Thursday, March 31, 2016

Oy vey

Some US women soccer players are suing the U.S. Soccer Federation for wage discrimination, since the USSF pays men more: 'In early January you submitted a proposal for a new CBA that had "equal pay for equal work as its guiding principle."'

OK, let's test out whether their work is equal to the men's: have the women's team play the men's... oh, say, 20 games. If the women win a single game, they get equal pay.

A Marxist responds as predicted

I swear, I could have written this piece in advance. To any non-Marxist, it will look like complete nonsense, and you will wonder who could be convinced by such arguments. But to wonder that is to miss this point: Zimmer is not trying to convince anyone. What he is doing is shoring up the defenses of a position to which he and his readers are already committed. Chait's piece might have shaken the resolve of a few comrades, so they must be given talking points they can repeat, to drown out the disturbing sound of the enemy beyond the gates.

This quote is priceless:

"For Marxists, on the other hand, freedom of expression is not a free-floating abstraction—it’s a key aspect of the radical democratic vision of building a society free of oppression and exploitation. Marxists value free speech because they are committed to building a society where all can decide matters of public concern democratically, as genuine equals. Thus, the Marxist has a consistent way of explaining why speech that aims to dominate or marginalize others should be challenged rather than protected: it is contrary to the very values animating our commitment to free speech in the first place."

A third grader could figure out that this means that "free speech" is a right Marxists have and others don't, and that "all can decide matters of public concern" means "Marxists can decide matters of public concern."

Which is, of course, exactly how things have worked out in practice every time someone has tried to implement Marxism. Anyone who is rationally evaluating Zimmer's arguments could spot the contradiction here. But, as I said, the point of the piece is not to make a rational argument, but to stiffen the defenders resolve.

Liberalism and the Will, Part II

Part one here.

So how is it that liberalism became so tied to the position that rational argumentation is the primary way by which people change their opinions and behavior, despite all of the evidence to the contrary?

To answer that question, we must understand liberalism as an attempt to solve a very serious problem, that of religious civil war. With the Catholic Church's loss of authority over the moral life of Western Europe, the region had become subject to a series of terrible civil wars over just who would possess that authority. All sides still agreed that reason alone, without guidance from a properly oriented will, was liable to drift off into mere self-justification. But how should we decide whose will is properly oriented? Charisma? Faith alone? Faith plus good deeds? The performance of miracles? Apostolic succession?

The battle over these questions devastated Western Europe. People were desperate to find a way to stop the fighting, and liberals suggested one: reason alone, setting aside any question of whose will was properly oriented, was sufficient to achieve civil peace. Once that had been achieved, every citizen could have their own, purely private opinion about what constituted a proper orientation of the will: such matters would not concern the civil authorities. And so liberalism produces a series of proposals for "purely rational" bases for why we should get along:

Hobbes: "You don't want to die, do you?"
Locke: "You don't want to die, and you'd like to be prosperous, right?"
Mill: "You don't want to die, you'd like to be prosperous, and you'd like society to keep improving, right?"

But the basic idea was always the same: we just don't need any agreement upon any universal notion of what constitutes a good human life: it is is enough that people are "rational," and then we can establish a liberal order in which people whose wills are oriented in wildly different directions can get along.

The liberal achievement here should not be dismissed lightly: if I had been alive in the 1600s, and I wanted to pen a book begging people to just please stop killing each other, I doubt I could have done better than Hobbes or Locke. Nevertheless, there was always a worm eating away at the core of the liberal apple: Liberalism's supposed acceptance of all orientations of the will was never really sincere, or even possible. In fact, what liberal "tolerance" has always meant is that all "purely personal" orientations would be acceptable, so long as the persons having those orientations adopted as their primary, public value system liberal values, and regarded their "subjective" valuations as no more important than their preference for pistachio over vanilla ice cream.

And so we find ourselves in our current situation, where, say, a Christian baker, whose deepest values suggest that homosexual marriage is wrong, is punished for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding: while pretending to be neutral among different orientations of the will, in fact, liberalism is only "tolerant" of the liberal orientation: all value judgments (except the embrace of liberal values) are "purely subjective," all attempts to publicly embody an orientation of the will in law are invalid (except the embodiment of the liberal orientation), and all cultures must be viewed as equally valid, unless they diverge from liberal culture, in which case they must be roundly condemned, and perhaps even bombed.

And thus we can see that the liberal idea that all of these issues can be resolved by "pure reason," and worked out solely through rational argumentation, is itself a credo of an ideology. Liberals cling to the idea that rational argumentation can resolve all important public policy issues because that is one of the hills that their will has directed their reason to defend, and thus, as we have seen, contrary evidence is not understood as a reason to re-examine this position, but as an attack on a position that the liberal army simply must not abandon, lest it be defeated.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Liberalism and the Will, Interlude

Jonathan Chait notes that, in 2016, we are still arguing over whether Marxism works.

Once we recognize that the commitment to Marxism is not a matter of the Marxist's reason, but of the Marxist's will, this becomes perfectly understandable, doesn't it? The Marxist's reason is not seeking the truth, but, at the direction of his will, is trying to defend Marxism. The rational arguments Chait deploys against Marxism, from the point of view of the Marxist, are not invitations to seek the truth, but attacks to prevent the achievement of an already determined goal, one that orients the Marxist's life and gives it meaning. Chait's "capitalist logic" is viewed as a weapon that reactionaries use to prevent the realization of the Marxist dream. When your enemy is raining down arrows on your army, you don't stop to analyze the arrows for how well constructed they are! You deflect them, and shoot back arrows of your own!

Liberalism and the Will, Part I

Introduction here.

Let us imagine two Americans, both 50 years old, both college educated, in both with equally high IQs. Both of them are politically involved, and both like to read policy arguments and op-eds with regularity.

Let's call them Al and Bill. Despite their similarities, there are also important differences between the two men:
  • Al grew up in rural Texas, where his father wildcatted for oil, while his mother was a housewife. He attended a small Baptist college in his home state. After successfully starting and selling a propane delivery service, Al has bought his own cattle ranch in the Texas Panhandle.

  • Bill grew up on Manhattan's West side. His father was an editor for The New Yorker, and his mother worked in corporate donations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He attended a small liberal arts college in Vermont. After college, he lived in an intentional democratic community in the Vermont country side for a couple of years, before returning to New York, and taking up work as a literary agent.
Now consider this question: What are Al's and Bill's positions on gun control?

We all know that we can answer that question with about 95% or greater accuracy: Al is against it, and Bill is for it. But Al and Bill are equally intelligent. They both have the same level of education. Both have jobs that require a lot of thought if they are to be successful at them. They each have heard the same arguments for and against gun control, and each have read the same studies.

Neither arguments nor evidence have any impact on their views on this topic. That is because these views were not formed in order to determine the truth about what the best gun laws might be, given our circumstances. They were formed in order to bolster the image that each man wishes others to have of him. By adopting the stances they have, they signaled to their social peers that they are good people, with the "right" sort of views. To the extent they engage the other side's arguments or evidence at all, it is done in a purely defensive manner.  Their will has ordered their reason not to discover the truth, but to defeat the other side's arguments.

This is essentially the situation today on every divisive issue in America, the world's oldest liberal democracy. If there has ever been a proposition about politics that has been empirically falsified, it surely is the liberal idea that rational debate is an effective way to the adoption of the "best" ideas for public policy. The idea initially was put forward with no empirical evidence to back it, and only the flimsiest of arguments in its favor. All the evidence since is negative: the project has been a failure.

And yet modern liberalism still puts this idea forward as though it were an obvious, almost uncontestable, truth. Why?

The Primacy of the Will

It is a conceit of modern liberalism that the main way people change is that they are presented with "good arguments" against the way they have been living or the decision they have been making, and therefore change it.

This is nonsense. (We we'll get to why liberalism chooses to embrace this nonsense later, perhaps tomorrow.)

Plato described the importance of the periagoge, the turning around the psyche, in the pursuit of philosophy. One could not successfully pursue philosophy, per Plato, unless one had experienced this turning around of the psyche, away from the shadows and towards the light. Why would this be?

I'm going to explain this in a Buddhist framework, because today, that is the one I feel like working with. For Buddhists, the person who has not undergoing the turning around is living in samsara, a world of illusions created by the ego. Their will is directed towards achieving the fleeting satisfactions available in the world of samsara. And reason is the servant, not the master, of the will. And thus, the person living in samsara will direct their reason towards:

1) Figuring out the means of achieving their samsaric ends; and

2) Justifying why those ends are really the ones worth pursuing.

Given this set of directions, it should be easy to see why an argument suggesting that the person is pursuing an unworthy end is worthless: their reason has been given the task of justifying that end, not of determining whether or not it is justified. The reason here is like an army given the job of defending a hill: arguments that the hill is not worth defending are understood as tricks, as attempts to capture the hill. Reason will seek, not to consider whether they are good arguments that might be decisive, but to defend the hill from their assault. That, after all, is the task this person's reason has been assigned!

If you have ever tried, say, using argument to convince a friend, who is in the throes of lust, that it is not a good idea to seduce his neighbor's wife, you may have a sense of what I am talking about here. Caught up in a samsaric desire, your friend is "immune to reason": in fact, his will has deployed his reason like an advance army clearing the territory of obstacles. It utilizes a bewildering variety of defenses against your attempts to dissuade your friend: "My neighbor treats her like crap!" "Marriage is just an outdated convention!" "Monogamy is unnatural to human beings!"

The point is not whether any of these statements are true or false: the point is that they are not being used in a search for the truth. They are weapons, being used to seize a strategic objective.

In Buddhism, the turning around of the psyche is characterized as the embrace of the dharma, the way of truth. The will turns away from ego-driven desires and towards the "right path." And now, with the will directed towards truth, philosophy is possible, since the will now directs reason towards finding out what is universally true, rather than finding out what aids the fulfillment of samsaric desire. And now, after the periagoge, arguments among two followers of the dharma about whether it is right to sleep with your neighbor's wife might get somewhere, since both have wills that orient their reason towards seeking the truth of the matter, rather than seeking to defend the pursuit of what the ego wants anyway.

But before the periagoge, arguments are of almost no use in this regard. (They will work fine, of course, when they are about the practical means of achieving some desire: whether I-95 or I-81 is a better road to take to get to Washington.) Emotional appeals, the force of personality (that is why Plato held personal instruction far more important than his writings), personal example, works of art: all of these are far more effective than arguments at changing the will. If you doubt me, ask yourself: What did Jesus focus on: philosophical arguments about moral behavior, or parables, and the performance of miracles?

(The above way of putting things has been inspired by my recent reading of Claes Ryn's Will, Imagination, and Reason.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A problem with arguments by analogy...

Is that any analogy must differ from the situation to which it is analogous in some ways, or it would just be that situation. This problem is especially tricky when dealing with people in the grip of an ideology, because inevitably, what they will do is seize upon one of these differences, and play it up as if the fact there is some difference makes the analogy worthless. (Of course, if that were true, every analogy would be worthless, because, as I said, there is always some difference.)

And so it went with my first round of Turing Test analogies. The point of the whole exercise was to show that black box tests don't tell you anything about where in a system the intelligence lies. If a computer passes the test, I would agree that is evidence that there is intelligence somewhere in the system! Furthermore, I can tell you just where that intelligence lies: it is with the programmers who built the program that enabled the machine to pass the test. Just like there is intelligence in alarm clock that properly wakes you up at 6:30 AM. And that intelligence lies in the engineers who built the alarm clock. Just like there is intelligence in the rabbit trap that falls on a rabbit at just the right moment. And that intelligence lies in the hunter who built and set up the trap.

The point of my story with Emily and the historians is that if we can't look inside the "box," then we can't decide where the intelligence lies, and we will have to say that "Emily" is very good at history. Of course, AI ideologues seized on irrelevant points here. First of all, they insisted on taking the idea of a "black box" completely literally, and said that there was a problem with the historians being inside an actual, literal box. This dull-minded literalism is surprising on the part of people who believe that routing electricity around through elaborate circuits magically creates thought. But the "black box" that is important is the entire system from which the answers emerge, not a literal box! In any case, let us satisfy their "literal box" fetish: Emily communicates with the historian's via text message. Now they are not literally in a box with her. Problem solved!

"No, no!" the AI acolytes will cry, "They are helping her once the test starts! Can't have that!"

My mistake here was that I thought my audience would understand how computers work, and would know that they contain something called "computer programs," that exist to allow programmers to set up the responses for the machine they are programming in advance. (This is why I like the rabbit trap analogy: the hunter sets up the trap in advance, so that it "knows" when the rabbit is there even though the hunter is at home relaxing in bed.) Thus, the exact moment where the tested entity "gets help" from "outside" doesn't really matter.

But OK, let's handle this one as well: we'll say Emily's family has even more oodles of money. They hire this team of famous historians well in advance, and say to them, "You can surely guess the 10,000 most common history questions that someone might ask. Please prepare answers for each of these questions for Emily." The answers have been prepared and elaborately indexed, so that Emily can put her finger on the answer to any of these 10,000 questions fast enough for the test conditions. (If you think 10,000 is too few, give her parents even more money, and make it 100,000. Or a million.)

Now, not only are the historians not literally in a box with her, they are also not helping her "once the test starts."

So, the commenters were picking on completely irrelevant points in my analogy in an attempt to defease its import. The fact that the "black box" that is important is the system as a whole, and not a literal box on a stage, should have been obvious to them. And so should the fact that any real-time help we might give the entity being tested can easily be shifted backwards in time.

So why did they miss these points? Because AI is part of a new religion, one that they desperately wish to believe in.

The worst argument against the existence of a miracle ever

Bart Ehrman is worth listening to. (I only have a set of audio lectures of his; he may be worth reading as well!) However, he put forward what must be the worst argument I have ever seen against the existence of a miracle.

He was discussing the idea of the virgin birth, and he dismissed it by saying, "We know for a fact that women who haven't had sex don't have babies."

Yes, in the normal course of events they do not. That is why, if such a thing ever happened, it would be termed… miraculous.

Good defaults

A friend of mine once said that a lot of trouble could be avoided if people realize they were good defaults in times of uncertainty. Not sure whether you should have another drink? Then you should not. Not sure whether to spend more time with your significant other? Then you should.

I think I can add to his list: if you're not sure whether it's a good idea to bomb someone, then you should not bomb them.

But Murder Rates Are Falling Everywhere

In response to the protests, over the last couple of years, about unjustified police killings, some "law-and-order" commentators -- almost all of whom seem to be named "Heather MacDonald" -- have warned us of the coming "Ferguson effect."

The basic idea here seems to be that if we want our cops to do their job, they have to feel free to shoot whoever they want, whenever they want. Otherwise, they will sulk.

However, there is a huge problem with this whole idea: it turns out that, even in nations where the police almost never shoot anyone, there have been huge drops in the murder rate. In fact, as the article notes, almost all possible causal factors appear inadequate to explain this drop.

My own suspect, by the way, is that the wave of post-WWII social engineering de-stabilized many communities, but that as the incidence of bulldozing established "slums" and shoving their former residents into huge housing complexes dropped, people managed to re-establish social order: given time, humans can adapt to any circumstances, even government housing projects! And the vast amount of gentrification that has occurred right at the borders of what were formerly notorious New York housing projects offers some limited backing for my guess.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Bizarre Statements Being Made by the Desperate GOP Elite

Look at Michael Barone here: "So it remains unclear whether a socially unconnected minority [Trump voters] will be able to impose their leader on the Republican Party..."

Trump voters are a bunch of losers. And they are attempting to "impose" their candidate on the rest of the GOP. How are they executing this "imposition"? Well, gosh darn it, they keep going out and... voting for him! The exact same way, in fact, that Barone hopes others can "impose" Cruz, or whoever else, on all of Trump's supporters.

PS: Of course, there is a reasonable anarchist critique of democracy for allowing the winning group of voters to "impose" their policies on the losers. I guarantee you that Barone is not offering such a critique! He is just unhappy that people are voting for a candidate he does not like.

Animated fight scenes and the Turing Test

I recently gave some analogies to show the emptiness of the Turing Test in terms of deciding whether a computer is intelligent or not. Commenters managed to find some completely irrelevant ways in which my analogies were not exactly like the Turing Test. One of them went so far as to claim that the Turing Test wasn't about deciding whether computers are intelligent. In that case, fine, I can stop writing about it. But it certainly is used that way, again and again, by people who want to be able to claim, "Well, a computer passed the Turing Test, therefore, it is intelligent!"

In any case, I thought I would offer and even closer analogy, to make it harder for AI devotees to evade the main point of these examples. (That they will try to evade it, I have no doubt, for the will to believe is strong!)

So let us consider the equivalent of a Turing Test for simulated battles, such as those in The Lord of the Rings. In this case, the analogous test will involve having the judges sit in front of two monitors, watching a battle scene on each one. One of them will be a battle of real armies, while the other one will be computer-generated. Now, if the judge cannot tell which is the flesh-and-blood battle, that is an excellent sign that the people creating the simulation have done a very good job of simulating a battle.

But Turing Test advocates want to claim much more than that: the analogy to their claim, for the case of the two battles, is that if we can't tell the two battles apart, then the computer simulation is a real battle. When someone gets their head cut off in the computer simulation, if the viewer cannot tell if it was a real head and a real severing or not, then it was a real severing!

And of course, this is nonsense. The fact that one can simulate something so well that it can't be distinguished from the real thing does not make it the real thing!

The Key to My Blogging Success

Note to self: To drive traffic, must continue to write posts infuriating Bob Murphy.


Theodore Dalrymple makes an important point on immigration:

"A migrant is not just a migrant, of course. Indeed, to speak of migrants in general is to deny them agency or even characteristics of their own, to assume that they are just units and that their fate depends only on how the receiving country receives them and not at all on their own motives, efforts or attributes, including their cultural presuppositions. It takes two to integrate, after all."

Sunday, March 27, 2016

I am the translator, and I am in charge here!

I am reading Jhumpa Lahiri's dual-language book, In Other Words, and once again find myself getting angry with the translator. (Ann Goldstein in this case.)


* Lahiri's husband finds an ad for an Italian teacher "per strada, nel nostro quartiere a Brooklyn." Goldstein renders this, "in our neighborhood, in Brooklyn." What happened to the "strada" (street) here? Lahiri clearly intends to convey that her husband found the notice on the street in their neighborhood. For whatever reason, Goldstein finds that bit of information gratuitous, and simply cuts it out, as though she were the editor of the book, instead of its translator. (It probably is not coincidental that her full time job is as an editor!)

* Lahiri creates a metaphor for her uncovering new Italian words to learn: "ogni giorno entro in un bosco con un cestino in mano." Goldstein translates this: "every day I go into the woods carrying a basket." But Lahiri had written that she went in with a basket "in hand." That is a perfectly common idiom in English: one can, say, enter a room, "pen in hand." And the alternative phrasing that Goldstein chose in English, "carrying a basket," was available to Lahiri in Italian (portando un cestino). Often, a translator has to make creative choices to render something idiomatic in the destination language. But in this case, the sentence in the source language translates almost directly into idiomatic English; we just need to remove the word "con" (with): "each day I go into the woods, basket in hand."

Perhaps Goldstein finds the way she put this more straightforward or something of the sort. Well, too bad! Again, she is acting here as translator, not editor. Her job is to convey what Lahiri wrote in Italian as closely as possible to readers who wish to read the work in English. Goldstein is not tasked with also spiffing up Lahiri's work so that it better suits her tastes.

NY Times versus stock buybacks

For some reason the NY Times seems to have become anti-stock-buyback lately. After an article criticizing them a couple of weeks ago, today's business section has a similar piece from Gretchen Morgenson. She makes some strange claims during its course.

For instance, she says that corporations doing stock buybacks
"make earnings look better on a per-share basis." The "look" is very weird here: earnings are better on a per-share basis after a buyback! (Or losses are worse.) Same earnings / fewer shares = more earnings per share!

And she takes the same tack here: "These [stock buybacks] helped increase Yahoo! News earnings per-share about 16% annually... But a good bit of that performance was the buyback mirage." But what "mirage" is she talking about? Buybacks really make earnings per share better.

A little later, she notes that "Mr. Colby pointed out that buybacks provide only a one-time benefit..." I'm sure he did if she says he did, but it is also her responsibility to tell her readers Mr. Colby is nuts if he said that. If I owned 10% of the company before the buyback, but 12% afterwards, that benefit is permanent. It does not go away after a week or a month.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Vacuity of the "Turing Test"

The idea behind the Turing Test is that we must evaluate the possible intelligence of anything we encounter as though that thing were a black box.

So let us do a "Turing test" to decide who is the most knowledgable high school history student in the United States this year. Preliminary competitions have narrowed the field down two candidates: Jamal, who comes from a poor family, and Emily, who is from a wealthy one.

Per Turing, we must set each student within a black box from which that student's answers will emerge, and we are simply not allowed to inquire at all what is going on within that box. Jamal's parents, being poor, and trusting in the honesty of the contest, simply put Jamal in his box. But Emily's parents, knowing the way the world works, and being rich, hire a dozen top historians from around the world to sit in Emily's box with her.  Every time a history question is asked, Jamal answers the question himself, but Emily asks her team what the answer is, they tell her, and then her box "emits" that answer.

While Jamal does OK, "Emily" easily beats him in the contest. Per Turing, we must conclude that Emily knows more about history than does Jamal.

Similarly, per Turing, if we need to judge "Who knows most about when I must wake up," my mom or an alarm clock, we can't look at how either "system" came to wake me up: we can only say, "Well, given my mom came in my room at 6:30 and made a loud noise to wake me, and my alarm also made a loud noise at 6:30 to wake me, their knowledge is equal." And rabbit traps "know" the rabbit is there, since they trap it.

In short, the Turing Test is nonsense. It is not the way we decide if "meat machines" are intelligent, and it is no way to determine the intelligence of anything else, either.

A dialogue between an economist and an unemployed steel worker

Joe: An unemployed steel worker.

Thaddeus: An economist holding a chair at Free Market U.

Joe: Boy, free trade sure hasn't worked out as promised. Just look at the devastation it has created in the Rust Belt.

Thaddeus: I can't imagine what you are talking about: why, I have a very sophisticated model in which it is clear there are always net gains from free trade.

Joe: What you mean by "model"?

Thaddeus: It is a mathematical abstraction, that leaves out large parts of the real world in order to reach a determinate result.

Joe: So if your model leaves out large parts of the real world, how do we know its results apply to the real world?

Thaddeus: I did mention that it is a very sophisticated model, didn't I?

Joe: OK, let's say I grant that the results of your model do apply to the real world. You said it shows that there are always "net gains" from free trade. That implies that some people gain while others lose. How do you decide that the gains of the gainers are greater the losses of the losers?

Thaddeus: We use a compensation principle: if those who gained from some free trade agreement could, in principle, compensate those who lost, so that both sides would now prefer the free trade outcome, then we can conclude that free trade creates net gains.

Joe: Can you give me a concrete example of how this works in practice, for instance, in terms of the steel industry?

Thaddeus: I am glad you asked, because of course I can! Free trade allowed the steel company you used to work for to shut the plant at which you worked and move that production to China. Certainly, this move devastated the lives of workers in your town, and essentially left the town for dead. But other people benefited, for instance the consumers of goods that contain steel, but especially people like the upper management of the steel company that endows my chair at Free Market University. Let me tell you, those executives are doing really, really well as a result of that plant moving! I've been to a party at the CEO's house, and the upgrades he's been able to commission are just fantastic. I've never seen an infinite pool so sweet. Plus, they have been able to double my speaking fees at their summer seminar series.

Joe: I see. So, per your compensation principle, you will be recommending that those executives give up a portion of their gains to help out the town they left in ruins?

Thaddeus: I'm sorry, did you miss the part about "the company that endows my chair"? Jeez, do we really have to wonder why low-IQ workers like you are suffering in the great, global economy?

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Oh My God!

Tyler Cowen thinks the right way to show solidarity with the victims of the Brussels terrorist attacks is... to show off how knowledgable he is about Belgium.

Just imagine Cowen at a wake: "I'm sorry your wife, who was from Nicaragua, just died: to comfort you, let me recite for you all the facts I know about Nicaragua!"


When TV show that introduces some spooky element wants to portray a character as "rational," the character says something like, "You know ghosts don't exist."

Why is dogmatically asserting this supposed to be "rational"? There is all sorts of testimony to the existence of ghosts, across many different cultures in radically different times and places. There is nothing wrong with being skeptical of such testimony: "Let's see the proof!" is a fine attitude. But that is a very different attitude from, "It is already known that no such proof is possible."

First of all, what about "can't prove a(n empirical) negative"?  "Empirical" because we can, I think, "prove" that, say, perpetual motion machines don't exist, since we can show they are impossible.  But no one has shown ghosts are impossible: how could they, when it is not even clear what, precisely, ghosts are supposed to be? If they are immaterial spirits, well, being immaterial, they might be beyond the reach of science. If they are some subtle energy released by a biological organism when it dies, perhaps we just don't know how to detect it yet.

It is good to be versed in the history of science as inoculation against the idea that whatever "science" currently deems "unscientific" will remain so for long. We detailed here how the idea of "rocks falling from outer space" was viewed by leading scientists as preposterous nonsense. Even more significant: to the foremost arbiters of what was scientific in the 17th century, Newton's theory of gravity was unscientific! It required "spooky" (i.e., ghostly!) action at a distance, something the followers of the "scientific" mechanical philosophy denied was possible. And in the twentieth century, we find Einstein rejecting quantum entanglement on a similar basis, again because of its "spooky" nature.

What the ghost issue comes down to is that a certain metaphysical view, reductive materialism, has, through propagandistic means, gotten itself associated with "rationality." And that despite the fact the following it consistently leads to the most manifest absurdities, meaning it is not rational at all!

PS: I don't "believe" in ghosts. I, personally, have never seen anything leading me to believe they exist. My attitude towards the idea is scientific: well, show me the evidence!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Because Big Cetacean Brains Are Good at Long Odds

The shibboleth appears again.

Once again, the point is not that evolutionary explanations are bad, it is that this is not an explanation: it is a signal, like wearing tie-dyed shirts for Deadheads or doing a secret handshake for Freemasons.

If there were some other branch of the evolutionary tree good at the type of problems always brought forward with this trope, it would make sense: for instance, if the question were, "Why are humans bad at echolocation?", then noting we are primates, not bats, would be some sort of explanation, at least. But in every case I have ever seen, the sort of problems presented are ones that primates solve better than any other living order!

So the "explanation" is essentially:

Q: "Why are humans bad at conceiving astronomical odds?"

A: "Because we come from that branch of life that is far better than any other at understanding probability."

And my poor primate brain cannot get a prehensile grasp of that as any sort of explanation at all.

Monday, March 21, 2016


"The discovery of wholes, and the primacy of wholes, occurred also in fields other than aesthetics. An example is the criticism of atomistic individualism in social philosophy. This criticism meant the revival, although in a strengthened form, of the classical idea of the social nature of man. The individual is conceivable only as a part of human society, not per se, as an isolated atom." -- Claes Ryn, Will, Imagination and Reason, p. 52

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Human computer programmers beat human Go players; press misreports it

Here: "With this defeat, computers have bettered people in the last of the classical board games, a game known for both depth and simplicity."

This is about equivalent to saying that "Shovels have bettered people in digging dirt out of the ground."

Folks, this is a machine built and programmed by us humans, the we employ to better our performance at a task we decided upon.  It is the crudest sort of magical thinking to attribute what happened to our tool as if it were an autonomous being.


"Goodness is not defined by an ideal plan that ignores what is actually possible.  It is a potential of the here and now..." -- Claes Ryn, Will, Imagination and Reason, p. xii

Saturday, March 19, 2016

It's not falling off of cliffs that hurts...

it's only the landing.

I just had someone online tell me that the problem with Libya is not anarchy, it's civil war.

Sure, we get civil war every time we have anarchy, but really, the anarchy itself is just fine!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Bob Murphy, Infallible Stock Prognosticator

I did not have sufficient faith: Bob's call of market disaster almost precisely indicated a market bottom. (Look at the one year chart, and you can see that within a couple of days of when Bob gave his warning to get out, the S&P 500 began going almost straight up.)

This is classic reverse psychology, folks, and Bob is making his readers money: he knows they are all contrarians, and will do the opposite of what he tells them to do.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

If Only We Could Do Away with Food!

Imagine how people would flourish if they gave up their misplaced belief in eating! After all, ten percent of our GDP goes to food purchases: think of all of the wealth that would be freed up if people just stopped eating! Furthermore, over 40% of the land in the United States it Is devoted to food production, a truly shocking amount, and all that land would be freed up for other purposes if we were food-free.

Finally, food kills: every year, millions of people are made ill, and thousands die, directly do to food they have ingested. And millions more die from diseases related to long-term patterns of food consumption. It is completely clear how horrid food is: In the present circumstances, most human beings come nowhere near their potential, because they are shackled by the mistaken belief that they must constantly acquire and consume food.

"But Professore," you complain, "we know that if people don't eat food, they die. Just look at all of the horrible famines in world history!" I'm sorry, but you have simply become confused: these are all situations which people still believed in food, so if there wasn't any, they all tried to get some. Things will be completely different once people put aside the ideology of Foodism, and realize they never needed it in the first place, and it was all just a trick on the part of "Farmers" to extract money from them.

Now the above argument might appear to be such nonsense that no one could possibly believe it, but consider this table:

Country Tax Rev as % of GDP
Denmark 49.0
Switzerland 29.4
Iceland 40.4
Norway 43.6
Finland 43.6
... ...
Benin 15.4
Afghanistan 6.4
Togo 15.5
Syria 10.7
Burundi 17.4

Do you know what the top five entries in the table are? The five happiest countries in the world. In the bottom five entries? The five least happy countries in the world.

And yet despite the massive empirical evidence, not merely like that of the above table, but such as the fact that whenever a state disappears, we get not happy, productive anarchy but horrid civil war, we still find statements like:

"And this is another aspect of how horrid the State is. In the present circumstances, most human beings come nowhere near their potential, because they are shackled."

All of the empirical evidence shows us that good government is a crucial part of human flourishing. (Of course, bad government, just like bad food, can kill!) To seek to convince people, against this mountain of evidence, that if they just wish really, really hard, they can do without government, is akin to trying to tell people they can do without food or doctors.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Sportscasters misunderstanding probability

March Madness is upon us, so it's time for more "sportscasters misunderstanding probability" fun. Here is one I hear a lot:

Let's say that every single year, one of the four 14-seeds beats one of the four 3-seeds. Pundits will say, "Well, because one of the 14-seeds always wins, you should pick one to upset a 3."

No: unless you have some special knowledge as to which 14-seed will win, you should pick all four 3s. Then, you will get 3 of the 4 games right. But if you pick (at random) a 14-seed to win, one time out of four you will get four right, but three times out of four you will get two wrong. That's an expected 1 and 1/2 wrong, as opposed to a certain one wrong by picking all the 3s.

Measurement is not the way to make a science quantitative

"The full and intimate quantification of any science is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Nevertheless, it is not a consummation that can be effectively sought by measuring." -- Thomas Kuhn, "The Function of Measurement in Modern Physical Science"

What Kuhn is getting at here is that the ability to make meaningful measurements is the end product of the quantification of a science, and not the road to its quantification.

Social scientists would do well to remember this point, especially when they try things like "measuring" happiness by asking a bunch of people to rate their own happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. They have no theory of what, exactly, they are measuring, of how their "device" purports to measure it, or as to what sort of quantitative relationships they expect it to have with other measurements.

Physical scientists took over a century of experimenting with thermometers to figure out what they were measuring and how it would relate to, say, the volume of a gas. Social scientists have to often jumped straight to slapping numbers on things and then running regressions on "the numbers."

What Is Scott Sumner Thinking Here?

"A modern example of this conundrum [of thinking that one can outguess financial markets] occurred when many pundits blamed the Fed for missing a housing bubble that was also missed by the financial markets." -- The Midas Paradox, p. 12

Let's consider a single market, say, for tulips. Obviously it is either a nonsense claim, or a tautological claim that there are no bubbles, to say that if there is a bubble in the tulip market, the tulip market ought to have spotted it. For the tulip market participants themselves to detect a bubble would be for the tulip market participants to prevent said bubble!

We can divide bubble theories into three broad categories: collective irrationality theories, partial information theories, and prisoner's dilemma theories. In collective irrationality theories, a "mania" gets going in some market, and market participants buy because they are carried away by their "animal spirits." Per these theories, someone outside the market might be able to spot the bubbliciousness precisely because they are not swayed by the emotions influencing market participants.

In partial information theories, a bubble can occur when a random price movement is mistakenly taken by market participants who lack perfect knowledge as a sign  that someone else knows more than they do, and so they follow this random jiggle, leading others to follow it as well. Theoretically at least, if we have a bubble of this sort, an agency like the Fed might have better information at its disposal than market participants, and so be able to spot the bubble.

Finally, in the prisoner's dilemma theories, market participants may be well aware that a bubble is inflating, but their best strategy is to try to profit from the bubble as long as it is bubbling. Since these theories typically posit that a "big player" (e.g., the Fed) is actually causing the bubble, the Fed is also clearly capable of ceasing to cause it at any point in time.

Perhaps what Sumner is thinking is that, although the housing market may have been bubbling, the market for, say, mortgage-backed securities ought to have been acting on this fact, if it was detectable at all. But it is hard to see how such action in the MBS market wouldn't have prevented the housing bubble itself, since cutting off the flow of mortgage funding would seem likely to have done so.

So, perhaps Sumner just meant, "Bubbles can't exist, because markets won't allow them." But if so, he phrased this oddly.

PS: The three types of bubble theories I describe are not mutually exclusive: all three factors could be at play in a particular bubble!

Monday, March 14, 2016


"Disgust is one of the primary human emotions, an instinctive reaction to something that offends our sense of taste and could be dangerous." -- Michael Pollan, Cooked

This is why it is ridiculous to dismiss disgust as something to take into account when evaluating the morality of an action. Like any of our other deep emotions, the guidance of disgust is not infallible, but it is stupid to dismiss that guidance without carefully considering from whence it arises.

Michael Pollan, economic ignoramus

"Processing food is very profitable, much more profitable than growing it or selling it whole... The more you process food, the more money you make." -- Cooked

And for decades, no entrepreneurs have noticed these "high profits" in processing food, so no one new has entered the field to compete those profits away.

And as far as the second sentence goes, well, I'm going to start processing some cucumbers I grew today, and just keep on processing them for the next decade: boy, should I be rich by then!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The paradox of diversity

Let us focus for the moment on efforts to promote more women to executive positions. The promoters of such initiatives often claim that increased executive diversity will actually help companies become more productive. For that to be true, there must be significant differences between men in general and women in general, so that companies today are missing "the woman's perspective."

The paradox arises because the existence of the very thing necessary for diversity to be important, significant differences between men and women, is often vigorously denied by diversity advocates themselves. Thus, someone who claims something like "women are just better at being nurses" will be decried as irredeemably sexist. But if men and women are just interchangeable parts (except for genitalia) then diversity will be of no significance whatsoever for the performance of our companies or our political system.

Friday, March 11, 2016

A thought from a "person of paleness"

In this article, the author contends that as a "person of color" she stands out in Silicon Valley.

That is a strange contention: "person of color" is generally supposed to denote all nonwhites. But if she is using the phrase in that sense, her contention is complete nonsense: The tech world is awash in programmers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China. They are certainly represented in high tech jobs at a rate far above the percentage of the US population those ethnicities represent.

I think what she means is that as a black person, she is a relative rarity in a high-tech company. So we might contemplate what polemical purpose is being achieved by using such a misleading phrase.

(And by the way, the article itself is pretty good: the woman notes that she has encountered very little actual racism in her career. She herself may have used the phrase almost without thinking about it, but I am suggesting we consider why the phrase was ever created.)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ahistorical ideals

"[A] possible approach is to define an 'ideal' apart from historical considerations and seek its implementation regardless of the situation at hand. In [this] case, what should exist is thought to be obvious from the ideal itself. The 'idealist' does not welcome reminders of the actual experience of mankind, full as it is of evidence of the limitations of human beings, or of the restrictions imposed by existing circumstances... To adapt the ideal to a historical situation is to subvert it. It is historical circumstances that should be adapted to the ideal. To have some sort of respect for historically evolved patters of life is misguided, the idealist contends." -- Claes Ryn, A Common Human Ground, p. 88

For instance, one could take an abstraction like "equality" and decide that it means all people should have equal access to all goods. Then one could decide it is obvious from this ideal that private property must be abolished. As a result, ignoring the vast historical evidence showing that attempts to abolish private property result in disaster, one can decide to promote communism.

And if you point this out to a communist, their likely rejoinder is to claim that all of those countless historical examples "weren't really communism."

Or one could take an abstraction like a "non-aggression principle," and decide it is obvious from this ideal that stateless societies is what should exist. Then, ignoring the vast historical evidence showing that stateless societies function less well than societies with states, one could embrace anarchism.

And if you point this out to an anarchist, their likely rejoinder is to claim that all of those countless historical examples "weren't really anarchy," since people were fighting to create a new state. There is no sense noting that, well, this is what actually happens when you eliminate the state: history is "an obstacle to achieving the ideal," and they are only concerned with what anarchy is like in their fantasy of anarchy.

Addiction is a disease

I heard an ad the other day saying, "Stop the shaming: addiction is a disease!"

The people promoting this have apparently not noticed that the more the moral opprobrium associated with addiction disappears, the more addiction we have.

The fully rational is concrete

Defenders of rationality often look to abstractions as the only exhibition of human rationality. But abstractions are always partial and thus defective: the fullest display of rationality is always in the concrete.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

When old commenters return…

I can't help but thinking that I am the Donald Trump of bloggers: yes, it is tawdry, crass, and infuriating: but you just can't look away, can you?

Friday, March 04, 2016

The Celtics release David Lee, or why methodological individualism is false

Various people you meet on the Internet love to trot out the phrase "only individuals act" when confronted with something difficult for them to explain, such as a collective action problem. (Never mind that collective action problems are recognized even by [intelligent] methodological individualists: whether methodological individualism is true, and whether collective action problems exist, are entirely separate questions, orthogonal to each other.)

So what is supposed to be wrong with saying that "The Celtics released David Lee"? Talk like this is certainly common in everyday speech, which does not mean it is scientifically valid, but does place the burden of proof on those who want to reject it.*

Furthermore, consider what happens in a case where common speech would say, "The Celtics release David Lee." A group of executives charged with running the team meet together in a room, or on a conference call. They discuss the situation with Lee, his production, the size of his contract, who they could replace him with, how his release might impact other players, and so on. Finally, a consensus is formed in the room: Yes, we should indeed release Lee. Someone with the authority to do so declares, "Johnson, schedule a meeting with Lee, and tell him we are letting him go."

Johnson schedules the meeting as tasked and tells Lee the bad news. The Boston Celtics, as an organization, have acted to terminate their business relationship with one of their players, and we quite accurately say "The Celtics have released David Lee."

But imagine that during the meeting, Lee becomes agitated and hostile, and, as a result, Johnson socks him in the mouth. In that case, no one would say, "The Boston Celtics punched David Lee in the mouth." No, Johnson punched David Lee in the mouth: he was acting quite on his own, and not as a representative of the organization.

This difference in usage shows that in the first example saying a group acted captures a very important distinction in human social life in a succinct manner, and that demands by methodological individualists that we stop making this important distinction are akin to someone demanding that we stop talking about basketballs going through the hoop or bouncing on the court, and only speak in terms of sub-atomic particles re-locating in space.

* Common sense must be mostly right, or human beings would not have lasted 100,000 years on the planet. And the fact that everyone who wants to deny this points to the same two or three cases ("But, but, the earth moves!") is actually evidence for common sense: in the many millennia of human existence, these critics can only come up with a few notable cases where our common sense was spectacularly wrong.

Confirmation is necessary for falsification

This is a terrible problem for any straightforward falsificationist theory of science:

"To say that an unexpected discovery begins only when something goes wrong is to say that it begins only when scientists know well both how their instruments and how nature should behave." -- Thomas Kuhn, "The Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery"

In other words, to identify one theory as having a problem, we must have other theories we consider well-confirmed.

Popper's theory of falsification was both logical and simple. Unfortunately for that theory, it was made up out of whole cloth, without any investigation as to how scientists really worked. The people who seriously looked at the history of science, such as Kuhn, Polanyi, Feyerabend, and Lakatos, all discovered that it bore little relationship to how science is actually done. Furthermore, if scientists tried to put Popper's theory into practice, scientific progress would grind to a halt.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

When are measurements in agreement with a theory?

Of course, we never expect exact fit: there are always instrument imperfections, environmental influences that could not be fully screened out, and so on. (In fact, an exact fit is a sign of fudged results.) What we expect is thjat the measurements are "close enough."

But how close is that? Here is Thomas Kuehn's finding:

"I now conclude that the only possible criterion is the mere fact that [the measurements] appear, together with the theory from which they are derived, in a professionally accepted text." -- "The Function of Measurement in Modern Physical Science"

A common programming problem without a generic solution?

In no language in which I have worked is it trivial to handle special cases for the last item in a loop (as far as I know!). For instance, we want to loop putting a comma between each item in a list... until the last one, when we want a period.

Of course, we solve these problems all the time. But in my experience, we solve them ad hoc.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Why would you want your own bibliographical search engine?

Here is the kind of thing I can now do with my publications:

I was at a conference, and I wanted to show someone my work involving Java. At first, I thought I would assemble a list of publications in a document... but then I realized that I could just send him the results of this query.

Or, if I am pitching to a book review editor, I send them this link.

Subverting a Democracy: A Fantasy

My friends and I are very wealthy: most of us are billionaires, many of us multi-billionaires. While we are doing well, we would like to lock things in, and make sure that we, and our children, and our children's children, are at the top of the human heap for decades to come.

We have made our money in many ways and are currently invested in many things. But we tend to be concentrated in a few sectors: finance, energy, and the military. And what we most benefit from in those areas is volatility: macroeconomic instability, energy price swings, regime change, and war. So, to the extent we could capture the policy agenda of a very powerful nation we could use that power to create volatility in all of those areas, thereby continuously enhancing our own positions.

So we picked out one of the most powerful nations on earth, Freedonia, as our target and set out to make sure its policies worked to our benefit. But we had a slight problem: that nation thought of itself as a democracy, where the votes of the people would steer policy. Now, we had plenty enough money to buy one of the country's two major parties (the Orange party and the Violet party), and make sure that party always did our bidding. But that strategy would run the risk of the people figuring out that we had co-opted that party, and they might unite to vote against it. Therefore, we decided it would be better if we need sure that the majority of candidates from both parties would always support our agenda: we would buy both of them.

However, that strategy ran a different risk: what if the people of Freedonia noticed that both parties were running on our platform? And here we hit upon strategy that, if I'm not being immodest, I must say is brilliant: we found a number of issues on which the people of Freedonia were divided, and made sure that we played up those issues as much as possible, and that the candidate from the Orange party always would take an extreme position on one side of the issue, while the candidate from the Violet party always would take extreme position on the other side.

So, for instance, it happens that Freedonia is sharply divided on the topic of horse meat: some sections of the country are horse-riding regions, and treat their horses almost like members of their family. Largely, the people in those regions are revolted by people who eat horse meat. On the other hand, in the other regions of Freedonia, horse meat forms an important part of their traditional cuisine, and they are highly resistant to giving up those dishes.

This is a perfect issue for us to exploit: we can make sure that our candidates from the Orange party will campaign on a platform that "Horse meat is murder," and claim that they will work tirelessly to ban it throughout the nation. Meanwhile, the candidates from the Violet party will claim that Orange party candidates are fanatics who want to take away our "right to choose" what we eat.

What is so great about this issue for us is that we don't care. We are fabulously rich. If we want to eat horses, we will eat them, whichever party wins. And if we want to ride them, we will ride them regardless. And we also don't care at all what happens to the proles' horses. So we can play up this issue to the maximum extent possible, so that the electorate will never notice that, on the issues that matter to us, both the Orange party candidates and the Violet party candidates are totally on our side.

And we will work hard to make sure the people don't notice that both sides have a decent compromise available to them: Freedonia happens to have a federal system, meaning they could just leave it up to the regions, so that the horse-loving regions ban horse meat, while the horse-eating regions continue to enjoy it. This would be an adult political solution to this conflict: adults would recognize the gulf in evaluations of this situation, and would look for a compromise that would make everyone mildly happy, and realize that this is what politics is about: negotiating compromises that allow us to live together peacefully. No, we want no adult solutions, we want fanaticism on both sides of the issue, so that it (and issues like it) always appear far more important to the committed Orange and Violet partisans than the issues we really care about.

So, we will allow and indeed encourage violent disagreement on any of issue that has no bearing on our project. But, if at any point, any Violet or Orange candidate who threatens our interests on our key issues gains popularity, we will use the full force of our money and power to discredit that candidate as "unstable," "fringe," "radical," and so on. And our bought media will trumpet the theme, "If you of party X nominate such a unelectable, fringe candidate, think of how badly you will lose on the horse meat issue when the evil candidate from party Y wins!"


But, of course, this is all just fantasy: no group of wealthy people could really be so self-serving, and no electorate so easily duped.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

What white people from Mississippi are like

At least according to a poster slapped all over the NYC subways:

Can you imagine the explosion that would occur if someone put up a poster showing people from Harlem or from Puerto Rico in a similarly demeaning light? But if you want to dump on working-class white people... have at 'em!

And thus is explained the rise of Donald Trump.

The universal will

"The presence in man of a special will that wills the universal, what is good for its own sake, is a matter of direct, immediate personal awareness, and this will can be studied in its actual influence on human behavior without assuming the validity of any particular doctrines... The human race as a whole as testify to its existence over the centuries. Behind the very specifics of particular moral systems and behind the liturgical and doctrinal peculiarities of particular religions the serious and open-minded observer is able to discern a single centering power that calls human beings to a life of righteousness..." -- Claes Ryn, A Common Human Ground, p. 40

Open Source Software and Skin In the Game

I have been tinkering in the Haskell programming language recently. Trying to up my game, I have begun reviewing and working on issues in th...