but would emerge from the market. I have very little idea how education would look in 50 years if it were left to the market, probably not much like the current system and maybe it'd be worse. I'd guess there'd be many pathetic, failed educational experiments, but that education would be much better overall.

I suggested that cultural norms have evolved to help deal with our ignorance of the consequences of our actions. Moral norms about stealing, lying, promise keeping exist because we can't calculate the optimal action each time. They're rules of thumb that tend to work out well on average. The norms underpinning market capitalism and science are pretty recent and very successful additions to older norms.

The point of all this that it's not just lunatic libertarians who need some kind of rule for simply dismissing a whole bunch of stuff without thinking about it much else our heads will explode. I'll suggest one that also has the advantage of having been around for a long time.

the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

Two common gripes

about this postmodern world we live in are

  • It allows us to stay like children way longer than we used to, and many of us are taking full advantage.
  • Life is too complicated. Cell phones, facebook and those fucking DVD players that require advanced degrees to program (fat lot of good my honours degree has done me though).

Maybe these gripes come from two different groups of people, but this does not match my experience.

It's true that our wealth enables us to delay doing lots of grown up things, but these gripes are in tension. Modern life can seem overwhelming, so we need to be active in taking responsibility for our own lives, and choosing wisely between the zillion options available to us. We need to bend technology to our will, not the other way round which some people feel has happened.

There's a common saying that you need to push someone into a corner to see what he's "really" like; will he fight or give in? But either of these choices isn't especially surprising, we'd all choose one. The choices that you make when the world is at your feet are much more revealing. Hiring someone to take out a rival says a lot more about you than slitting the throat of your kidnapper.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I may not know much about art but I knows what I likes

I loved the movie version of No Country for Old Men and uncharacteristically went out and bought the book, which I'm also enjoying. McCarthy is supposedly a great writer, but I'm no critic, I just like what I like. I did pause when I came across this bit though

Chigurh shot him through the forehead and then stood watching. Watching the capillaries break up in his eyes. The light receding. Watching his own image degrade in that squandered world.

I'm not sure the "squandered" works here (it'd be perfect if it didn't come across as a bit of pointless moralizing), but I really liked this. About an hour later though I was reading a respected reviewer who says

There is one hokey moment when a violent assassin named Anton Chigurh stands over a Mexican drug dealer and shoots him, "watching his own image degrade in that squandered world," and the reader anticipates a rising paragraph of ornate plaint.

Great of all the fucking sentences to choose, I choose the one hokey one.

Another thought

This should have gone in that horribly long post below, but firstly I forgot and secondly this is more important.

One of the main issues of the debate was inherited privilege. It aint fair that so many people are virtually guaranteed a good life because of the circumstances of their birth. I get it, but two of the very biggest advantages that people are randomly born into are their country and their natural talents. The former makes free immigration a must and the latter should make us much less keen on meritocracy.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Tiger vs. Roger

Tiger just suffered a major setback in his quest for supremacy.

What I do get, and what I don’t

I get the animosity directed at Manchester United staff and fans, for they are all both evil and ugly (Arsenal supporters on the other hand are attractive and witty).

What I don't get is an average Chinese citizen thinking it's reasonable to use force against Tibet because they want independence. I actually don't even really understand why the Chinese government cares, I mean other than preserving the scope of their own power which is surely not the reason they want me to believe. Of course this willingness to sanction violence to prevent complete strangers from doing what they want is very common, so my bafflement says more about my stupidity than anything else.

Am I wrong to think that the reason why the Chinese government wants to throw such a lavish games is to improve their image to the rest of us? They want us to see a fancy, modern China. But if it is a PR exercise why don't they care about seeming nice over Tibet? And aren't they incredibly vulnerable to the Olympic athletes, who are just average PC people? What's to stop all the athletes shaving their heads in solidarity with the monks? Wouldn't that be very embarrassing? And why the hell wouldn't people wannna send a cost free "fuck you" to the Chinese government. I'm sure wiser heads can set me straight, but I don't get it.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Thoughts on recent debate

This post is so very, very long...

  1. For several reasons my view is that any starting point in this kind of discussion should involve as little intervention in peoples lives as possible beyond preventing physical coercion. This comes from general scepticism that many of our beliefs are true, general safeguard against overconfident authorities and respect for individual autonomy; what gives anyone the right to tell other people what to do?
  2. This starting point can be successively and cautiously modified through a process of trial and error. For example, free immigration should be a default position, but maybe should be restricted in as far as this protects the institutions of law and order, private property and enforcement of contracts that allow for general prosperity (of citizens and the world in general).
  3. The distribution of property (land in particular) is an issue. Libertarians don't always acknowledge this.
  4. There is often a trade-off between short term and long term solutions. Government will often be able to achieve easily specified goals faster or better than would otherwise be possible. The Manhattan Project and the moon landing are examples. But that doesn't mean that the goals are worthy, or that the costs are worth it. Many of these projects will succeed by luck and many others appear like a good deal because we either forget the cost, or because the cost is difficult to know.
  5. It's really easy to slip into a utilitarian moral framework, when people will almost always reject utilitarianism in many other cases. People might be ok with forced removals if the costs exceed the benefits (though I'm deeply sceptical that this analysis can be done well), but we don't want to enter this kind of discussion when it comes to torture, the death penalty or gay marriage (which leads to the next point).
  6. Trying to squirm out of the above point leads people to denounce studies showing that torture is effective, that the death penalty deters murder or that growing up with gay parents is harmful. We should not do this! We must try to separate positive questions from normative ones. I oppose the death penalty (in most cases) regardless of its effects on the crime rate.
  7. When talking about capitalism, pointing out the contrast between Mrs Mugabe and the starving masses isn't that relevant. The comparison should be Mr Buffet and assembly line worker (which don't much bother me). Trevor doesn't like me endlessly prattling on about America, but in this case it is an example of what we should be thinking about.
  8. The relative efficiencies of the free market compared to various government interventions cannot be properly debated on blogs, or even really by individual economists. I constantly wanted to stick Milton Friedman, Hayek et al into the conversation. This should be countered by other nobelists who advocate government involvement (in one way or another). This ties in with my concerns in recent posts.

    My attitude is to look at the overall view of professional economists here. Academic economists still lean left on average politically, but are much more free market than any other group academic or otherwise (other than libertarians).

  9. The consensus of intellectually honest committed democratically committed economists from the 20's till the 70's was that government should be very involved. And the argument was made in terms of efficiency. Reading some old news stories makes it seem weird how entrenched this was. The efficiency argument has largely been dropped; it's now framed more in terms of social justice. This is my impression, but I've never taken a course in economics.
  10. But we still need to specify what goals we want to achieve. Which is what I wanted from Trevor; I want people to set their own goals. Economists who want government involvement usually want to make us richer, which is a noble aim, but I don't agree that the government should stick its nose in to make us richer or more efficient. I view the amazing efficiency of the free market as great but not essential for the free market case.
  11. I think pursuit of profit (subject to various side constraints, like not murdering your competition and being an arsehole etc) is the best way of doing good for society, even before you give any of your earnings away. Giving money away, but I wonder if it is appreciated enough that giving money away is often a great way of wasting it.

Posting has been light

the past few days because the universe hates me. And I in turn am a little mad at the universe. To be more specific, I've not been online as much as I like (demand really) and that time has been spent in debate over at Trevor's blog.

Sooo... if you're interested in a kind of rambly debate about the role of government in the economy and society (and, lets face it, who isn't!?) you should check it out. To sweeten the deal even more, Greg has weighed in quite a bit too.

McCain’s running mate

The Onion has the shortlist which includes Mitt Romney

  • McCain hates him with the burning hatred of a thousand exploding suns, which is always a good aspect of any president/VP relationship.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Love hate relationship

It is a nice speech. Obama is smart, thoughtful and balances careful optimism about the future with a reasonable view of the past. It's actually a little weird to read a political speech pitched at that level.

But this is terrible

This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

Come off it dude.

Black Guy Asks Nation for Change

"What he really needs is a job."

Monday, March 17, 2008

We’re all idiots

Man, this article by Tyler Cowen gave me a warm fuzzy feeling, seriously. Do not skip the quotes.

The sad truth is that "non-fiction" has been unreliable from the beginning, no matter how finely grained a section of human knowledge we wish to consider. For instance, in my own field, critics have tried to replicate the findings in academic journal articles by economists using the initial data sets. Usually, it is impossible to replicate the results of the article even half of the time. Note that the journals publishing these articles often use two or three referees--experts in the area--and typically they might accept only 10 percent of submitted papers. By the way, economics is often considered the most rigorous and the most demanding of the social sciences.

I really want to paste the whole thing in here, but you see the link, take some responsibility. He starts the article like this:

Even if you are a Wikipedia fan who thinks the site is usually accurate, you can't help but feel that there's an implicit marker on all the content: "Maybe this is correct." That "maybe" is what sticks in the craws of so many people.

Many people see developments like Wikipedia and other new media as a dumbing down of society, disrespectful of relevant authorities and intellectual institutions. As part of the same trend that doesn't want to see a big read line through a child's screwed up sum. Wikipedia has many strengths but one of it's biggest I think is that people both use it and wonder if what they're reading is really true. When people wonder this they might also wonder how they could check what they just read. It might also be worth pointing out the if you click on those underlined blue words the web page will transform itself into a page with related information but will often come from a more respectable source (another one of Wikipedia's strengths).

I think there are probably too many PhD theses, too many pointless papers and too many studies promising drama but showing nothing in particular. Chris Dilliow has one of the most thought provoking blogs I've read, but he relentlessly links to papers claiming some dramatic result, usually contradicting some well established position, and then considers the subject settled.

How many million academics have we had beavering away for how long without us being able to agree on the answers to the simple questions I posted the other day? What we need is a better way through sifting through the work we've already done. Wikipedia is a great way of doing that, prediction markets are another. Maybe we could build better institutions, maybe it's a fool's errand, but we should care.


Three weeks ago I mocked a Sky news panellist for placing such strong emphasis on the fact that New Zealand didn't repeal laws against sexual assault when it legalised prostitution. This was before Spitzer's philandering triggered the blogosphere wide debate on the subject and I've seen the same point made many times since then.

I was clearly wrong to have mocked this woman because it's a concern many people share.

Can anybody help me out here? Why doesn't it go without saying?

Department of petty grievances

The other day I was stuck in traffic on the M3 and a heard several sirens screaming up behind me. Traffic was bumper to bumper but we all dutifully squirmed to the side of the road to let the ambulance/fire truck/even police car through. But no! It was Mr Mbeki's motorcade.

I don't give a shit if he had important things to do (I don't even especially want him to "do things"). I'm on his side in the conspiracy against Zuma, but this did not endear him to me.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


Sometimes we suffer from to much imagination. We imagine things to be possible or feasible when they are not. We've long found it easy to imagine flying cars and colonies on the moon, but these things are incredibly difficult; too much imagination. While contemplating their lunar holiday, the very same people were unable to imagine women astronauts or cell phones; too little imagination.

Actual scientists say that we are systematically biased to think that both the past and the future look far too much like the present. I remember a computer nerd explaining to me exactly why there would never be streaming video on the internet. Being a nerd he was able to befuddle me with his impressive techno babble, but I remained confident that it would happen relatively soon. What he meant was that there were very good reasons why there was not streaming video 10 years ago (I actually also got this, since there was no streaming video around at the time). But it wasn't necessary for me to articulate how this would be done, I just knew that computers and the internet were getting faster, and there was no particular reason for this trend to reverse itself.

An issue I think suffers from to much imagination is consciousness. We find it too easy to imagine machines exactly like us (fancy robots) with life ambitions witty banter etc, which are not conscious. This is a problem because it means that naturalism is not true and one way or another, we're all naturalists (at least when we do science, I realise that this is usually a religious or spiritual issue).

So, how do we know when we're suffering from which deficiency?

“Why don’t you mock Mohammed next? Huh? Why not?”

Well, aside from the blindingly obvious reason that I prefer life over death, I didn't realize I was making fun of Christianity this week.

That's Scott Adams. He's very funny, but it is a reminder that the bad guys have basically won this little battle.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Some good MR posts

On the legalisation of prostitution. I tend towards the more extreme libertarian position, which is also being blogged a lot (you want links?), but it is a good post.

Much more fun is Tyler's post on interstellar trade.

As you approach the speed of light you move into the future relative to more stationary observers. So can you not leave a penny in a savings account, take a very rapid spaceflight, and come back to earth "many years later" as a billionaire? Hardly any time has passed for you.

Sooo, what happens if everyone does this?

Added: Will Wilkinson is reliably smart. Kerry Howley and Megan McArdle are both smart and both women.

Some questions

  • Are things (globally) better now than they've been before? Are things much better?
  • Is pay closely related to productivity?
  • How much of the West's wealth resulted from exploitation of, or damage done to other countries (note that it's possible to screw up other places without getting richer from doing so)?
  • How politically powerful are people in liberal Western countries by virtue of being rich (what do we by political power)?
  • When we buy something, are we usually better off for it? If you spend R200 on cutlery, is it true that you value the cutlery more than the R200? Or are you suffering from some kind of false consciousness?

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Trevor says in the comments

Presumably we are a very long way from where we would like to be. Crime, hatred, poverty etc. are still intrinsic parts of our everyday life.


I agree with the sentiment that things are improving, but things are still pretty sickening.

Framing effects have an important effect on how we see the world. It happens when we hear that the crime rate has fallen 5% or that the economy has grown 5%. Five percent!? Are you kidding, crime is sky high! People are still dirt poor! Thing is though, that both statements can be true, but we chose to look at things differently.

We can ask, "why are people so violent" or we could ask, "why are people so much less violent now than they ever have been?" The second phrasing is consistent with unacceptably high levels of violent crime but also suggests we try to understand how things have changed that things are so different. The establishment of wise rules isn't magic; all we can expect is that things will move in a positive direction.

There's also a big difference between things being crap now and the evolved cultural norms etc being bad. When we think of things being pretty sickening we don't normally think of rich liberal nations, we think of places where many of these social rules have not been established. Many of the problems in countries like America could be traced to the breakdown of some important, well established norms, like marriage in the inner-cities.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

So there

I do so enjoy it when smart people agree with things I think. Megan McArdle, as ever, is heroine number 1. She explains why we like certain kinds of narrative stories but that, these days, they often come packaged as Harry Potter or Mills and Boon. So those of us who are made of more pretentious stuff must look elsewhere to satisfy our lust for a ripping good yarn and one place we find it is in memoirs, which it's ok to like. The trouble is that people lie like psychotic 3 year olds in their memoirs, so how should we react to this? Some people don't mind much, but some do.

Having neatly separated fact and fiction, we now read only "fact" as a way to learn about correct behavior, where a hundred years ago people were perfectly accustomed to taking moral or social lessons out of obvious fiction (from whence the term "morality play"). Memoir alone do we permit ourselves to read for the (now conscious) purpose of obtaining information about how human beings behave in other situations than ours.


But for that, we require versimilitude; we're only interested in reading about being in rehab or growing up in a gang if that is what it is actually like. Otherwise the "compare and contrast" to our own lives seems meaningless.


What I have in mind in particular is "A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey. I was shocked to hear people, including some of the principle whistle blowers, leap to his defence when it emerged that most of the book was a total fabrication. I remember reading things like, "I'll still make my kids read it. It does a great job of explaining why you shouldn't do drugs". So, your kid reads about how drugs mess up your life (turning you into a compulsive liar is apparently one of them), from a real drug addict! Your kid is deeply impressed and does some more digging only to discover that it isn't what it's like to an addict at all! Yay! It's all lies, such a good moral.

Just stick in the fiction section where the fake message won't be watered down later by the discovery that it isn't true.

Starbucks To Begin Sinister 'Phase Two' Of Operation

Will it astonish you to discover that this Onion article is hilarious?

"To our valued Starbucks customer: Just wait until you see the exciting changes we've got in store for you as part of our new Phase Two. When you finally see what we've got brewing here at Starbucks, you'll have no choice but to love it."

Just a reminder

Since I've been praising the social and cultural institutions of rich western countries recently, I think it's worth remembering what I would do if I were the (benevolent of course) dictator of one of them (America lets say).

  • Legalise drugs.
  • Legalise prostitution.
  • Legalise polygamy.
  • Abolish just about all public services and most regulations. Public schools would go, the minimum wage, most health and safety laws stringent controls of drug testing; the list goes on a bit.
  • Slash taxes.
  • Offer criminals a choice of punishment in many cases. Usually some form of (mild) torture instead of prison time. Possibly castration for sexual offenders.
  • All but abolish immigration restrictions.
  • Ban (yes ban!) factory farming and many other practices involving animals.

Of course, this isn't all, but it does suggest that I'm hardly complacent about the status quo.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Saturday, March 08, 2008

The rules

If we're good science fearing types, we should believe that not only do we descend from apes, we should believe that we descend, directly from some kind of formless ooze. Sooo... not only did we need to build lots of stuff to get to where we are now, we needed to construct the cultural institutions governing morality and behaviour that make it all possible from scratch. It just isn't true that there was a past Eden that we've fallen from and need to figure out how to get back to (thanks a lot Plato, by the way); we're making it all up as we go along.

The way this evolution used to proceed is that stupid tribes would try stupid rules and then get killed or starve or meet some other grizzly fate. And so institutions developed (at least partly) through this brutal form of trial and error. Societies that survived and prospered had cultural norms better suited to surviving and prospered. Stable societies can do some experimenting with these things on their own.

The point is that even though we're more prosperous than ever some people worry that the rules that allow our prosperity are eroding away soon to be followed by the erosion of our material prosperity. But if we had to build and refine these rules in the first place how do we know that they were so great at any particular point in the past (or present for that matter). The odds that the way things were 50 years ago were optimal are very small. In fact you can't separate these rules from the material world at all and the technological advances that are a part of it. With every Big New Thing, people freak out and it can take years before society digests it and stable, modified rules emerge (usually with the death of the older generation).

The moral of the story is that the rules we grew up with are extremely valuable and shouldn't be tampered with lightly, but just like they emerged slowly from earlier rules, they should be modified and improved as well. And that is what those rules in the post below are for, a framework for the development of new rules.

Some valuable armchair advice.

Or some pointless pleading. Whatever.

Roger, dude, if you're going to start losing every game you play, at least do it like a man instead of scurrying around the baseline like a terrified rabbit. Much better to dump the ball in the net on your own terms.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Some rules

My quest to write a shortish blog post capturing all the wisdom of thousands of years of epistemological insight was a little frustrating.

In the same sort of spirit though, Virginia Postrel offers an overview of dynamist rules:

  1. Allow individuals (including groups of individuals) to act on their own knowledge.
  2. Apply to simple, generic units and allow them to combine in many different ways.
  3. Permit credible, understandable, enduring and enforceable commitments.
  4. Protect criticism, competition, and feedback.
  5. Establish a framework within which people can create nested, competing frameworks of more specific rules.

This is from The Future and its Enemies. These rules are kinda just the rules for life the universe and everything, and I'm not sure how well they sum up what I was trying to get at. But they're simple, general and pretty deep.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Exclusive Books clearance sale

came to Chesterhouse today. I was a little alarmed to see a Billy Graham book there, but at least the odds of any kid actually reading it are pretty small (don't buy this book. But if you must buy it, for the love of God, don't read it. Hahaha). I was actually more annoyed to see so many books in one place so cynically aiming to recruit kids and teenagers to cause (usually religious or environmental). Despite my mild irritation I don't really think it's a big deal. These books may cause kids to develop beliefs I find misguided, but if they don't develop proper critical reasoning skills then it doesn't much matter what books they're reading. The same argument applies to pyramid schemes; I find the stories of the conned very sad, but if they don't stop being idiots, banning a scheme isn't going to help them much with their finances, a fool and his money are soon parted.

I was most surprised that I wasn't all that happy to see the Stephen Hawking picture book that I've hankered after before. I think popular science books are cool when they provide a sense of the history and development of science or when they discuss interesting ideas that it's possible to actually think about, but half the time the message is, it's ok to believe this because a scientist says so and scientists are special because they use evidence and reason. Now I have sympathy for this view because I think it's true. There are few better reasons to believe something than scientific consensus supports it, but this is exactly what lots of people say when justifying cramming religious or overly Gaia worshiping books down their kids throats. High up on my (admittedly very long) list of pet peeves is the habit of distorting truth in the name of a cause you're convinced is good. Science and reason worshipers need to do better.

Having said all this it's probably quite tough to get those crazy kids into the latest "Critical Reasoning for Teens" when it hits the shelves.

Hmmm... I'll be bold; every kid in the world should be forced to read "The Accidental Theorist". Anything else?

Oh dear

Arsenal have had two surprisingly bad results in the last two games while Man U have are in ominous form. But is it really worth the massive swing in the betting odds? I'm very reluctant to second guess these odds but at the same time I can't shake the feeling that I "knew" that Man U was a steal a few weeks ago.

I suppose these markets depend on people with knowledge similar to mine acting on it and setting them straight. This is what has happened I suppose, but I still think it took a little long and I don't like having my blind faith in markets shaken.

Completely random thought for the day

For some inexplicable reason I've always felt a little sorry for Gordon Brown. He had a deal with Tony! It's perfectly reasonable that the fate of a nation should depend on a "deal" struck between two people in a coffee shop 15 years ago.

How this has obscured the fact that he's an unpleasant arse I can't say. But at least I can enjoy all the shit that he gets from sources like the Economist now.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

No Country for Old Men (or, Is it Just Me or is Everything Shit)*

(Mild) spoiler alert: I thought it was mesmerising, though I liked mostly as an action thriller (which, of course, I don't mean as a criticism) not the deep movie I take it to be trying to be.

I hate excessively bleak, pessimistic movies and Old Country seems to suggest that things are getting worse (implied in the title), which usually really annoys me, but this time I didn't mind at all. Apparently society is callously indifferent to the fates of ordinary, decent people. Some people are spared, some not, based on nothing more than the flip of a coin (literally) and you can't hide. You can take it like a man though...

Anyway, the movie creates some totally awesome characters, completely compelling without being real or remotely human. That's pretty cool.

* Best book title, ever.

Woods vs. Federer

It's difficult to disagree with Alex Massie's conclusion on the topic

None of this is to say that Tiger isn't greater than Roger, merely that these sorts of parlour games, though entertaining, are pretty pointless. why isn't it enough to just acknowledge that Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer of the modern game and Roger Federer is probably the finest tennis player of them all (or, at least the finest since Rod Laver)?

I'll add a few things though. The grand slam record for golf really is much more impressive than the one for tennis. Sampras is the only plausible candidate who really had a long career attempting all the slams. Laver didn't play the tournaments at all for 5 of his best years and Borg retired when he was really young. So I wouldn't consider breaking this record as important in the debate (though it means that Federer must break it sometime).

The nature of the different sports means that Woods can have the greatest year ever that includes many bad days (even after taking the randomness intrinsic to the sport into account) while Federer can't, his baseline loss rate is just too low. Also, when Federer has one of his great performances it's just an aesthetic thing, it doesn't really help him with tournament wins or his win-loss ration (except to keep him off the court, which is a small advantage) but with Woods it does help. How many times has Federer actually needed his best tennis to win (not on clay against Nadal, which has not actually happened yet)?

For some reason tennis stars often face extremely steep drop-offs at the end of their careers, and this often happens pretty young, younger than other sports that rely almost exclusively on athleticism. If we accept that this is true, why should this be and what should we conclude about this?

The match play comparison is interesting, but as Alex says, it only gets you so far. I think the best indication comes from the general level of awe each player inspires in observes and fear/hopelessness in competitors. Woods probably has the edge here though Federer has achieved what he has despite never really laying to rest the feeling that he's psychologically weaker than some other competitors, which should throw his sheer talent into sharper perspective.

Lastly, my impression is that if we could be bothered (and nobody in their right mind should be), reading sports journalism from the 60's and seeing how Laver stacked up to other sporting heroes would reveal that Laver did not quite have the other worldly talent that Woods and Federer have.