Monday, July 30, 2012

It's Later Than You Think

I finally got around to watching the last episode of House the other day. It wasn’t too bad. I won’t spoil the ending, but it finishes with a version of the song ‘It’s Later Than You Think’. You can see a good version of the song (not the House scene that uses it) here starting at about 1:50.

It has the following memorable chorus:
‘Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself
It’s later than you think.’
I found myself in two minds about this.

The last line is a great one, and the song itself is catchy.

But the first two ring hollow. Sure, the verses dress it up in good advice (don’t spend all your time working), but I found it hard to not find myself thinking, a la William Shatner in the song ‘You’ll Have Time’ – “Is this all there is? Why did I bother?”

The problem of mortality and the human condition is vast and intimidating, but the answer is just… ‘enjoy yourself’?? And it’s not like we’ve got anything like the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to make the eloquent and reasoned argument for the same ultimate proposition, it’s just tossed out there as if ‘enjoy yourself’ is the completely obvious response to mortality.

Still, I found that I kept humming it – folly or half-truth set to music has a much better chance of being repeated than truth written down in a book.

But fortunately I recently came across an infinitely superior version that gives an equally appealing version of the second half of the chorus, but with a much more satisfying set of first half advice on what to do in response.

From the Saṃyutta Nikāya, 3:25, recounting the following conversation between the Buddha and King Pasenadi of Kosala.
“What do you think, great king? Suppose a man would come to you from the east, one who is trustworthy and reliable, and would tell you: ‘For sure, great king, you should know this: I am coming from the east, and there I saw a great mountain high as the clouds coming this way, crushing all living beings. Do whatever you think should be done, great king.’ Then a second man would come to you from the west … a third man from the north … and a fourth man from the south, one who is trustworthy and reliable, and would tell you: ‘For sure, great king, you should know this: I am coming from the eat, and there I saw a great mountain high as the clouds coming this way, crushing all living beings. Do whatever you think should be done, great king.’ If, great king, such a great peril should arise, such a terrible destruction of human life, the human state being so difficult to obtain, what should be done?”
“If, venerable sir, such a great peril should arise, such a terrible destruction of human life, the human state being so difficult to obtain, what else should be done but to live by the truth (Dhamma), to live righteously, and to do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”
“I inform you, great king, I announce to you, great king: aging and death are rolling in on you. When aging and death are rolling in on you, great king, what should be done?”
“As aging and death are rolling in on me, venerable sir, what else should be done but to live by the truth (Dhamma), to live righteously, and to do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”
“Venerable sire, kings intoxicated with the intoxication of sovereignty, obsessed by greed for sensual pleasures, who have attained stable control in their country and rule over a great sphere of territory, conquer by means of elephant battles, cavalry battles, chariot battles, and infantry battles; but there is no hope of victory when aging and death are rolling in. In this royal court, venerable sir, there are counselors who, when the enemies arrive, are capable of dividing them by subterfuge; but there is no hope of victory by subterfuge, no chance of success, when aging and death are rolling in. In this royal court, there exists abundant bullion and gold stored in vaults, and with such wealth we are capable of mollifying the enemies when they come; but there is no hope of victory by wealth, no chance of success, when aging and death are rolling in. As aging and death are rolling in on me, venerable sir, what else should I do but live by the truth (Dhamma), live righteously, and do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”
“So it is, great king! So it is, great king! As aging and death are rolling in on you, what else should you do but live by the truth (Dhamma), live righteously, and do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”
Just so.

Live by the truth (Dhamma), live righteously, and do wholesome and meritorious deeds. It's later than you think.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Why don't people read through the archives and old entries of blogs?

This is something I'm guilty of myself, and it's a strange behaviour.

We can rule out some of the obvious cases. Blogs that discuss mainly current events tend to date in much the same way as newspapers. I think there's a tendency for a lot of writers who don't have a particular dedicated subject to drift towards either 'discuss current events' or 'link to cool stuff someone else has posted', if for no other reason than that these provide a fairly reliable source of new subject matter.

But if the subject matter is more broad, old entries are probably just as interesting as new ones. Perhaps even more so, if you think that people use up their most interesting insights early on in a blog's life. If you switched the dates, it's not always clear that people would even know. This post, for instance, would have read the same if I wrote it last year or next year.

Some people like to comment, and take part in a discussion. That's a good reason, but those people are usually a small minority.

So what about the rest?

My guess, for what it's worth, is that people get used to a very particular process of reading. Clicking on a website is like pressing a button that says 'entertain me'. Sometimes it works, sometimes there's nothing there and you move on. RSS readers are even more extreme - there's the bold 'new' entries, and then there's 'everything else'.

Now, in theory you could just click on the archives and hunt around for other stuff, trying to filter out the bits that aren't relevant any more.

Then again, in theory you could also go read a book, or talk to your co-worker down the hall, or go for a run, or any other number of more useful activities when the Internet has ceased to entertain you.

But instead, like a gambler at a slot machine having another spin, you'll click refresh again, waiting to see if the magic 'entertain me' button has started working again. Even when the archives are a pretty darn similar type of button, you still stick with the one you're used to.

It looks pathological when you see old people at the pokies in Vegas at 3am doing it. But they're on the same hedonic treadmill as the rest of us - mine, for instance, just take place in private.

Part of the impetus for all this, dear reader, is that posting is going to be light for the next month or so, until late August. I have the distinct pleasure of roaming around Europe, in a kind of 'working holiday' type arrangement. Pessimists would forecast that the amount of 'work' in the 'working holiday' will be analogous to the function of 'massages' at a 3am massage parlour - it's the fig leaf that gets you in the door, but nobody takes it too seriously. Still, the only obstacle is my self-control, so we'll see how it goes. Pessimists might further note that describing a lack of self-control as the "only" thing stopping me working is like saying that the only obstacle to me winning the 100m freestyle at the olympics is that I can't swim fast enough. I fear that the pessimists may be right on both counts, but hope springs eternal.

But the moral of the story is that if you're a new reader, I encourage you to dig around the archives on the right in the mean time. At a minimum, I guarantee you that it's no worse than the crap that gets dished up here normally!

Yours truly,

Shylock.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Miscellaneous Joy

-The Last Psychiatrist has a great essay about self-destructive behaviour.

-I got 99 problems, but an incorrect understanding of criminal procedure laws ain't one. (Via AL)

-"Evening dress is the first step towards civilization" (via)

-40 varieties of wrong thoughts, by David Stove.

-Ave Atque Vale, Donald J. Sobol. I remember reading the Encyclopedia Brown stories when I was a kid. When I read the news, however, it reminded me that I hadn't had a single thought about Encyclopedia Brown in at least twenty years. Strange.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Thought of the Day

The contemporary mind, as illustrated by Ms. Roiphe's, has fundamental problems grasping useful concepts like "on average" and "tends to."
-Steve Sailer, opining on an article where the aforementioned Ms. Roiphe got into a huge tizzy over a New York Times piece reporting on the totally obvious fact that children of single parents tend to have fewer opportunities than those born to married parents.

The phenomenon goes much further than this, of course. As Mr Sailer well knows.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Paying to Not Get Laid

If you want some hilarious reading, check out the website 'Miss Travel'.

Lest my screeds prejudice your impressions, let's just quote the company's own description of what it offers:
'Who needs money, beautiful people travel free!'
Generous: Find a Travel Companion
Let's face it, no one likes to travel alone. We made this so that people who travel can meet other people to join them.
Attractive: Travel Anywhere Free
Want to see the world or find new friends? Meet generous travelers who are seeking travel partners, or local tour guides.
 Got that?

There's so much comedy gold to work through here that it's hard to know where to start.

To begin with the obvious, let's look at the pictures displayed on the opening page:

In other words, everyone is only interested in the women side (at first). The female members want to relate to these attractive go-getting normal women! The men want to meet said women. At a first pass, nobody is interested in the men.

But there's at least a couple of big elephant-in-the-room question left unanswered by the premise of the site. I would submit they are the following:

1. If the guy pays for the woman to travel with him, is the woman expected to sleep with the guy?

2.. If the answer to #1 is yes, is this just glorified prostitution?

3. If the answer to #1 is no, why on earth would guys pay thousands of dollars to not sleep with a woman?

4. Regardless of #1, how often do the people in question actually sleep together.

(Un)Amazingly, none of these questions are answered on the 'FAQ' page.

Let's start with #1. Once you realise the implications of #2 and #3, it's obvious how they have to work it. Go back and read the site, and see if you can figure out the answer.
MissTravel.com is a travel dating website that matches generous travelers with attractive travel girls (or guys).
They square the circle about as best you can.

In other words, the essential dilemma of the site is that women won't go on a site where it's expected that they have to sleep with some guy on the other side of the world, sight unseen. Men, on the other hand, won't fly a woman across the world unless they're pretty sure they're going to get laid.

On face, these seem like incompatible goals. The answer is to pose this as a probabilistic answer - it's a "dating site", so you might get laid, assuming you both want to!

Men hear  "you might get laid, assuming you both want to."

Women hear "you might get laidassuming you both want to."

Of course, if the expectation of p(getting laid) is radically different between the man and the woman, eventually reality will collide with these distorted beliefs. And the loser will, I predict, be the man.

At the margin though, the whole site is geared up towards attracting women. You might assume that men with money are the scarce resource here. But they're not - the supply of desperate loser men is high, even if the supply of those willing to pay to fly out women to maybe sorta hopefully sleep with them is not so high. At the margin, given it's free for women to sign up, the site owners seem to be betting that if you build a place with lots of hot normal women (well, as normal as you can be while being willing to have a stranger fly you across the country or world), then the losers with fat wallets will come.

But question #2 keeps looming. The moral delineation between 'pay for sex with money', 'pay for sex with things that cost money, but not money directly', and 'have sex consensually unrelated to the transfer of goods, then do nice things for partner which cost money, including gifts' becomes awfully fuzzy when you try to pin it down. The first case is prostitution. The second case is being a sugar daddy. The third case, in various forms, is a relationship. Feminists have argued about this point for decades.

How does Miss Travel deal with this thorny philosophical question? As follows;
ESCORTS: DO NOT ENTER!
MissTravel.com is intended to be used as an online dating website. Our members expect to find genuine profiles, with genuine opportunities to fall in love and enter into a relationship. We understand that every member has a different motivation for joining this site, but we do not support any members who are registering as escorts. This is not an escort site, nor will we permit any type of escorting on this site. MissTravel.com is strictly an online dating service for people who are looking for a travel partner.
If you are an escort, who has advertised your services on any escort website, you are not allowed to use this website. We encourage our members to report any suspicious activity or requests of this nature, and will act upon any complaints.
Let me ask a totally obvious question. Is this message meant to: 

a) deter potential prostitutes from using the site, or

b) reassure regular women with no history of prostitution who are thinking of signing up to the site that doing so will not make them a prostitute.

To ask, as they say, is to know the answer.

Could they make it any more plain? It's like George Bush Sr, with his 'Message: I Care'. They may as well put up a page saying 'FAQ: Does it make me a hooker if I use this site?'. But that would likely be difficult, because then they'd need to disabuse either the men or the women of the nature of the arrangement. This warning is far more clever.

From the male perspective, paradoxically the 'generous travellers' probably don't want to feel like they're paying for a hooker either. Men would much rather pay to probabilistically sleep with someone than they will to sleep with someone with certainty.

So, in theory, this could work. The $64,000 question, however, is #4 - what is the likelihood that the guy will actually get laid?

Obviously they don't put this data on their website. But helpfully they do put some user testimonials, from which we can make some educated guesses. Let's see.

Case #1


The guy in this story is so unimportant that he isn't even mentioned. The woman's second sentence is to complain about the food. The only people who were listed as 'great fun' were the locals. Ouch. It's vanishingly unlikely that the guy got anywhere.

Case #2.


Aside from creepy 'cousine' bit (what better term of endearment for your woman than 'cousin'! Er, or not) this sounds the least like glorified probabilistic prostitution. The fact that he had a GREAT TIME might mean he got some tail, or just that he was too embarrassed to admit that he didn't. We'll give him the benefit of the doubt, and score this as a win. Note too that the website couldn't wait to include the description of a rich guy from Paris, not a rich guy from Akron, Ohio.

Case #3


This girl at least talks in non-trivial detail about the guy in question, suggesting at a minimum that she didn't just view him as a chump with a wallet. 'I did some shopping alone' = 'I had carte blanche use of his credit card'. Nice! The fact that he didn't bother seeing her during the day screams out lawyer or banker. If they're planning a new trip, I presume this means he did score, unless he's just a glutton for punishment. The 'nice time' made me wince though. I dunno - give him the benefit of the doubt and count it as a win.

Case #4.


Yeesh, this guy is boasting about how much he spent on this girl in the first sentence. The 'indoor fun' bit may just be boasting, but the more relevant part is that the vacation happened in Portland - I don't the stereotypical gold-digger wants to spend a week in Portland, unless they actually somewhat like the guy. I rate it as a win - in fact, I'd rate this as the highest probability so far that he actually got some action.

Case #5.

Nothing quite screams out 'guy who spent a lot of money to not get laid, and is now trying to rationalise it to himself' like the phrase '[we] had a harmonious time together'. That's gotta burn. Fail.

Case #6


I presume 'we' is referring to the guy's wallet, which, as far as this description indicates, is all she saw. Not quite as brutal as the first one, but I don't like this invisible guy's chances. Moral of the story, lads? Avoid the ones who want a Caribbean trip like the plague.

And I've saved the most interesting for last:

Case #7


It took me a second to realise that the picture wasn't mistakenly attached to the wrong testimonial - it's a guy who went to meet another guy. No wonder the picture is a closeup of his face and he seems quite good-looking - he doesn't look like the kind of guy who'd have to pay to fly a woman somewhere to get laid, and sure enough, he isn't. I imagine he probably did score.

So where does this get us? From the straight ones, we're batting 3 from 6. And this is the absolute maximum, because these are the testimonials the website owners themselves cherry-picked in order to seem as good as possible.

And as to cost, these guys probably paid multiple thousands of dollars for these trips. Given you're basically paying to get laid anyway, a hooker seems a lot cheaper.

I'm not surprised that this strategy has a low return. One person who would not have fallen for this kind of stupidity is the great Richard Feynman. Long before the advent of game, he seems to have figured out some of the basic details. As he put it:
"Furthermore, the very first rule is, don’t buy a girl anything -- not even a package of cigarettes — until you’ve asked her if she’ll sleep with you, and you’re convinced that she will, and that she’s not lying.”
 Ignore this at your peril.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Little Victories

So today was one of those cases of getting unreasonably excited by something completely trivial and ridiculous.

It's taken three years of (sporadically) eating lunch at the same sandwich place, but I finally got asked if I'd like 'the usual'. I thought that kind of thing only happens on TV shows! The investment has paid off.

Being asked if you want 'the usual' of course marks one as the aristocracy of any establishment. The staff recognise me! They pay attention to my whims which, fortunately, never change.

It's like being the foursquare mayor of a place, except that you don't have to wave you phone around for everyone to know about it.

Good times.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Great Question About Charter Cities.

Charter Cities are an interesting example of how modern development might work. As pioneered by Paul Romer, the basic idea is that they would function somewhat like a special economic zone, where the rules being enforced are different from the surrounding country, and most likely imported from a country with better levels of development, such as Canada. In other words, think of somewhere like Hong Kong, but run with Canadian laws and officials.

Romer looks to be making some progress on the idea of creating one in Honduras, which I think would make an interesting experiment. It certainly can't be much worse than what else is going on in Honduras (or anywhere else in Central America), so qualifies as 'worth a shot'.

The thorny question is - if you want to just recreate Hong Kong, isn't that (*gasp, shudder, cross-yourself-thrice*)... colonialism? And we all know that that was worse than Hitler!!

Well, that's a bit tricky. Romer does have two conceptual difference that he can point to.

The first is that the city is to be built on 'uninhabited land', so nobody is (in theory) being dispossessed to make this colony. I mean, charter city! Sorry.

The second, and more interesting one, is that the rules in this city will only be enforced on those who voluntarily enter. It's like a genuine version of the social contract, because you apparently get to choose whether to join in the first place. Of course, it's not clear how things will work if the laws change while you're in there. I guess you can leave again - maybe. Who knows.

The real question is, how much difference do these distinctions really make? Are you still deep down just recreating the Racist Hitlercaust that was the British Empire?

There's two ways of answering this. In the court of progressive public opinion, Romer is doing a pretty good job of attempting to circumvent the nominal complaints of the anti-colonialism crowd. There's still the awkward aspect that if it's white Canadian officials ruling over local Hondurans it might not make for great photos, but that more of an aesthetic complaint than a concrete example of injustice. The jury is still out on this, since it's a sufficiently untried idea. Romer in his TED talks tries to get the anti-colonialist crowd on board with these musings:
Why is this not like colonialism? The thing that was bad about colonialism, and the thing that is residually bad in some of our aid programs, is that it involved elements of coercion and condescension. This model is all about choices - both for leaders and for the people who will live in these new places. And choice is the antidote to coercion and condescension.
But screw progressive public opinion. Do you buy the distinction?

The 'vacant land' thing is fine, and is a good start. But confiscating land is a one-off startup cost that may well be worth paying to set up Hong Kong. The ongoing injustice, if you think there is one, is the lack of choice by citizens as to who they're going to be ruled by. And everyone here will be free to enter or exit, so no problem! Sounds watertight, right?

Mencius Moldbug would disagree. He delivers a long and stinging rebuke of Romer - I think it's perhaps unfair on Romer personally in parts, but I think he makes a great argument that if this actually works, it will do so for the same reasons that colonialism works. In other words, Romer wants to pretend that this is nothing whatsoever to do with colonialism, when in actual fact it's probably best described as colonialism with a better PR department, redesigned for modern political sensibilities to appeal to progressives.

But even that may not be enough. The Achilles heel of the current setup is that progressives, Romer included, at heart all believe in democracy. The system being proposed is definitively undemocratic at a local level (but for which individuals join only by choice).

That's fine - the city claims a right to enforce its laws, and people, by entering, forfeit the right to change the rules themselves.

But is this a credible threat by the city?

Moldbug, I think very presciently, looks ahead and asks a very tough question that I fear Romer doesn't want to answer:
Professor Romer, here is a question for you: suppose your good Mr. Castro says yes, and you get your Guantanamo City up and running, with its Haitian population and Canadian proconsuls. It is, of course, a smashing success, with investment galore.
And then, in ten years, a mob of Haitians gathers in the beautifully landscaped central square, wearing coloured rosettes and throwing rotten eggs, all chanting a single demand: democracy for Guanatanamo City. The Canadians, all in a tizzy, call you. It's the middle of the night in Palo Alto. You pick up the phone. "What should we say?" the Canadians ask. "Yes, or no?"

If they say yes - what, in ten years, will be the difference between Guantanamo and Haiti? If they say no - what do they say next? You'll notice that you have no answer to this question. Hell has little pity for those who decide to forget history.
Perhaps the reason you have so much trouble imagining this scenario is that your own country has been so successful in suppressing actual political democracy, in favor of the administrative caste of which you are a member. To you, the proposition that "politics" should affect the formulation or execution of "public policy" is no less than heresy - like Velveeta on a communion wafer.
Thus, you reinvent colonialism by simply teleporting this managerial state from Canada, where democracy has been effectively suppressed, to Cuba, where democracy has been effectively suppressed. But the subjects of your new state are not Canadians, or even Cubans. The job has not been done.
If you want to suppress their lust for power, a lust which grows in the heart of every man, you can do so. All it takes is a bit of gear and the will to use it. As Wellington said: pour la canaille, la mitraille. But then, my dear professor, you are really reinventing colonialism - not just pretending to do so, for an audience as ignorant, hypocritical and naive as yourself.
Bingo.

Charter cities, should they get off the ground, will last only up until the local citizens start agitating for democracy.

Which they will.

And when that happens, do you think the Canadian administrators will have the nerve to tell them no? And to order the local army and police to enforce such an edict? What, exactly, is the argument that Canadian public servants will be able to advance as to why they should use force to suppress political agitation for a democratic vote? Can you see them making any such pronouncement without their heads exploding?

To ask the question is to know the answer.

I'd be delighted to see Charter Cities succeed. They seem a damn sight better than foreign aid. Moldbug claimed that he didn't think the idea would ever get off the ground. In the three years since, it looks like he might be proved wrong on this point.

But I fear he'll be right on the larger point.

Iterate forwards, Mr Romer. The day will come when you'll have to face a stark choice.

One choice will make you the next Deng Xiaoping.

The other choice will make you the next Ian Smith.

The implications for the ethics of these choices are complicated and thorny.

The implications for economic development, (which this was apparently all about in the first place), alas, are not.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Quote of the Day

I came across this old interview with Theodore Dalrymple, when he's talking about his [thoroughly excellent] book 'Life At The Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass'

He describes perfectly the attitude of so many urban youths:
"It doesn't take long or cost much to have a small tattoo done," Dalrymple writes. "You can stigmatize yourself thoroughly in an hour or more for a mere fifty dollars. . . . Watching as yet untattooed young men browsing through the patterns in the parlor reception areas, I felt like a Victorian evangelist or campaigner against prostitution, an impulse rising within me to exhort them to abjure evil; but their adoption of the characteristic expression of the urban underclass (a combination of bovine vacancy and lupine malignity) soon put [an end] to my humanitarian impulse."
'Bovine vacancy and lupine malignity'. Is that not the best metaphor you've read in months?

At first I thought this was said in the interview itself, but on re-reading I think it's from the book. If he came up with that extemporaneously, it would put him up there with the wittiest men of this century (even if the humour is somewhat grim). As it is, it's still brilliant.

Stop playing with your damn phone and talk to the person in front of you

One of the most striking modern pathologies is the nervous twitch of obsessively checking one's phone.

I use the terms 'obsessive' and 'pathology' advisedly. People will check their email literally hundreds of times a day, even though they might get only 15 emails (if that). And most of the emails are rubbish anyway. How many of them couldn't wait half an hour until you were back at your computer?

Now, ordinarily I'd just put this down to de gustibus non est disputandum. If people want to spend all their lives poring over a tiny screen, that's their business.

But as a question of manners, I find it strange how much obsessive phone checking intrudes into otherwise polite situations.

Last night, I was out at a quite nice restaurant. At the table next to me was a couple, late 20's or early 30's. Quite stylishly dressed. I overhead them say to the waiter that they were on holiday from Dallas.

And yet during the meal, when I glanced over the guy was on his phone continuously for perhaps a two minute stretch at least (or happened to be on it both times when I glanced over). Phone in his lap, head down tapping away. The girl was sitting there poking at her salad, looking bored. It didn't look like the guy was quickly checking wikipedia to settle an argument as to whether the English side in the Battle of Hastings was lead by King Harold or Ethelred the Unready. It looked like he was just zoning out to do his own thing.

Seems like a funny way to spend an evening at a nice restaurant with your girlfriend.

Now, in some ways this isn't the most perplexing case though. Phones are a great way to deal with boredom and social isolation. Perhaps they'd just ran out of things to say, and the guy wasn't good at dealing with silences. It's still somewhat poor form, but understandable.

No, the truly bizarre trait is the people who'll compulsively check their phone while carrying on a conversation (at 50% attention level, of course). That's just plain rude. It's saying that the discussion with the other person is not worth your full attention. Would you just pick up a newspaper and start reading when the other person was in mid-sentence? Would you turn on the TV? No! So put down the damn phone.

This is a trait concentrated almost for the most part in young people. This is partly because they're more technology-obsessed to begin with, and partly because they were less likely to be raised with proper manners. They get used to fiddling with it, and nobody calls them out on it.

Well, screw that. If you're hanging out with me, and I like you enough to consider you a friend, you're going to get called out on it. 'Are we playing phones? Woo! Email!'. Or I'm going to do my annoying thing of swatting at the phone while telling you 'Put it away! Put it away!'. (If you're someone I don't know well enough to do this too, I'l just be quietly judging you as having poor breeding, while deciding if I can extricate myself from your boorish company).

And for the most part, people will put it away without too much hassle. Because they themselves know that they weren't really expecting to find anything more interesting there, and that it basically is just a nervous twitch. (If people really are expecting a particular email or text message, they'll usually apologise and say so, which is always fine).

One alternative to it being compulsive is that they genuinely prefer the company of whatever person they're communicating with by email or text message. You can rule this one out easily by noting that if you reversed the roles of 'person in front of them' and 'person on the other end of the text message', they'd still be doing the same thing.

Another is that social discourse has become sufficiently shrivelled that modern teenagers actually prefer to communicate electronically than face-to-face. This is probably part of it - I note an increasing discomfort among young people to speak to anyone on the phone - you'll call them, and they'll text message you back. (Again, this is likely to get you mocked by me). But how do you explain the behaviour by people who are outgoing and gregarious? They don't have any reason to avoid real conversation. Instead they just want to get the positive buzz of an email or text message and (sort of) continue the conversation. It might be that they're selfish in assuming their time is more valuable that yours. It might also be that they're equally happy for you to be doing the same thing back (which seems like one of Dante's circles of conversational hell). It's both hilarious and scary to watch groups of teenagers all sitting around, all playing on their phones and half-talking while texting whichever of their friends aren't immediately in front of them.

The one saving grace in all this is that I'm old enough that my generation doesn't communicate so much by text message, so most of the obsession is on the email front. Because of the immediacy and greater intrusiveness of text messages, people feel the need to respond quickly. But then the other person responds back, and now you're doing nothing but text messaging each other back and forth. At least with email, if there's nothing there when you check, you have to face up to the rejection and go back to the person in front of you. Text messages succeed more with the phone-obsessed  because they provide a never-ending stream of distractions.

Do you ever find yourself  laughing at the idiots playing farmville on facebook, obsessively logging in to water their crops every four hours so that imaginary animals don't die?

Don't. The psychology of people gettting stuck in stupid hedonic feedback loops and ending up doing obsessive things is exactly the same as compulsive phone checking. Farmville just figured out how to turn a profit on it.

And so, in their own way, did the phone companies. It's not for nothing that the prices charged on text messages are astronomical relative to their cost to send. Addicts will always pay up.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Obamacare Ruling, Part 1

So I'm about half way through the Obamacare ruling - so far, I've gotten through the Roberts opinion and the Ginsburg opinion. My thoughts on the relative merits of the cases may change when I read through the dissenters.

A couple of thoughts on what I've read so far.

First, there is a marked contrast in how much the different opinions seem to opine on the merits of the law. Here's Roberts take, at page 59 of the PDF:
The Framers created a Federal Government of limited powers, and assigned to this  Court the duty of enforcing those limits. The Court does so today. But the Court does not express any opinion on the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act.  Under the Constitution, that judgment is reserved to the people.
By contrast, Ginsburg's opinions have an irritating habit of inserting thinly disguised editorialising about her support of the laws in question as a matter of policy. From page 74 of the PDF:
To make its chosen approach work, however, Congress had to use some new tools, including a requirement that most individuals obtain private health insurance coverage. See 26 U. S. C. §5000A (2006 ed., Supp. IV) (the minimum coverage provision). As explained below, by employing these tools, Congress was able to achieve a practical, altogether reasonable, solution.
I guess she didn't get the Roberts memo about not expressing any opinions on the wisdom of the legislation.

Here's Ginsburg, dishonestly repeating one of the classic talking points of the left about healthcare, from page 70 of the PDF:
Not all U. S. residents, however, have health insurance. In 2009, approximately 50 million people were uninsured, either by choice or, more likely, because they could not afford private insurance and did not qualify for government aid.
The Census estimate was 46 million, but what's a few million between friends. And out of this number,  (by the Politifact estimate) at least 15% of those 'residents' don't have health insurance because they're illegal aliens who shouldn't be in the country in the first place. To describe their problem as being one of 'not qualifying for government aid' is deliberately disingenuous.

But what is most egregious about the Ginsburg opinion is the reliance it makes on the free-rider problem.This is an important part of her argument justifying the law under the Interstate Commerce Clause. The individual mandate is justified as being 'necessary and proper' for regulating interstate commerce. There's a long argument starting on page 70 of the pdf, which I won't reprint in full, but the gist of it is that you can't force insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions at the same price as everyone else without the individual mandate. This is because guaranteeing that pre-existing conditions will be covered at no extra cost creates an incentive for people to wait until they get an expensive illness, and only buy insurance then. This causes huge cost-shifting in the insurance market, and threatens to make the whole thing collapse. It's a classic free-rider, or moral hazard, problem.

Ginsburg's description of this problem, as a matter of economics, is really quite good, and I don't have much to quibble about there.

But why is this a social issue? Can't the hospital just deny them treatment? That may be considered unfair, but it's a pretty damn effective solution to the free-rider problem. And here's where Ginsburg's argument comes in:
The large number of individuals without health insurance, Congress found, heavily burdens the national health-care market. See 42 U. S. C. §18091(2).  As just noted, the cost of emergency care or treatment for a serious illness generally exceeds what an individual can afford to pay on her own. Unlike markets for most products, however, the inability to pay for care does not mean that an uninsured individual will receive no care. Federal and state law, as well as professional obligations and embedded social norms, require hospitals and physicians to provide care when it is most needed, regardless of the patient’s ability to pay.
Let's reprint the key bits again, in case you missed them:
Federal and state law, as well as professional obligations and embedded social norms, require hospitals and physicians to provide care when it is most needed, regardless of the patient’s ability to pay.
Got that? Federal Law has created a free-rider problem in this market, and now it requires a solution.

Now, as a practical description of the problem, that's totally fine. It is, indeed, the root of a lot of the problems.

But as a constitutional justification for the law, this is insane.

The government wouldn't ordinarily be able to compel individuals to purchase something under the interstate commerce clause, as I read the Ginsburg opinion, unless this is 'necessary and proper' to some already constitutional purpose.

No problem! The government passes laws that create a free-rider problem. One solution (not the only solution, but who cares!) to the problem is to mandate a pool of customers to subsidise those that you've legislated to ride for free. And the existence the government-created free-rider problem is used as the constitutional basis for justifying the entire edifice.

Don't believe me? Listen to Ginsburg's description of why it would be absurd to suggest that the government might be able to create a mandate for eating broccoli:
Consider the chain of inferences the Court would have to accept to conclude that a vegetable-purchase mandate was likely to have a substantial effect on the health-care costs borne by lithe Americans. The Court would have to believe that individuals forced to buy vegetables would then eat them (instead of throwing or giving them away), would prepare the vegetables in a healthy way (steamed or raw, not deep-fried), would cut back on unhealthy foods, and would not allow other factors (such as lack of exercise or little sleep) to trump the improved diet.  Such “pil[ing of] inference upon inference” is just what the Court re­fused to do in Lopez and Morrison. 
I don't know whether this argument is presented as deliberately misleading bull#$%^, or just very sloppy thinking. This is what the government would have to do to justify a broccoli mandate under the guise of it reducing healthcare costs.

But suppose that a government wanted you to eat broccoli. Justice Ginsburg has created a far simpler method for them to justify it! Just pass a 'Broccoli Human Rights Act of 2014', requiring that no person shall be denied broccoli by any supermarket or store based on their inability to pay, provided that they can prove that they are sufficiently hungry. There's a real problem - some people go hungry. Broccoli is a good solution to that problem. Presto! Our starving poor now have access to broccoli.

But we've now created a terrible free-rider problem. Broccoli-sellers have started to lose tons of money. One might characterise the problem as being that 'Federal and State Law, as well as professional and social obligations to not let people starve to death, require stores to provide broccoli when it is most needed, regardless of the customer's ability to pay'. One solution to this is the Affordable Broccoli Food Act of 2020, with it's Broccoli Individual Mandate component.

And this is exactly the same logic that Ginsburg found so compelling above. She'd pass it here. She'd pass it there. She'd pass that legislation anywhere.

So what are the other limits on the likely existence of the Broccoli mandate under the Ginsburg reasoning?
Other provisions of the Constitution also check congressional overreaching. A mandate to purchase a particular product would be unconstitutional if, for example, the edict impermissibly abridged the freedom of speech, interfered with the free exercise of religion, or infringed on a liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause. 
At last we've gotten an honest argument. Legislation justified under the interstate Commerce clause will be struck down if it's explicitly prohibited elsewhere.

You can tell me this is a good way of running a government. But don't tell me that this is still a Federal government of enumerated powers. Everything that is not prohibited is permitted.

Fortunately, this is not the current law of the land on the Interstate Commerce clause. (The law was upheld under the taxing authority, which I might get to in part 2). Unfortunately I fear that Justice Ginsburg will prove spot on in one assessment in particular, though:
THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s crabbed reading of the Commerce Clause harks back to the era in which the Court routinely thwarted Congress’ efforts to regulate the national economy in the interest of those who labor to sustain it.  See,  e.g., Railroad Retirement Bd. v.  Alton R. Co., 295 U. S. 330, 362, 368 (1935) (invalidating compulsory retirement and pension plan for employees of carriers subject to the Inter­state Commerce Act; Court found law related essentially “to the social welfare of the worker, and therefore remote from any regulation of commerce as such”).  It is a reading that should not have staying power. 
Absolutely.

For one reason, because the vast majority of interstate commerce clause decisions they've made in the past have gone in this direction. 'Regulating Interstate Commerce' includes banning marijuana that's grown in one state and sold within the state, regulating swimming pools (which are pretty darn hard to transport across state lines once they're in the ground), and stopping a farmer growing too much wheat on his own property for his own farm use.

The only rule I can glean from their precedents before now is 'If it affects a price of something, somewhere, somehow, it's interstate commerce.' Now the court has said that, in theory, it won't keep going in this direction, even though it didn't have the stones to overturn the law in the end.

But let's get back to the quote itself. The other half of the problem is that a good chunk of the Court thinks that it is appropriate to put in an important and widely-read opinion that it feels that New Deal legislation was 'efforts to regulate the national economy in the interest of those who labor to sustain it'.

Just under half the court think that this is what constitutes being non-partisan, and they usually manage to find a swing voter from among the rest, I suspect her assessment will prove entirely correct.

Monday, July 2, 2012

That's why you're in admin, not in IT

In the annals of hilariously lame administrative @$$-covering messages, I always enjoy receiving these emails:
'Department [X] would like to recall the message titled '[Mistaken Subject Y]'.
You'd like to recall it, would you? I bet you would.

Unfortunately, that's not how email works - you don't get an 'undo' button after you send it, and you don't get to magically delete it from people's computers if you send the wrong thing.

So why don't you just send the obvious message:
'The message [Mistaken Subject Y] was sent in error - please disregard it. My apologies for the confusion.'
Ah, because that would imply that someone in particular was to blame, and admin fools can't ever commit that to writing. Let's just press the magic 'recall' button instead!

Tools.