Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Dalrymple on Leading Questions

Some excellent thoughts from the good doctor:
“Do you care about the health of the planet?” is a question not quite in the class of “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?,” but it is approaching it. As it turned out, reading further, the health of the planet meant the health of the people on the planet, with a little biological diversity mysticism (the new paganism) thrown in. “Our aim is to respond to the threats we face: threats to human health and wellbeing, threats to the sustainability of our civilisation, and threats to the natural and human-made systems that support us.” The saintly editor was vouchsafed a vision, though expressed in the first-person plural: “Our vision is for a planet that nourishes and sustains the diversity of life with which we co-exist and on which we depend.” Hands up, then, all those in favor of spreading as widely as possible the threats to human well-being and of eliminating all forms of life but our own. 
It must be a terrible thing to have such boring thoughts, not occasionally but repeatedly, if not constantly, and feel obliged to express them. 

The last point is something I reflect on from time to time - most recently while standing in line to order at a restaurant counter, and listening to some boorish buffoon talking at full volume about insipid nonsense to his two friends. Truthfully, the two friends seemed a little uncomfortable at the volume, or at least the visible unpleasant looks and enforced distance the people nearby were applying. Though since they chose to spend time with our voluminous subject, maybe they didn't mind, and it's just me applying the false consensus effect.

One of the things I use to try to avoid getting annoyed in these situations is to reflect that I have to hear this clown's drivel for 2 minutes. His friends have to hear it for 30 minutes of a meal. But he has to hear it all the time, even when alone, even when in total silence. What a horrifying thought.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

An Open Letter to OKCupid Regarding your Campaign to get Brendan Eich Fired

Well, Moldbug was certainly prescient on this one. (Isn't he always?). The technology brown scare has really started to flex its muscles, rooting out any indications of right wing though among people in technology. First Pax Dickinson, chanelling Milan Kundera's descriptions of Communist Czechoslovakia, got fired for making jokes about feminism.

This time, Brendan Eich got forced to resign as CEO of Mozilla (the company the makes the Firefox web browser). It's hard to tell whether he jumped, was pushed, or some combination of the above. What was his big sin? Well, it turned out that back in 2008 he...wait for it... donated $1000 to a cause supporting Proposition 8 to overturn the intrusive California Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. Oh Noz! OMG! Never mind that more than half of California supported this ballot initiative at the time (that's how it passed). Never mind that Brendan Eich's view on gay marriage in 2008 was the same as Barack Obama's view on gay marriage in 2008. Never mind that all the evidence suggests that Eich was totally even-handed in all his personal and professional dealings with staff. The man invented javascript, but he appears to have a sincere belief in at least some views identified as conservative. Out he goes! The professional grievance lobbies come out demanding blood, and Mozilla caves.

You might think that this beast would thus be sated, if you had no concept of how beasts work.

Flush with success, we now see the next iteration - a campaign to get users to boycott file storage company Dropbox over the fact that they appointed Condoleezza Rice to their board.

My favourite part of this ridiculous screed was the point where they displayed a brief moment of dim comprehension only to swat down the cognitive dissonance immediately. They begin with a hypothetical query about the true nature of the campaign to boycott Dropbox over Rice's appointment:

Why is this? Because she was a part of the Bush administration? Because she is a Republican and we should hate Republicans? I mean, come on, isn't Al Gore on Apple's Board? He's no saint!
No. This is not an issue of partisanship. It makes sense that Dropbox would want an accomplished, high-level, well-connected individual on their Board of Directors as they prepare for their IPO. ...
Choosing Condoleezza Rice for Dropbox's Board is problematic on a number of deeper levels, and invites serious concerns about Drew Houston and the senior leadership at Dropbox's commitment to freedom, openness, and ethics. 

Red hot tip, this is exactly the same as Al Gore being on Apple's board. Except that a) Al Gore isn't a prominent Republican, and b) nobody much seemed to know or care that Al Gore was on Apple's board. I sure didn't.  Hmm, I wonder if the two might be related?

How can you tell this? Let's look at the much vaunted concerns about freedom, openness and ethics raised. Point 1 was, you can guess:
She helped start the Iraq War. 
I presume you'd have started a similar campaign if, say, Hillary Clinton had been appointed to the board then?

On and on it goes, citing such other non-partisan concerns such as 'she was involved in the creation of the Bush administration's torture program' and 'Rice was on the Board of Directors at Chevron'. To add to the hilarity, the site doesn't even explain what exactly is wrong with being on the Chevron board, it just presumes readers will know.

Buried in the middle is the marginally relevant concern that 'Rice not only supports warrantless wiretaps, she authorized several'. But what has this got to do with Dropbox? Do you think she's going to set up a rival NSA within Dropbox to snoop on your stuff? Why would she do that?

More importantly, when you're sandwiching this between complaints about Chevron and the Iraq war, you'll forgive me for being somewhat hesitant to take your complaints about privacy at face value.

You may think I'm just beating up on some random no-name group of punters complaining about Dropbox. Not so. This came to my attention because it got voted to the front page of Hacker News. As of now, it has 1810 points, which is a huge amount for a story on there. The only thing that got it removed from the front page relatively quickly (given its points) was a campaign of downvotes from long-time users who were disgusted at the (sadly probably inevitable) trend of Hacker News turning into yet one more Reddit-esque bastion of approved liberal opinion, rather than an apolitical place where hackers can talk about tech stuff.

The problem with witch hunts is that, as Monsieur Rabelais put it, the appetite grows by eating.

As Moldbug described during the Dickinson affair:
The logic of the witch hunter is simple.  It has hardly changed since Matthew Hopkins' day.  The first requirement is to invert the reality of power.  Power at its most basic level is the power to harm or destroy other human beings.  The obvious reality is that witch hunters gang up and destroy witches. Whereas witches are never, ever seen to gang up and destroy witch hunters.  By this test alone, we can see that the conspiracy is imaginary (Brown Scare) rather than real (Red Scare).
Think about it.  Obviously, if the witches had any power whatsoever, they wouldn't waste their time gallivanting around on broomsticks, fellating Satan and cursing cows with sour milk.  They're getting burned right and left, for Christ's sake!  Priorities!  No, they'd turn the tables and lay some serious voodoo on the witch-hunters.  In a country where anyone who speaks out against the witches is soon found dangling by his heels from an oak at midnight with his head shrunk to the size of a baseball, we won't see a lot of witch-hunting and we know there's a serious witch problem.  In a country where witch-hunting is a stable and lucrative career, and also an amateur pastime enjoyed by millions of hobbyists on the weekend, we know there are no real witches worth a damn.
We do not see Pax Dickinson and Paul Graham ganging up to destroy Gawker.  We see them curling up into a fetal position and trying to survive.  An America in which hackers could purge journalists for communist deviation, rather than journalists purging hackers for fascist deviation, would be a very different America.  Ya think?
Whereas the real America, the America in which a journalist little more than an intern, with no discernible achievements but a sharp tongue, a Columbia degree and trouble using MySQL, can quite effectively bully one of the most accomplished hackers of his era, not to mention a way better writer - this is the remarkable America that we live in and need to explain.

Thugs love power. They love to control other people, and no control is as absolute as the ability to decide another's fate. This is as old as man. In tribal societies, people were open in their desire to rule. The modern political thug prefers mainly to destroy ideological components.

But I think the point about inverting the reality of power is not just about convincing the masses, although that's important too. At least equally important is that modern witch hunters are trying to convince themselves that their cause is that of the righteous underdog. Nobody is the villain in their own narrative. If I am strong and Brendan Eich is weak, why I would be simply a mean bully who liked getting people fired for disagreeing with me. It must be the case that Brendan Eich is the real oppressor, heinously depriving me of liberties by virtue of the fact that a) he's standing in the room, and b) six years ago he once made a political donation supporting a ballot initiative that has since been ruled unconstitutional. Be honest, you cowards. Do you really think that in modern California you are more likely to be fired for being gay than you are to be fired for being a fundamentalist Christian who thinks that homosexuality is a sin? Being fired for being gay is illegal in the State of California. Ironically, so is being fired for one's religion. Of course, religion is interpreted rather narrowly here. If Brendan Eich makes a donation to a cause that he believes in because of his religion, that's totally different. Unless his religion were Islam, maybe then he'd have a better chance of succeeding. In the end, it's just politics all the way down.

The modern thug adds insult to injury with the consummate hypocrisy of their position.

What does a totalitarian society look like? Totalitarianism is a world where the ruling ideology must be adhered to in every corner of life. It is a world where the smallest indications of dissent must be stifled. It is a world where in the limit every action must become a political action, as the existence of even independent and non-political groups is a potential challenge. As Il Duce put it, 'all within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.' Replace 'state' with 'ideology' and you've got a pretty good working definition.

America, obviously, is not a totalitarian society. Pace Jonah Goldberg, the gay lobbyists who sought Eich's ouster were certainly not Fascists, or even fascists. But are they totalitarians? Or would they be, if they got their way? This depends on the person, but also on the level of dissent being discussed. On the question of whether gays should be lynched, or whether it should be acceptable to advocate as such, I'd say that many of them would probably quite openly admit to totalitarianism. And quite reasonably, too. They would be sincere in their belief that this is something that would make the world a better place, in the same way we'd be better off in a world where it were socially unacceptable for anyone to say that they support murder or child torture.We're mostly all totalitarians on that.

But where down the line should dissent still be allowed?  What about if one wants to publicly argue that that homosexuality should be made illegal and punishable by a prison term? Should the social consequences of that speech be social shunning? Being fired? Being imprisoned itself, like some of Europe's Holocaust denial laws or German laws against displaying Nazi propaganda? What about simply saying that homosexuality is a sin and should be discouraged? Or to say that marriage should only be between a man and a woman?

This is the way it always goes. My causes are aspects of fundamental rights that no conscionable person should disagree with. Your causes are mean-spirited, naked partisanship. Condoleezza Rice supported torture!

So between a world that I favor, where pretty much anyone can say anything about political matters and not be fired, and a world where rigid ideology is enforced and dissenters are hauled away to re-education camps, where is modern America?

I don't know, exactly. I don't even think there's a definite answer. But it's worth pondering the possible truth of Conquest's Second Law:
Any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing.
Would you say that Mozilla's actions are consistent with this law, or not?

I resent the intrusion of politics on more and more aspects of life. I resent this even on causes that I'm personally minded to support, such as gay marriage.

During the Eich furor, dating website OKCupid decided to publicly weigh in by displaying a message to Firefox users when they opened the OKCupid website, telling them they'd rather they not use the browser due to Eich's views.

As it turns out, this was one area that I was actually able to do something small about, as I was (I blush) paying for their A-list membership.

Well, you d***heads, here's $4.95 a month that you'll no longer get, to indicate in my own small way my disapproval of your pathetic and cowardly lack of commitment to free speech, and in particular to thick liberty. Yours is the thinnest gruel of free speech - in theory you can say anything you want and you won't be imprisoned by the government. In practice, you can't say anything that departs too far from mainstream opinion without being fired and shunned. I understand that government action and private action aren't the same. Does that mean we should celebrate every private action taken to restrict the sphere of what one can utter in public life?

For Mozilla, they were in a tight spot. Keep Eich, and the liberals boycott. Cave, and the conservatives and free speech types boycott. I still think their decision was pathetic, but predictable.

But you, OKCupid, deliberately decided to insert yourself into this fray, without any prompting from anyone else. You decided to lead the charge for a browser boycott.

Screw you, OKCupid, you miserable worthless popinjays. Screw you, for making me decide which dating website to use based on politics. We can now have the conservative dating website and the liberal dating website. What a triumph for an inclusive society devoted to pluralism and thick liberty.

I do not wish to have to think about politics when deciding which brand of soft drink to buy, which petrol station to fill up my car at, and which dating website to patronise. Maybe you want to live in a society of the blues and the greens. I do not.

But by George, if you do make me decide my dating website choice based on politics, it won't take me long to figure out where I stand regarding you.

And you know the part that galls me the most?

In your smug self-satisfaction, you will almost certainly take boycotts like mine as proof that there really was a massive homophobic mob out there that you bravely took a stand against. You will tar those disgusted by your speech-stifling actions as bigots motivated only by hatred, while congratulating yourselves on your courage. The tiny lost revenue is proof of your suffering and martyrdom for the great liberal cause.

When bullies on your own side decide to form a lynch mob to expand their political success, do as principled gay rights advocates like Andrew Sullivan did and tell them to go screw themselves.

We mercifully live in a society where the vast majority of our decisions can be made without thinking about politics at every step.

You give that blessing up at your peril.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Every clod that the sea washes away makes Europe the less

Some days the world is tragic in ways that don't leave you with much left to say.

Via Athenios comes this story from Greece:
An investigation was launched on Friday into the circumstances surrounding the death of Ilie Kareli, the 42-year-old Albanian inmate who killed a prison guard on Tuesday, after he was found dead in a prison cell and a coroner’s report indicated that he had suffered serious injuries after being beaten with a blunt instrument.
So far, so ordinary. We see so much misery in the news that it's easy to get desensitised to it. A kills B, B's friends retaliate and kill A. It's a story as old as man. Unfortunate, but the guy had it coming, says the voice that reads this kind of thing every single day.

And yet, every now and then some small humanising detail will creep in and pierce the studied cynicism that all experienced newspaper readers have. It will remind you that everyone in this story is somebody's son, somebody's brother, and that the tragedy is neither an abstraction nor a morality play.

In my case, it was the following:
The medical examiners said he had been beaten up to three days before his death.
Guards at Nigrita prison said they had noticed Kareli’s bruises when he arrived at the facility. They said he declined to be seen by a doctor and instead asked for “some rope to hang myself.”
I have found those lines going around and around in my head ever since.

It is hard to bear too much of the world.

One must take consolation where one finds it. For me, I find myself returning to the words of the Great Sage:
Just as today, so also through this round of existence thou hast wept over the loss of so many countless husbands, countless sons, countless parents and countless brothers, that the tears thou has shed are more abundant than the waters of the four oceans.
Just so.

Magical thinking about evolution and the environment

It is almost an article of faith among certain parts of the left that they are the party of science. The right is full of knuckle-dragging, global-warming denying, creationism-boosting ignoramuses. Obviously science will confirm progressive principles.

Of course, this is generally false when it comes to matters of race. But it's also frequently wrong when it comes to various aspects of environmental policy too.

Take, for instance, the problem of species extinction.

Environmentalists take it practically as a given that the potential extinction of any species is a source of grave concern necessitating immediate action, almost regardless of cost. Some tiny fish that you've never heard of might be endangered? Better shut down the water flow to lots of California farmland!

Of course, they never explain exactly what large problem would occur if the damn delta smelt were to go extinct after all. Occasionally, they'll appeal in vague terms to the interconnectedness of ecosystems, and how the whole edifice might come crashing down if any one part is changed, but they never seem to present much evidence for this contention. It's almost as if they feel that they identify so much with all the parts of the natural environment that this excuses them of the need to identify a likely problem for the environment as a whole. Species extinction is an inherent problem in their world.

Here's the actual reality - by the time a species is on the endangered list, it would create very few environmental problems if it actually became extinct.

Mostly this is a simple matter of accounting. If there are in fact only 900 mountain gorillas left in the wild, how much of the rest of the ecosystem can they possibly be sustaining? Not very much. This isn't to say that if the entire continent of Africa were blanketed with mountain gorillas, there would be no consequence to killing them all. But that's not the world we live in. If most of the mountain gorillas have already died out over the decades, this tells you that most of the ecosystem has already adjusted just fine to the absence of mountain gorillas. Whatever the consequences of their absence might be, you're already seeing most of them. Do you see an environmental problem in the world today that you can attribute to a lack of gorillas? I sure don't.

Do you know what part of science tells me that species extinction is not, in fact, an inherent problem for the environment? @#$%ing evolution, that's what. For all the joy that leftists take in using evolution as a club to beat the right (not without some justification, it must be noted), lots of them seem to display a pretty dim grasp of its basics.

You might have thought that the phrase 'survival of the fittest' would have given them a clue, but no. The flip side of 'survival of the fittest' is 'extinction of the unfit'. This is the feature of evolution, not the bug. Some species are hardy and survive. Those that don't either evolve to something sturdier, or they die.

Every glorious species in today's ecosystem is there because some previously glorious species was no longer able to compete and went extinct. We have the Delta smelt because it evolved from or out-competed some other fish that used to be there but now isn't.

You may feel sad that a species goes extinct, but the environment itself doesn't give a rat's. The earth's ecosystem as a whole is incredibly tough and resilient. The form it takes will differ over time, but life will survive. Do you think humans could really destroy all life on the planet deliberately, let alone by accident or negligence? We can't kill all the weeds on our front lawn. We can't even kill all the cockroaches in the average house, despite an entire industry equipped with modern technology devoted exclusively to the task!

Now, there is another reason why we perhaps should mourn species extinction - that we as humans enjoy seeing the splendours of nature in all her forms, and wish to preserve as much of it as possible.

I am actually quite sympathetic to this argument. But proponents should be honest enough to admit that this is only an aesthetic argument. There is no inherent moral basis why all species should be preserved, or why the species is even a relevant unit of account if you cared about animal welfare.

In other words, preserving all the world's species is only an important goal because modern humans generally value it so.

But this is a highly contingent argument - people value lots of stuff, and there are tradeoffs. Perhaps they value the delta smelt to some extent, but they also value cheap food, and farmers not being put out of jobs, and democratic decision-making. There is no particular reason why the continued existence of a relatively unimportant type of fish should dominate all these other things as a categorical imperative. Would you mourn the extinction of the Ebola virus or polio? If not, why should you mourn the possible extinction of man-eating sharks? I'd celebrate it. Good riddance! Think of all the families who would never know that in an alternative universe where the environmentalists got what they wanted, their father might have been eaten by a shark.

Of course, if environmentalists actually acknowledged that this is an aesthetic and contingent argument, they'd need to try to convince people that they actually ought to care about some damn fish they'd never heard of until yesterday.

That, of course, would be beneath their dignity. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy, after all, and if you don't see it they're not in the mood to explain why.

Me, I'm pro-human, and I'm pro things that humans think are important. Sometimes that includes preserving certain species, particularly ones that are cuddly and photogenic. Sometimes it doesn't.

But doubt it not, the environment will be just fine either way.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Random observations from a tandem skydiving trip

-Similar to when I went bungee jumping, the first sensation of jumping and free-falling was somewhat overwhelming, in the sense that my brain didn't quite register what was going on. I'd heard previously that schools often don't like letting people operate the parachute themselves the first time they jump (even with training beforehand) because it's easy to lose track of how long you've been falling, and hence when you should open the chute. As a result, when I jumped I was deliberately trying to pay attention to what was going on, the view of the ground, and the process of falling. Generally speaking I felt I'd done pretty well. Then I remembered something the instructors had said on the way up when describing the process, which was that we'd do a few flips first and then start the freefall. I didn't remember that happening, so had to check the video (this was in fact the main ex-post value in getting said video). Sure enough, we did a front flip on the way out of the plane. You'd think this would be the kind of thing one would ordinarily remember, but apparently not. So it's fair to say that the base hypothesis that you probably won't be fully aware of what's going on is in fact confirmed.

-Related to the above, the scary part was not actually freefall. More scary parts included:
a) Seeing the girl and instructor who jumped before me rush off away from the plane horizontally as soon as they left the plane from the force of the wind
b) Stepping out on to the ledge, which my legs were somewhat disinclined to do, but manly pride saw me through
c) After the parachute opened, when the instructor turned the parachute into a tight turn. When I saw the parachute below what seemed to be the line of the horizon, my thought process was 'I'm sure this is actually totally safe because the instructor wouldn't do it otherwise, but GOD DAMN IT IT FEELS LIKE WE ARE ABOUT TO TIP OVER'. It was a classic example of a the difference between a belief and an alief.

-I am still in two minds about the tandem component. On the one hand, it doesn't feel like I've really been skydiving properly until I've done it myself. On the other hand, this seems like a process where prudence might dictate that it is well-suited to being left to the professionals.

-Similar to the prospect of why it always makes sense to write people insurance policies for the end of the world, it always pays to have enormous braggadocio about jumping out of a plane. Sure, there's a small chance those statements will come to be seen as rather foolhardy and ironic. But if that's the case, you won't be around to hear people's mockery! So while it might make sense to avoid needless risks that would prove catastrophic if the wrong event occurred, conditional on taking said risks it makes sense to boast about them as much as possible.

-Related to the above, the instructors said while we were in the plane that they would explain the landing part once the parachute had opened. At first this seemed disconcerting, but then it reminded me that a) this process is so bog standard that I'm not actually expected to be able to do anything at all, and b) for the purposes of what difference it made to the actual skydive, I may as well have been a sack of potatoes.

8/10 would jump again.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The hard part of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

So much has been said speculating about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight that may or may not have crashed, or been hijacked, or been deliberately flown into the ocean, or god knows what else. I think a lot of people were surprised to find out that in this day and age it is possible for a jet to simply go missing for this long without anyone having a clear idea of what the hell happened to it.

What struck me about the story, however, is how particularly devastating it must be for the relatives of those who were on the plane. In the first place, it's hard to see many ways that their loved ones came out of this alive. If the plane crashed into the ocean due to some mechanical failure or pilot suicide, they're long gone. And the possibility of what that ending might have been like would surely be a haunting one. The most optimistic scenario is a hijacking, but given the plane hasn't turned up and there haven't been any announcements, either to gloat over prisoners or demand ransoms (does anybody even do that anymore? I dunno), any group that wanted to just steal the plane would probably not want to leave hundreds of potential witnesses around afterwards. Bottom line, it's looking pretty damn grim.

But the scenario gets made significantly worse even relative to a normal plane crash by the fact that humans are incredibly bad at dealing emotionally with probabilistic scenarios. What does it mean for there to be a 0.5% chance that your dad is still alive somewhere and being held hostage, a 30% chance he got smashed to pieces in a crash and a 69.5% chance he got killed by terrorists? How should you feel about that? 30% of the time you might be philosophical about bad luck, 69.5% of the time you might be outraged by the depravity of human beings and demanding vengeance. And 0.5% of the time, you should be very nervously hoping that somehow things can be negotiated to a satisfactory conclusion, and doing everything in your limited power to make that happen.

In other words, 99.5% of the time you should be trying to move on with your life. This is made possible by the fact that it's very hard to know how to move on since you don't know what lesson to learn. And 0.5% of the time, you should be hanging on to the hope that they're still coming back, because they may have had an incredibly lucky escape.

Unfortunately, most people's emotions don't work this way - they can only feel one thing at a time. To make this work, they have to round all bar one of these probabilities down to zero - maybe at the crude level of dead or alive, but maybe even at the level of which scenario among the various cases. Either you decide that your Dad is dead, for sure, or you decide that he's alive for sure. Obviously given these odds, most people should go with 'dead', but you would need to be very hard of heart to not understand why people are reluctant to let go of hope when it comes to their loved ones.

I hate the word 'closure', as it's associated so much with feel-good claptrap that's just a cover for narcissistic emotional exhibitionism. But if the term means anything useful, it's that people find it hard to deal emotionally with events where they only know the outcome probabilistically, and different outcomes are associated with very different emotions. James Bagian can probably deal with them. I flatter myself that I can probably deal with them. This would test to your very core whether you can actually feel statistics, or just know them intellectually.

But most people can't. They just get torn up over and over with no end. Affective forecasting says it takes about 3 months to get used to most things. The families here don't even get that, because the clock doesn't even start running properly.

What a terribly sad circumstance to have to deal with.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Stop being a cliche and write something different

Dating web sites are fascinating places to go to see evidence of the lack of introspection of most people, particularly most young people. A cursory glance at virtually any online dating site will tell you that people are shockingly bad at describing themselves in ways that make them seem appealing.

Everyone writes the same stuff. Most profiles are simply identi-kit personalities. Among the girls at least the people being described are like stock characters from the world's most generic romantic comedy. I'm fun, quirky and outgoing. I love my life, I'm in love with life, I love the life I live and live the life I love. I like hiking, wine, and crossfit. I like going out to bars, but also kicking back on the couch watching Netflix. Friends and family come first. No hookups!

Lest you suspect that I'm just making fun of the women here, there's very likely male equivalents. The beta version is 'I'm a laid-back sweet funny guy who likes restaurants, movies, going out, staying in.' The jock alpha tool version is '6'4, 220 llbs, I'm just on here looking for young girls who are up for for some fun.'

You may think is that this is an explicit form of herding - there's a certain meme or profile idea that people are referencing, perhaps, or that people are trying to signal that they're of a certain type and thus tend to get bunched together with others of that type.

This is possible, but one big factor militates against this being likely.

To wit, most people never actually look at many (if any) profiles from members of the same sex as them. They're writing the same thing, but they most likely don't realise that they're writing the same thing. (Incidentally, this is why I have more familiarity with what's common across female profiles than across male profiles).

As far as I can tell, there are two ways to interpret this.

The first is that people are all fundamentally the same. They work similar crappy jobs that they don't feel define them as people and hence they don't really want to talk about. They relax by drinking beer, watching sports and going to the movies. Some people vaguely feel guilty about this and think they should be doing stuff like reading, cooking and hiking, so that often makes it on the list as an aspirational description, but really most people have no interesting hobbies, nothing they're particularly passionate about, and no unusual interests. And it shows.

Don't get me wrong, there's certainly a significant element of truth to this. But I don't think that's all that's going on.

The other possibility is that people are simply bad at describing themselves in ways that would be useful to others. A similar basic claim would also explain the Dove Beauty Sketches nonsense that the Last Psychiatrist talked about, where a guy draws a sketch based on women's descriptions of themselves versus a sketch based on strangers descriptions of the same women, and hey presto, the stranger is more accurate. Their punchline is that everyone is actually beautiful. I'd say that people just don't know themselves very much.

Even among the population of identically described beer drinking, football watching, bar attending members of the opposite sex, it probably wouldn't take too many minutes of conversation for me to work out whether their personality would be conducive to sitting through a whole dinner with them.

Of course, much of that useful variation comes from things that people may not want to put in their profiles: 'I'll tell stories that go on forever without an ability to read that you're not interested' 'I'll give off a vibe of self-centeredness in the stories I tell about my interactions with other people.' 'I won't have anything interesting to talk to you about'. The last point, of course, sounds like the first theory, so they're not totally disconnected.

But even so, there is some useful information that could be given that is appealing to the opposite sex, but people still don't know how to describe it.

Sometimes, the stuff that's true and flattering may still sound weird to describe. 'I have an appealing way of smiling and maintaining eye contact while we talk'. 'I'm not jealous if you want to spend time with your friends.' 'If we end up in a relationship, I'll leave sweet notes and cupcakes for you in the morning sometimes just because I was thinking about you.' 'I don't hold grudges for very long.'

That said, a lot of the time I suspect people actually just don't realise that they're answering the wrong question.

The lowest level of introspection is to just answer 'What's a flattering but true description of me as a person?', or 'What do I enjoy doing?'. That way leads to drowning in cliche.

The next level of introspection is to think about 'What attributes of me as a person can I talk about that will actually be appealing to the person of the opposite sex?'. If you're a guy writing of your love for watching mixed martial arts, or a girl talking about how she owns multiple cats, these traits may be true, but they're unlikely to be well-calculated for appealing to the likely interests of the other person. Why not start by describing things that they might like about you, instead of just things that you like about yourself?

The highest level is to ponder the question 'What attributes about me will be appealing to the opposite sex and set me apart from the zillions of other profiles that the person is most likely reading?

Which gets me to my overall advice on how to write one of these profiles. Write a draft profile that you think might be vaguely appealing. Then go through whatever site you're using and read a whole lot of profiles of people from the same sex as you. Look at what kind of cliches and boring phrases keep cropping up. Go back your draft profile and delete every single one of them. Then write only about the things that you haven't seen over and over, or the things that seemed neat in other people's profiles.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Arbitrariness of Social Conventions

Social customs are strange things. Some rules are totally arbitrary (fork on the left, knife on the right), but usually these end up being conventions where the choice of alternatives didn't really matter much anyway. Mostly social conventions exist to solve some or other common problem in society.

Some rules tend to take odd views of human nature. In Chicago, for instance, if you try to swim out past chest height at most of the beaches, 15 year old pin-head lifeguards sitting in row boats will blow whistles and yell at you to go back on pain of being fined. This, bear in mind, is in a lake that has no waves, no submerged obstacles, and a gently sloping shoreline. I spent frustrated hours trying to work out whether this was a liability issue (if so, hand me the damn waiver, I'll sign it), or a paranoia about the inability of literally anybody to swim. Although frankly, short of a heart attack, I don't know how you'd drown if you tried.

Other rules make sense on their own, but are hard to reconcile with a consistent view of the world. For instance, if you think people are too stupid to figure out where they can walk out to in a lake, how on earth do you justify letting such people vote to decide US foreign policy? If you think that people need to be protected from the prospect of inadvertent mistakes (as one rationale for the insane swimming restrictions), why doesn't this apply consistently? In Chicago, for instance, you're able to ride your motorcycle to the beach without a helmet, but not allowed to swim freely once you arrive. I challenge anyone to explain these two facts as being the result of a consistent approach to anything.

This can get particularly striking when dealing with rules designed to guide conventions of behavior when people are forced to interact in environments when their immediate interests are at odds. An increasingly common indignant complaint in modern life is when one is forced to endure the merest whiff of unwanted cigarette smoke. The tradeoff here is fundamental - one person gains enjoyment by emitting smoke, the other by not having to smell it. If we can't simply separate, as in smoking versus non-smoking sections, who gets their way and who has to lump it? One rule says that smoke is a minor imposition, and the rest of the world has to deal with it. The other says that it's rude to pollute other peoples air, whether by farting, smoking, or not showering after exercise or wearing deodorant before. You should only do any of them where others aren't impacted. Both are individually defensible. Society used to favor view #1, but the evangelists for #2 seem to have won the day, imposing their will on everyone else. They don't tell you it's just their preference, of course - it's all about the cost to society of second hand smoke. Yeah right.

Some of these indignant smoke-botherers would do well to reflect on the fragility of their own intellectual consistency. My favorite in this regard are the people who ask other people to not smoke nearby, because their children will breath it in. I find this such a tone deaf complaint. Personally, I don't get annoyed by smoke very much. But I do get significantly annoyed by loud noises in environments not conducive to them - loud and boisterous tables at restaurants, young children yelling and carrying on, that kind of thing. If you bring your very young child to a restaurant, there is a chance they may start crying and you won't be able to comfort them. If this happens, it's not going to be pleasant for the people around you. Triply so if you're on a plane. This is totally predictable in advance, of course - when you bring the kid along, it's just the risk that goes with the territory.

There's a very reasonable argument that say, tough luck, it's not a large imposition, and we can't expect young parents to just be pariahs for years. Which is fine. But would you be happy if the same argument were applied to smoking? This goes even more so when the child is above the age where they might be taught better manners. If your 6 month old won't stop crying, people understand that sometimes there's not much you can do. But when your 4 year old is talking at full volume in the art museum, and you just carry on thinking it's adorable (as happened to me today)? That, my friend, is the equivalent of lighting up your cigarette at the table just before the dessert course.

The first order response to all this is that most people turn out to be quite flexible in matters of abstract principle once a sufficient quantity of their oxen are about to be gored. As Ace of Spades once memorably put it, everyone is a property rights absolutist right up until the point that their neighbour, also a property rights absolutist, wants to open a fat-rendering plant.

The second is that there is a certain type of utopian that wants to set down consistent principles in all social behaviour, and if certain practices need to be upended to make it happen, so be it. The small-c conservative takes a Camus-like view of the absurdity of much convention - sure it's arbitrary, but that's okay. Ripping up long-standing practices tends to not have a great track record, so maybe you're better off just accepting that it doesn't make any sense.

Part of me is sympathetic to the Utopian view that we need to hammer out consistent principles once and for all. But I don't think it's every going to happen. You're probably better off just embracing the absurdity and contradiction.

I try to remind myself of this when it's my meal being disturbed. As Mr Dylan put it - be easy baby, there ain't nothing worth stealing here.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Crocodile Tears Of Refugee Advocates

Look at these preening poseurs, parading their ostentatious compassion like a badge of their moral purity:
Thousands of people have held candlelight vigils around Australia for slain asylum seeker Reza Berati, who died in violence at the Manus Island detention centre last Monday.
If your only knowledge of this story came from the ABC article, you would probably fail  to make much sense of the bizarre euphemism that Mr Berati 'died in violence' at the detention centre. In fact, he died as part of a riot started by other asylum seekers. The vigil-holders seem to display a curious lack of concern with finding and bringing to justice those that started the riots which led to Mr Berati's death. But they would, wouldn't they?

How you view this kind of tragedy depends in part upon how much responsibility you think should be attributed to the government for the indirect but perhaps predictable consequences of its policies, notwithstanding that the proximate cause of the tragedy is with the victims themselves.

The left, perhaps not unreasonably, wants to hold the government accountable for reasonably foreseeable consequences of its actions. It's not obvious that this is always the right way to evaluate government policy, but very well, let's take that path.

The biggest murderer of boat people in Australia by this reasoning is Kevin Rudd. By a long shot. The greatest savior was John Howard. As I've written about on multiple occasions. Let's look at my favorite picture on the subject:


Care to see an updated version, where things are plotted in terms of flows and not levels, in order to make it even more plain? From La Wik:


Correlation doesn't equal causation and all that. But it certainly seems like something very stark changed when Kevin Rudd started parading his compassion for asylum seekers by greatly relaxing the conditions they were held under. If you have another theory, do feel free to describe it in the comments.

The entirely predictable result of this fiasco was the following: 46,000 asylum seekers trying to come to Australia, and over 1100 drowning along the way.

What's it going to be, you worthless candle-holding popinjays? How come these guys never get a mention? It's not like they just went missing in the middle of the ocean. They were drowning by the dozens in front of the TV cameras on Christmas Island. How much concern did that elicit then?

Is it your contention that people don't respond to incentives at all? Or that this was all unpredictable, like a lightning strike? Unfortunately for the latter theory, there were plenty of people, myself included, describing this process quite early on. The fact that you didn't predict it doesn't make it unpredictable.

Here's Australia's most worthless politician, Green's Senator Sarah Hanson-Young describing whether she'd accept any responsibility for the drowning deaths of 200 people when a boat sank off Java:
"Of course not. Tragedies happen, accidents happen."
Would the same logic be equally compelling to you if advanced now by the Abbott government?

You'll forgive me, Ms Young and other candle-light twerps, for being unmoved by your sudden and very narrowly circumscribed concern for the welfare of asylum seekers. I've been saying for several years that the thousands of drowning deaths were needless and horrible consequences of bad government policy. Where the hell were you? When the buck stopped with your guy, and not the other guy, did the deaths somehow bother you less?

Kevin Rudd scrapped the Pacific Solution around February 8th, 2008. Tony Abbott instituted Operation Sovereign Borders on the 18th of September 2013. That's approximately 2047 days in total that Labor Policy governed how asylum seekers were treated.

Since these clowns don't seem to be so good at maths, let me spell it out as plainly as I can: under Labor Policy, one asylum seeker was drowning on average roughly every two days.

By contrast, what's the situation now?
Scott Morrison says there have been no boats for 64 days, the longest stretch since August in 2008
Congratulations to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison! Thanks to your courageous decision to do what's right, not necessarily what feels good, 32-odd people are alive today who wouldn't have been if your policies hadn't been in place. One, very sadly, is dead.

If you don't think that tradeoff is worth making, then @#$% you and your fake compassion.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Race and Genes

From the comments to the previous post:
How about this argument?
I think you're just pushing the social construct down (up?) a level from phenotype to genotype. The fact that phenotypes are reflective of genotypes is a trivial observation. The fact that genotypes are geographically distributed is a trivial observation.
The fact that a particular constellation of phenotypic/genetic characteristics get lumped together and called 'race' is a social construct. Granted, the phenotypic variations that we call 'race' are generally pretty glaringly obvious, (as opposed to say, innie vs outie belly-button), but that doesn't make it any less a social construct. Not a particularly useful one, either.
Interesting point. A few responses.

I think that most people, if they bothered to give serious consideration to the question, would readily agree that phenotypes are caused by genotypes (e.g. dark skin vs. white skin is caused by genes, not just magic or sun exposure or nutrition) and that phenotypes have geographical distribution (i.e. there are more dark skinned people in Africa than in Iceland.)

I think that if you pushed the point with them they would probably also be forced to conclude that these two premises indeed imply that certain genotypes must also have geographical properties (whatever genes cause dark skin are more common in African countries than in Iceland). Add in the assumption that geography is related to ancestry, and that one way of thinking about race is as a crude description of where most of your ancestors lived 500 or so years ago, and we're a long way to a good understanding of the issue.

I would assert, however, that many people do not actually seem to display such understanding in the way they discuss the matter, notwithstanding that you could convince them of the truth of each premise. When you point out the conclusion, they still act surprised. Acknowledging that C follows from A plus B is different from people instinctively believing C. Even if race as popularly described were nothing but skin color, as long as that's genetic, would you really describe conclusion C as being consistent with 'race doesn't exist' or 'race has no biological basis' or 'race has no genetic component'? It seems like a bit of a weird stretch.

And the reason this seems striking to me is that I've actually had conversations with quite intelligent sociologists who started out the conversation asserting that race didn't exist, or that the fact that there is more genetic variation within each race than between them meant that race was meaningless. When I posed the conundrum below, they appeared to have genuinely never considered the paradox. They were truly puzzled, and didn't have any answer.

I don't mean to be trite, but nothing in your argument actually answers the narrowly defined question. 23andme is able to reconstruct, to a high degree of accuracy, analogous descriptions to the ones people use such as 'black', 'white' and 'asian', out of purely genetic information. I never asserted that race is not partly a social construct. It is. But that is very different from saying that race is purely a social construct.

Race as popularly described may focus more on some phenotypical variations than others (as you note with skin versus belly buttons). But people still seem to manage to identify most of the main principle components of genetic variation in the labels they attach. In other words, even if 'race', in terms of how people describe it in common speech, is just a crude description of how you look like, that description seems to be correlated with the various principle components of genetic variation. That's the key part. If 23andme had merely identified the genes for skin color, then attaching race labels that correspond to skin color would be a trivial observation. But my understanding is that they don't look for these specific things, but large clusters of genetic variation. That's why they're able to say much more about the full breakdown of your ancestry, rather than just 'your skin is probably brown-ish'.

In other words, the labels that people attach are indeed correlated with large principle components of genetic variation, which are in turn associated with self-reported descriptions of ancestry. Which is exactly what you'd expect if those genes were associated with groups of people who had been geographically separated for extended periods of time. Which, of course, they had been.

From this point of view, the real information is of course in the genes, not the crude description. In other words, it's much more useful to identify the genetic information if you want to say meaningful things about someone's likely characteristics, rather than just the socially defined markers of appearance. Once I know someone's full genetic information, there's not informational content left in the popularly described concept of 'race' (other than than purely social effects like cultural traits). But that doesn't mean that the socially defined markers are worthless if you don't actually have the ancestry or genetic information.

Seen this way, the only real remaining question (and it is a large and separate issue) is the usefulness of these classifications. If you buy the argument that these classifications are picking up large principle components of genetic variation, do you really think that such variation would have no useful predictive power at all? It's possible, but it only would seem likely if you think that genetic variation itself don't matter much - that it's all environment, in other words. That's a whole separate debate, and entirely possible, but my reading of the literature is that heritability estimates of around 50% for lots of characteristics seem to suggest that it's not entirely environment. Even if it were, though, I still get to my initial conclusion - what people identify as 'race' is indeed partly genetic, because it's highly correlated with genetic variation.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A non-rhetorical question for people who believe race has no genetic basis

A certain class of trendy lefty and soft social science academic is fond of asserting loudly that 'race doesn't exist', or 'race is only a social construct', or other such nonsense. Bonus points are awarded when it is also asserted that 'science' has determined that race doesn't actually exist.

If there are any such people reading this diary, I have a proposition for you. I will bet you $1 at 1000-1 odds in your favor that by the end of this article I can ask you a question that you will not be able to give any coherent answer to if race has no genetic basis at all. If I'm right, you can pay me a dollar. If I'm wrong, I'll pay you a grand. Sound fair? We economists believe that those who think they're right should put their money where their mouth is, so here's mine.

One example of the 'race is just a social construct' acolyte is noted nitwit Justice Mordecai Bromberg at the Australian Federal Court. From his judgment in the disgraceful Andrew Bolt case:
"It is now well-accepted among medical scientists, anthropologists and other students of humanity that ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are social, cultural and political constructs, rather than matters of scientific ‘fact’. 
Despite what is now known about the invalidity of biology as a basis for race or ethnicity, legal definitions of Aboriginality, at least until the 1980s, exclusively concentrated on biological descent."
Got that? Mordecai Bromberg's lazy appeal to authority has declared it from the temple mount that everyone knows that race has no biological basis.

For sure, there are aspects of the way that we describe racial groups in casual conversation that vary over time and across countries. There were large changes over time in social acceptability of the Irish and Italians in America, for instance (although it's not clear they were thought of as being 'not white' as much as just 'not desirable'.) Barack Obama's race is viewed differently in America than it would be in Kenya or Brazil.

But this is a very different claim from the one they make, namely that race actually has no genetically identifiable basis at all.

I assert, dear reader, that this claim is laughably, demonstrably stupid, and that it is not hard to show that this is so.

To do this, there are two strands of argument you might consider.

First, you can patiently explain things like Lewontin's Fallacy, and the idea that race is best thought of as capturing the principle components of genetic variation in lots of alleles all at once. Want to bet on how much impact that's going to have?

But a much simpler technique is to pose the following conundrum:

If you go to 23andme, for a hundred bucks they'll send you a tube into which you can put a saliva sample. Send that tube back to them, and they'll analyse it in their lab and tell you the percentage of your ancestry made up by each different racial group.

Now, granted, if you're a diehard sceptic it's hard to prove that there answers are actually correct. But I would wager large amounts of money that if you have a reasonably good knowledge of what your family history is, they will give you answers that line up with that. I will also wager my entire life savings that they will not find that you have a majority of your DNA from an ethnic group that you neither look like nor have any known family history of. If you look white, and your parents look white, and they tell you that their parents came from England, it is vanishingly unlikely that 23andme will tell you that the majority of your ancestors 500 years ago were living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

So here's my $1000 question to Mordecai Bromberg:

How do you think they're able to do that?

No joke. No rhetorical flourish. Take as long as you want to think about the answer. I've got my stack of hundreds at the ready.

In your own mind, how is 23andme actually generating these answers?  How are they able to pretty accurately describe the very same 'social constructs' that your parents were talking about using only information contained in your saliva?

Bear in mind that this is a huge puzzle even if the answers they're giving are imperfect and error prone. How are they able to generate any answers whatsoever? Dumb luck? Guessing? IP or postal addresses? Traces of food you've been eating recently contained in your saliva? Private Investigators?

Be careful which of these you answer, because they're all easily refutable. If it's private investigators digging into your family history, that's easy to test - just secretly send in a saliva sample from someone of a different race and don't tell them, and see what comes back.

But this aside, I genuinely have absolutely no idea how the blank slate see-no-race-hear-no-race crowd explains this magic to themselves.

Jim Goad very aptly described this kind of race fantasy. He called it 'liberal creationism'. And he's exactly right. It is an article of faith, not science. Science made up its mind long ago. The hypothesis that race has no genetic basis is not just falsifiable, but falsified.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Ave Atque Vale, Mr Seeger

So Pete Seeger died last week. I meant to write about this earlier, but didn't.

I always loved Pete's music. Granted, I'm sure I shared virtually none of the man's politics. As Mark Steyn points out, he was a staunch communist until right towards the end. Maybe that should put one beyond the pale. But if one only listened to artists whom one agreed with politically, we conservatives would have pretty slim pickings indeed.

There was more to Seeger than that. I suspect that to people who didn't listen to his music as music, which probably includes many conservatives, all they saw was the politics. But many of his songs weren't explicitly political - even if he was avowedly of the left, and that fed into what he wrote, the songs stood on their own. It's not hard to see how different political outlooks shape the writings of both Asimov and Heinlein. I would probably find more to agree with the latter on than the former, but I love the writing of both of them. So it is with Seeger.

As well as being a wonderful chronicler of all sorts of folk music, political and otherwise, there was still a warmth of spirit. This is something that we on the right often lack. Not all of us - Jay Nordlinger is wonderfully generous of heart without losing conservative principle. (As it turns out, he isn't a fan of Seeger, and for quite fair reasons). Seeger's desire for what he perceived as good for the world was blinded by a blinkered naivete about human nature and the steps needed to implement the ideas he had, which caused him to sympathise with leaders who did terrible things. And yet, as Mr Conrad said about colonialism, the idea alone redeems it (or at least some of it). The warmth of spirit that led him, very unfortunately, to communism, was not thereby totally wasted.

The song of his that best illustrates this is one I like greatly, entitled 'Well May the World Go':

Well may the world go, 
The world go, the world go,
Well may the world go,
When I'm far away.
Well may the skiers turn,
The lovers burn, the swimmers learn
Peace may the generals learn
When I'm far away.
Sweet may the fiddles sound,
The banjos play the old ho-down
Dancers swing round and round,
When I'm far away
Fresh may the breezes blow
Clear may the streams flow
Blue above, green below,
When I'm far away.
Well may the world go, 
The world go, the world go,
Well may the world go,
When I'm far away.
The point is not the specific list of what one views as the good. Rather, the striking thing is the even more basic presumption - that when one is long dead and gone, and there's no longer anything to gain by it, that one nonetheless earnestly wishes for the world's welfare. That this thought occurred to him so strongly that he wanted to sing about it. Can you think of any song writer today to whom it would even occur to sing about such a thing?

Which is why, when all is said and done, I shall miss the old man. His songs were some of my favorites.

Yes, well may the world go,

Now he's far away.

Monday, February 3, 2014


Check out this email from genetic testing company 23andme for the most upbeat corporate email I've received recently. Scroll through to the end and see which bit stands out:

Hmm, what's that tucked away in November? Government f***s our entire business model when the FDA decides unilaterally to extend its authority to include not just medical treatments, but medical tests? And announces this by ordering us to shut down our health-based business model immediately? As part of an illegal power grab not even authorised under legislation whose very existence would give the founding fathers grave concerns about the commerce clause as currently written, or indeed about the wisdom of having a commerce clause at all?

But look, in February we were also on Jeopardy!!!

I'm trying to imagine a similarly cheery email just glossing over an equivalent corporate disaster.

Dow Chemicals Newsletter, December 1984:

What a year it's been! We've had some highs and lows, but we've managed to get through:

February: Dow Chemicals celebrates a 15 year retrospective on its most lucrative contract to date - supplying Napalm to the US government for the Vietnam War. Peace through superior firepower!

April: Dow earnestly supports President Reagan's call for an end to Chemical weapons, stressing that chemical production should be used for peaceful purposes.

July: Our famous company 4th of July BBQ proves a great success. Our illustrious COO wins second prize in the 'best potato salad' competition!

November: Plastics! Dustin Hoffman names Dow Chemicals as a motivating factor behind the famous 'Plastics' line in the movie 'The Graduate'. Plastics division reports record sales increase of 35%

December: Nasty chemical spill at Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, poisons half a million people, killing over 8000 immediately, becoming worst industrial accident in history.

December: Christmas! Dow bonuses, pre-approved before the recent unpleasantness, get paid out to all employees

Let's face it, whoever is working PR for these guys is earning their money right now.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Living the Dream!

It seems to me to be a stark reality about human nature that very few (if any) people's lives are actually 'living the dream' when viewed from the inside. The funniest* encapsulation of this sentiment that I remember was on a college t-shirt advertising a boys night out dubbed 'Escape From Reality'. On the back, was the heading in large letters 'Reality', with a picture of Carmen Electra. Underneath it was written 'No matter how good she looks right now, somewhere some guy is sick of putting up with her $#**.'

Salience being what it is, everyone reflects on the problems they have and not the problems that they don't. Are you in poor health? Missing a limb? Do you dislike your family? Are you short of money? Do you have lots of money but hate the job you're in? And if everything else seems pretty much okay, do you still feel a vague sense of purposelessness and ennui?

That's life, my friends. That's everyone's life. Because we live in an age of rampant hedonism and shallowness, the modern ideal of a life well lived is that of movie stars. People ask themselves the question 'would it be fun to change places with Brad Pitt for a while?' The answer is most likely 'Sure!'. But that's a very different proposition from the one that if you had to live like Brad Pitt forever, you wouldn't get sick of it pretty quickly. If you ask Dan Gilbert, it probably would only take you three months to get back to the same level of happiness you were at before. Do you really think that celebrities have no problems in their life that make them miserable? Really? None at all?

There is a certain type of person that goes on dating websites to broadcast how much they LOVE LOVE LOVE their life, their friends, their family, their career! I am always suspicious of these people. I mean, if I thought they were actually this happy, I would be most pleased - there's no resentment going on here. But the first giveaway that something is awry is the forum for this paean - let's just say that the platonic conception of someone whose life is already perfectly arranged probably doesn't include being on a dating website (even if you're just single cruising to meet new people to date - the ideal of that is having lots of friends of friends and meeting them at trendy parties and events).

Rather, it seems like the cult of self-esteem is colliding with the dreary reality of things being not quite right. The message, quite obviously, has nothing to do with the importance of convincing the rest of the dating world that one's life is already perfect (as if that were possible, or even desirable), but much more to do with trying to convince oneself. Cognitive dissonance being what it is, the awful prospect that maybe you made some bad choices has to be blasted away with denial, combined perhaps (in the case of the more introspective) with the sense of putting on a good face.

Personally, I'd be much more convinced by a dating profile with realistic descriptions of one's existence. I sure am REASONABLY HAPPY with the choices I've made so far! My life is quite okay most of the time, other than perhaps one or two respects.

Of course, if people actually started acting this way, facebook would be out of business overnight, as the number of people ritually blasting all and sundry with pictures bigging up their latest trip, party out, or academic year at Oxford would dry up immediately. If you're engaged in 'the dream' and you have a lingering uncertainty that it might not be all you'd hoped, better try to convince everyone else around you that at least you're much happier than they are.

*I say 'funniest' and not 'best' - that title of course belongs to the Great Sage.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Strangely Addictive

'Random Street View'. All these places I've never been and never will go. Also, it reminds you how despite the fact that if you take a randomly chosen person they're probably in a city, if you take a randomly chosen road, it's probably in the country.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Conversational Centres of Gravity

Have you noticed that when sitting at a dinner table, conversations have centres of gravity? Not as in metaphorical centres of gravity about subject matters, but as in physical locations. The centre of the conversation is an actual point in space, usually somewhere on the table.

To find out where, the procedure is simple. Look at where everyone's head is facing as discussion proceeds, and then draw a line out from their eyes, perpendicular to their face. Do this for everyone in the group. The spot closest to where the most lines intersect is the centre of gravity.

Here's an example to show you that you don't need to hear any words to know exactly who has what role in the conversation from body language alone:

The centre of gravity is not actually in the middle of the table - instead, it's slightly in front of and to the right of the girl in the brown top.

Once you realise that conversation has an actual locus, it's easy to see that the guy in the red shirt is at risk of being excluded. In a loud room, he would likely be at the periphery of the discussion, sitting there looking inwards trying to stay involved. He's already leaning in quite a way, whereas the girl in pink (equi-distant from the physical centre of the table, but closer to the centre of gravity) looks far more relaxed. Generally, I've found that anything more than 1m away from the centre means you're effectively shut out.

It's hard to see in an example like this, but another sure-fire way to almost guarantee exclusion is if the line of sight from your eyes to the centre of gravity has to pass through part of another person's body. The guy in the grey is physically closer to the centre than the guy in the red, but the fact that the girl in brown is leaning forward with her arms out means he's almost shut out. If the girl in brown turned her left shoulder slightly towards the girl in pink, he'd likely be shut out altogether. Even in the current setup, he looks disconnected from the discussion.

I find that when I can see that the nature of the seating arrangement and the dominance of the various personalities means that I'm going to be excluded, I'll often give up early and try to strike up conversation with the person next to me instead. You can only fight gravity with gravity, and try to create another centre that draws in others when their conversation falters. Usually on a long table there'll be multiple centres of gravity, and one or two guys inevitably in no-mans land. The only hope for them is that the other unaligned powers have something insightful to say. Usually, unfortunately, they don't. In the example above, the centre is significantly determined by layout. As the table gets sufficiently long, the focal point all comes down to who's the most interesting or conversationally dominant (either by being bombastic and loud, or being of higher social status).

In case it wasn't obvious, this theory was honed over various accumulated hours of being shut out of discussions by geography and trying to figure out why.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Comedy gold

Oh you dear neglected weblog, I have been most remiss in feeding you of late.

As the blog equivalent of a tasty but not very nutritious chocolate bar, here's some radical videos I saw recently.

First, a British guy giving hilarious uninformed commentary on baseball and football games.

The jokes are even better if you understand both the Commonwealth interpretation and the actual Yank events. Classic stuff.

(via Kottke)

Also, check out this awesome Ikea ad that Spike Jonze did back in the day:

Try doing the Swedish accent at the end, it's highly addictive.

(via Steve Sailer).

Free Startup Ideas – Traffic Predictions and Alarm Clocks Done Right

Here’s an idea for some enterprising engineer (most likely at Google or somewhere else with access to good traffic data) that I’m almost certainly not the first to have thought of.

A good traffic prediction algorithm would let you specify a time of day you need to arrive at a particular destination, a starting point, and tell you when you need to leave. Google Now already does a crude version of this. If you have flight details in your gmail account, it will sent you an alert when you need to leave in order to get to the airport an hour before your flight. But there’s a lot more cool stuff you could do with this.

For instance, it would be great to be able to take the directions in Google Maps and specify a day of the week and time (or day of the year) and see an estimate for how long the trip would take at that particular point in time. Since google has oodles of historical traffic data, they’d be able to get a pretty good estimate based just on historical traffic conditions. Ideally, you’d be able to take the same route and plot out how the expected length of journey varies with the starting time.

This would tell you what times of the day and night to avoid, letting you figure out how to adjust your work schedule to avoid traffic. It would also tell you about a fascinating quantity – the elasticity of time arrived to time left. There are times of the day, such as peak hour, where leaving 10 minutes later might cause you to arrive 15 minutes later (an elasticity of 1.5, suggesting that wasting those minutes is very costly), or at the back end when you can leave 10 minutes later and only arrive 8 minutes later (making those minutes subsidised).

Notably, everything I’ve described (like Google Now in its current form) only speaks of a point estimate of how long things will take, presumably either the mean or median. In reality, there’s much more interesting stuff you can do with the whole distribution.

For instance, lots of unexpected things happen with traffic – accidents, weather, what have you. So for a trip that leaves at 8am on a Monday, there’s actually a distribution of possible arrival times. For someone who knows what a distribution actually means, it would be very useful to be able to specify an acceptable percentage of the time that you would be late (or more than X minutes late), and have the algorithm give you a time that you needed to leave your house in order to get there on time with that probability.
If this were done, you could just subtract the number of minutes you need to get ready each morning, and that’s when you need to set your alarm.

Even more interesting would be to improve these predictions from unconditional to conditional by making use of both current traffic and weather conditions. The overall distribution of, say, Mondays in January, would give you the unconditional distribution of the chances of arriving on time. But you could definitely do better by generating conditional distributions that morning that relied on the local weather conditions and the current traffic conditions relative to the historical distribution. In other words, if you normally need to leave home at 8am, the app could use the fact that traffic at 6:30am is heavier than normal to estimate that you may need to wake up earlier than normal as well.

Done properly, I’d gladly pay $20 for this kind of app. If it really worked, I’d probably value it at much more than that, notwithstanding that an irrational cheapskate instinct kicks in regarding the prospect of paying more than a few bucks for an online app.

As with all Shylock ideas, should the app succeed I insist on receiving either fat royalties or a free t-shirt that says ‘I came up with the idea for [Traffick-ator] and all I got was this lousy t-shirt’. Medium please.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

How to make Canadian Football Awesome

When I was in Toronto about a month ago, a friend of mine who lives there told me how there's some suggestion that the Buffalo Bills NFL team may be planning to move to Toronto.

While I don't care a whit about the NFL, there's one surefire way to bolster local support immediately. If the team moves to Toronto, immediately rename them as the Toronto Loyalists.

Firstly, Canadians resolutely love clinging to anything that separates them from America, no matter how anachronistic (the Queen is one thing, but Quebec? Really? They're like a permanent grievance lobby designed to extract rents from the functioning rest of the country. De-annex them, I say). Stoking up vague anti-American sentiment, but in the politest of historical contexts, would be a surefire crowd pleaser.

Secondly, it would immediately create a super popular grudge match whenever they played the Patriots. And since the Patriots tend to be rather good, Americans would love it too because they'd still get to win, just like last time.

When this genius proposal is implemented, I expect fat royalty cheques to be forthcoming. Or a free Toronto Loyalists jersey, which I'd settle for as well.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

All the world's a little peer influenced, except for thee and me...


Why do you do the things you do?

If you're ever in some trendy cocktail lounge or bar, chances are you'll see somebody drinking an Old-Fashioned. Muddle sugar with bitters (or use simple syrup and bitters), add whisky and a twist of citrus rind (wiped around the edge of the glass, and set on fire with a lighter if the place is fancy), and there you go. I'm not a drinker, but people tell me it's tasty.

Why do they drink it, as opposed to some other cocktail? 

Easy - they like the taste.

Okay, sure, but why did they try it in the first place to find out that they liked it? There's zillions of cocktails, and most people haven't tried most of them.

Probably their friend ordered them one once, or they saw someone drinking one and it looked interesting. 

Okay, so why did that friend order one?

Well now we're into the question of how social trends start. Usually we just have to throw up our hands and say 'peer effects' or 'opinion leaders' or 'fashion' or some equally unsatisfying explanation.

But in this case, we actually have a very definite answer of why you drink Old-Fashioneds.

You drink them because some time in 2006, a writer for the show Mad Men decided that Don Draper, the charismatic man's man main character in the show, would drink them as his drink of choice. The show became a hit, people started asking for them, and a heretofore archaic cocktail was suddenly restored to newfound celebrity.

I would wager that out of the people who drink them, at least 98% of them would swear on a stack of bibles that they drink them only because they like the taste, and not because of a desire to appear trendy.

And yet we reach a very stark conclusion. If that writer had decided that Don Draper would drink Mint Juleps instead, there's probably a high likelihood that you'd be drinking that right now, swearing equally that you just liked them for the taste.

The alternative is that some time around 1960, people's taste buds suddenly changed such that a previously tasty drink became unpleasant, and some time around 2007 they magically reverted back to enjoying them. Want to wager on that one?

Nobody likes to think that their personal tastes are actually fashions dictated by people whom they never met. But, more than we'd like to admit, they are.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The joys of being a systems programmer

From James Mickens, dubbed 'the funniest man in Microsoft Research', which you might think is a backhanded compliment, but is actually just a compliment. The Night Watch:
Perhaps the worst thing about being a systems person is that other, non-systems people think that they understand the daily tragedies that compose your life. For example, a few weeks ago, I was debugging a new network file system that my research group created. The bug was inside a kernel-mode component, so my machines were crashing in spectacular and vindictive ways. After a few days of manually rebooting servers, I had transformed into a shambling, broken man, kind of like a computer scientist version of Saddam Hussein when he was pulled from his bunker, all scraggly beard and dead eyes and florid, nonsensical ramblings about semi-imagined enemies. As I paced the hallways, muttering Nixonian rants about my code, one of my colleagues from the HCI group asked me what my problem was. I described the bug, which involved concurrent threads and corrupted state and asynchronous message delivery across multiple machines, and my coworker said, “Yeah, that sounds bad. Have you checked the log files for errors?” I said, “Indeed, I would do that if I hadn’t broken every component that a logging system needs to log data. I have a network file system, and I have broken the network, and I have broken the file system, and my machines crash when I make eye contact with them. I HAVE NO TOOLS BECAUSE I’VE DESTROYED MY TOOLS WITH MY TOOLS. My only logging option is to hire monks to transcribe the subjective experience of watching my machines die as I weep tears of blood.” My co-worker, in an earnest attempt to sympathize, recounted one of his personal debugging stories, a story that essentially involved an addition operation that had been mistakenly replaced with a multiplication operation. I listened to this story, and I said, “Look, I get it. Multiplication is not addition. This has been known for years. However, multiplication and addition are at least related. Multiplication is like addition, but with more addition. Multiplication is a grown-up pterodactyl, and addition is a baby pterodactyl. Thus, in your debugging story, your code is wayward, but it basically has the right idea. In contrast, there is no family-friendly GRE analogy that relates what my code should do, and what it is actually doing. I had the modest goal of translating a file read into a network operation, and now my machines have tuberculosis and orifice containment issues. Do you see the difference between our lives? When you asked a girl to the prom, you discovered that her father was a cop. When I asked a girl to the prom, I DISCOVERED THAT HER FATHER WAS STALIN.”
Gold, gold, gold. Read the whole thing.

And when you're done, read the rest of them too.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


I'm back in Oz, hence the drop in recent postings. With punctuality like this in notifying my loyal readers, apparently I shouldn't be in charge of managing a business. Neither fact (skyvving off in Australia and lack of organisation) should be a surprise to those who know me in real life. I should be back to full posting strength (which, as Hector Lopez told me today, has been a bit weak recently) some time around January 8th.

My defense, as always, is that you guys are getting what you paid for. Suckers.

Infidelity as a Commitment Mechanism

I've wondered a few times on these pages about the psychology of married people who begin affairs. As I wrote at the time:
As the length of the affair increases, the probability that your wife will eventually find out converges to 1. The chances that you'll slip up somehow, or get inadvertently found out through some voicemail, missed call, something, are too high.
And when that happens, the results are as predictable as they are horrible.
So how does it make sense to start down this path, rather than go for an honorable divorce now?

It’s entirely possible that the whole thing is just overconfidence, and the people involved think they can beat the odds forever. Maybe they’re just that stupid.

But I think I’ve figured out an alternative.

What if the eventual inevitability of getting caught is the feature, not the bug?

Suppose the unfaithful partner wants to be out of the relationship, but suffers from hyperbolic discounting. Even someone who has grown bored with their partner will still find it painful to tell their husband or wife that they want a divorce. You are wrenching the heart of the person you once loved enough to declare a lifelong commitment to. You want to be free of them, but that doesn’t mean you’re not dreading the process of getting from here to there.

So what will you do if you’re a hyperbolic discounter? You’ll procrastinate. You’ll convince yourself that you’ll leave your wife next month, or next year. And somehow next year turns into this year, and it never happens.

In this view, embarking on an affair is a sign of wanting out eventually, but not having the courage to just end it then and there. The affair is thus a commitment to eventually end the marriage at some unknown point when you get discovered. It functions somewhat like the Thaler and Bernartzi ‘Save More Tomorrow’ plan, or the complaint to the police by a domestically abused woman in a  no-drop jurisdiction. It’s the ‘Divorce More Tomorrow’ plan for those without the courage to tell their husband or wife that they want to leave. 

The indefinite timeline for discovery is also a plus – a known date would cause a lot of stress as it approached, and would create the risk of massive preference reversals. The unknown aspect means in addition that the final choice is taken out of the cheater’s hands, which benefits those who want to feel like the divorce was the process of some inevitable deterioration in the relationship, rather than an active choice by them (we grew apart, things didn’t work out, the knife went in).

My guess is that when the cheater is eventually discovered in their lie, once the initial shock is overcome, the next feeling is relief. Relief that things are finally drawing to the conclusion that they’ve long wanted, but haven’t had the courage to actually ask for.

It seems a strange explanation, but I can’t think of a better one.