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.