Saturday, November 28, 2009

the three gorges dam

Trevor's being pleasingly indoctrinated in libertarian theology by Virginia Postrel and is talking about it on his blog. Most recently he wonders about the value of grand projects like the Three Gorges Dam in China.

Way back Trevor defended projects like this and, though the post is sceptical, it still sounds like he's tempted by them.

The project reminds me of District 6, which is remembered as one of the greater injustices of apartheid. We're not conflicted about this big government project because it was racist and evil in concept as well as having bad consequences. But surely the main problem was that it was forcing people to leave their homes; it messed with a functioning community and all the individuals lives. Without this you don't have a great crime.

I know that the goals in China seem nobler, but if you're forcing people to move how can you avoid the same evils? I'm not denying that the benefits may be great, but our moral intuitions usually oppose harming one person to benefit another if the harm is very large (we're okay with taxes and other smaller things).

Friday, November 20, 2009

the new south africa

Seeing hundreds of chickens crammed into a truck or attached in some ingenious way to a bike or something is a reasonably common sight in poor countries. Today I saw a slightly different version of this. A shiny new polo packed with hundreds of chickens crowding the driver. It really looked very odd. I wish I could have gotten a photo.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Friday, November 06, 2009

killing orcs

In my post on Iglourious Basterds I said
In a way I think we're being tempted to indulge in sick fantasies and think it's OK because it's happening to Nazi's.
I think I should have left out the "in a way". That's how the film was (misleadingly) marketed.

The idea of righteously slaughtering enemies does seem to appeal to us. Lot's of fiction panders to this. It always bothered me in Lord of the Rings the way killing orcs is treated. It's one thing to kill them in war when they're the aggressors, but orc slaughter is often treated as a good thing in itself even when a particular orc isn't threatening. Humans are encouraged not to show mercy or take prisoners because of how mean the orcs are. We're okay with it because they really are nasty pieces of work, they're literally created that way! specifically so we don't feel bad about enjoying their suffering. It's not like individual orcs have a choice in anything, what if some of them were sensitive poets, what the hell are they supposed to do? Defect to the humans? Yeah right.

Orcs are not just bloodthirsty and hate filled, they're ugly and smell bad. Even though they're pretty intelligent, we're encouraged to think of them as lower than animals and that it's a moral duty to exterminated them. A service done for the world and the future. Given what we know about how humans treat outsiders and how genocides usually proceed in real life, is it wrong of me to find this a bit creepy?

(I know it's "just fantasy" and I am a big LOTR fan. But I do think it's true that films like this are appealing to a dark side of our nature.)

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The first derivative of belief

I'd say the two main questions I have in mind when I blog are, "what can I as a layman do to make my beliefs more reliably true?" and, "what things are important to think about".

Recently I though of a way of conceptualising trying to deal with both goals in choosing what to write and think about. Imagine a function defined by the difference between what I believe and what people in my social circle actually believe. I blog with the intention of maximising the first derivative of this function (setting the second derivative to zero). This could involve me changing my mind or people I know changing theirs, either way.

So take beliefs about global warming, I agree with basically everyone that it's happening and humans are responsible, so f(t) = 0 and this has been stable for some time so f'(t) = 0 too. So I don't blog about it. When I watched An Inconvenient Truth, see yet another global warming book on the shelves or watch a nature documentary I get frustrated, not because I disagree with the factual stuff, but because everybody already knows and agrees!! I'm guessing that this kind of book/documentary would often be defended on the grounds that many people (like republicans) are global warming deniers. This is true, but if changing their minds is the goal, why are these products so nasty about these people? So I think I come off as a climate sceptic, but I disagree mostly with the approach many environmentalists take to the debate (I think the mainstream should more about carbon taxes than drowning polar bears). So since my beliefs about that topic are different and that's what I'm more interested in talking about.

My beliefs about god are very different from most people I know so f(t) = (large amount), but this difference is also pretty stable so f'(t) = 0. So I don't blog about it much anymore. I used to blog about it more, but that's because I hoped to convince people to change their beliefs. I may still want that, but accepting that it's not going to happen lead to less blogging and thinking about that.

Immigration, economics, politics and vegetarianism are all topics where my beliefs are very different from most of the people I know and I believe that there is more scope for some convergence in views (my views on economics and politics are more fluid than my views on immigration and vegetarianism, so I don't always blog with the sole intention of changing other views to mine).

monetizing eyeballs

Was just relistening to an old Will Wilkinson podcast and one of the topics was how Facebook was going to make money. At the time of the podcast Facebook had tons of traffic but not all that much revenue. It's an issue of monetizing eyeballs you see.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


I feel like I'm in danger of raging against an argument that nobody makes. But I've been so annoyed by Oliver Kamm's objections to wikipedia for so long that I may as well just get it out of my system a bit. Here are some of the things he's said

Wikipedia deserves worse than contumely and derision, for it is pernicious in conception rather than merely flawed in execution.
I accept of course that there are many good articles alongside others that are a total disgrace... But the balance of good and bad articles is beside the point. The ethos of Wikipedia is destructive, because it is by design a forum that anyone can join in. Knowledge isn't democratic.
Beside the point?!!?? How can the fact that there are millions or great entries be beside the point!?? His complaint would carry some weight if the good and bad articles were randomly distributed, but they're not. Entries on the merits of some fancy new pharmaceutical or the crisis in the middle east are going to be less trustworthy than entries giving biographical info about some moderately famous person or the basic info and summary of a movie.

I suppose the fact that it's as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica is also beside the point, because any particular bit could be deliberatly change to something wrong.

A source of an amazing range of information (as well as information about where to get further information) that's as likely to be right as most other sources. Yip, better get rid of it.


Crystal meth is not a performance enhancing drug. Agassi was taking it in 1997 which were not, to put it mildly, his glory days. He started the year ranked no. 8 and ended it ranked no. 110.

But the tennis doping body "wants answers".

People also got very upset that Marina Hingis took cocain.

Remind me again why nobody cared that Obama took cocain? If we get all upset about a tennis player taking drugs in the distant past, why don't we care about the president taking drugs in the distant past.