Sunday, May 25, 2008

"It's rubbish... In 1957 the communists did not run with crystal skulls throughout the US."

That's from an article about how pissed off the Russian Communist party is over the new Indiana Jones movie. And guess what, they want the movie banned. Surprise!

They will go to the cinema and will be sure that in 1957 we made trouble for the United States and almost started a nuclear war.


That's outrageous! It was


Now, I don't usually just take the Communist Party's word on stuff, but in this case I'm willing to forgo hours of Googling and just accept that communists did not in fact run amok through the US with crystal (alien) skulls.

I suppose that the making such a statement doesn't imply that they are complete fucking morons. I'm sure there's convincingly sincere and sinister politicking behind it. Randomly banning movies probably does them good. I'm a little surprised that they're so keen to signal their utter contempt for the Russian youth though, but what do I know.

I wonder if they've broken the news about professional wrestling yet, or maybe that's already been banned.

This is pathetic

Whenever I'm overcome by the feeling that if only Federer would listen to my advice everything would be ok, I make a conscious effort to remind myself that he knows more about tennis than I do. He's not just a professional (which should be enough), he's one of the most talented and accomplished people in this regard ever to have walked the earth.

When some big shot screws up strategically (not personally), I consciously try to remind myself that, not only would I not have done better, I would have done worse.

The same rules should apply to Chelsea. It's a multi-million pound business with incredibly talented people making decisions, but I'm still confident in my conclusion that they're being pathetic by firing Avram Grant, well assuming they would have kept him if they'd won the champions league, which they probably would have done John Terry not slipped. Perhaps Terry slipping reflects badly on Grant's coaching ability, but I have my doubts.

Friday, May 23, 2008


I haven't had a lot of success with this kind of question post before. But, here goes anyway.

Can you imagine a world like this in all ways except that its inhabitants are not conscious?

It's very fashionable for pro-science, apparent naturalists to claim that, though consciousness isn't a special kind of stuff (this is what Descartes thought),
it isn't a product of our material brains. There could be brains exactly like ours not accompanied by consciousness, this is enough to show that consciousness something separate from the natural world.

Does this sound reasonable to you?

I've been meaning to get round to writing my own post on this, but it's just so difficult, I'll get there in the end. If you feel like putting in loads of effort, this post is very pleasingly mind bending.

I have nothing much to add

I feel like I should have lots to say about the spreading violence, but I don't really.

It does rather show why open borders wouldn't work so well. It's got less to do with the actual effects of immigration on wages or anything and more to do with the fact that people simply won't stand for it. But this is simply a fact of the world as it currently is, not and argument for the inherent justice of tight border controls. There are plenty of cases where just action will spur violence, getting rid of apartheid and slavery are obvious examples. Often it's smart to stop short of demanding a satisfying conclusion to the injustice to prevent widespread violence. Whites here were mostly left alone and we kept our land and most countries compensated slave owners when slavery was abolished (America was the only country that didn't and that did involve a staggering amount of violence).

So, sure, whatever, just don't think that the foreigners going home is going to help anyone. It may help to stop a decent into violence but don't expect it to address any of the issues that started the trouble in the first place.

Indiana Jones and the steaming pile of crap

That's my review.

And it's too long.

Why do the sporting gods hate me so?

Requiring Terry to miss his penalty was an especially nice touch. Bastards.

Of course as my bad luck is stored up the odds of Federer winning the French increase. A good sign is that luck will play a large role in the draw. If Novak is drawn with Roger, I'd say his odds drop well below 10%, if he's draw with Rafa, there's a decent chance he'll win, which will be good for Roger. Fingers crossed.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Morality fever

Just like everybody else, I react emotionally to some news stories and not to others (often more important). I find the murder of Zimbabweans and Somalis especially sickening (somehow I think it's worth mentioning that there are places where life is worse than Zimbabwe).

To me the act seems to say, "You are not entitled to anything. Even the attempt to survive is a capital crime." When I hear about other murders, I subconsciously imagine some underlying "reason". "That guy is part of a rival gang", "that guy slept with my girlfriend"; "I'm a fucking psycho who likes to look of blood by moonlight" or whatever. It's never OK, but I doubt there are many people who kill for the pleasure of it; those who don't feel immediate remorse usually either think the victim had it coming or they want to get ahead, politically or materially or whatever.

The simplified story in the current violence has involved foreigners taking jobs that South Africans would otherwise get. So I guess both of these reasons apply, but I can't think of it like this. I see it as a punishment for the crime of trying to escape being murdered or facing a high probability of terrible suffering and premature death. Like an ordinary Austrian finding a Jew who'd escaped from Auschwitz and instead of sending of sending him back (because that is the right fate for a person who happens to be born Jewish), executing him on the spot, not for being Jewish, but for the crime of escaping, believing he has a right, not to have his life protected by anyone else, but the right to fight for himself.

My primitive apelike brain doesn’t understand

Why was all the tennis from earlier in the tournament shown live, but the final not? A Federer, Nadal final too.


Speaking of morons: Roger, what's your problem buddy? I take back that bit of advice I gave two years ago, forget the gym. You could play like you did earlier in the week, using drop shots and other nifty tricks to keep Nadal on his toes. Or you could issue epileptic thrashes at the ball, trot off in Nadal's direction and wistfully look at the ball on it's way past, whatever.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mmmmm, kidneys

Despite all my handwringing about how I'm less likely to be right about stuff than I'd like, I remain utterly convinced that allowing people to sell their kidneys would make the world a much better place.

Yes, gut instinct may say this is a bad idea and generally when someone tries to remove organs from your body you'd be wise to try stop him, but again things have changed. There's never been a better time to allow a stranger to rummage around inside you!

And yes, I'll be first in line to whip mine out if it does become legal. If the price is right, I'll even let you have the pretty one.

Man, I need a gun

Okay, listen. If I am doing 120km/h in the fast lane and I am passing a stream of cars in the middle lane, you have no leg to fucking stand on. The very fact that you would prefer to drive at 200km/h in said lane does not confer some magical right for it to be so. One nanosecond isn't enough following distance and your wild gesticulation will be met with an utter lack of humour, which the gun will make abundantly clear...

Monday, May 12, 2008

creating ethics

Over the years I've been part of a few debates on nature of ethics. A common issue is whether right and wrong exist in some objective perfect sense. Strange sounding (to modern ears) passages from the Bible and different moral norms in different societies undermine faith in unchanging moral standards. A common counter is that the fact that we don't know all the answers doesn't mean that they aren't out there.

I don't believe that giving up your belief in this ideal should result in moral relativism or nihilism, but I think it's striking that a lot of our morality seems dependent on our peculiar biological nature and our level of technological development, so we shouldn’t expect aliens or artificial intelligences to have similar ethical ideas and this shouldn’t make us think that this makes them evil.

There are lots of examples of what I mean, for example many moral rules, especially in the past, concerned food and its preparation and there would be no reason for aliens to care. But we shrug off the weirdness of the past as if it were no big deal, but look! Something used to be immoral and no longer is!

But I’ve been thinking of one example in particular, which concerns sex. I’ve often thought that sex was overly moralised compared to the ethics of driving, say. The thing is that back in the day the consequences of having sex were just much bigger. Having sex meant risking pregnancy, disease, economic ruin and the excellent chance that either mother or baby would die during childbirth. And there wasn't really much you could do, condoms only became widely (and cheaply) available in the 30's, the Pill hit the scene in the 60's and a hundred years ago and earlier just about everybody was poor. So it made sense that there should be a strict code of ethics governing sexuality which was enforced with severe social penalties for transgressors. These rules used to mean the difference between a society dying or flourishing.

Technology has radically reduced the expected cost of a sexual encounter and western society is now very rich and robust, so these worries just aren't the same.

The point is. If the consequences of an action change, it changes what counts as moral or immoral behaviour.

Born again Bayesian?

Another big problem with the way chains of reasoning decay into mush is that most people know their conclusion before they start. If you have this luxury, then you know in advance that if you're sufficiently patient, you can reach that conclusion using steps that individually have a high chance of being right. Again, this approach rewards longer arguments. How much reasoning is unintentionally done in this way?

It’s a cliché that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and that’s true, but in this context the expected damage of a weak link near your starting point is larger than one near the end. The error I mentioned in Andrew Wiles proof was a long way in and he was able fix it in a couple of years. The error didn’t destroy his life’s work, but it could have if it came earlier.

Each field of enquiry has its own assumptions and axioms on which everything is built. When doing research in that field it’s ok to be speculative (high chance of being wrong) in trying to discover new stuff, but it isn’t ok if those starting assumptions are wrong.

All this is a roundabout way of endorsing Occam’s razor. Keep everything as simple as possible. Minimise the number of assumptions that you use and scrutinise them extremely carefully. Beware long, intricate chains of reasoning and always be aware of their probabilistic nature.
I think Bayesian rationality is the response to all this handwringing. Now if only I could plough through this badly written primer :-(

more charity

I was trying to work Marx into my post on the principle of charity, but somehow I couldn't seem to swing it. I think what I was angling at was that it's become a bit of a cliche to say that Marx is the greatest thing since sliced bread but his ideas have been distorted and have not been properly tried out yet. Marx would of course be horrified if he saw the kind of things that were done in his name.

I suffer from a pretty severe anti-Marx bias, so I'm not to be trusted on the subject (especially since I haven't even attempted the, almost certainly doomed, struggle down page one of Das Kapital), but given that the man wrote a zillion pages of (often incredibly opaque) stuff and that he changed his mind on most issues, I'd be astonished if a determinedly charitable reader couldn't find many reasons to think well of him. But we shouldn't celebrate him because it might be possible to read him saying wise things, we should instead remember it should not have been possible for so many smart people to interpret him in such wildly different ways.

The most charitable reading of Marx is very unlikely to correspond to what he actually thought.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

You are SO wrong

Of course, by "you" I mean everybody, and by "SO" I mean "very" or "really".

I know better than anybody how crap I am at maths, and don't think this is false modesty because I also know that I'm better at it than most people. Despite my crapness I also know enough about the subject and its history to get a sense of how demanding it is. It's not just about making sure that each step is mathematically correct, but that your problem is posed in a way that makes sense. Even given all the rigour that mathematicians bring and peer review, it isn't uncommon that a paper with errors in it will get published. Andrew Wiles is "famous" for proving Fermat's Last Theorem but it took a long time for people to discover that his initial attempt was incorrect, and it was probably only discovered at all because so many weirdoes were interested enough to check.

My point is that when it comes to actually knowing stuff for sure you can't do better than maths (or logic) but even here it's often less of a sure thing than you'd guess and it's really, really hard. And maths and logic is actually the easiest stuff that we can ever do. In real life we can't pose questions with similar precision and we can't move from one step to the next in the same deductive way, so why should we expect our chains of reasoning to lead to accurate conclusions? Well, we shouldn't. But we are often really confident about our beliefs when it comes to politics or economics or sociology, which are indescribably more difficult and complicated than maths.

If you have an argument that involves a chain of reasoning and on average you're 95% sure that each step is correct, the odds of your argument being right falls below 50% on the thirteenth step.

Or put another way, the odds of you being right declines exponentially with the length of your argument.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Forget charity

The principle of charity says that you should try to interpret what people say in a why that doesn't make them a total moron. As far as possible assume people are rational, well intentioned and (I know this sounds funny) basically think what you think.

This is all very fine and it is very important, but there's also a problem: people are raging weasels. If people rush round demanding to be interpreted charitably they might be less inclined to accept genuine disagreement. Worse, there's an incentive to be vague and waffle on for ages in the hope that readers will simply chose an interpretation that they like and believe the author to be deep. Or that someone smarter will "see" the brilliant insight, clarify it and give credit to the original author.

Incentives should not reward vagueness ambiguity or hedging.

"I can't help you with that."

That's Greg after I said that I was serious in my suggestion that he get his head frozen when (if) he dies.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The great filter

There's been some really interesting stuff on aliens, God, simulated reality and the beginning of life by Nick Bostrom and Tyler Cowen in the past week or so. Tyler Cowen thinks that the most rational thing to do is believe that we were artificially created, either by God or by aliens.

When I tell people about the simulation argument they normally just laugh and tell me I'm crazy, but they don't usually tell me what's wrong with it. David Lewis, who was apparently one of the better philosophers of the 20th century, once said "I cannot refute an incredulous stare." I laugh every time I think of this quote and I think it applies here. I'll also say again that I can think of few topics where our instincts and intuitions are less relevant than this one.

Here's a quote from Tyler Cowen's post.

... I am struck by the tension between the Fermi paradox with the "We are probably living in a simulation" claim.  Both are popular with the same group of people because they are nerdy ways of making you believe something weird...


Monday, May 05, 2008

Random thought

I expect this is not a pet issue that many people share, but I used to spend some time wondering about the respective limitations of being blind and deaf. I'd heard a couple people saying that it'd be better to be blind, which I thought was weird, but being able to hear allows you understand and be understood with people in a way that's probably impossible to replicate outside of fluent signing, and maybe not even then.

Anyway, it occurred to me last night that the events of the last ten years have really helped deaf people out. It's a common lament that kids spend too much time online chatting, blogging, "Facebooking", gaming and god knows what else. Most of this is intensely social and by now it's mainstream. It's also a world with which deaf people can engage on a completely level footing.

This is a small development in the larger scheme on things, and it's possible that the negative consequences of the general trend outweigh the positive, but as far as it goes it's a really heartwarming development.

That was not all, apparently

Given my unflinching worship of movies like Spiderman, X-men and Batman, even in the face of all the improbabilities, I do think it's worth suggesting that Iron Man should not survive many of the blows he was dealt.

Designing the most totally awesome alternative energy source ever, in a cave, on your own, in a week, is ok. Surviving falls of several hundred meters is not.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Morality is overrated

I'm often surprised by how uninterested many people are in ethics, especially people who don't look much to religion as a source of morality. An obvious response could be that moral philosophers are not better than the rest of us. But moral evaluation plays such a large part in general pubic life. We all have opinions on the war in Iraq, Zimbabwe and especially global warming, but most of us couldn't identify a branch of moral philosophy beyond suggesting utilitarianism (not by that name) or the golden rule.

One explanation is that we don't much care, which I buy.


Betting market news

Since January the odds on America going into recession were steady at around 70% and there's been plenty of bad news since then, but now the odds are 30%. What gives?

Added: Any readers will probably have seen this post on MR. Somehow I feel the need to say that I wrote this post before I saw Tyler's. Impressed? I thought you might be.

Let me tell you something

Iron Man is awesome. That is all.