Sunday, December 28, 2008

christmas thought

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

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

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The preferences of liberals

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 18, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

what'll happen when we get defrosted?

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

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

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

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

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

more cryonics

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 15, 2008

Roger Federer Turns Out To Be Awful Tennis Player

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

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

Saturday, December 13, 2008


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

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


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

Friday, December 12, 2008

"I can't help you with that!"

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

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

So, why haven't you signed up yet?

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

Saturday, December 06, 2008

three times is a trend right?

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

What. The. Hell.