Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Willpower is not a strategy

Psychological constraints are real constraints. People act as if they're not - because you can't see the process driving them, you should be able to make them just go away. I can see physical evidence of why I can't run 100m in ten seconds. I can't see physical evidence of why I can't work nine hours in a row without getting distracted.

Vanishingly few people ever do this on any given work day, of course. But that doesn't stop the motivated, type-A personality from holding himself to this standard. I'm so lazy, he'll say. Why can't I stop myself wasting time on the internet? When he inevitably falls short of this standard, he'll get frustrated with himself, and try to figure out how he can improve his output.

Usually, "willpower" is the deus ex machina by which this extra work is meant to happen. I'll concentrate more! I'll not check my email! This is, of course, no more practical as advice than 'I'll swim faster' or 'I'll eat less food every day'. It might work. But let's just say you'd probably want a plan B.

Willpower is better thought of as the residual between how much you actually do on a given day, and what a reasonable model of output would predict. In other words, just because you give a name to the part of the model that you can't explain doesn't mean you can now manipulate this part at will.

As Steve Sailer put it recently:
It’s a strange totem of the 21st century that if a brain scan can show us where something would happen inside the skull, we can therefore make it happen in ourselves...
We don’t think this way about other organs, though. Consider the stomach. For a century or more, we’ve had a more than adequate knowledge of how the digestive system works. Yet on average we’re fatter than ever. Why? Not because the science of stomach scans hasn’t progressed enough, but because we like eating more than we like exercising.
What's surprising is that this obsessive focus on willpower tends to blind people to more optimal solutions that recognise the constraints they face.

For instance, if you know you're going to get distracted and run out of energy by 4pm, why not try to do low mental energy admin tasks at that point so you're still getting something done?

When you find yourself not getting anything done at one task, why not switch to something else for an hour or two then come back to it?

Instead of getting up two hours earlier and being tired and unproductive all day, why not get eight hours sleep and work whenever you arrive?

Maybe you actually are unproductive. But what people refer to as 'unproductive' is usually measured against a standard that is
a) derived externally from some hypothetical benchmark,
b) not an unbiased forecast of actual output, and
c) not updated according to how their performance changes.

In other words, if every day you expect to be able to work 9 hours and you actually work 4, one of two things is certain. Either you're really bad at concentrating, or you're really bad at benchmarking what a reasonable output is.

I often hear the rejoinder that unrealistic benchmarks improve output, even if you always fall short. By aiming for 9 hours, I get 4 done, but if I aimed at 4, I'd only get 3.5 done.

Maybe. But do you ever see Microsoft announcing that they're going to set next quarter's earnings target as being earnings of two hundred gazillion dollars per share, just so that people would work harder? They'd be ridiculed, and rightly so.

You set targets so that you can see how different concrete strategies of improving output are actually working. But the hard work of improving output comes from understanding the internal processes at work, and how they can be optimised.

But if you haven't actually put any effort into the more difficult task of figuring out how you're going to change the underlying strategy, it seems largely delusional to think that just setting a higher goal will somehow produce this. This goes tenfold when you're setting the goal for yourself. 

James Bagian made a similar point about blaming people for medical screwups.
When I got into healthcare, I felt like I'd stepped into an entirely different world. It was all about, "Let's figure out who screwed up and blame them and punish them and explain to them why they're stupid." To me, it's almost like whistling past the grave. When we demonize the person associated with a bad event, it makes us feel better. It's like saying, "We're not stupid so it won't happen to us." Whereas in fact it could happen to us tomorrow.

And then, too, medicine is much older than these other fields, eons old, and for most of that time there wasn't PubMed or the AMA or what have you. It was all about the expertise of the individual practitioner. It's a short step from there to assuming that problems in medicine stem from problematic individuals. That's why we have this whole "train and blame" mentality in medical culture; someone makes a mistake, you train them not to do it anymore, and then you punish them if it happens again. I think we've ridden that horse about as far as we can.
Replace 'stupid' with 'lazy' and it describes the lecture you give yourself every day.

The willpower horse is dead on the ground and decomposing, but you keep lashing it with your riding crop.

Figure out something else.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Miscellaneous Joy

-Incentives? Who gives a damn about incentives?

-Partly in regards to this, Obama was asked what Donald Trump has against him. Good question - maybe Jack Ryan would be able to answer.

-Rowan Atkinson continues to kick ass.

-Apparently carousing in North Korea sometimes carries a heavy price.

-With the US election being merely weeks away, this is a good time to not be on facebook. That way you won't be subjected to the brilliant insights of all sorts of fools that insist on blasting their endorsements to all and sundry. This post of mine from a year and a half ago still seems right to me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Help is on the way!

Do friends and colleagues accuse you of being 'too masculine' or 'too heteronormative'? Thankfully, today's selection of musical items can help provide timely relief to ease the burdens of excessive manliness.

To insulate against the charge that 'your musical posts suck and are boring', these offerings came directly from reader suggestions. Proving that my readers are just as depraved as I, we have not one, but two cover versions of the Carly Ray Jepsen hit, 'Call Me Maybe'.

The first, via Athenios, is a choral and orchestral arrangement:

The second, via The Hammer, is done by Ms Jepsen herself, along with The Roots and Jimmy Fallon:

And in case this pushes things too far in the opposite direction and you need to resuscitate your male bona fides, here is the great Johnny Cash, via Hector Lopez:

Don't say I don't do nuthin for ya.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Stupidity of the 'China is a Currency Manipulator' Argument

Sometimes it's hard to know whether stupid-sounding statements by politicians are genuinely believed, or just thrown out there for the rubes. Or both.

One firmly in this category is the line that Mitt Romney kept repeating in the debates, about how China is a 'currency manipulator' and he's going to label them as such on day one of his presidency (presumably so that he can start imposing tariffs. Or maybe just for cathartic value - who knows?)

Romney is not unusually obtuse in this matter - Hillary Clinton has moaned about the same thing in terms every bit as stupid.

Now, is there anything implausible about the claim that China is printing lots of yuan in order to keep their currency low in value? Absolutely not - they are. It's a matter of public record. Is there anything incorrect in the statement that this is hurting  US exports to China, and making Chinese imports in the US more competitive relative to domestically produced goods? No, this too is obvious - it's microeconomics 101.

What is far less clear is the implication that the net effect of all this is negative for the US economy. For a long time, the US deliberately pursued a policy of wanting a strong dollar - i.e. they wanted the yuan to be weak relative to the dollar. Why? For exactly the same reason that politicians are now bitching about - it makes imports cheap, which is great news if you're someone who needs to import things, or if you're worried about keeping inflation low. Frankly I wasn't aware that this policy had even been officially abandoned, but what do I know?

Still, if this were all there were to the debate, I'd let it slide - you don't really expect nuanced economic discussion at these rube-fests.

But what's hilariously unexplored is the question of what exactly China is doing with all those extra yuan they're printing that keeps their currency artificially low. How do these translate into an expensive dollar?

Simple - the Chinese pump tons of money into buying US Treasury Bills. You remember those, right? They're the means by which this thoroughly bankrupt nation keeps running trillion dollar deficits and kicking the can down the road on its untold trillions of unfunded liabilities.

Reader, if China ever took the US up on their offer to stop making their currency cheap by printing yuan and buying T-Bills, do you know what would happen? The viability of US T-Bill auctions would become a hell of a lot less certain. And I can promise you, if (or more likely, when) a US Treasury auction fails, it will create consequences far worse than those of China having a currency that may or may not be too cheap. The specifics of how exactly it would play out is not something that you'd want to explore, as things like stock market crashes, runs on money market funds and bank failures start to become realistic possibilities.

As the Hilltop Hoods put it - like a free trip to Afghanistan, you don't want it.

Do you know who agrees with me about this?

Hillary @#$%ing Clinton, that's who. In between complaining about the Chinese currency being too cheap, she was begging the Chinese to keep buying T-Bills which would keep their currency cheap. At least Romney hasn't descended to that level of stupidity of demanding both [A] and [Not A]. Yet.

It is difficult to help people who know what they want but can't achieve it.

It is nigh on impossible to help people who don't even know what they want.

When those people are running the government, it is even more disturbing.

On the plus side though, there's two positive aspects.

One is that these politicians may not actually believe this nonsense, but might just be cynically manipulating the idiots of the electorate that will determine the outcome of the election.

The other is that the federal reserve is buying so much of the current T-Bill auctions already (by just printing money) that the auctions may never fail, and we'll just get pleasant hyperinflation instead.

Small victories, I suppose.

Good News, Bad News

People are apparently still surprised that when you take a country like Egypt and remove most of the forces ensuring law and order (however imperfectly and corruptly), this kind of thing happens.

At this late stage in the proceedings, I honestly cannot figure out why they would be.

Shylock's free tip to aspiring female reporters - if offered the lucrative assignment of covering the freedom-loving democracy protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, you should politely decline.

My initial reaction to the first-mentioned story was "You mean they're still sending in female reporters to cover these events without a full bodyguard contingent? Seriously?".

Thank goodness she seemed to escape less harmed than some of the other cases, in part because she managed to not get separated from the rest of her news crew. That's when things tend to go downhill really fast.

The bad news is that public rapes are up.

The good news (apparently) is that people are voting!

The bad news is that the voters include the rapists.

The other bad news is that they're voting for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Not sure I'd score this as a win overall, methinks.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Praying for victory

The setup has been done many times (Bob Dylan's 'With God On Our Side' being a classic example), but the mark of a great comedian is what they do with it. The great George Carlin:

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Zeroth Rule of Presentations

"Put your most important content at the top of your slides."


Freedom is Tyranny...

...when you're mentally ill.

Hacker News linked to this very interesting article in the Washington Post by Paul Gionfriddo, talking about how his own son fell victim to the very reforms of the mental health system that he himself helped pass as a member of the Connecticut legislature:
If you were to encounter my son, Tim, a tall, gaunt man in ragged clothes, on a San Francisco street, you might step away from him. His clothes, his dark unshaven face and his wild curly hair stamp him as the stereotype of the chronically mentally ill street person.
Tim is homeless. But when he was a toddler, my colleagues in the Connecticut state legislature couldn’t get enough of cuddling him. Yet it’s the policies of my generation of policymakers that put that formerly adorable toddler — now a troubled 6-foot-5 adult — on the street. And unless something changes, the policies of today’s generation of policymakers will keep him there.
An interesting mea culpa, to be sure.

(A long post, so more after the jump)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Great Question

From Pax Dickinson:
"Mr. President, would the US be better off today if you'd been prosecuted for smoking pot as a youth, or are you a total hypocrite?"
 Don't hold your breath waiting for it to be asked, let alone answered.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Miscellaneous Joy

-Entirely Alive! defends giving the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. I tend to agree. Let's put it this way - it's a hell of a lot better than giving it to that tree-planting woman who wasn't sure if AIDS might be created by western scientists or not.

-The War Nerd is back with a surprisingly positive assessment of Obama's foreign policy, at least the war-fighting part. I can't say I'm thrilled with said foreign policy, but it sure could have been a lot worse (and it's unlikely that John McCain would have been any better either). Incidentally, I tend to dislike parts of it - the Libya intervention, for one - because I didn't see what political purpose the whole thing served, and I still don't. The US didn't lose many troops, but losing an embassy is no laughing matter. I did find myself wondering how Brecher would reconcile his like of Obama military policy with a) Brecher's own Law of Counterinsurgency Warfare: 'Bribe 'em, Nuke 'em, or Just Leave 'em the Hell Alone!', and b) his suggested response to the Iranian hostage crisis, c.f. the Benghazi crisis. I'm guessing that this is more a 'if you're going to fight it, how should you do it?' than a 'should you fight it?', but I don't know.

-Ken at Popehat responds to the free speech critics who suggest that America needs to reconsider cultural values other than free speech. The 'alternative cultural values' on closer inspection turn out to be exactly what you'd expect - narrow-minded bigotry, cry-babies with exquisitely sensitive feelings, hypocritical 'tolerance for thee but not for me' types, and barbaric lynch mobs more at home in the middle ages. It's worth being reminded of this.

-Still on free speech, Jonathan Turley at the Washington Post describes the arguments being advanced in favor of censorship. Julia Gillard, Australia's worst Prime Minister since Malcolm Fraser, made an appearance with this quote: “Our tolerance must never extend to tolerating religious hatred and incitements to violence”. I couldn't tell whether this meant that we shouldn't tolerate hatred of religions (as Turley seems to imply) or hatred by religions (which, in the context of Islam, implies the opposite side of the debate). The UN press release seems to imply that she meant the latter. Which is good! Except that this was preceded with the statements that 'denigration of religious beliefs was never acceptable'.*  Wrong, you clueless pandering fool. It is acceptable. Otherwise we live in a country with de facto blasphemy laws. It seems there are no depths that she (continuing the cringeworth tradition started with Kevin Rudd) will not debase Australia in order to try to get the pointless prize of a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.

*(This was quoted indirectly in the UN press release, but it turns out that the statement 'denigration of religious beliefs was never acceptable' is a direct quote. Honest to god, I sat through the whole 15 minutes of pathetic bromides to make sure there wasn't some context I was missing. There wasn't).

Other clanger lines delivered:
'Australia's values in the world are those of the UN.'
I certainly hope not.
'The UN is.. the story of navigating the winds of change, the end of colonialism, bringing self-determination to the worlds great majority, the billions of the global south'.
It's also a story of cliches lifted straight from a third-rate sociology faculty lounge!
'2015 is a goal, but it is not a destination.'
Madam, fire your speechwriters.
"There can be no poverty alleviation without the creation of wealth and jobs. Growth alone is never sufficient.'
Fight that mangled strawman! I know I've heard lots of people advancing the argument that 'growth, without the creation of wealth and jobs (whatever the hell that is) is sufficient for alleviating poverty'.

Cancel that - madam, fire yourself. Or just wait for the Australian people to do it for you soon enough.

-Nydwracu rounds out the latest anarcho-tyranny in the UK. The UK Police - they can't catch the guy that burgled your house, but they can catch you if you make an off-colour remark on twitter.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Revenue (if not NPV) Positive Graffiti

I loathe graffiti. Courts tend to view it as a petty crime, just kids letting off steam.

But I find it aesthetically angering in a way that might make me seem like some crazy zero tolerance fanatic.

Sure, the cost to remove it may not be that high. But the mindset of ruining something beautiful merely for your own enjoyment is barbarism on the most primitive level. It is deadweight loss for the sheer enjoyment of deadweight loss. And I hate, hate, hate deadweight loss. If there is one thing that unites economists, it is that.

To make things more galling, the people who deface property will mark it with their own tag, so that others can know who did it. They may be doing it pseudonymously, but they are proud of their destruction of other people's property. I simply cannot fathom that mindset.

Jason Lee Steorts said much the same thing:
Let me end on a personal note. I hate vandals. My friends ask what makes me a conservative, and sometimes I wonder myself, but there is an answer, and it’s that I hate vandals. The problem with vandals is not that they are wrong about a conceptual matter. The problem is that they smash beautiful things. They couldn’t care less about your rules or your God or your conception of the good. You have to stop them with tools that work.
Recently though, I found something that I didn't think possible - graffiti that didn't strike me as completely value destroying.

I'm not talking about political slogan protests, although that might qualify depending on your view of the NPV of various political causes.

The graffiti that I found interesting was a couple of cases where the spraypaint scrawl gave the URL of either a youtube channel, or a soundcloud link.

This is by far the most entrepreneurial use of graffiti that I've come across. At least the vandal is hoping to get something out of it - ad revenue, and perhaps new audience members. If their stuff is actually interesting, there may well be consumer surplus to the people watching the clips.

Looked at this way, it's far more akin to traditional advertising billboards, except a) they're not paying the property owner, and b) it's not as attractive.

Both of these are genuine problems, to be sure. Because the property rights aren't secure, you can't appeal to the Coase theorem. We can't determine whether the value to the property owner to not have the graffiti is higher than the value to the vandal of having it. Presumably, in fact, it's not, because otherwise the vandal would have negotiated with the city to put up their URL (yeah right). It's at least positive revenue, if not positive NPV. Most graffiti is just loss piled on loss.

Still, it inspired in me a curious grudging respect for the guerrilla marketing skills of whoever came up with it. If the counterfactual is more youtube graffiti, I would be unhappy about it. But if the counterfactual is that existing graffiti artists turn their hand to promoting social media channels instead of inane gang logos, moving from 4th best to 3rd best is still a change for the good.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Call Their Bluff

Do it.

I dare you.

Wherein Feminism May Have a Point

Famed internet movie critic Jabrody has a list of the 50 most memorable movie characters, parts 26-50, 11-25 and 1-10. Check it out.

I'm going to take a cue from the Steve Sailer trick of using a list compiled for one purpose to answer an altogether different question. So what was striking about the list to me?  One thing that does stand out is just how few female characters make the cut - only 9 out of 50.

Now, absent some serious explaining, I'm aware that the previous sentence would be in the running for 'most pissweak sentence ever written on this blog'. So hear me out.

First of all, there is absolutely no implied criticism of Jabrody here. Quite the contrary, in fact - I thought he was maybe even overly generous in including interesting female characters (Princess Leia wouldn't have made my top 50, and Kim Basinger was, to me, eminently forgettable in LA Confidential). Not only that, but the next names on my list would have been men (Gordon Gekko, Trent from Swingers, Arnie in Terminator 2). In fact, if you pressed me for my most memorable female character, I could only think of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Scratch that - how many movies can you name where the female character is even the most interesting character in that movie, let alone all movies? Nurse Ratched doesn't pass that test for me. The only one that comes to mind there is Amelie.

So let's assume for the purpose of argument that there really aren't many memorable female characters, and this isn't just because I'm an evil misogynistic patriarchal oppressor, it's some kind of consensus view. Why is this interesting?

The reason is that movies, like advertising, give a direct window into our collective psyches. There's lots of reasons why there might be few women in boardrooms, including boring facts about education and the impact of child-rearing. But movies are just fantasy - we put in what we want to put in.

And for one reason or another, that doesn't include interesting female characters. The category of 'interesting' or 'memorable' is sufficiently broad that it's not like the women need to succeed in a male role either. But for some reason, scriptwriters aren't compelled to write in witty dialogue and back stories that makes women seem memorable as characters.

I suspect that part of the issue is that a lot of women are in movies more to look attractive than to be 'cool'. Sure, it helps for guys to be attractive. But can you imagine a female version of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Woody Allen? It seems that being attractive is almost a strictly necessary condition for being famous as an actress. This makes it more likely that the actresses being selected might just not be that good in the acting part. Some of the characters on the list make it purely from knock-it-out-of-the-park performances by the actor in question. Heath Ledger as the Joker and Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in 'No Country For Old Men' come to mind as characters that might have been boring or trite in the hands of less capable actors.

The standard feminist answer is that movie audiences, like society in general, are sexist in their expectations of women. But this doesn't seem to explain why there aren't memorable female characters in movies marketed specifically to women. Can you think of any interesting female character in a romantic comedy? Me neither. I don't think you can pin this just on audience sexism. If this is audience demand, I think it's not limited to one gender. If women demanded interesting characters instead of hotties that they could aspire to be like, studios would probably deliver.

Part of the reason might be that scriptwriters tend to be male, and thus have more ability to empathise with their male creations. Hence they end up getting the more interesting dialogue.

Truthfully, I don't know the answer, but it is puzzling.

It reminded me of the other interesting feminist critique of movies, the Bechdel test:

Does the movie
1. Have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man?
I certainly don't think that every (or even most) movies would be more interesting if modified to pass the test.  But that doesn't mean it's not an interesting question to consider.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Cruelty of Small Zoo Cages

If you're at the zoo with educated types, a frequent complaint you'll hear is about the cruelty of keeping these animals in small enclosures. Look at them! They look so miserable and idle. It's like living your whole life in prison, or in a mental institution. Why don't they put them in a proper-sized enclosure?

For starters, these people rarely tend to list the other side of the ledger than comes from this captivity - lots of animals, primates in particular, tend to live considerably longer in captivity than in the wild, for much the same reasons that you and I live longer in modern society than we would in the wilds of Borneo.

Still, let's take the complaint at face value, and ask the question that the bleeding hearts never seem to get around to asking - why don't  they put the animals in larger enclosures?

The simplest answer is cost - double the size of the enclosures and you'll need roughly double the land area to hold the zoo. That means that either the admission cost is going to have to go up, or the zoo will have to be located miles away where land is cheap. Are you willing to pay either of these costs? Probably not.

But I think there's an even more pervasive reason why the enclosures have to be small - humans insist on being able to see the animals close up.

The chimpanzees sure aren't getting any bigger. If you put them in a huge enclosure, then you're more likely to only see them at a distance, or not at all. Not nearly as exciting that way, is it? At a minimum, if you have a really large area, like the wildlife parks or safaris, you need to be able to enter the enclosure to find the animals yourself. It's not hard to see why this model doesn't scale very well if you want to have thousands of people passing through each day, because the potential for accidents becomes enormous. There's a reason they're called "wild animals" - chimpanzees might look cute, but they'll rip your face off.

What people actually want is for the animals to live in a huge natural enclosure, but also to be magically walking by really close at exactly the moment that the person is ready to see them. No such enclosure exists. 

Viewed in this light, all the complaints about small cages are just so many crocodile tears, designed to assuage the guilty feelings that visitors feel knowing that they're benefiting from the animal's captivity.

As always, don't be surprised when the zoos cater to your revealed preference for small cages rather than your stated preference for large cages. They won't even mind if you complain about the small cages as you demand their existence, to make your conscience feel better. Very few businesses ever do.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Fighting for order in the Chaos

If you want further evidence that the Dredd idea about order is a reactionary one, consider this great statement of principle from famous reactionary Klemens von Metternich.
To me the word freedom has not the value of a starting-point, but of an actual goal to be striven for. The word order designates the starting-point. It is only on order that freedom can be based. Without order as a foundation the cry for freedom is nothing more than the endeavour of some party or other for an end it has in view. When actually carried out in practice, that cry for freedom will inevitably express itself in tyranny. At all times and in all situations I was a man of order, yet my endeavour was always for true and not for pretended liberty.
Klemens von Metternich: fighting for order in the chaos of the Austrian Empire.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Exactly how bad was last night's debate for Obama?

Reddit is the home to more-educated-than-average teenagers and twentysomethings. As a result, they post a bunch of interesting and funny stuff, but they also tend to be smug and condescending in their overwhelmingly liberal political leanings.

Anyway, over at the front page right now is a  very good question:
As a Canadian, I was quite surprised to see so little discussion of the Presidential Debate making it to the front page this morning. Is this because Romney apparently "won" the debate?
The answer is "Yes, obviously. As a basic fact about human nature, most people don't enjoy talking about miserable things. In addition, liberals have a sizable dose of cognitive dissonance to resolve regarding the question of why the guy they thought was such a magical public speaker and political genius got trounced by a guy they've universally derided as an empty suit. Rather than resolve this dilemma, it's easier to just ignore it."

I clicked on it expecting a lot of 'No, really, it's not like that, we just thought that politics suddenly became really uninteresting!'.

To their credit, the highest rated responses are a lot more self-aware and honest than I gave them credit for.
"I think the fact that I haven't seen anyone on reddit claiming Obama won is pretty telling."
"..... if you think its crickets now ... Ryan and Biden debate LOL"
"Even msnbc admitted Romney won so yeah...it was pretty bad for obama"
"It reminds me of the 2010 election results, where the Republicans made huge gains in Congress. I thought when I opened reddit I would see a bunch of news stories on the results of the election. This was back when I still thought of reddit as a news site, or at least the news and politics subreddits.
However, it was crickets all around. That's the day I realized you cannot hope to remain current on politics and the news by reading reddit. I expected bias, what I didn't expect was complete self-censorship."
The last point is spot on.

I read it for a different reason - I expect exactly this kind of bias and the self-censorship, but it's useful to read people who disagree with you. I don't want to end up in an echo-chamber where I only hear viewpoints that reinforce what I already think.

If you only read things that support what you already believe, you end up like the guys on Reddit, baffled when reality doesn't conform to the only data you've been receiving.

Update: From Pax Dickinson:
Obama is working on a devastating "jerk store" zinger for the next debate. It's gonna be CRAY
Ha! Comedy gold.

That depends. When are you going to lose some weight?

As part of your introverted correspondent's mission to understand social conventions, I find myself interested in what personal questions are considered polite and impolite to ask.

One that I find particularly odd is the fact that sizable numbers of people seem to think it's appropriate to ask newly-wedded couples when they're going to have children.

I think this isn't considered impolite by a lot of people, but perhaps ought to be.

Now, this isn't in the category of easily disclosed facts that needs to be concealed in order to prevent social friction between the questioner and the respondent. An example of this kind would be how much someone earns - there's not much ambiguity about what the number actually is or what it means, but disclosing it might provoke either envy or embarrassment. I'm not a big fan of those types of taboos, but I can understand why they exist.

The problem, rather, is that the question seems quite likely to be unresolved, and possibly a sore point as well.

Let's assume your early thirties married couple hasn't had children yet. There's a range of possible reasons that this might be the case, and a lot of them suggest you probably shouldn't have asked.

1. One of the two parties wants children and the other one wants them either later, or not at all. This is almost certainly likely to be a mildly sore point (at a minimum) between the two, and likely not an argument that they would relish re-litigating in front of a public audience.

2. They're actively trying to have children, but are having difficulties conceiving. Way to go! Their medical issues are undoubtedly something that they'd love to talk about at the dinner party. As a bonus, you can also delve into who might be at fault between the two of them! Is he shooting blanks? Is she barren? At worst it's hugely awkward, at best it can publicly reopen rounds of hurtful recriminations!

3. Neither of them want to have children yet, but they'd rather not explain this to you. This is the most compelling reason to not ask, that for the vast majority of people on the planet, it's simply none of their business. Having children or not seems like a fairly important and personal consideration that lots of people might not want to discuss in front of everyone. In addition, the question is almost always phrased as if they need to justify their decision to not have children. I understand why the potential grandparents might feel compelled to inquire, but some guy at the office? Really?

I do my bit for the married couples in my life by never asking. I was talking to a friend the other day, who complained how people tend to ask him when he's going to have kids, impatient for them to happen soon. I told him that I thought it was weird how people always asked these kinds of questions, and to the extent I had any thoughts on the matter, I was quite happy that they seemed content to not have kids in a raging hurry, because if they did it would really put a dent in our hanging out time. Even that, I said only because
a) he'd know I was kidding -I didn't actually consider it any of my business, and would be delighted with whatever choice they made, and
b) he'd possibly find it a welcome counterpoint to the pro-child chiding he receives too much of.

I like people having children. I also like people making their own choices free from needless nosiness.

You wouldn't ask a couple "how's your marriage holding up?". You wouldn't ask "how's that embarrassing medical condition of yours?". So why ask about something that has a good chance of bearing upon both of these?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Methinks the douchebag doth protest too much...

If you've ever had cause to say 'I'm not like those other guys', it is certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are, in fact, exactly like those other guys.

The guys that are truly different almost never need to explicitly state this. It's just one more example of the 'Message: I Care' mistake, which Jonah Goldberg calls "reading the stage directions".

Monday, October 1, 2012


The new Judge Dredd movie is actually surprisingly good. It's at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is unusually high for an action movie.

The line that stood out to me (and was repeated twice, once at the start and again at the end) was the following:
800 million people living in the ruin of the old world.
Only one thing fighting for order in the chaos - the men and women of the Hall of Justice.
This is a surprisingly reactionary concept of "the good". They are not fighting for justice. They are certainly not fighting for social justice. No, they are fighting for order, which is a good in itself.

This is not a common viewpoint. That's because we live in such a generally ordered world that we take it for granted. But you notice order when its not there - the London Riots, Hurricane Katrina, the LA riots etc.

Mencius Moldbug had an excellent article years ago talking about this point. The Dungeons and Dragons World classifies characters on a 3x3 scale of {Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic} x {Good, Neutral, Evil}. But Moldbug raises the question of whether there really is a Chaotic Good - whether the only real dimension is Lawful (and Good) vs Chaotic (and Evil). I'm not sure he's right, but it's an interesting perspective.

The world of Dredd is one in which Judges are fighting a rearguard action to preserve the minimum amount of social order. The movie also flirts with another reactionary theme about martial law that is surely true, but rarely acknowledged: that due process and compassion are luxury goods, relative to the basic good of maintaining a functioning civil society. Substantive fairness is a Louis Vuitton handbag. Procedural fairness is three square meals a day. Order is oxygen.

When the world gets sufficiently violent and crime-ridden, the first priority is to put a stop to the violence and crime. Indeed, when things get bad enough, ideas like martial law may actually become very popular. This seems like a strange possibility, because the average westerner today is perhaps more worried about police brutality and abuses of power. But if citizens start to feel that they have much more to fear from thugs than the police, you might be surprised what a change that produces. Sending in the marines to finally stop the LA riots was a highly popular decision.

Dredd is the ultimate personification of the idealised policeman in this framework - tough, and absolutely fearless in his fight on crime. There is one interesting scene early on where you see that he also does not mechanically apply the rules in every single case - there is a homeless guy at the start that Dredd warns to not be there when he gets back, after quoting what penalty he is guilty of. He has more important things to deal with than minor infractions that don't threaten social stability.

In the Dredd universe, the law's main function is as a tool for maintaining the peace. This is the context in which Dredd's catchline, 'I am the Law', need not be ironic. What stands between society and chaos is ultimately a small number of individuals.

Or, as Orwell said about Kipling:
He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them
I imagine a lot of cops would agree.