Sunday, June 29, 2008

Go Spain go!

Think that'll push 'em over the edge?

Update: The Spanish players obviously checked my blog about 15 minutes before kickoff. Don't see any other explanation for their win.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Study: Most Children Strongly Opposed To Children’s Healthcare

Would you like to go to the doctor more?


Makes sense.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Good point

The "left" is more likely to include both feminists and gun control advocates. But guns are pretty much the only reliable way that an individual woman can defend herself against aggressors. Sure, lots of things should happen to deal with violence against women, and there is no shortage of ideas about how best to do this, but in the mean time, in this imperfect world, women should not be at the mercy of whims of violent, loser men. Megan McArdle makes the point.

I'm hardly the first person to make this observation, but I don't know why it isn't noted more often: guns are the only weapon that equalizes strength between attacker and attacked. It's the only time when men's greater speed, strength, and longer reach make no difference; if you pull the trigger first, you win.

This is an enormous social advance. I am all for strengthening the social contract (and law enforcement) so that fewer men commit rape, assault, or robbery. But until human nature has improved so radically that grievous bodily harm has passed from living memory, I don't understand why more feminists don't push for widespread gun ownership.


Robin Hanson takes Tyler to task in the comments

Oh come on - will you accept those atheists saying God is a trillion to one if only they also repeat the matra that they are only 60% sure this is near the right number?

I feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Tyler responds!

He says one loyal MR reader asks, but it's not true! I also asked. Here's how he deals with it

I'll give it p = .005.  But what's the chance I think that is the correct p or even in the neighborhood of the correct p?  Maybe 60 percent.

This seems fair enough, he gives a good reason (Fermi Paradox) for believing the probability is low, but I'm not sure how well it gels with this

I've asked atheists what's the chance you're wrong and they'll say something like a trillion to one, and that to me is absurd, that even if you think all of the strongest arguments for atheism are correct, your estimate that atheism is in fact the correct point of view shouldn't be that high, maybe you know 90-10 or 95 to 5, at most.

So Fermi Paradox (strong argument) implies probability of 0.05% but assuming strong argument for atheism are correct implies at most 95%? Why? Why can atheists assign their probability 99.5% but then say they're only 60% sure of this.

Structurally, what's the difference (this is a serious question by the way)?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

More movie complaints (spoiler alert!)

This obviously should have gone with the post below, but HAL 9000 is also overly obsessed with never making a mistake. What exactly counts as a mistake is never really discussed. I suppose most pocket calculators go through their lives never making a mistake, but I suspect that this isn't the kind of accuracy they have in mind, but then that standard should apply at all.

Having said this, the movie is still totally awesome and I'd say the best cautionary tale about AIs that I've seen (though I have many nice things to say about Agent Smith too).

The Incredible Hulk is also very cool. But the ending is breathtakingly stupid. Why is nobody concerned about The Abomination lying on the floor? He's just catching his breath for God's sake! He'll kill all of you in a minute! And this time The Hulk will be half way to Venezuela.

And why is The Abomination still intelligent and recognizably the same personality despite being a giant lizard, while The Hulk is a total moron despite being far more human?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

And another thing

Later in the podcast Tyler puts the odds of humanity persisting beyond the heat death of the sun at, "well under 1%". Leaving aside the interpretation of "well under" this seems crazy in the context of Tyler's most absurd belief, radical uncertainty. Almost casually he's willing to throw around extreme certainty even when he's been primed not to do so!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Tyler and Will

Have their very own blogging heads! Yay! It's really interesting. I think you should listen to it. Yes you.

Robin Hanson quotes a great big chunk of it which includes this bit

My most absurd belief, perhaps, is the extent to which I think people should be truly uncertain about almost all of their beliefs.  And it doesn't sound absurd when you say it but I don't on the other hand know anyone who agrees with it. ... Take whatever your political beliefs happen to be.  Obviously the view you hold you think is most likely to be true, but I think you should give that something like 60-40, whereas in reality most people will give it 95 to 5 or 99 to 1 in terms of probability that it is correct.

This is why people have blogs! That's what I've been saying! Yay me! So if Tyler's right that few other people think that I'm in pretty select company here. That's right! Tyler and me are this [makes fingers crossed gesture].

I don't really claim that I'm like that in practice (though blogging on that particular issue is part of my "practice") but I had a pretty weird little moment of realisation while listening to this section; I'd like to say "epiphany" but that wasn't it (I hope you understand what I mean now). Tyler says

I've asked atheists what's the chance you're wrong and they'll say something like a trillion to one, and that to me is absurd...

As he said this I was like, "phift! Idiots!" till I realised that this actually used to be my position, and I don't remember changing... Kinda like the mental equivalent of thinking there's another stair and doing that amusing undignified bit of correction when your foot doesn't find anything solid.

It was quite fun.

Thank the gods! Ronaldo really IS an idiot!

This past sporting year, on top of all the misery, I've undergone the rather alarming process of liking Alex Ferguson, Wayne Rooney and Christiano Ronaldo more, or rather, disliking them less.

Ferguson is obviously a great coach, and one difficult thing he seems to have mastered is the taming of destructive spoilt brats (and being able to dispose of the ones he can't), which is surely something we all benefit from. He also seems to have largely given up making ridiculous postgame comments, which actually makes what he has to say interesting.

Rooney is one of the tamed spoilt brats. He's able to control himself on the field, he seems like he's actually interested in maximising the odds of the team scoring rather than just himself and he's taken his Ronaldo induced hero demotion very well.

Ronaldo deserves all the credit heaped on him, because he's incredibly good. Given the kind of drive he obviously has, it's pretty cool that he doesn't seem to take himself and everything he does too seriously. He doesn't have the unpleasant steely edge that Armstrong, Tiger and Schumacher seem to have (Federer too?). Ronaldo also seems to have been able to stay pretty team oriented.

But! His desire to move to Real is totally mad! His success at Manchester doesn't guarantee his happiness there, but he does seem happy. The most difficult coach in the world to please adores him, it's clearly the best team in the world and he has the unconditional worship of the largest fan base in the world. I'd put the odds of the move enhancing his status at well under 10%

Friday, June 20, 2008

What is it with this demand for certainty?

I recently suggested that we should never be 100% sure of anything. It's pretty obvious but on average we suffer pretty serious biases in favouring certainty. Drugs must go through ridiculously touch testing while people who could be saved, die and we often are more disturbed by a 100% to 90% shift in probability than a 80% to 20% one. What? There are loads of examples and they're part of the big literature on biases.

I was struck by this while watching Minority Report again. It's just taken for granted that if one error is made, by a cop, precog whatever, the whole system will collapse. It's never spelled out, but doesn't this imply that no error has ever been made in the regular criminal justice system? If not, why hasn't it been shut down?

If reducing the error rate in crime detection and prevention by zillions of orders of magnitude isn't enough to recommend this new system to the author, then I don't think I'd have much luck in persuading him that he's an idiot.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The death of intuition

That was the intuitively chosen title of Ian Ayres book, but supercrunching techniques showed it to be a stupid name and changed it to Supercrunchers. The book has done well, so clearly intuition is dead right? Wrong! Some kinds of intuition have been slain, which is terribly sad for people like doctors and (primary school?) teachers, but this is actually a good thing.

Couldn't the story of the modern world be titled "The Death of Intuition"? Bertrand Russell's buddy Alfred North Whitehead said, "Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking"

Science's primary virtue is that it doesn't trust the intuitions of current bigshots (we think they're more likely to be right maybe). Once science really has something to say about some natural process, like, say, the appropriate orbit for a satellite, your intuition really is no longer required.

The past 300 years have not been kind to any number of treasured intuitions. The thing is though, that once a problem is solved there are plenty of more difficult ones lying around to keep smart people busy and supercrunching will be of limited use.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Wild speculation

This is a sensitive topic, so please keep the heading in mind.

One (possibly obvious) claim by my new heroes of the infamous podcast is that historically power (in the violent sense) and wealth have gone together. So, if for whatever reason some people have a lot of money, they'll either buy protection for them and their stuff or some nice people will come along and take it, so any imbalance will sort itself out pretty quickly. The only societies that are pretty much free from this pattern are rich western ones.

If we go along with this, historic attitudes towards Jews make a lot more sense to me. Jews tended to be politically powerless minorities embedded in a larger culture and they tended to be pretty rich so it was to be expected that people would use violence to take their stuff and that this should be true in different places at different times. But it also would make sense, that given their wealth and cultural and political otherness that they'd try to do deals behind the scenes with powerful people in the search of protection. So maybe this has something to do with the wild conspiracy theories about how the Jews control the world, or at least the media. Any influence they had could largely have been behind the scenes with nice juicy bribes which leaders would be inclined to deny they had received.

Soccer is stupid

the ball bounces around randomly for about an hour an a half, then suddenly it hits some guy's head and accidentally goes into the net, everybody goes crazy, and somebody's lost really bad and somebody's achieved a great victory.

I love soccer; I think it's the best sport in the world in many ways. But individual results are so staggeringly arbitrary and depend so heavily on luck and the ref I just can't believe people are not more bothered by this.*

Also, given the incentives refs face, it would be a miracle if many of them were not corrupt, and that's not counting the fact that they're likely to behave in systematically flawed ways because of the intensity of the environment. They probably award to few penalties, become less likely to award them if they've already awarded one (same with yellow cards) and probably are influenced by physical intimidation by crowds, players and sometimes coaches. To top it all off, the setup makes many of the calls they make intrinsically uncertain; acting really does make it more difficult to spot fouls and sometimes offside decisions are not possible to make correctly.

Given all these problems there is a ridiculous aversion to using even the simplest of technologies (or simple rule changes) that would help. No sensors to detect if the ball went over the line, no retrospective bans on fakers and no legitimate way to challenge a bad call.

It's insane.

*it pains me a little to say this, but mounting irritation about all this has forced me to accept that it would have been a monstrous miscarriage of justice had Manchester United not won the Premiership (though not the Champions League!). If the best team doesn't win over so many games, I'd really wonder what the point was.

8-| (that's me rolling my eyes)

Greg Rusedski is a moron.
I think he [Federer] has to win Wimbledon or the US Open this year to confirm whether he is going to be seen as the greatest player of all time...

I think NADAL is seriously ready to win the men's singles title at the Wimbledon Championships and has to be the slight favourite going into the tournament.
I'll leave the analysis of these inane remarks as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

You, Robot

Well, maybe not you, but, you know, people.

Maybe the label "transhumanism" is chosen to be weird and I'm not met with blank or pitying stares when I talk about it (in certain forms), but it's still true that many people are pretty vigorously opposed to using technology to change humans. Transhumanists are mostly interested in cognitive enhancement and increasing lifespan.

Instinctively, I think opposition this opposition is misguided but it seems pretty reasonable. Without getting bogged down with troubling future changes, surely it's relevant that rich westerners are already transhuman in many ways.

  • Our life expectancy is about three times what it used to be.
  • Average IQ is way up.
  • People have prosthetic limbs, artificial hips, hearing aids, contact lenses etc.
  • People effectively store chunks of their personality in places that are not their brain. Blogs, Facebook, books etc.
  • Drugs can temporarily improve mental and physical performance (seen the Bioplus add?).
  • People use drugs to alter their minds in ways they think is an improvement, permanently. I'm thinking of people with conditions like bipolar disorder and stuff.

Are any of these developments to be regretted? How are we not transhumans?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Department of pointless observations

I stumbled on this while trying to catch up on posts at Overcoming Bias. If you feel 100% sure of anything (not 99.9999% sure) it means that you are never allowed to change your mind, ever. Not if the facts change, not if you get new facts, not if the laws of physics change and not if God himself says you were wrong. So long as there is a non-zero chance on any of these things happening (and the odds that we're all just hallucinating are surely not zero), there's a chance that we're wrong.

Saying, "Given the evidence as it is, I'm 100% sure, but I'll change my mind if new evidence comes along." is no better than saying, "60% of the time, it works every time!"

And being 99.9999% sure is really sure. It means that if you collected a million things you're that sure of, only one of them would be wrong. Maybe that'd work for you, but if you randomly chose ten thousand people and asked them each to list a hundred facts that they're 99.9999% sure of, you think only one statement would turn out to be wrong? Keep in mind that about half of first year physics students don't know that the moon goes round the earth (O please God let me be right about that).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Fed up with the hassle of using your hands to eat?

Me too!

You really should check this out.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


I've got about six posts which are just hanging around not getting finished, and they're stubborn buggers. So while they loiter uselessly, here's a quote from superhero Will Wilkinson.

Whether or not all our institutions are legitimate — and certainly they are not — they are also very good in relative terms, both historically and contemporaneously. My immediate interest is in taking steps to make those institutions better in a way that opens up to the possibility of expanding liberty and thereby well-being the world over.

Of course, if you think that things were better sometime in the past (hunter gathering?) then it may seem funny to call our institutions good. This is why I think it's important to establish that liberal western countries are, in fact better than alternatives (though not optimal).*

*In keeping with my current blogging trouble, I just deleted a dreary, rambling discussion of the pros and cons of hunter gatherer life, a topic on which I am, of course, an expert.

Today’s top tip

Put a tow bar on your car. Not only does it protect your bumper it will do a lot of damage to the guy who drives into you. Now, everyone makes mistakes and I don't wish these people ill per se, but if the guy is a total asshole driving a Riki's taxi, it is a morale booster.

Monday, June 09, 2008

There are many things I’d like to say after yesterday’s match

Are you suitably menaced? Good.

Well I'll spare you for now. I am a benevolent blogger am I not?

Sunday, June 08, 2008

That's it

I'm off to drown myself in the kitchen sink...

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Capitalism Is Great (CIG) part II

One of the big attacks on capitalism is about how it encourages greed, selfishness etc; the perception that it licenses anything in the struggle to get ahead.

Part of having a capitalist system means not stopping people like Bill Gates making a success of something new, which means toleration of the effects this can have on established companies and their jobs. Big companies do not usually respond to threats like this especially graciously. But attempts to rig the system in their favour usually involve relatively mild things like lobbying for tariffs and subsidies, not outright bans on competitors or the employment of deadly assassins. And the fact that they do game the political system isn't the capitalist bit. Companies die and jobs are lost all the time without anything very dramatic happening, because people don't feel they have an inalienable right to that particular bit of privilege. Partly this is just "the system" imposing itself on squealing little children, but this wouldn't be possible if there weren't a generally internalised feeling that, "If I have the right to drive someone else out of business with my spiffy new idea, some other dude can do the same to me." In America, innovators like Henry Ford and the guys from Google are celebrated.

This is part of the more general principle of what I'd like to call "open access" societies. We support free speech even though speech we don't like might be more successful than ours. We defend a constitution against change even if the change would benefit us. Free speech and constitutions don't survive if people don't generally believe in them, which means taking your lumps when the time comes.

Same deal with capitalism. It enables greed only on certain dimensions but explicitly forbids it on others, and does that more successfully than most other non-capitalist societies.

Or another way, you can get as rich as you like so long as you do it by competing on the grounds of quality and price. See!? Not nearly so evil!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

What is Capitalism?

Capitalism means different things to different people. Some people think it's practically a synonym for cold hearted evil. A friend once said he though you could define capitalism as system in which the rich get richer and poor get poorer. So a society where the only economic activity is government taking stuff from its citizens would be a great example of capitalism.

Of course this isn't what I think it is, but I shouldn't think of it as any system that has only nice outcomes. Microsoft's behaviour at the height of its evil was mostly a perfectly fine capitalist company, at least things like giving stuff away for free and buying other companies were. The extent to which it used its money to buy government favours it wasn't capitalist. All of these activities may be equally scummy, but they're not equally capitalist.

Bob Mugabe will never be a good capitalist no matter how much money he has, and Bill Gates will always be a great one even if he gives away every last cent.

Liberty City Police Face Allegations Of Incompetence, Brutality

"I was shot 14 times on my way to work today, including twice by police," said one Algonquin-area resident. "That is unacceptable."

Oh stop whining.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

My sporting year hangs in the balance

Rafa is kicking ass, Novak has just got to his 5th straight semi and Roger is looking at a very dangerous quarterfinal match.

Federer still looks great a lot of the time but his tendency to blow 30 break points and then get broken at the first opportunity is both baffling and alarming. I actually quite like the fact that the top 3 are in a genuine tussle for supremacy, but I'd be much happier if Roger would just straighten his break point % out (on both ends).

Then if Novak is still better, bully for him. I'll be ready with my, "Why Federer is the GOAT" arguments anyway...

Give us our name back!

I don't really have reservations about calling myself a libertarian even though "classical liberal" better describes where I stand. But both terms actually kinda suck. If you stop and think that the word liberal actually used to mean something; that should be my word.

But in this day and age, describing myself as a liberal would really give the wrong impression.

Anyway, Will Wilkinson has been writing some really good posts loosely related to this subject.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Capitalism is great: part I

No Country for Old Men was moderately successful by mainstream Hollywood standards. Now it seems pretty self evident to me that films existence increased overall welfare. Everybody involved in making and distributing the film made money, enjoying an increase in status and improved their career prospects. Everybody who saw it is poorer but most people (not all) were glad they saw it and were happy to part with the money. They had something cool to talk with their friends about and they get brownie points for liking a "deep" Cohen brother's movie.

But, it doesn't end there. It's pretty predictable, but all bookstores starting stocking the book which presumably started selling better resulting in similar benefits for all concerned in the same way as the movie did. After a couple of months, many of these same book stores started stocking other books by Cormac McCarthy, including Blood Meridian which is considered pretty good literature. So people who lament the decline of reading (and capitalism's role in this) have cause to celebrate the release of this very capitalist movie.

These are just the first and second order effects of movie. The impact is wider, but it starts to get more intangible. Take me for example. I went out and bought "No Country" and enjoyed it and only then did I realise that I basically didn't even know the names of most respected American authors from the past 50 years. The ensuing discussions and research led to the purchase of books by John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow (between Greg and me). My story probably isn't typical, but spread over the world it'd be pretty surprising if there weren't thousands of similar stories which all had the movie as their trigger.

If the product that triggers a similar diffuse chain of events is one that you don't approve of, then it's easy to moan about exactly the same mechanism. I really do think that people like Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore are on net a negative influence on the world- but I don't discount the pleasure that people get from reading them, what does it matter what I think of them? Trying to get rid of the Chomsky's is the same thing as trying to get rid of "No Country".

Yes, but...

I wrote this post a week ago after some of the stuff I heard on the radio. I didn't post it because I don't think it fairly reflects the media response to the violence, but I do think it's relevant to this kind of thing, and it's just a blog, so...

Back in the day, when people were being murdered because some Danish paper printed drawings of Mohammed it was very common to hear people say things like, "Of course I support freedom of speech, and I condemn the violence, but people shouldn't use this freedom to cause offence." I mention this mild version because it was very widespread (Another common refrain was more confusing and went something like, "free speech doesn't entitle you to cause offence" which it obviously does).

I don't like this approach mostly because there's nothing really wrong with it, they affirm free speech and express a view on the original action, but it still makes me uneasy (a sure sign of unquestioning dogmatism on my part). I feel it subtly legitimised the violence. To me the violence was the story, changing the subject to our opinion about certain kinds of speech was worse than irrelevant.

It made me think of the chapter in Freakonomics on lynching by the Ku Klux Klan. They were surprised to find out that it was never very common. So, it was true that the vast majority of Klan members were non-violent and they could "reasonably" say things like, "Of course we condemn lynching but, I understand the underlying reasons." And then they'd have changed the subject and could rant about the "real" problem (because, hey! People get murdered every day right?).

No, no, no,
In this past any attempt to change the subject should have been resisted, there shouldn't have been a national debate attempting to deal with the root causes of Klan's grievances. They only needed a few lynchings because they had an enormous symbolic impact that did have real world consequences. It was intensely scummy and understanding where they came from would make it more likely that some communities would be sympathetic and possibly harbour the perpetrators or otherwise help perpetuate the problem.

So fine, there are underlying reasons why this has erupted now, but that doesn't mean we should talk about it now. Right now, there are a bunch of evil scumbags out there who need to be caught, and people need to know that it's not OK to sympathise.

Talk about the optimal immigration policy, whether it's really true that illegal immigrants are jumping the queue to get housing, whether stealing local jobs and local women, later.


This post pretty much sums up my outlook on ethics. It's nice and short too. Best bit
... any rational decision-making process requires starting with a set of priors and then updating these as new information becomes available. Figuring out the right set of ethical rules is just a special case of such a process, but exclusive deontology seems to require that we rigidly ignore any new information, and exclusive consequentialism seems to require complete information.