Thursday, July 31, 2008

another reply

Again I'll respond to Trevor in two posts but the other one may take a while to materialise.

I thought our empirical disagreement would be easily resolved, but that was overly optimistic.

I hope Trevor doesn't think the practices listed were exhaustive (I didn't even mention cows). I listed some standard practices rather than more extreme abuses that could be contested as activist propaganda. I thought that cutting bits off animals, depriving them of food and water and extreme overcrowding was obviously cruel (not much less extreme confinement than veal calves). It's not at all obvious to me that preventing muscle growth in calves is more cruel, or on a different order of magnitude.

But I don't really think it matters to definitively establish that veal calves suffer worse than a typical factory farmed animal, just that there is in fact a continuum of suffering. Trevor claims that there is some cruelty threshold above which he at least has some reservations about crossing. Veal is beyond the threshold and other factory farmed animals are not. We all have to make similar judgments about where we draw the line about what is acceptable and of course people will draw the line at different places. I understand higher thresholds than I choose and I also understand lower ones.

But Trevor understands choosing not to eat veal and doesn't understand choosing not to eat KFC (remember I've been concerned with Trevor's understanding of the choice not to eat meat, not convincing him that he's morally obliged to become a vegetarian). Where is the bright line between the practices?

Here are some things Trevor has said

I am opposed to cruelty which leads to unnecessary suffering...

I would guess we should also place a greater weight on capacity for pain than intelligence...

People do disapprove of cow torture, but a cow living a happy life and then being painlessly killed for meat? Problem?...

Farming is normally done in a more humane way? If not we can do it in a more humane way. In other words we can reduce pain and suffering to an absolute minimum. The suffering seems wrong, the death doesn't

Yet he is unfazed by evidence that suffering is not kept to an absolute minimum (something of an understatement!).

I find it impossible to conclude from these quotes that Trevor can be morally neutral between farming as it's practiced and animal farming as it could be practiced (even if it isn't at the high level that would spur him to change his behaviour). Yet he doesn't understand other people who alter their behaviour as expression of preference for the system that Trevor says he wants and a condemnation of the system we obviously have?

I don't get that!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What are farming practices like

There are many things to say about Trevor's latest post but I'm sticking the detail in the post below because I want to focus on what I see as the central issue of the dialog. It looks to me like a factual question will go a long way here (Robin Hanson minds disagreeing over values much less than disagreeing over facts).

Does factory farming cause a lot of suffering?


Do the farming practices that produce the meat that Trevor eats, involve the animals suffering.

Trevor hasn't given any indication that he only eats meat that's been labelled "humanely raised" (Trevor should put me straight if I'm wrong) so the answers to both questions are probably the same.

Now this is not a controversial point and is generally assumed by participants on both sides of the argument. Defenders of factory farming do not typically defend their humane practices. There are many sources that document cruel practices, though I suspect that the very fact that they do so may make them suspect sources of information. Typical practices include

  • De-beaking chickens through sensitive tissue (they would peck each other to death otherwise).
  • Forced moulting which involves withholding water for up to three days and food for two weeks (this extends the chicken's lifespan).
  • Intense overcrowding causes bone weakness so bones break easily.
  • Pigs are also extremely confined throughout their lives and are castrated without anaesthesia. They also panic when they smell the blood of other pigs so it's very expensive to kill them without them being terrified before they die.

McDonalds once sued a group for distributing a pamphlet with the heading "McTorture" their lawsuit failed because the judge ruled that it torture was a reasonable way to describe what was going on. There was a high profile incident involving an ethics consultant at KFC who resigned because of the practices that persisted despite his presence at the company. I've driven behind trucks transporting live chickens and trust me; hearing about it is a poor substitute for seeing it. There's also the issue of the legal and ethical climate that farms operate in; the incentives do not line up to support humane treatment. Even libertarians don't claim that working conditions in Asian sweatshops are especially luxurious, they will be as Spartan as the market will allow. Farms that use ethical practices will be outcompeted by ones that don't. There is a strong selection effect in favour of cruelty. Given the strong incentive for farms to demonstrate how cuddly they are I'd also suggest that a lack of such displays isn't exactly reassuring.

Surely if we agree that practices involving suffering are wrong, there is at least some burden to demonstrate that everything I've said above is false? Trevor seems to think this is unnecessary. Why? What evidence convinced Trevor that raising veal is too cruel but that typical farming practices are not? I don't understand how Trevor can say, "the arguments are unconvincing", but endorse the argument that we shouldn't eat cruelly raised meat without tackling my claim that farming practices cruel head on?

Since Trevor has demonstrated quite a behavioural streak in other blog posts, I'd have thought he'd agree that even if we agree on his blog to only eat meat we're confident didn't involve suffering, human frailty may provide a good reason to give up meat for the time being. I'm pretty shocked by how often I read people endorsing humanely raised meat but cheerfully admitting that they will tolerate practically no inconvenience to uphold this principle. I totally understand! I don't demand organic milk in my lattes and shame on me! On the other hand I've eaten no non-fishy animal products for three and a half years. I don't think this is a coincidence.

Philosophical quibbles

Once again Trevor provides more succinct digestible chunks and I lamely follow his lead.

  1. See above.
  2. I guess I should have been more explicit, but I have deliberately not focused on death. I don't find our disagreement on the harm of death baffling. Philosophically it's contested and involves considering self-conceptions of selves existing over time and how this could apply to animals. Though if an animal must suffer before it dies I'd think that's bad.
  3. I don't find that so convincing. Lots of people explicitly subscribe to the idea that it's ok for you to try kill me and I'll try kill you. They're usually gangsters and have a comparative advantage in killing. Generally, we do find fault with their moral system. I also think that people sign up for war far too easily (though I wouldn't rule it out for myself).
  4. Rights and obligations are correlated, but in a subtle way. A right may be defined by an obligation placed on other people but a person's claim to have rights doesn't depend on whether they have upheld their obligations. Infants have rights but zero obligations, same with retarded people. We place strict limits on how responsible we hold children for their actions. Your example of the death penalty is a good example, you don't think that failure to fulfil your obligation not to kill someone doesn't mean you no longer have the right to life. Besides, dogs often have a very strong sense of duty to their masters. Way stronger than many humans feel.
  5. I don't get this at all. We need to justify not acting in a natural way? Are vegetarians acting immorally by simply refusing meat? Natural things are normally a guide to moral behaviour?
  6. Umm...
  7. Err...
  8. Hmm...
  9. I think this is only a reasonable default position if you think that the odds of vegetarians causing more suffering are about the same as meat eating; a case you haven't made. Say that the animal rights people are wrong, does that mean giving up meat was pointless or that we have actually done positive harm? If the former, then the two positions are not symmetrical; eating meat and then changing your mind later means there'll be a trail of suffering in your wake.

I'm surprised you haven't declared the article about how more animals are killed by growing crops completely useless since you don't care at all about animal death and that's the only thing the paper considers.

So... Are vegetarians doing harm? Or just pointlessly inconveniencing everybody?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Give that man an Oscar!

I'm just kidding. I wanted to get my view about that up before I saw the movie because I didn't want the quality of the performance to affect my judgement. It's just a fact, actors in comic book action movies don't win Oscars. I also hold the pretentious view that most people can't really judge the relative quality of Hollywood actors. All I can tell is if I think the character is cool and I assume that it takes skill to do that, but I think the quality of all Hollywood actors is very high.

Anyhoo... I unhesitatingly declare The Joker to be the best movie villain ever and the movie to be totally awesome. I also hope that readers agree that my prediction was borne out, if anything the last half hour was worse than I expected, but the first two hours compensate and then some.

I'm still sorting through thoughts about The Joker, but I wouldn't hold my breath for a future post because none of them have been especially novel, though I will suggest that he starts becoming a more conventional baddie towards the end and so lost a bit of his mystique. But holy crap, there's some cool shit in there.

One of the most annoying habits of movie reviewers is to celebrate action that has no CGI effects in it. I say bring it on, but it was striking how simple the best bit of action was, even by the standards of mediocre, low budget films. A truck flipping sounds lame, but I've never heard an audience respond to anything the way they did to this scene. Awesome. Genius. One of the best things I've ever seen on film.

I've never game theory presented so explicitly in a film before, which was cool. And I'll even claim it as an illustration of Weingast's tragic brilliance mechanism. Batman and Dent truly threaten the bad guys who respond with terrifying random violence and people blame Batman! Things suck with a huge and well organised mob in town, they prey on the people. But they have an interest in keeping violence down and most victims of violence are involved one way or another. The gang will take steps to prevent any new gang emerging, things can be pretty stable and violence more or less suppressed. Tackle their privilege really hard and maybe they can credibly threaten everything and people will want things to go back to the way they were and blame the good guys.

One small observation though (I don't even mean it to be a gripe) is that the Joker's claim to shun planning isn't plausible. He's always one step ahead of the very smart goodies and has some evil ploy read for them, doing it in crazy style doesn't mean you're not planning. But, evil terrorists who genuinely don't plan don't pull off anything big (except through pure luck) so they did really well with the premise and there are lots of details –his lack of personal hygiene, his genuinely erratic behaviour (moment to moment rather than longer term thinking) and his almost eager recklessness with his own safety- which make his success credible.

More murder

Now we're getting somewhere! Trevor's numbered points are far more digestible than my unwieldy ones.

  1. I read Trevor's point as being a simple response to the facts on the ground. Cruelty is bad so Trevor gave up veal. Basically I think that Trevor massively underestimates the cruelty widespread in factory farming. Giving up veal is great but most factory farming involves a similar level of cruelty, why hasn't he given up that as well?
  2. I don't understand Trevor's incomprehension over status and the answer is implicit in his point. What do whales and dogs have that insects lack? Wales are intelligent and have highly developed nervous systems (which means they can experience intense suffering) and insects are dumb and don't suffer. The very word cruelty has moral content and involves giving animals moral status. It being wrong to be cruel is essentially a definition for having what it means to have moral status, so I disagree that cows have no moral status in the West, most people would disapprove of cow torture.


    But I want to turn this around on Trevor. What is it that gives humans moral status? I really mean this. We're very comfortable with giving different humans different rights. I don't think it's just because we're human, I think it comes from our inherent capacities to suffer, experience joy etc.

  3. I wanna invoke some basic philosophy here. One of the most common slogans is that you can't derive an "ought" from an "is". In other words the fact that animals kill each other has nothing to do with the morality of killing animals. The males of many species rape females, similar logic suggests that rape is ok. More generally we're constantly battling against what is natural, in fact I'd suggest that moral progress has a lot to do with realising that natural things may be wrong.


    And again, if we're just animals and animals kill each other and in point two you don't understand what gives animals moral status, what exactly gives us moral status? Surely you want to claim that we're different.

  4. I agree here basically. I don't really think that animal issues should be a big concern for many people, because they really have more pressing issues to occupy them (though gratuitous cruelty is still a no no).

Finally I want to focus on something that Trevor said earlier in his post, "At the moment, I must admit that I have a very poor understanding of why vegetarians don't eat meat. Rather, I don't find any of the arguments convincing." But these are very different things and I think the distinction is important.

I think driving more carefully is more moral than driving less carefully. I could drive more carefully but I don't wanna be late and I get bored etc. I may not believe I am morally required to drive more carefully, but I understand other people who make the more careful choice.

Similarly, Trevor isn't convinced but he shouldn't be perplexed by the decision not to eat meat.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Mange tout is murder *

The quote at the beginning of the article is very funny.

Honestly, I find the impasse with Trevor over my views on animal ethics extremely weird, especially since as far as I can tell we agree on the fundamental issue, suffereing caused by cruel practices. The problem doesn’t seem to be that Trevor disagrees with the conclusions for action (most of my friends disagree), but that my views are confused and difficult to make out. The source of my frustration is this gap in understanding.

In order to root it out I think it’s necessary to be clear exactly what we’re talking about and lack of clarity is at the heart of the problem I have with the article. What is Smith arguing? That many PETA activists are scary nuts or that veganism isn’t in some plausible sense better for animals on average than meat eating? I think he's arguing both, but they're so different! I agree with one and disagree with the other. Soooo...

  1. If his problem is with activists willing to do violence against people and property associated with animal testing, factory farming etc. then cool, I have a problem with them too. In fact I have a special interest in not being lumped in with them. Some people just see them, see that they're crazy and then dismiss concerns over animal ethics as eccentric. There's an analogy with feminism. Some feminists think that e=mc^2 is a sexist equation and that all sex is rape. Dismissing these people doesn't imply that we're living in a predjudice free utopia. You wanna argue against a school of thought, you gotta tackle the strongest case for it. Sorry, thems the rules. You wanna argue against libertarianism, read Robert Nozick not Ayn Rand. Remember that most moral philosophers hold stronger views on amimal rights than the average person, they may be wrong but it's unlikley that very weak arguments would persist and gain such traction.
  2. So is veganism worse on average for animals? Unless we agree on what "worse" actually means we have no chance to reach agreement and Smith uses the crazy activist criteria rather than the criteria that more respectable animal rights defenders (seriously, Peter Singer isn't exactly obscure) use. He assumes that death is the only issue rather than suffering and that fish hold the same moral status as pigs. Since I think both postions are really stupid whatever analysis follows from them isn't especially interesting to me Though it's worth noting that the paper he links to makes it clear that the numbers used are basically a guess. Also, if you take 'deaths per hectare of farmland' it's probably true that more die on crop land, but a) it's mostly bugs and mice b) you need to grow grain to feed the livestock so basically it's a pointless observation and c) going vegan reduces the amount of farmland needed by a factor of twenty!
On to Trevor's comment. He's uneasy with antagonistic vegetarianism. Cool, me too.
Trevor's not very concerned about death and that isn't my major concern either, though I don't understand the, "It seems to me to be a `non-intelligent' animals role?" comment at all. I also don't really get the rest of his comment. When he says, "I think you could have a greater impact campaigning for more humane conditions and slaughter." Is the "you" here, me? Because this has always been my principle concern. "Fewer people would disagree there." Yeah, fewer people disagree, but it's also my experience that people don't alter their meat buying patterns as a result (I can't speak for Trevor, but both Tyler Cowen and Greg admitt to this. Trevor?). "Go ahead. Get as upset as you want" again, is this me?

So, in discussions of animal rights on my blog and Trevor's we can take the statement, "Militant activists are not worth arguing with." as given and then move on from there.

Finally, in keeping with my battle against black and white and the desire to distinguish between different shades of gray, there is no claim about moral perfection here. I honestly believe I should be way stricter about my dairy consumption, I'm not proud of this but I also I haven't gone beyond a vague feeling that I'll try to do bettere in the future. Also, I'm on record as saying that morality is over rated. Even if my ethical views are correct that doesn't automatically imply a particular response. We consciously act in morally imperfect ways all the time! That's often OK but unless we think about these things, we'll never know when it's OK and when it's really not.


I thought it was excellent, but this post is mostly to criticise.

I think it's a good movie for pretty conventional reasons; it's generally fun, sometimes funny and the main character is totally adorable and that's good enough. It deserves extra credit for being entertaining without any dialog for ages. Stepping outside of any expertise I could plausibly claim, I don't just think it had "cool graphics", it was telling a story through visuals in a way that had meaning and emotional impact, good for it!

But, the movie isn't exactly shy about pushing its message and it's also quite mean, so I don't think the, "it's just a fun kids movie! Don't analyse it!" defence works, especially since so many reviews seem to think that it's such a devastating critique of western culture. Wanna make a point? Criticism is fair game.

In case you don't know, the message is, "We're drowning in our own garbage and we're all a bunch of fat, consumerist morons."

  • The environmental message isn't so much about global warming as about rubbish. Apparently landfills will get so out of control that we'll all need Hummers just to plough through or over the rubbish in the street and we won't notice of care until we can no longer open our front doors. We obviously don't care because even though all the machines are now solar powered and we have the technology to relocate hundreds of thousands of people to an unlimited life of luxury in space, technology to deal with rubbish hasn't advanced beyond squashing it a bit (a technology we've already had for a while). This is really stupid and the premise of the whole film.
  • The society that's persisted for 700 years on the Axiom is ridiculously unstable. The slightest nudges cause characters to break out of their consumerist funk. The stars! Dancing! (walking?) This is where the meanness comes in. It suggests that not only are westerners fat consumerist pigs, but that it's never even occurred to them to look at the stars or read a book. Look how enlightened am! If only you knew how superior my tastes are you'd be catapulted into a utopia of culture and learning! More likely is that they know about these things and choose not to do them. This would also allow the negative equilibrium to persist.
  • The Axiom celebrates its 700th anniversary by giving everyone a free cupcake (In a cup! Everything is in a cup). But in a society where everything is free what does that even mean? The characters should be all confused. I bet the animators are kicking themselves for not thinking of wearable feed bags.

Incidentally, Wall-E and The Incredibles show why the future of Sci-fi lies in these animated films. In fact it has the potential to completely transform the genre. I'm all excited. The only problem is that now the humans are either too cartoony or too creepy, so for now comedy works best, not grand scale space opera, though The Incredibles did have amazing large scale set pieces. But Sci-fi can go a long way with aliens and cool gadgets.

Remember. I loved the movie, but if you wanna use it as hammer to bash humanity, this is my response.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Dark Knight Prediction and Stuart’s Action Movie Golden Rule

Ooh boy I'm looking forward to the new Batman. I notice that it's very long so let me offer a prediction. The last half hour will be loud, tiring and worse than the rest of the movie.

My golden rule for action movies is that all the good stuff is in the first half. It doesn't always work, as with Spiderman 2, Bourne Supremacy and X-Men 2, but even though the other movies in these series are good, they also obey my golden rule.

You think there's anything to it?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I want to believe (true things)

I used to be a huge fan of the X-files, until it got crap. I really wanted that gray poster of a UFO with the slogan "I want to believe". Now I really want nice aliens to visit us, but this is the stupidest slogan ever (I'm not even sure . Hollywood is often telling us just to suck it up and believe in stuff. Not God generally, just anything. The Polar Express was all about believing in Father Christmas, Kung Fu Panda recommends believing in your own Kung Fu ability despite abundant evidence to the contrary. I notice it all the time, but this is a terrible message. You should want to believe things that are true, perhaps we can act to make them true by being clever, maybe not, but just scrunching up my face in willing myself to think that something is true? No thanks.

Veganism is Murder

Hmm... Here's the article. It appears in the National Review which is respectable and the guy is apparently writing a book on the subject (the article isn't quite as confrontational as the title). Since this is flexible blog land and I've written quite a lot on the subject, I'd like to get a response from anyone who clicks through to read it (this means you Trevor). I'll post it here if you like, or I'll check your blog.

Does it seem reasonable?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Well waddaya know?

One of the surprising claims of my new superheroes (Weingast, North and Wallis) is that per capita GDP in "limited access orders" range from $400 to $8000 while "open access orders" enjoy $20 000 and above. It's a bold claim and it doesn't really sound plausible and was greeted sceptically by Russell Roberts and Greg Torr. But, it's not exactly like it takes lots of intrepid research to find out, and they'd get caught out in like a nanosecond if they got it wrong...

So I checked and as far as I could make out the upper bound is more like $13 000, where a whole bunch of countries are straining at the leash, but there really is an amazing gap till the next group of countries. It seems like a pretty big deal to me, I wonder why nobody talks about it...

Added: Here's Trevor's link. I browsed each column, but I looked mostly at the World Bank's figures.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


I'm very keen on this kind of ridiculous movie, so I liked lots of it. But I find it irritating when movies set the scene by having our heroes shoot the wings off flies and nonchalantly doing even more impossible things and then comfortably resort to bog standard regular action at the end, where our heroes suddenly become morons.

Why do you do it filmmaker?! Why?

Friday, July 18, 2008


I am very much looking forward to the new movie which came out tin America today. I've been browsing some of the reviews that have been written and yes, people are actually saying that Heath Ledger's performance is Oscar worthy. They're not saying it to be funny. They apparently actually believe that they may have thought this even if he hadn't died shortly after filming.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

more feelings

The topic that pretty much got me into blogging was the minimum wage (seems a little stupid now, but probably not much more stupid than being into blogging at all). I brought it up in conversation with Trevor and he gave a pretty standard, economically literate response, which was something along the lines of, “I would like to support it but I think it hurts the people it’s intended to help, so I don’t.” Yes I’m a pedant, yes I know he means something like, “It makes me sad that a minimum wage policy won’t make poor people better off.” But in my fake statement, and the sentiment I’m discussing there’s emotional appeal to the minimum wage regardless of whether it works (Nobel Prize winners actually support the minimum wage, even though they think other programs achieve the aims of the policy, better). We may reject it cos it doesn’t work, but we still like it! We root for it to do better. I’m arguing that it’s a little weird to have any feelings about the policy outside of its actual effects. You may be thinking that mentioning support for minimum wage is a signal of your sympathy for poor people, but if it’s a bad policy, supporting it should be a signal that you want bad things to happen to poor people! You may intend it to signal a belief that everybody is as productive as the level of the minimum wage you’d ideally like to see, but again, that’s a factual claim (a false one).

random tennis stuff

I’ve been really surprised by how much people have been talking bout the final. The teachers were raving about it in the staffroom at school the other day. People have been talking about it on the radio. Apparently the ratings were sky high. Almost as many people watched the match as the Chelsea Man U Champions League final. Crazy. Though it’s a pity that the match that everyone will remember is Federer losing...

It’s not like it hasn’t been mentioned, but it was really dark. I’m not sure why people don’t make a bigger deal about this. I get that it’s the same for both players, I don’t mean this in a, “Fed was robbed” way. The fact of that they were both affected the same (presumably) isn’t the point, when it’s that dark play is usually stopped, there are rules.

Of course I do think a delay would have helped Federer because he was tiring, though superior stamina is a reasonable quality to determine a winner... I thought that several calls should have been challenged towards the end; it’s possible they weren’t simply cos both players couldn’t see well.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

'No Values Voters' Looking To Support Most Evil Candidate

"Political dialogue not focused enough on arson, kitten killing, other evil acts"

There are some great fake photos towards the end of the clip. The one of Obama kicking a child in the face is especially good.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Do you feel it?

Do emotion and reasoning have much in common? I can't say what most people think, but my impression is that they're often presented as contradictory or unrelated.

This probably isn't saying much that is worthwhile, but in most cases that it comes up emotion and reason should be intimately bound together. You're level of anxiety over touching a poker should have everything to do with whether it's hot. If a woman gets a positive mammogram they'll be understandably upset, but the odds are about 8% that the positive test means she has cancer. 8% is pretty high, but it's still way more likely that she doesn't have it. Completely freaking out about something like that because you think there's a 90% chance you have cancer seems really shitty to me. It's easy to think of other examples about people's silly responses to all sorts of things, from fear of spiders to fear of flying.

But I also think like this when it comes to which team or player you support or which brands you like. I support Roger Federer, but I don't think I should treat this as an immutable fact of life, I want to watch him play cos it's so great to see him play well. My support for Arsenal developed slowly over time (while my dislike for United waned) because they consistently were able to play attractive soccer. Sport is worth watching because of the qualities is has the potential to bring out in people. I don't see the virtue of simply supporting "your team"; what if they suck and they're all assholes? Stop supporting them!

Same deal with brands. Say you hear lots of good things about a Toyota, you like the way it looks and enjoyed the test drive. It's rational to buy one even though you don't have full information of that car or the competitors. The car is great so you "support" Toyota, you tell your friends to buy one and you may even look forward to a new model to buy one day. In the mean time if the brand falls apart because Toyota starts producing terrible cars your loyalty and support for the brand should evaporate. The branding executives want your loyalty to be of the unconditional kind, it'd be great for them. They want you to pick their side in the great Energizer vs. Ever Ready fight.

Liking a team, a band or a film director is the same. It's rational to support them based on some reasonably objective bundle of facts and it's a good rule of thumb about how to allocate attention in the future. But if that bundle of facts changes you should feel differently about them.

Radiohead may have earned your attention for their new experimental album. Give it a try! But it doesn't mean it's not shit.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Sorry if you've been checking here only to find no posts, I've been pretty sick all week. I still don't have the necessary energy to dazzle you all with another blinding insight.

But I did mean to link to this paper about bystander apathy. I sometimes tell a story about a guy who shot at someone on campus and nobody did anything, including the two people involved. I also saw footage of a guy shooting at a woman working at a petrol station in America. He also missed and nobody did anything there either. I wouldn't say I get incredulous stares when I talk mention these incidents, in fact sometimes I hear similar stories, but it clearly comes across as weird and possibly dubious.

So I was interested to discover that it's been quite well studied. I imagine that gangsters have been experts on this for thousands of years.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Everything is gray. So THERE!

A little while back I tried to make the act of being 100% sure of something sound very extreme. It sounds pretty banal to actually come out and say it like that, but it seems to come up all the time (I don't feel like thinking of examples, you know what I mean) and that's where relativists go wrong. The lack of certainty is taken to mean that we can't say much about anything, or to take science down a notch, or whatever.

The funny thing is that relativists often present themselves as a sophisticated foil to people who see the world in black and white, which is too simplistic. Black and white is too simplistic, but replacing it with the same gray is twice as simplistic!

The idea of having higher or lower probabilities of being right is really obvious, but it seems weirdly easy to lose sight of. The other day I was talking about the difference between being bi-polar with or without appropriate medication. My claim is that usually life is better with medication in some sense that most people agree on. The standard response is something along the line of there being side effects and it not being sustainable or the proper solution being spiritual or something. I find this frustrating because the claim isn't that the medication makes things perfect, just that they're better. Even if the only improvement is to reduce the odds of the sufferer attempting suicide.

One of the themes of my recent blogging has been that we should be less sure of most of our beliefs. Sometimes it can be a little dispiriting, or unreasonable, but so long as we can sometimes tell better from worse that's all we really need. The space of true beliefs is Really Big (but Really Small compared to the space of false beliefs), once a belief becomes sufficiently likely to be true, it just sits in the background and doesn't occupy our minds much. Most people don't much care that the earth goes round the sun. That's a cliched example but many of our beliefs are of that sort. There will always be tougher problems on the horizon, people will argue about them and maybe one day they'll have the same status as the earth round the sun, till then we shouldn't act "sure", but there must a transition from there being a low chance of having a good answer and having a high chance.

That transition is what I think is important. I also think that if "society's" beliefs become even slightly more likely to be true, it can have a dramatic impact.

Sunday, July 06, 2008



It makes me sad. I'm sad.

I've never shared the pundits' lust for these epic kinds of matches. They can be cool, but they're only cool in as far as the participants play well. In that sense this was a pretty good game, there were lots of great moments the quality was high.

But Federer didn't play anything like as well as he can. If he's gonna play badly, I'd still rather he wins (Trevor may think this is a virtue, but I think it's a vice), but at the end of the day, the reason Federer is worth supporting is the quality of his play (potentially). He still has it, but it's been alarmingly absent in big matches for a long time now, and that's what's sad.

I think different sports have different strengths and weaknesses; soccer is great but is too random, I think golf is also a bit random (though in a different way) and I think the problem with tennis is that, on the whole it rewards the highest lowest level of play (if you see what I mean). Players like Borg, Conners, Lendle and even Sampras were consistent more than they were brilliant (as far as I know). McEnroe rose above that, and so has Federer for the past 5 years. And I think that's something worth celebrating.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


Federer is still a slight favourite for tomorrow, in fact his odds have improved since yesterday.

For the record I think Nadal will win. Not because I think he's better on grass (Federer still has the touch), but because Federer seems incapable of sticking to his game plan against Nadal. Look out for crisp strokes, taken early, giving way to regular baseline slugging and the desperate hope that his serve will win the day (it wont dude).

Prove me wrong Fed.


Can YOU walk and sneeze at the same time?

Cos I can't, apparently. My sneeze lead me to "twist" my ankle.

I'll be okay.

Bush Tours America To Survey Damage Caused By His Disastrous Presidency

Watch it here.

Yay Venus!

I'm glad she won. That Serena girl is a nasty piece of work.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Not that I'll actually READ it,

but wow. Here's a blog devoted to discussing Bill Gates' "creative capitalism". I find the attempt to brand his philanthropy Creative Capitalism a little annoying, but the contributors are really great, so it's worth checking out.