Log in

Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

Utilitarianism for engineers [Jan. 21st, 2013|06:16 pm]
[Tags|, , ]

(title a reference to this SMBC comic)

I've said before that it's impossible to compare interpersonal utilities in theory but pretty easy in practice. Every time you give up your seat on the subway to an old woman with a cane, you're doing a quick little interpersonal utility calculation, and as far as I can tell you're getting it right.

The lack of the theory still grates, though, and I appreciate it whenever people come up with something halfway between theory and practice; some hack that lets people measure utilities rigorously enough to calculate surprising results, but not so rigorously that you run up against the limits of the math. The best example of this is the health care concept of QALYs, Quality Adjusted Life Years.

The Life Year part is pretty simple. If you only have $20,000 to spend on health care, and you can buy malaria drugs for $1,000 or cancer drugs for $10,000, what do you do? Suppose on average one out of every ten doses of malaria drugs save the life of a child who goes on to live another sixty years. And suppose on average every dose of cancer drug saves the life of one adult who goes on to live another twenty years.

In that case, each dose of malaria drug saves on average six life years, and each dose of cancer drug saves on average twenty life years. Given the cost of both drugs, your $20000 invested in malaria could save 120 life years, and your $20000 invested in cancer could save 40 life years. So spend the money on malaria (all numbers are made up, but spending health resources on malaria is usually a good decision).

The Quality Adjusted part is a little tougher. Suppose that the malaria drug also made everyone who used it break out in hideous blue boils, but the cancer drug made them perfectly healthy in every way. We would want to penalize the malaria drug for this. How much do we penalize it? Some amount based on how much people disvalue hideous blue boils versus being perfectly healthy versus dying of malaria. A classic question is "If you were covered in hideous blue boils, and there were a drug that had an X% chance of making you perfectly healthy but a (100 - x%) chance of killing you, would you take it?" And if people on average say yes when X = 50, then we may value a life-year spend with hideous blue boils at only 50% that of a life year spent perfectly healthy.

So now instead of being 120 LY from malaria versus 40 LY from cancer, it's 60 LY from malaria versus 40 from cancer; we should still spend the money on the malaria drug, but it's not quite as big a win any more.

[I have gone back and edited parts this post three times, and each time I read that last sentence, I think of a spaceship a hundred twenty light years away from the nearest malaria parasite.]

Some public policy experts actually use utilitarian calculations over QALYs to make policy. I read an excellent analysis once by some surgeons arguing which of two treatment regimens for colon cancer was better. One treatment regimen included much stronger medicine that had much worse side effects. The surgeon supporting it laboriously went through the studies showing increased survival rates, subtracted out QALYs for years spent without a functional colon, found the percent occurrence of each side effect and subtracted out QALYs based on its severity, and found that on average the stronger medicine gained patients more utility than the weaker medicine - let's say 0.5 extra QALYs.

Then he compared the cost of the medicine to the cost of other interventions that on average produced 0.5 extra QALYs. He found that his medicine was more cost-effective than many other health care interventions that returned the same benefits, and therefore recommended it both to patients and insurance bureaucrats.

As far as I can tell, prescribing that one colon cancer medicine is now on sounder epistemological footing than any other decision any human being has ever made.

Towards A More General Hand-Wavy Pseudotheory

So if we can create a serviceable hack that lets us sort of calculate utility in medicine, why can't we do it for everything else?

I'm not saying QALYs are great. In fact, when other people tried the colon cancer calculation they got different results by about an order of magnitude.

But a lot of our social problems seem to be things where the two sides differ by at least an order of magnitude - I don't think even the most conservative mathematician could figure out a plausible way to make the utilitarian costs of gay marriage appear to exceed the benefits. Even a biased calculation would improve political debate: people would be forced to say which term in the equation was wrong, instead of talking about how the senator proposing it had an affair or something. And it could in theory provide the same kind of imperfect-but-useful-for-coordination focal point as a prediction market.

Okay, sorry. I'm done trying to claim this is a useful endeavor. I just think it would be really fun to try. If I need to use the excuse that I'm doing it for a constructed culture in a fictional setting I'm designing, I can pull that one out too (it is in fact true). So how would one create a general measure as useful as the QALY?

Start with a bag of five items, all intended to be good in some way very different from that in which the others are good:

1. $10,000 right now.
2. +5 IQ points
3. Sex with Scarlet Johannson
4. Saving the Amazon rainforest
5. Landing a man on Mars

A good hand-wavy pseudotheory of utility would have to be able to value all five of these goods in a common currency, and by extension relative to one another. We imagine asking several hundred people a certain question, and averaging their results. In some cases the results would be wildly divergent (for example, values of 3 would differ based on sex and sexual orientation) but they might still work as a guide, in the same way that believing each person to have one breast and one testicle would still allow correct calculation of the total number of breasts and testicles in society.

Let's start with the most impossible problem first: what question would we be asking people and then averaging the results of?

The VNM axioms come with a built in procedure for part of this - a tradeoff of probabilities. Would you rather save the Amazon rainforest, or have humankind pull off a successful Mars mission? If you prefer saving the rainforest, your next question is: would you rather have a 50% chance of saving the rainforest, or a 100% chance of a successful Mars mission? If you're indifferent between the second two, we can say that saving the Amazon is worth twice as many utils as a Mars mission for you. If you'd also be indifferent between a 50% chance at a Mars mission and a 100% chance of $10,000, then we can say that - at least within those three things - the money is worth 1 util, the Mars landing is worth 2 utils, and the rainforest is worth 4 utils.

The biggest problem here is that - as has been remarked ad nauseum - this is only ordinal rather than cardinal and so makes interpersonal utility comparisons impossible. It may be that I have stronger desires than you on everything, and this method wouldn't address that. What can we turn into a utility currency that can be compared across different people?

The economy uses money here, and it seems to be doing pretty well for itself. But the whole point of this exercise is to see if we can do better, and money leaves much to be desired. Most important, it weights people's utility in proportion to how much money they have. A poor person who really desperately wants a certain item will be outbid by a rich person who merely has a slight preference for it. This produces various inefficiences (if you can call, for example, a global famine killing millions an "inefficiency") and is exactly the sort of thing we want a hand-wavy pseudotheory of utility to be able to outdo.

We could give everyone 100 Utility Points, no more, no less, and allow these to be used as currency in exactly the same way the modern economy uses money as currency. But is utility a zero sum game within agents? Suppose I want a plasma TV. Then I get cancer. Now I really really want medical treatment. Is there some finite amount of wanting that my desire for cancer treatment takes up, such that I want a plasma TV less than I did before? I'm not sure.

Just as you can assign logarithmic scoring rules to beliefs to force people to make them correspond to probabilities, maybe you can assign them to wants as well? So we could ask people to assign 100% among the five goods in our basket, with the percent equalling the probability that each event will happen, and use some scoring rule to prevent people from assigning all probability to the event they want the most? Mathematicians, back me up on this?

The problem here is that there's no intuitive feel for it. We'd just be assigning numbers. Just as probability calibration is bad, I bet utility calibration is also bad. Also, comparing things specific to me (like me getting $10,000) plus things general to the world (saving the rainforest) is hard.

What about just copying the QALY metric completely? How many years (days?) of life would you give up for a free $10,000? How about to save the rainforest? This one has the advantage of being easy-to-understand and being a real choice that someone could ponder on. And since most people have similar expected lifespans, it's more directly comparable than money.

But this too has its problems. I visualize the last few years of my life being spent in a nursing home - I would give those up pretty easily. The next few decades are iffy. And it would take a lot to make me take forty years off my life, since that would bring my death very close to the present. On the other hand, some things I want more than this scale could represent; if I would gladly give my own life to solve poverty in Africa, how many QALYs is that? The infinity I would be willing to give, or the fifty or so I've actually got. If we limit me to fifty, that suggests I place the same value on solving poverty in Africa as on solving poverty all over the world, which is just dumb.

Someone in the Boston Less Wrong meetup group yesterday suggested pain. How many seconds of some specific torture would you be willing to undergo in order to gain each good? This has the advantage of being testable: we can for example offer a randomly selected sample of people the opportunity to actually undergo torture in order to get $10,000 or whatever in order to calibrate their assessments ("Excuse me, Ms. Johansson, would you like to help us determine people's utility functions?")

But pain probably scales nonlinearly, different tortures are probably more or less painful to different people, and as I mentioned the last time this was brought up society would get taken over by a few people with Congenital Insensitivity To Pain Disorder.

Maybe the best option would be simple VNM comparisons with a few fixed interpersonal comparison points that we expect to be broadly the same among people. A QALY would be one. A certain amount of pain might be another. If we were really clever, we could come up with a curve representing the utility of money at different wealth levels, and use the utility of money transformed via that curve as a third.

Then we just scale everyone's curve so that the comparison points are as close to other people's comparison points as possible, stick it on the interval between one and zero, and call that a cardinal utility function.

Among the horrible problems that would immediately ruin everything are:

- massive irresolvable individual differences (like the sexual orientation thing, or value of money at different wealth levels)

- people exaggerating in order to inflate the value of their preferred policies, difficulty specifying the situation (what exactly needs to occur for the Amazon to be considered "saved"?)

- separating base-level preferences from higher-level preferences (do you have a base level preference against racism, or is your base level preference for people living satisfactory lives and you think racism makes people's lives worse; if the latter we risk double-counting against racism)

- people who just have stupid preferences not based on smart higher-level preferences (THE ONLY THING I CARE ABOUT IS GAY PEOPLE NOT MARRYING!!!)

- scaling the ends of the function (if I have a perfectly normal function but then put "making me supreme ruler of Earth" as 10000000000000000000x more important than everything else, how do we prevent that from making it into the results without denying that some people may really have things they value very very highly?)

- a sneaking suspicion that the scaling process might not be as mathematically easy as I, knowing nothing about mathematics, assume it ought to be.

I'd be very interested if anyone has better ideas along these lines, or stabs at solutions to any of the above problems. I'm not going to commit to actually designing a system like this, but it's been on my list of things to do if I ever get a full month semi-free, and if I can finish Dungeons and Discourse in time I might find myself in that position.
link30 comments|post comment

An ode to the occasion [Jan. 21st, 2013|12:53 am]
[Tags|, ]

There's nothing like snowfall on Christmas
As bundled-up carolers sing
But those who interpret the Bible
Say Jesus was born in the spring

A groundhog can't tell you the weather
It's just superstitious old lore
St. Valentine's only a legend
St. Patrick is hardly much more

The Founders declared Independence
The fine day of 2nd July
The parchment was not signed till August
Your history book was a lie

Columbus was beaten by Injuns
And Vikings traversing the ice
He mostly just tortured the natives
And otherwise wasn't so nice

Thanksgiving might not have had turkeys
It certainly didn't have peace
The Indians died by the thousands
From famine and war and disease

And that's why I like MLK Day
It has honor most holidays lack
They agree that the Reverend existed
And indeed, he might well have been black.
link14 comments|post comment

Book Review: The Great Stagnation [Jan. 19th, 2013|10:31 pm]
[Tags|, , , ]

All these plane trips lately have meant lots of books getting finished, and the latest is Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation. I wanted to like it because I like Cowen's blog and the book's thesis - that the world's technological and economic progress is slowing to a halt - appeals to the crotchety catastrophist in me. Instead, I thought the book was grating to read and didn't defend its main thesis well enough to be worthwhile.

Cowen believes that the era of spectacular economic and technological growth lasting from the Industrial Revolution to about 1970 is now over, and right now we're just sort of wringing the last couple of drops out a few nearly-empty low-hanging fruits from the past (this mixed metaphor is in honor of Cowen, whose book contains cringe-inducing overuse of the phrase "low-hanging fruit").

He compares the many spectacular advances of the pre-1970 world - steam engine, railroad, camera, combustion, telegraph, telephone, electricity, light bulb, radio, television, automobile, airplane, computer, jet engine, et cetera - to the relatively few advances of the post-1970 world, which he pretty much just lists as "the Internet". He blames this on a few things, including increased spending on unproductive activities, screwed up politics, and of course mining all the veins of low-hanging fruit to exhaustion.

The book is well worth thinking about, and even well worth reading despite what I considered the awkwardness of its prose. But in the end I think I reject the thesis. Let me explain why.

Kurzweil Meets Anti-Kurzweil

Here's a graph very similar to one in the book. It shows median US income over time. We can see that up until about 1970, it increases rapidly. Around 1970, it shifts into a holding pattern with occasional fluctuation but no general upward trend. So far, so good for the Great Stagnation thesis.

Here's the same graph, except it's added GDP per capita, a measure based on the mean rather than the median. Mean GDP per capita stays at exactly the same upward trend throughout. This graph was emphatically not in the book, and I am puzzled as to why. Tyler Cowen is a very smart economist and I'm sure he knows about this. I am very reluctant to contradict him about economic data which is something I know almost nothing about. But since I expect I will be corrected if I'm wrong, let me explain what I think the implication is.

America is growing at about the same rate it's always grown. Starting in the 1970s, the growth became concentrated in the hands of a few very rich people, who became very very rich. This lowered the growth in median income without affecting the mean.

If this is true, there's not a Great Stagnation, there's a Great Widening Of The Gap Between Rich And Poor (note to self: come up with better name for this before writing a book on it). And in fact we know there has been a Great Widening of the Gap Between Rich And Poor, and that it did start around 1970. This seems to provide an almost-fatal blow to the Great Stagnation theory; it's really hard to argue that growth is stagnant when the GDP growth chart sticks exactly to the trend line (this is even clearer here) without 1970 having even the slightest kink.

(Once again, this seems like an obvious enough objection - and one none of the other reviewers raised - that I expect I am missing something here.)

But if growth is stable, what about the argument from diminishing inventions? Cowen makes this argument in two parts. The first part relies on the research of Jonathan Huebner, who has been tracking various measures of innovation over time:

Okay, first things first, that is one really suspicious trend line on that first graph. Not quite corporate taxation Laffer Curve-level suspicious, but suspicious nonetheless (just to make it clear I'm not straw-manning here: "'We are approaching the dark ages point, when the rate of innovation is the same as it was during the Dark Ages,' Huebner says. 'We'll reach that in 2024.'"

Second of all, that "all the innovations since 1400" graph is very vulnerable to what you count as an innovation. Kurzweil tries almost the same exercise and uses it to prove the rate of technological advance is going up.

The second graph uses actual US patent data, which is both better and worse. It's better because number of patents is an objective measure that's hard to cherry-pick. It's worse because measuring science by patents seems a lot like measuring art by weight ("We produced sixty tons of oil paintings last year!"). Nevertheless, even on its own terms, this graph fails to support the book's hypothesis: it looks from the graph like the rate of patent discovery has been going down since 1930 - right smack in the middle of Cowen's Era of Low-Hanging Fruit In Every Garage - and going slightly up since 1970. But in general both eras seem to be following a line of which Kurzweil might well approve.

This is a chart not of patents per million people, but of patents in general. It tells a much clearer story, which is that patents have been going up at what looks like a very continuous (and fast - the graph is logarithmic in scale!) rate for as long as they've been measured with the exception of the Great Depression. Once again, the era from 1970 to the present looks exceptionally good. We can also find that the growth rate of science continues to be freakishly steady at 4.7%/year, although the methodology used for that calculation is even worse than measuring art by weight, more like measuring art by number of donkeys needed to haul it or something. But it only confirms what all our other statistics are showing.

If we can't prove the Great Stagnation with the math, what about our own eyes? Like Cowen, I have an easier time naming revolutionary inventions of the past than revolutionary inventions of the present. But this is to be expected: revolutionary inventions of the present do not seem like revolutionary inventions yet.

When William Shockley invented the transistor (with some help from a probable distant relative of mine) in 1947, the news headlines did not read "MOST IMPORTANT INVENTION OF TWENTIETH CENTURY DEVELOPED". If they existed at all, they probably said "You know those giant machines that the government sometimes uses to break codes? It looks like someday we might be able to build one of their component parts more efficiently. Who knows if one day our great-grandchildren will marvel that we were alive at the time they invented the polywell fusor or the photonic crystal, and we'll sagely nod our heads and say "Yeah, I think they mentioned something about that on Twitter once."

It may even be unusually difficult to notice anything being invented when you're in the midst of it. One day they say they've discovered quantum computers are possible, and you think "Yeah, an existence proof, big deal." A few years later they've successfully sustained a few qubits and you think "Yeah, still far away from a practical application." Then later they build a very clunky prototype quantum computer, and you think "Just a natural progression of the qubits they already had, and it's not even as good as a regular computer yet." And then a few years later you've got a commercial quantum computer on your desk that can calculate the square root of infinity in half a second, and you just think "Well, it's about time, considering how long the government and academics have had these." At no point do you think "Whoa, a quantum computer, this is so futuristic!"

And finally, in order to make his argument work at all, Cowen has to say "Let's ignore the Internet." Really he needs to ignore all electronics: the personal computer, the cell phone, the smart phone, the video camera, the mp3 player, voice-over-IP - but yes, the Internet is the most glaring counterexample. Cowen here notes that the Internet, for all its importance, hasn't had much direct effect on economic growth. Wikipedia has made life immeasurably better, but it hasn't pushed a lot of products, employed a lot of people, or consumed a lot of widgets in the same way a General Electric or a Ford Motor would. And to his credit, Cowen says that this is more a condemnation of the way economists measure value than of Wikipedia. But he doesn't take the next step and allow the existence of all this nifty online technology to count against his Great Stagnation hypothesis.

And to be fair, you would think if we were really technologically advancing, we would see these advances in fields other than computing. Maybe computing is just so fascinating right now that a disproportionate number of our smart scientists, rich venture capitalists, and social attention is on it right now and it's distracting us from doing other things? I dunno. But saying "Aside from computing, the 21st century has been pretty lackluster" is a lot like saying "Aside from industrialization, the 18th century was kind of unimpressive."

This Time It's (Not) Different

Another piece of strong evidence came in the form of very recent economic indicators - all of which are depressed because of the recent recession. Cowen (or possibly not Cowen and just other stagnationists; I don't remember) claims that this is the chickens finally coming home to roost: that rather than Yet Another Recession In The Business Cycle, this is a population drunk on low-hanging fruit finally being forced to come to terms with the new normal.

This is a convincing argument, but...

I have now lived almost thirty years. I have been in a few booms and a few recessions. Every time, I have heard people make very clever and convincing arguments why this time the boom will never end, or why this recession is structural and inescapable. Each time they are just as persuasive as the last. And each time, the boom or recession ends, much like all the others, and there is much gnashing and wailing of teeth from those who had bet otherwise. In fact, I have come to Notice A Pattern. And I have read books from people older and wiser than I, and they have confirmed that they have Noticed A Pattern too.

And some have suggested that before the boom or recession even begins, one should make an Outside View inspired resolution to just completely ignore all the claims that This Time It's Different. And this seemed wise, and so I did that.

This is not a foolproof strategy. It may be that Sometimes It Really Is Different. The Japanese financial crash of 1990 or so was different, and Japan never really recovered from that. Some people have said this crisis here is very similar and will do the same to the US. They make good points. But I'm deliberately ignoring them.

It's also kind of hard for Cowen to use this recession to support his thesis when we have a pretty good idea what caused it and stagnant technology wasn't it.

Throwing Money In A Giant Human-Welfare-Shaped Ditch

The strongest part of the book in my opinion was the chapter on how much money we're throwing away.

Most people here will be familiar with Robin Hanson's work on health care. Cowen re-iterates that work. Health care spending is growing almost ten percent a year and the percent of GDP devoted to health care has doubled since 1980. This might be acceptable if we were getting better health care for our money, but we very clearly are not: aside from changes in infant mortality rates, life expectancy has barely budged in the last few decades. Studies, especially the famous RAND study, show that people who spend more on health care don't have significantly better health outcomes than anyone else. A very large amount of health care - between a quarter and a third - is spent in the last year of a person's life, trying to hold off the inevitable.

Health care is now 16% of the US GDP and this number is only going up with no end in sight. It's diverting resources that could be going to infrastructure and new non-health technology and so a massive drain on everything. I would say that the waste was astronomical, except that as Feynman points out there are only a few billion galaxies in the universe and so once you reach trillions of dollars of waste it is more accurate to just say the waste is at levels-only-found-in-economic-waste-numbers.

What I hadn't heard before, and what makes a similar amount of sense, is the same argument with education. Since 1970, per-pupil spending in school in real money has doubled, with practically no effect on most measures of student scores. Schools that spend more per pupil don't get any better results once confounds for economic class have been adjusted out. We spend about 150% more money on education than Germany but aren't doing any better than they are.

I am not including a chart in this section because it confuses me. The conservatives put out charts like this one which purport to show massive increases in per pupil school spending, but graphs like this one show total spending as percent of GDP as quite stable. I'm not sure what to make of that since I would expect the inflation adjustment in the former to do about the same work as the GDP-percent-ing in the latter.

Still, a government constantly spending more and more money on education without seeing any better results seems to fit with the way I expect the world to work pretty well.

Cowen's arguments on health and education are important both because they're things more people should know about - in the sense of "we're spending huge amounts of money and not getting anything in return" - and also because they provide a way his Great Stagnation thesis could still be sort of correct even given our high GDP.


Overall I disagree pretty strongly with the rest of the book. The evidence from GDP and scientific output seems to pretty thoroughly disprove a stagnation - it would be possible to question it, but I can't think of on what grounds you would even want to.

I was also turned off a bit by the bloggish style of the book; I like Tyler Cowen's blog, but hearing a blog tone in a book was kind of weird. And the last chapter - where Professor Cowen tells us it's all going to be okay after all, and gives some helpful hints - it just seems totally incongruous. The assertion that everything will get better seems flimsy and unsupported, and the helpful hints, like "We should give more status to scientists", see like Vaguely Good Things but not really related to the thesis of the book.

I will happily praise the book's few forays into politics, as well as its excellent job not foraying into politics more than it did. It took a very even keel between liberalism and conservativism, even though it would be very easy to use its main thesis in praise of either side. And the few political points it did make - about the uselessness of health and education spending, and about how our politics is pretty much built on an foundation assumption of constant growth that can be siphoned off to fund programs to bribe voters - is well taken. Even if the constant growth hasn't stopped quite yet, that's still a scary foundation and one we need to be thinking about.

And I will not as happily, but still honestly, admit that even though I found the book's arguments weak, I feel strangely compelled to believe it.

I don't know what is so attractive about the Great Stagnation thesis. Maybe it's a sort of morality story, a feeling that our politicians, business leaders, and voters have screwed things up so bad that it would be only fair if we started stagnating; they've been beating the goose so hard that one almost wants to see them get their comeuppance when the golden eggs stop. That there's so much hypocrisy and irrationality that the ability of the economy to just keep churning on and on at its accustomed pace is almost proof that nobody cares about our sins and by extension our virtues. Maybe it's the hope that if something went horribly wrong, we could finally get about smashing the system and building a more elegant one, which is always attractive to think about whether or not it's merited.

Or maybe it's that you hear stories about the old days, when two bicycle mechanics outside any formal academia or Pentagon research laboratory could watch some birds, think really hard, and invent the airplane through nothing but pluck and Good Old-Fashioned American Ingenuity. And the modern world of establishment academics doing research for big corporations is so disappointing in comparison that it would be better for it to be a dead end than for it to be the shape of things to come.

There's another thing that bothers me too, which is the sheer damnable linearity of the economic laws. The growth of science as measured in papers/year; the growth of innovation as measured in patents; the growth of computation as measured by Moore's Law; the growth of the economy as measured in GDP. All so straight you could use them to hang up a picture. These lines don't care what we humans do, who we vote for, what laws we pass, what we invent, what geese that lay long-hanging fruit have or have not been killed. The Gods of the Straight Lines seem right up there with the Gods of the Copybook Headings in the category of things that tend to return no matter how hard you try to kick them away. They were saying back a few decades ago Moore's Law would stop because of basic physical restrictions on possible transistor size, and we worked around those, which means the Gods of the Straight Lines are more powerful than physics.

And the lines slant upward, which is very kind of them, but not all of them make sense, and none of them seem to be in our very direct control, and some of them are on log plots, and some of them, when drawn out in a Kurzweillian fashion, go to kind of scary places.

So no, I don't think it is going to be a Great Stagnation we are going to have to worry about.
link36 comments|post comment

Links for January [Jan. 16th, 2013|11:59 pm]

I am away doing interviews, so minimal blogging this week.

About one in fifty people will swerve to deliberately hit a turtle on the road. No data on the number of replicants.

Back when some states were declaring the fetus a legal person, a pregnant woman tried to take advantage of the law to drive in the carpool lane alone. Now that the new hot topic is corporate personhood, a man carrying documents of incorporation has appealed a fine for driving in the carpool lane "alone".

Blinking is not just lubricating the eyes but possibly a sort of microsleep which restores mental attention.

Strokes can be very weird. Here's a story of an Englishman who woke up from a stroke speaking fluent Welsh, after learning a little Welsh as a child but not speaking it since then. I wonder if this could shed on supposed cases of demonic possession where people start talking dead languages.

The motto of Austria (former? still? unofficial? Sources differ) is the mysterious AEIOU, among whose proposed meanings is Alles Erdreich ist Österreich untertan ("all the world is subject to Austria")

The old Japanese timekeeping system used to have hours of varying length, so that daylight lasted the same number of hours in summer as in winter and dawn and dusk were always at the same time. This made designing Japanese clocks complicated.

I hate articles with stupid gotcha titles that make a grandiose claim that later gets reduced to something much more technical. So I was skeptical of a scientific article called How A Quarter Of The Cow Genome Came From Snakes. But, well, it looksl ike a quarter of the cow genome really does come from snakes.

The unemployment rate by job. A little suspicious: why did the employment rate for radiation therapists multiply by 70x over one year? Still, it's data and data are always fun.

What is left libertarianism? I'm glad they asked because I had never understood this before. This explanation is a little less confusing than some others.

I had never heard of "top collapse blogger" Ran Prieur. In fact, I didn't know "collapse blogging" was even a thing. But the big news recenly is that he has changed his mind and no longer things civilization is about to collapse. Interesting both for the non-civilization-collapseyness and because it is so rare for someone to devote their entire life to an idea and become famous for it but then abandon it when new evidence arrives, that each example should be noted and celebrated.

Since we're on the subject of how false arguments and their refutations can both be very convincing, take a look at the IPCC draft post from a global warming doubter blog (part one, part two) and then at the global warming believer rebuttal for an example of playing the game at the highest level.

Diary of a Creep. The thesis is that people who think they are too tolerant to accuse people of being "freaks" or "nerds" or whatever replace these insults with the word "creep". Creep makes the claim that you're not hating someone who's different, oh no, they're being a bad person by probably being offensive or potentially violent or at least too insensitive to go out of their way to reassure you they're not offensive of potentially violent. So we end up shunning exactly the same set of people-different-than-us we would have shunned back in the days when shunning was okay, but now we can do it with a halo of tolerance and concern over our heads.

About two miles from the house where I grew up was a giant blimp hangar once used by the military for all of their various blimping needs. By the time the military finally got around to closing the base, someone had named it a National Historic Landmark and they weren't allowed to bulldoze it, so it just kind of sat there. My family would speculate on what use they would ever find for a giant abandoned blimp hangar. It turns out they found the neatest use possible: using it to build the next generation of steampunkesque super military zeppelin.

Although the new science of racial differences is sometimes interesting, it's worth remembering that historical racial anthropology was almost unbelievably bad. Dysaethesia aethiopica was an antebellum-era disease diagnosed in black people. The symptom was not wanting to work hard enough as a slave. The physiological explanation was an understimulated state of the nerves, especially in the skin. The threatment was to (*facepalm*) whip the patient.

With all we've been hearing about the high incarceration rate in the US and the exponentially rising incarceration rate, no one has noticed that the incarceration rate has been falling markedly for the past three years. About time.

Study: Reading illogical inflammatory rhetoric and insults makes you become more certain of your previous position, regardless of what it was. Also notable for being yet another political bias article framed as "Here's yet another problem with those stupid biased people who disagree with us about X"

Ever spent time daydreaming how you would vanish if you were forced to become a fugitive? Wired ran a contest where one of their writers had to turn fugitive for a month. Now the writer tells his story. H/T Unequally Yoked

Was 2012 the best year of all time for humanity? Despite everything, a surprising number of signs point to "yes". Also interesting for discussion of how we're actually going to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, which is not the sort of thing I expect to happen when the United Nations makes vague feel-good promises. I know, I know, it's mostly thanks to China, but just let me have my nice happy glow here.

The world's first jokebook was Joe Miller's Jests, written 1739 and available in an easy-to-read format online. It amused me more by the sheer amount of 18th-centuriness it exuded than for having good jokes (which it doesn't). Also, several of the jokes are ones I have heard before in everyday life, which just shows that the old jokes really are old.

Everybody has been linking this post about consent, but I will join them, albeit two weeks late. I had always been kind of confused by the size of the "no means NO" type advertising - it seemed to assume both that there was this large group of men who thought that maybe no didn't mean no, and that they were sufficiently well-intentioned to change their minds upon hearing that no really did mean no. I assumed this was some kind of long-game feminist propaganda tactic but it seems I was wrong. In fact, some religious people seem to actually have a cultural norm of denying they want sex even when they do, and some people have learned to ignore denial of consent as an adaptation to this. Now I wonder how much else about our culture I'm misunderstanding because I never interact with the people it refers to. I also wonder whether this makes "no means NO"-style campaigns more or less likely to do good. On the one hand, it means there are well-intentioned people who need the message. On the other hand, it means that, holding religious women's behavior constant, this is basically telling religious men they can't have sex with religious women because there's a small chance it might accidentally be rape. And if God telling them they can't have sex because it might be immoral doesn't work, the chances they'd stop when the feminist movement tells them they can't have sex because it can't be immoral aren't looking very good.

Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, has now invented a machine that sucks food out of your stomach after you've eaten it. Eat as many donuts as you want, then evacuate them before they can make you fat. I am torn between thinking this is a sign of the collapse of our civilization into total decadence and kind of wanting one. I kind of worry this will go horribly wrong somehow by meddling with biological processes we don't really understand, but I'm happy to let studies prove me wrong.

Beyond the "wine-dark sea": "Homer’s descriptions of color in The Iliad and The Odyssey, taken literally, paint an almost psychedelic landscape...sheep were also the color of wine; honey was green, as were the fear-filled faces of men; and the sky is often described as bronze." So what was wrong with the ancients' color perception?
link70 comments|post comment

Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others except possibly futarchy [Jan. 14th, 2013|12:11 am]
I recently read Nate Silver's treatment of prediction markets in The Signal and the Noise. It was very good, but like most other such treatments it tended to focus on whether the best experts can do as well as prediction markets. The belief seems to be that if experts can equal - or perhaps even slightly outperform - these new market solutions, then no one can force us to switch to this complicated unorthodox system and we can safely keep relying on expert predictions. This post is about the reasons I disagree with that assessment.

A prediction market is a stock market analogue in which people buy and sell bets in order to predict the future. Someone creates a financial instrument that pays off $10 if the Democrats win the next election and $0 if they lose and people bid on the value of the instrument. If the instrument ends up priced at $6.50, that means the market thinks there's a 65% chance the Democrats will win.

These markets have some very interesting properties. The coolest is that it will always be the most consistently accurate source of information available. The proof is like so: suppose there were some source of information which was consistently better than the prediction market. In that case, whoever bet on the prediction market using that other source's predictions could consistently become rich. Many people like being rich, so someone would do this.

But this economic activity would move the prediction market's prices/predictions until they became as good as or better than the other source's predictions. Unless you faster than everyone else playing the market, this will have already happened by the time you see its predictions. Therefore, the prediction market will always be the most consistently accurate source of information available.

Another cool property of prediction markets is that they're impossible to corrupt. Suppose the Democrats wanted to make themselves look more popular in order to convince campaign donors they were a shoo-in. So they spend a million dollars bidding on "The Democrats will win the next election" and driving the price up to $9.90, or a prediction of a 99% chance that the Democrats will win. It seems that the prediction market has been corrupted.

But suppose you notice this. You know the Democrats have a less than 99% chance of winning the election; therefore you can beat the prediction market. Therefore, you can get rich. You short shares of "The Democrats will win the election" until it goes down to whatever probability you think is correct. Other people do the same. Investors start a feeding frenzy as people realize what a big opportunity such an obviously wrong prediction is, and big firms with lots of money to spend on exactly this sort of situation join in. Eventually the prediction returns back to its correct level. The Democrats' plot to corrupt the market has turned into that the Democratic Party has turned into a plot to give away a million dollars by subsidizing more rational investors. The market easily returns to the correct level.

Robin Hanson has proposed that the government should use prediction markets to inform policy decisions. For example, one of the big controversies surrounding gun control is whether it will lower the crime rate (because fewer criminals have guns) or raise the crime rate (because fewer victims have guns with which to defend themselves). In a futarchy, we would resolve this question by setting up a prediction market in which people predicted the future crime rate conditional upon gun control passing or failing. Since this would be the most accurate possible assessment of the evidence around guns and crime, we could use it to inform what legislation we wanted to pass.

So according to the conventional wisdom, this is a mildly interesting idea, but it depends a lot upon whether prediction markets can do better than the best of the experts who are already informing the debate on this subject. Nate Silver himself is a good example; he was, by many measures, more accurate than InTrade this election.

I am a big prediction market groupie, and I don't care whether top experts are a little better than prediction markets or vice versa. If you told me that Nate Silver can beat even a highly liquid prediction market by 5%, I would gain a little respect for Nate Silver but continue to push futarchy (government via prediction markets) over argentocracy (government by Nate Silver).

The reason is similar to the reason I (unlike a growing number of rationalists) continue to think democracy is a better system than monarchy, and it was most coherently explained by sci-fi writer/occasional antipope Charlie Stross.

The Mandate of Earth

We tend to think governments in general, and democracy in particular, should be optimized for good decision-making. To argue for democracy along these lines, one might suggest that democracy takes advantage of the wisdom of crowds, or that the population as a whole knows what it wants better than out of touch elites, or that monarchs would make bad decisions because they're corrupt and interested only in their own power.

To argue against democracy along these lines, we might point out that elites are better-educated than the common people and less prone to populist arguments like "let's take resources from small unpopular groups and redistribute it to the majority". One might also just look around at how democratic judgments actually work. As @aristosophy puts it, "it was the 236th year of the reign of what would later be known as King The-American-People the Terrible."

Stross' argument for democracy says it was never intended as a means to optimize policy. It's got a few more modest goals, at which it succeeds admirably.

First, it's supposed to place an upper bound on how terrible a leader can be. America can do some stupid things sometimes, but we would never elect a Stalin, a Pol Pot, or a Kim Jong-Il - whereas military governments and monarchies often do end up with those kinds of people. One might counter-argue that a democracy elected Hitler, but this seems sufficiently explained by the majority of Hitler's badness focusing on minority groups without much voting power - a democracy would have trouble electing someone who was Hitler-level bad towards the average voter.

A democracy never has to worry about the crown prince being a psychotic bastard. It never has to worry about being forced to accept the last leader's feeble-minded son as the successor. I mean, we did it anyway, back in 2000. But we weren't forced to.

But second, and more important, a democracy provides a Schelling point. A Schelling point, recall, is an option which might or might not be the best, but which is not too bad and which everyone agrees on in order to stop fighting. The President might not be the best leader. But he is very clearly the leader.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. The history of the world before democracy was a history of legitimacy squabbles. Some were succession squabbles - the king's psychotic younger son wants to seize the throne from the king's feeble-minded older son, or the Grand Vizier wants to murder the Sultan and start his own dynasty. Others were peasant revolts, where everyone just decides at the same time that they hate the king and decide to have a bloody civil war to overthrow him. Democracies get to avoid that.

In the six hundred fifty years between the Norman Conquest and the neutering of the English monarchy, Wikipedia lists about twenty revolts and civil wars, all the way from the Barons' Wars to the War of the Roses to the English Civil War. In the three hundred years since the neutering of the English monarchy and the switch to a more Parliamentary system, there have been exactly zero.

China is justly hailed as doing much better than the West with this because of their idea of the Mandate of Heaven, but even they collapsed into multiple feuding states around a dozen times in their history, for a total death toll in the tens of millions. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which I reviewed recently, famously begins: "The empire, divided, seeks to unite; united, seeks to divide". For the vast majority of human history, there was this fatalism that there was going to be a civil war that destroyed your state, it was just a question of whether it happened tomorrow or next century.

In a non-democratic form of government, you're always going to have someone thinking they have more of a right to be in charge than the guy who's there now. In a democracy, the criterion for legitimacy is an objective and easily verifiable one - they got the most votes in an election. If there's any dispute, you can just hold another election. As a Schelling point, it's hard to beat.

Yes, reactionaries, I totally just went there. I just said democracy was better than the Mandate of Heaven, because it promotes stability.

Prediction Markets Are Unimpeachable Experts

Democracy doesn't always perform optimally, but it always performs fairly. There are some biases in particular democracies, like the way the US primaries work, but the general concept of democracy is scrupulously fair, and that is enough to prevent people from starting civil wars.

Academia is different. Its state resembles that of pre-democratic governments, when anyone could choose a side, claim it was legitimate, and then get into endless protracted fights with the partisans of other sides. If you believe ObamaCare will destroy the economy, you will have no trouble finding a prestigious academic who agrees with you. Then all you need to do is accuse the other academics of bias, or cherry-picking, or using the wrong statistical test, or any of the other ways to discredit scientists you don't like (which are, to be fair, quite often true).

A democratic vote among the scientific establishment is insufficient to settle these topics. The most important problem is that it gives massive power to the people who determine who gets to be part of "the scientific establishment". A poll of theologians would establish that God exists; a poll of African Studies professors would establish that affirmative action is effective and morally obligatory; a poll of Sociology professors would establish that capitalism is destroying the country and should be dismantled. Further, exactly which fields are biased in this way is itself a politically charged question: climate change deniers would argue that polling climatologists on global warming is exactly as messed up as polling theologians on God's existence.

This also creates overwhelming pressure for the government or special interest groups to take over scientific establishments. If we consider the intelligence community an "academic establishment" this is what happened during the Iraq War; the petrochemical industry is doing its best to subvert climatology and the pharmaceutical industry has quite a bit of power over medicine. If whether or not a drug worked was decided by a straight vote of all doctors, I bet the pharmaceutical companies would work a lot harder at gaining influence.

So not having any Schelling point - being hopelessly confused about the legitimacy of academic ideas - sucks. But a straight democratic vote of academics would also suck and be potentially unfair.

Prediction markets avoid these problems. There is no question of who the experts are: anyone can invest in a prediction market. There's no question of special interests taking it over; this just distributes free money to more honest investors.

Not only do they escape real bias, but more importantly they escape perceived bias. It is breathtakingly beautiful how impossible it is to rail that a prediction market is the tool of the liberal media or whatever. You just tell Limbaugh: "Wait, you think the prediction market has a consistently liberal bias? Then invest on the conservative sides of issues and you get free money for having discovered this startling economic fact!" If Limbaugh invests his fortune and turns out to be right, he's laughing all the way to the bank and improving the system. If Limbaugh claims the market is biased but refuses to invest it in, everyone knows he's just spouting hot air.

Nate Silver might do better than a prediction market, I don't know. But Nate Silver is not a Schelling point. Nobody chose him as Official Statistics Guy via a fair process. And if someone objected to his beliefs, they could accuse him of bias and he would have no recourse until it was too late.

If a prediction market is almost as good as Nate, and it is also unbiased and impossible to accuse of bias, we have our Schelling point. Barack Obama can say something like "Obamacare won't be unaffordable, in fact it will cut the size of the budget deficit!" And if Rush Limbaugh says "You're lying, or relying on data collected by liberal hacks", Obama can just retort "No, seriously, the prediction market says there's an 80% chance I'm right", and Limbaugh will just have to admit he's right and slink away.

Just as democracy made it harder to fight over leadership, prediction markets make it harder to fight over beliefs. We can still fight over values, of course - if you hate teenagers having sex, and I don't care about it, we can debate that all day long. But if we want to know whether a certain law will raise the pregnancy rate, there will be only one correct answer, and it will only be a mouse-click away.

I think this would have more positive effects than anyone anticipates. If people took it seriously, not only would the gun control debate be over in an hour, but it would end on the objectively right side, whichever side that was. If single-payer would be better than Obamacare, we could implement single-payer and anyone who tried to make up horror stories about how it would destroy health care would be laughed out of the room. And once these issues have gone away, maybe we can reach the point where half the country stops hating the other half because of disagreements which are largely over factual issues.

Right now we're going backward from this future. A prediction market has to be very liquid (ie have many users spending lots of time on it) before it becomes any good at predicting things. But the US government just cracked down on the largest prediction market, InTrade, because they classify it as "online gambling". This has much reduced its liquidity and set the entire field back by years. IARPA, a government intelligence agency thing, has a toy prediction market going, but it's much more limited without real money.

I hope that someone soon starts a bitcoin prediction market outside the US government's reach. It might fail - prediction market users and bitcoin users are both small minorities, and the disjunction of two small minorities might be too small to provide the necessary liquidity - but maybe later when dollar-bitcoin convertibility becomes more fluid, its time will come. This is the sort of idea I would totally pursue myself if I had money, time, technical knowledge, business acumen, entrepreneurial spirit, legal advice, and about twenty other abstract and concrete resources I do not possess. As it is I sort of fantasize about making enough money in medicine to fund someone who has the other nineteen.
link105 comments|post comment

Just for stealing a mouthful of bread [Jan. 13th, 2013|02:13 pm]
On yesterday's post on Les Miserables, one commenter made the utilitarian case for Valjean taking his chance to kill Javert. Wouldn't the world be better off, and everyone a little safer, with a man like Javert gone?

I don't think so. Javert had his flaws. He seemed unable to empathize with the criminals he pursued, unable to accept that they can be "a man, no worse than any man". He called them "garbage" and "from the gutter". If he had been a Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist, it might have made the fundamental tragedy more complete, but maybe that would have been too miserable even for a book called Les Miserables

But at his core, Javert is a police inspector. No more, no less. He catches criminals. He's very good at it. He does nothing beyond what his role as a police inspector demands of him; at times he is more of an avatar of Law than a human individual. Javert deserves death if and only if all policemen deserve death, if and only if the police force as an institution must be excised from society as a malign cancer.

Was Javert evil to work for an evil regime? "Evil regime" risks making things sound too black and white. Restoration-era France was far from optimal, but neither was it tyrannical; it was a constitutional monarchy where citizens elected the legislature and enjoyed the usual array of civil rights. The laws were made by much the same process as anywhere else in the world, and with much the same results. We deal in overly simple concepts like "evil regime" at our peril when there are so many sympathetic, democratic governments that do great good with one hand and great evil with the other. And to condemn Javert to death is to condemn most of history's civil servants.

Or was Javert evil for refusing to show mercy, for not giving Valjean a nod and a wink once he realized that Jean was basically a good guy? Here, too, I know what the Inspector would say in his own defense. "A government of laws and not of men" is fair to everyone; ideally those who falter and those who fall must pay the price, whether they are man or woman, black or white, sympathetic or unsympathetic. If we gave police officers carte blanche to arrest the people they felt like arresting and release the people they felt like releasing, then why bother having laws at all? One might as well just tell the police "If you see someone doing something that's, y'know, bad, then send them to prison."

Maybe he would say there is in a sense no such thing as mercy. There is only replacing one law with a second law. Suppose the law demanded a harsh prison sentence for anyone who steals more than ten francs. Javert catches Valjean stealing something worth eleven francs, surely an opportunity for mercy if ever there was one. But if Javert lets him off and privately resolves not to prosecute thefts of less than twenty francs, one day he's going to encounter someone stealing only twenty-one francs and feel tempted to have mercy upon them; they are after all only one franc above his new limit.

And if he lets that second thief go, if he shows mercy and ups the limit to thirty francs, it's easy to see that he will never arrest anyone. But if he arrests that thief, he is following his new "twenty francs or more" law with all the severity of an Old Testament prophet. His standard may include a different number than that of a more lax inspector, but his application of it is just the same.

So if you are going to show no mercy for people who break a rule, asks Javert, why not make it the rule that's on the books, that everyone knows about, and that society has entrusted you to uphold? Why not show no mercy for that rule, instead of a weasel rule like "Oh, if you're within ten percent of the amount on the books I'll let you off, but no more"?

And yet the argument, so elegant, so simple, leads to Inspector Javert condemning Valjean to terrible suffering for a completely disproportionate crime: as Valjean put it, "they chained me and left me for dead - just for stealing a mouthful of bread." Which was not just a minor crime, but perhaps even a heroic act: he did it to save the life of his starving nephew, at great risk to himself. And it destroys his life, and in the end it leads to Javert himself suffering a moral conflict so intense that he breaks down and takes a long walk off a short bridge.

Mamet defines a tragedy as a human interaction where both antagonists are arguably in the right. Valjean was arguably in the right to steal a loaf of bread to save his starving nephew, and to want mercy for the extenuating circumstances of his case. Javert was wrong to divorce his work from understanding and compassion, but he was still arguably in the right to enforce the law just as written and defend the codes that make society possible Nevertheless in the end their conflict lands Valjean a miserable prison sentence and drives Javert to suicide.

In philosophical traditions from Kant to Russell, a paradox has always been a sign that your foundations are wrong. I would resolve the moral paradox of Valjean and Javert not by condemning either of them, but by condemning the foundation beneath them both, the corrupt society which forces two virtues into opposition. 19th century France was not tyrannical, but neither was it optimal, and wherever a society is flawed good people can be forced into conflict with one another based on the roles they play.

Hugo wrote allegorically about justice and mercy, but his setting and his theme was Revolution. In a world where good and the law, justice and mercy, are diametrically opposed, sometimes revolution is the only unambiguously good action you can take. You can be a violent revolutionary like Enjolras or a peaceful revolutionary working within the system like General Lamarque, and historically the latter have had better results, but in the end the only solution to good people being destroyed by the law is to rise up in an attempt to yoke the law to the service of goodness.

It was the failure of Enjolras and his comrades to remake the world that forced the story to end as a tragedy. When society is unjust, there will always come a time when the rare and magical power of goodness-beyond-obligation brings those who possess it into conflict with the law, and then the law will crush them, those whom we can least afford to lose. Someone suffers, someone is sent to jail, someone commits suicide, someone's life is needlessly destroyed. Just for stealing a mouthful of bread.

I didn't know Aaron Swartz very well. He hung around Less Wrong for about six months. I read some of his stuff. I think he read some of mine. But he was a brilliant programmer who had a major impact on my life and the lives of many other people through some of his inventions like Reddit and RSS, as well as through his political activism and his support of efficient charity.

Aaron was one of those rare people who understood the good-beyond-obligation, who pursued ideals no one would have faulted him for abandoning even at great personal cost to his own safety and reputation. Angry at the power of "scientific gatekeeper" organizations like Elsevier and JSTOR to deny the public access to the scientific data that they funded or even collected, he launched an ambitious scheme to hack into JSTOR's database and make a big chunk of the total scientific production of humanity available to anyone who wanted it, free of charge, on BitTorrent. It was brilliant, ambitious, and totally illegal; he got caught halfway through and the government decided to throw the book at him. He got thirteen counts of felony with a penalty of up to thirty-five years in prison. For reasons which are impossible to know but easy to guess, Aaron committed suicide Friday, leaving all his money to charity. One of those brilliant and compassionate people the world can least afford to lose at a moment like this is lost to us. Just for stealing a mouthful of bread.

There is still a society that lets law and goodness work at cross-purposes. There are still revolutionaries and they still die for their presumption, leaving behind only a memory and an inspiration to those who follow. And still tragedies.
From the table in the corner
They could see a world reborn
And they rose with voices ringing
I can hear them now!
The very words that they had sung
Became their last communion
On the lonely barricade at dawn.

Oh my friends, my friends, don't ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will meet no more
link57 comments|post comment

♫ Valjean - at last - we see each other plain ♫ [Jan. 12th, 2013|05:12 am]
[Tags|, ]

[Spoiler Warning | Minor spoilers for Les Miserables.]

I'm stuck for a couple of days just outside New City, New York. Trying to figure out if the mayor is named Mayor SimMayor, no luck as of yet.

Speaking of mayors with repetitive-sounding names, I finally got a chance to see the Les Miserables movie tonight with my cousin.

I did not dislike Jean Valjean's voice as much as most other people. I did dislike Marius' voice more than most other people, and wondered the whole time whether he was stoically filming a musical despite having a terrible head cold.

I thought Javert had a very good voice, but I was disappointed with his character overall. I feel like the actor who played him is probably a nice person in real life. He gave off a friendly, avuncular vibe. This is not the vibe one wants Inspector Javert to have. Worse, every time he made an on screen appearance, he was screwing up in some way - falsely accusing the wrong person, falsely accusing himself of falsely accusing the wrong person, or just letting Valjean get away. He pretty quickly picked up a bumbling cop vibe, a sort of 19th-century French Chief Wiggum. "I am the law, and the law is not mocked." Sorry. This Javert totally can be mocked.

Not that I would want to mock him. He looks so sad. If I met him I would just want to give him a hug.

Fantine was a great actress and a great singer. Both Cosettes were great actresses and very pretty, although adult Cosette sort of seemed too pretty, like she was a doll who sat around being pretty but not really having a part of her own. I liked little Cosette better. And speaking of little, obviously Gavroche stole the show.

Despite some of the problems, the overall film was very good and gave me exactly the emotional effect I would expect to get from Les Miserables. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Afterwards I went to dinner with my cousin, who had no previous familiarity with the story. She said "I really liked the movie, except for that one part where Jean Valjean spares Inspector Javert's life. Javert straight out said he wasn't going to change. Sparing him was just dumb." And I can sort of sympathize, but...

I fell in love with Les Miserables via the soundtrack, from the first time I actually understood what was going on in the scene with the bishop and his silver (which was not the first time I listened to that song).

One of the classic philosophical questions goes: "Is evil merely the absence of good?" Strip the religious baggage and you could equally well ask "Is good merely the absence of evil?" I think I used to be sympathetic to this second question. If you don't cheat on any tests, don't harm any other people, don't contribute to the destruction of the planet, and otherwise avoid evil, you are...well, further toward being a good person than most people ever manage.

Giving to charity does better, but when I give to charity it has always been out of a sort of guilt motive, the realization that I have so much and other people have so little and that unless I am very selfish indeed, I really ought to give a little of it to them. Someone who gives a lot of money to charity is avoiding evil - particularly greed and selfishness - even better than someone who just doesn't cheat on tests, but it still seemed to me just a more advanced extension of being non-evil.

That bishop had every excuse in the world to turn Valjean over to the police. No one would have called him evil for it; he would not have had to feel a second's guilt. On an emotional level - I'm not trying to make a philosophical case here, because I know that you can spin this one to non-evil too - but on an emotional level that was what first opened up this vast chasm between "non-evil" and "good" to me.

And then later in the story, when Valjean risked his own life to save Javert, that was another example. Now Les Miserables is at two examples of this goodness-beyond-non-evil that I had never recognized so much as even one example of it before.

Believing that goodness is something other than non-evil has been comforting to me. Once I recognized goodness - Plato would say "apprehended its form" - I got a little more motivation from my desire to be good than I had from my previous desire just to avoid evil. There have even been some times when it has changed my behavior, just a little.

There was one time I was with my grandmother, who loves to spoil me. I was buying something, probably a book, and she really wanted to pay for it as a gift to me. Usually in this situation I say no and buy it myself - I like being independent and not feeling any obligation to anyone else. This would have been the non-evil thing to do. It would have made me look like a good person, satisfied my social obligations, and made me an exemplar of various oft-respected virtues. Instead I gave in and let her buy me the book, which made her very happy - and saved her an argument in which I made her feel like I was doing her a favor by "allowing" her.

I know that as a sign of my moral progress, "I let someone else buy me something I wanted" is super unimpressive. But that's sort of the point. Anything that looks like an impressive sign of morality doesn't count as this weird Valjean-level super-moral skill. If it looked like an impressive sign of morality, it would be satisfying some moral obligation and it would just be non-evil. My own still-feeble abilities to understand good-beyond-nonevil sound (and are) silly. Valjean's is an expert at this skill even in his most important life decisions, and so he looks stupid, at least to my cousin.

I think there might be a corresponding epistemic skill, a correctness as opposed to being very good at avoiding error, a correctness-beyond-the-level-of-obligation. It is being correct even when you have complete social sanction to be incorrect, even when it makes you look stupid to everyone else. I am not yet very skilled in this area either, but I am feeling pretty good about myself for recognizing it exists.
link34 comments|post comment

The right to bare arms [Jan. 11th, 2013|12:48 am]

People on Facebook have lately been linking to a Jezebel post (WHY DO I FOLLOW LINKS TO JEZEBEL POSTS?) called Batshit Ridiculous Modesty Website Reminds You That Women Just Can't Win.

The website (which seems to be down at the moment) purports to be for people to discuss different styles of dress and whether they are modest or not. Jezebel dislikes this. They say that:
"The problem with modesty is that the idea that society can tell you how much of your body to reveal or hide implies that your body does not belong to you."

"You can't purport to host an open, nonjudgmental forum while repeatedly enforcing the idea that women, and women only, are responsible for whether or not men lust after them. That's a pervasive concept that perpetuates rape culture; it doesn't help young women feel good about themselves or teach people to respect one another or help anyone in any way. Other than, of course, the sexually repressed dicks who get off on telling girls and women how to behave."

I have two problems with what they're saying, both of which conveniently present more general points I've been wanting to mention for a while.

You're Okay, They're Not Okay

First digression also comes from my Facebook feed: this article on What Is Polyamory?. I was told it had some kind of dumb comments, and it didn't disappoint.

The negative comments, of which there were many, all seemed to be along the lines of "If you have lots of nonmarital relationships, it increases the risk of children born out of wedlock" or "Relationships that include sex without a lifetime commitment are empty."

I don't want to evaluate these arguments right now. I think it's more interesting to point out that, of people having sex outside of marriage, probably less than 1% are polyamorous. I would be extremely surprised if the commenters themselves weren't having sex outside marriage at least a little.

Whatever merit any of those arguments may have, they are arguments against the ethos of our entire society, not against this tiny kind of weird minority group.

Arguing against everyone in society is a losing battle. Arguing against a weird unpopular minority group is a winning battle. Therefore, these commenters seem to be using an argument that could apply to everyone, but only actually applying it to weird unpopular minorities.

We see the same thing in arguments against homosexuality. A common argument against homosexuality is that it somehow cheapens or weakens traditional marriage by providing an alternative. Regardless of whether or not this argument has any merit, an honestly-intentioned observer would apply it to divorce culture and the cheapening of straight marriage long before they started worrying about a few gays. But because straight people with less-than-perfect marriages make up most of society, but gays are a weird unpopular minority group, they focus the argument on the latter only.

Getting back to modesty, is it acceptable to walk around in a bathing suit? In thong underwear? Naked? I'm not sure. I can't really think of any good reason why not.

If we should in fact have no problem with people walking around or going to work in their underwear, this is sufficient to prove we should have no problem with people going around dressed in clothes some conservative would find "immodest".

But if we have no problem with people going around dressed in clothes some conservative would find "immodest", then we either need to get rid of our problem with thong underwear, or else figure out what the difference is between those two cases.

The article makes no effort to do that and doesn't even seem to have realized the problem. It looks a lot like they are happy to attack a weird unpopular minority group (religious people with strong ideas about modesty) but totally willing to let the rest of society off the hook (people who think you shouldn't be allowed to go shopping wearing only thong underwear).

If Jezebel thinks everyone who doesn't want people going to school in thong underwear are just as misogynist and hypocritical as the conservatives on that website, they should say so and criticize the powerful as well as the lunatic fringe. If they think that not wanting women to come to school in nothing but thong underwear is an acceptable belief, then their argument that anyone with any ideas about modesty just secretly hates women and wants to control their bodies falls apart.

Churchill famously once asked a friend if she would sleep with him for a million pounds. She grudgingly admitted she might. Then he asked her if she would sleep with him for five pounds. She got upset and asked him what kind of woman he thought she was. Churchill responded "We've already established what you are; now we're just haggling over the price."

If you agree that people shouldn't be allowed to go to school in thong underwear, we've already established what your beliefs about modesty are, and now we're just haggling over the price. Haggling over the price is important and an argument we need to have. But it's not one that allows quite that level of offense-taking.

Society Exists, More At Eleven

Jezebel argues that "the idea that society can tell you how much of your body to reveal or hide implies that your body does not belong to you." Or to put it a different way, it places the responsibility for "men lusting after women" solely on women for inciting the lust, rather than on men for having the lust in the first place.

Let me throw out a metaphor and see if it sticks.

Albert has terrible body odor. He works in an office, and every time he comes in, the entire place starts to stink. It disturbs his co-workers and drives away customers. His friends and colleagues suggest he shower more often. Albert indignantly replies "The idea that you all can tell me how much of my body I have to wash implies that my body does not belong to me!" When pressed, he says that this suggests "assumes that the responsibility for other people getting annoyed by my odor rests solely on me, rather than on them for feeling the annoyance."

On the one hand, yeah, it seems unfair from Albert's perspective that other people can tell him what he must and mustn't do with his body, merely to make their own lives more convenient. On the other hand, from his co-workers' perspective it seems unfair that they have to put up with body odor when they don't want to. The retort "Well, it's your fault for being disgusted by it!" sounds suitably glib but totally fails to resolve the very real conflict. At the end of the day, everyone has to live with each other.

The accepted method for settling this in every other case is that people are allowed to express their opinions, and in the end every individual decides for themselves. Albert can decide whether or not he wants to shower, Albert's friends can decide whether or not they want to keep hanging out with him, and Albert's boss can decide whether she wants to fire Albert.

We apply this kind of pressure to force people to act in ways convenient to ourselves all the time. It is called "society". Don't shower enough? That's a shunning. Masturbate in public? That's a shunning. Park in a way that takes up two spots? That's a shunning. Whistle loudly all the time? That's a shunning. SHOUT EVERYTHING REALLY LOUD INSTEAD OF SPEAKING AT A NORMAL VOLUME? THAT'S A SHUNNING. Refuse to turn off your cell phone in a theater or class? That's a shunning. Or at least it should be.

The idea that "society" "can" "tell" a woman what she can or can't wear is no more oppressive than the idea that "society" "can" "tell" a man whether or not to shower. It's part of the general process of balancing everyone's right to live a life convenient to themselves with their obligation to be considerate of others.

Women Less Dangerous Than Previously Believed?

I would like to discuss this issue further, but I have to admit I'm stuck at what seems to be the main point of contention. I...don't really experience any suffering from sexily dressed women in my vicinity.

This may be typical mind fallacy. Maybe there are other men who are completely unable to work or concentrate when there are immodest women around. Maybe it actively ruins their lives and they are only able to avoid their existence being a torrent of excruciating sexual desire by moving to Mount Athos where even female animals are banned.

I don't even have a basic intuition of how this works. Is it a cultural problem, the sort of thing where southerners felt horror and disgust at the idea of sharing a classroom with black people but got over it after a little while of actually doing so? Or would it be an actual testosterone-based unmodifiable brute fact of their lives?

If it were the latter, I would hope women would be nice enough to work with them, the same way most people are considerate enough to defer to people's preferences against body odor and cell phones in movie theaters.

Of course, it certainly is awkward that the burden would fall entirely on women. Which raises a question I have even less experience with than the original: are there women (or gay men) who get really upset when they see immodestly dressed men? Are their lives a torrent of excruciating sexual desire because some man they know is wearing unusually short shorts?

If so, having both sexes agree to be considerate to the other seems like a pretty clear gain. If not, and if there really are men who are suffering terribly because of female immodesty, maybe we can sign some kind of treaty where women agree to dress modestly in exchange for men being more considerate to women in some way?

But my intuition is that the number of men who are seriously harmed by immodest women is much lower than either side thinks it is. If I were Jezebel, condemning that website, I think this would be my main point. The most credible argument for modesty - that immodest clothing is hurtful to men - suffers from a lack of evidence. In terms of cost-benefit, immodesty just doesn't have enough costs to be worth worrying about.

But Jezebel isn't up for this. They accept almost without challenge the line that having to see women in immodest clothing hurts men. And then, having backed themselves into a corner, they try to extricate themselves by making some kind of Randian argument that no one should ever have to be considerate of other people. They go from bad science to good politics via screwed-up ethics.

The problem is that screwed-up ethics, no matter how much they save your skin in the immediate problem, are going to stick around. If Jezebel pushes bad philosophy, many of its readers are going to accept them because arguments are soldiers and we all have to stand up for women's rights. And then we're going to end up with a cohort of very politically active people whose zealous opinions on subtle moral questions are based on what argument allowed a blogger to sound most indignant fifteen years ago.
link150 comments|post comment

Is Obama secretly a Muslim? And did God sign a fish? [Jan. 10th, 2013|04:58 am]
[Tags|, , ]

Start with the second question: did God sign a fish?

According to Muslim lore, the answer is yes. This isn't about that one fish in Britain that was born with the word "Allah" on one side and "Mohammed" on the other. That seems like a perfectly normal omen or possibly portent.

This is about an entire species, the Koran Angelfish, pomacanthus semicirculatus. Native to the Arabian sea, the fish goes through a number of life stages; during one, it displays what appear to be the words "La'illah ill'allah" ("there is no God but Allah") on one side of its tail, and the words "Sahni Allah" ("a warning from Allah") on the other.

I like this piece of lore. Every so often religious people ask me what evidence I would expect to see if God existed - whether, having apparently been unimpressed by the splendour of Nature and by the Bible that I demand showy miracles during every generation. And no, I don't demand anything showy. I would be pretty happy with a species of animal whose coat, or scales, or whatever, consistently displayed the phrase "God exists", or preferably "God exists, and this text being displayed on this animal isn't just a coincidence." I would prefer the message be encoded in the digits of pi, for safety and ease of access. But a species of animal would be sufficient. Inability to even do that much seems suspicious.

But the Muslims say God has done his job, that pomacanthus semicirculatus fulfills my minimum standard of proof. What do we do with that?

Now let's get back to our first question: is Barack Obama a Muslim?

The latest chapter in the age-old quest to prove Obama is Muslim centers around a mysterious gold ring he has worn since childhood.

According to WND.com:
"As a student at Harvard Law School, then-bachelor Barack Obama’s practice of wearing a gold band on his wedding-ring finger puzzled his colleagues. Now, newly published photographs of Obama from the 1980s show that the ring Obama wore on his wedding-ring finger as an unmarried student is the same ring Michelle Robinson put on his finger at the couple’s wedding ceremony in 1992."

The article is fleshed out with hilarious satirical pieces from Obama's college and graduate days (1, 2). Why did I have to wait until I read a crackpot conservative website to see these?!

Anyway, back to the ring. Extreme magnification appears to show what looks like curvy text in a mysterious language, which WND believes they have deciphered:

How much do you want to bet it ends out transliterating as "ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatuluk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul"?

Fun fact: Wikipedia's page on The Black Speech includes a blurb at the top saying "For the real world dialect, see African-American Vernacular English"

WND actually transliterates the text as "la'illah ill'allah", Arabic for "there is no God but Allah". Why would the President of the United States be wearing a ring reading "there is no God but Allah?" I can only think of one plausible explanation:

Barack Obama is secretly an angelfish.

No, sorry, WND wanted the other plausible explanation. They think he is secretly a Muslim. So secretly that he wears the defining statement of the faith plainly written on piece of jewelery that shows up clearly if anyone photographs him, which people occasionally do when you are President of the United States.

Snopes debunks the myth with a higher-resolution photograph:

Oh, phew. It's just a perfectly normal totem of the Snake God.

This better photograph clearly reveals the ring to just have a pretty wavy pattern. This seems to be a natural hazard of - no offense to Arabic speakers - having a language that basically just looks like squiggly lines.

In Arabic, the curves in this river mean "I was formed by the random action of erosion, and my spelling out this legible sentence is only a coincidence"

As best I can tell, this explains the fish as well. From the few pictures of Koranic Angelfish online, as well as the few pictures of the proper Arabic phrase, the match isn't any better than could be expected from pareidolia alone.

And the same explanation seems sufficient for the Allah meat, Allah tomato, Allah eggs and beans, Allah goat, and Allah ice cream. I'm going to go ahead and recommend the Allah Diet, where you can only eat foods with Allah's name on them. Stay away from the Allah baby, though.

(Disturbingly, the Allah baby article mentions that this new miracle was only "months after a baby was born in Lagos with a Holy Quran in his hand". Trying to come up with a non-supernatural explanation for how this could happen is incredibly disturbing and you should not try this.)

So I'm afraid I just can't take the fish seriously. Come back when God manages to write something on an animal in English.

Or at least can stick to one religion. Come on, God!

I like these stories because feeling superior to people who see fake patterns in visual data eases the sting of my gullibility to fake patterns in logical data.
link93 comments|post comment

Book Review: Romance of the Three Kingdoms [Jan. 6th, 2013|11:29 pm]
[Tags|, ]

[Spoiler Warning | Predictably, some spoilers for Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Less predictably, some spoilers for Game of Thrones, especially the first book/TV season.]

Herodotus once said: "Some things do not happen the way they should, and most things do not happen at all. It is the duty of the conscientious historian to correct these defects."

Luo Guanzhong, the supposed but shadowy author of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, shared Herodotus' philosophy of history. Here was a man who was not above occasionally livening up the boring parts of historical records by inserting wizards into them. Here was a man so devoted to chronicling the lives of his characters that he includes detailed records of what happened to their souls after their deaths. Here was a man so devoted to sketchy fantastic pseudo-history that he himself is a larger-than-life figure who may not have actually written the book attributed to him.

The book itself helped confirm some interesting stereotypes about China I had been hearing, especially its focus on intellectual rather than physical prowess. Imagine the Iliad, except that instead of being about the bold deeds of the warriors involved, it pretty much took the warriors as a given and focused on the scholars of both sides coming up with brilliant military or even logistical strategies. Although there was the occasional scene with two big brawny guys dueling, this was clearly a side show to the real glory of war, which was ministers sitting in a room, debating strategies, and calling each other out on biased or unworkable ideas. It kind of gave me the feeling that if Nate Silver got warped back in time to Han China, he would be Emperor within three months.

His only real competitor would be Zhuge Liang, nicknamed "Crouching Dragon" in what would no doubt be considered a racist exoticization of Chinese culture if it hadn't been his actual nickname for centuries. In the same way that Achilles won practically all his battles, Zhuge was practically always right. Aside from his work predicting everything with 100% accuracy, he apparently had enough free time to invent the wheelbarrow, the land mine, and the steamed bun, which I previously would not have predicted all came from the same person. As you can imagine, this sort of mind makes him pretty broken as a character, amnd occasionally the book devolved into a medieval version of Ender's Game as Zhuge confounds vastly more powerful generals in hilarious ways.

In one episode, Zhou Yu, a more powerful general who is supposedly his ally, has realized Zhuge is dangerous and is plotting to kill him. He confronts Zhuge, complains that they are desperately lacking arrows, and says if he's so smart, why can't he figure out some way to get them a hundred thousand extra arrows? Zhuge says he'll try; Zhou says he must produce the arrows within three days, hoping to take advantage of a custom that if your inferiors fail you in any way you can just kill them and everyone will agree it's justified.

So Zhuge gets some ships, mans them with straw dummies, and sails them right past the enemy's camp. The enemy shoots all their arrows at the ship, and the arrows are caught by the straw dummies. He repeats until he has 100,000 arrows for Zhou within three days.

Also, this book sort of HPMoR-ifies astrology. Most of the great scholars are also great astrologers, and can read the heavens to get news of far-off events. This works perfectly (okaaay) until Zhuge discovers a ritual by which he can change the stars (okaaaaaaay), leading enemy astrologers to get completely screwed up results. It is as effective as it is implausible.

...and then he dies kind of randomly. Actually, everyone dies kind of randomly, including the people you expect to be the main characters. They don't even die in glorious battle. Cao Cao, the main villain and one of the greatest warlords in Chinese history, just kind of dies of disease in the middle of the epic campaign to vanquish him.

The entire story kind of reminds me of Game of Thrones. In fact, it suspiciously reminds me of Game of Thrones. After the decline and fall of an ancient dynasty whose symbol is the dragon (Han/Targaryen), the capital is occupied by a family of evil connivers (Lannisters/Cao). The main resistance comes from a scrupulous-to-the-point-of-insanity father-son team (Stark/Liu) but there's also a bunch of other resistance as well, including from the south (Renly/Sun Quan) and the Riverlands (actually just called "the Riverlands") in both books. Lots of feudal families occupying little kingdoms get involved in a big fight for the crown. Everyone changes sides a few times, there are some cool strategems and tricks, and eventually all the cool characters die, including one by a very unexpected beheading (Ned/Guan). And this whole time, they're blind to the greater peril massing beyond a wall to the north (White Walkers beyond the Wall/Huns beyond the Great Wall).

So I googled it to see if anyone else had noticed this, and...apparently I went this long without knowing that Game of Thrones is actually based on the Wars of the Roses in England. So much so that House Lannister = House Lancaster and House Stark = House York (HOW DID I MISS THAT?). The Targaryens are the Norman descendants of William the Conqueror. And the barbarians in the north aren't Huns beyond the Great Wall, they're Scots behind Hadrian's Wall.

I guess the Romance connection just provides me with even more proof of how easy it is to form very compelling theories that are absolutely false.

Still, I would recommend Romance of the Three Kingdoms to anyone who liked Herodotus, anyone who likes Game of Thrones, and anyone who wants a readable and quite frankly awesome introduction into Chinese culture. But be smart like I was and go for the Abridged Edition - because walls in the north are not the only Game of Thrones series parallel, if you get my drift.
link131 comments|post comment

[ viewing | 10 entries back ]
[ go | earlier/later ]