November 06, 2008

Questions I'd like to ask political candidates.

Well another election cycle is over, America has the most leftleaning President since Jimmy Carter in the White House, and the world is at the fever pitch of excitement that a protectionist has been handed the keys to the greatest economic engine the world has ever known.

As usual the media coverage was predictably horrendous and consisted almost entirely of rumination on Obamas skincolor and sporting event style strategic analysis.

In all the analysis I saw, discussion of the quality of Obama and Mccain's respective campaign strategies outweighed discussion of their suitability for office by a factor of at least 20-1.


It got me thinking... What questions would I ask a presidential (or prime ministerial one for that matter) candidate if I had the chance? I guess the qualities I'd like to see evidence of are an independence of thought, a capacity to think outside the tug of war parameters of established political discourse, and intellectual depth.

Here are my questions...

1) Name one issue on which you disagree with the majority of your fellow Republicans/Democrats.

2) Name one social problem you consider to be overrated in importance by the media.

3) Name one social problem you consider to be insufficiently discussed by the media.

4) Name three issues on which you have changed your mind since you entered politics.

5) Name three problems which you feel lie outside the scope of the office and which you therefore won't be solving during your term.

6) What do you think are the two most effective/positive pieces of policy or legislation brought in during the last fifty years?

7) What do you think have been the two most disastrous pieces of policy or legislation of the last fifty years?

8) Which current foreign leader is closest to yourself in political outlook?

9) What is your least popular opinion?

I would consider an inability to answer such questions in a thoughful and serious manner as evidence of that candidates unsuitability for office.

October 24, 2008

The moral inefficiency of prostitution bans.

This article on the Guardian's 'comment is free' site made interesting reading. The article got me thinking about the constant argument between those who want prostitution banned outright and those who want it regulated. As a libertarian I personally don't have any interest in interfering with what other people choose to do with their bodies or what people choose to pay for, as long as no coercion is involved and no third party is harmed. I do find it amusing how many feminists think that a womans 'right to choose' is founded on self ownership but that principle somehow no longer applies when said ownership is used to offer sex for money rather than to abort foetuses.

I also think that the need for physical intimacy is universal, and found among the disabled as well as the able-bodied, the physically repulsive as well as the beautiful and the socially inept as well as the charming. There are many many people who live lives of intense physical and psychological loneliness and who are for whatever reason unable to form satisfactory relationships. To wish to deny such people whatever brief respite and fleeting comfort that they may find with a sex worker out of some misguided sense of moral righteousness seems pig-headed and obnoxious to me. Furthermore I think legalisation leaves the women in question far less vulnerable to exploitation than they would be otherwise.

Thats MY opinion. I appreciate however, that not everyone agrees. So for the purposes of this argument I am going to look at the other side. 'Lana,' the sex worker in the article is not a drug addicted abused teenager in the grip of a violent pimp. She is a university educated single mother, who has decided that prostitution is a preferable source of income to the available alternatives such as secretarial work, mainly because it provides independence, superior income and more time with her children. Her clients are by her account not abusive but generally polite middle aged businessmen. Nevertheless lets accept for the sake of argument that its EVIL. Quite what form that evil takes, I'm not sure. Perhaps the transaction leaves deep psychological damage in both client and prostitute that will take years to reveal itself. Perhaps she is corrupting the morals of her entire community and leading them onto the path to licentiousness and decadence. Perhaps if enough Lanas ply their sinful trade in central London Yahweh, Allah or Jehovah will come from the sky and do a Sodom and Gomorrah job on the whole city. Whatever. I don't care. We'll just take it as read that its EVIL.

But is it the most EVIL thing imaginable? It stands to reason that if Lanas entirely voluntary and noncoercive transactions with her clients are evil then what happens to women who are brought to this country to be exploited and live in near slave like conditions under brutal pimps is far far more evil.

Anyone who would try to ban prostitution would have to be pretty optimistic about the power of government to do stuff generally. A desire to stamp out the world's oldest profession is nothing if not ambitious!

By banning Lana from plying her sinful trade you either force her underground or make her give up and go back to her lower paying profession. Either way you forfeit tax revenue. Less tax means you can do less stuff. Stuff such as going after and prosecuting the sex traffickers who are commiting far worse acts.

Any way you look at it, from the point of view of reducing the total amount of evil going after Lana is inefficient

Of course there are many ways you could spend the higher tax take produced by the legality of prostitution to reduce the total amount of EVIL. Alternately you could invest the money in GOOD (cancer research, third world aid, bibles in hotel rooms, organic vegetable subsidies... whatever floats your moral boat) and thus improve the GOOD/EVIL ratio. The point is that by declaring prostitution illegal you are essentially saying that it is SO evil that regardless of how highly it is taxed the GOOD thus generated can never outweigh the EVIL produced.

The humbling of Alan Greenspan

Wall Street's erstwhile spiritual leader has shed his cloak of fiscal infallibity this week

Alan Greenspan has admitted that his thinking about quite fundamental aspects of financial markets was mistaken

According to the Washington Post
The former chairman of the Federal Reserve said that the crisis had shaken his very understanding of how markets work...

In the space of mere months, Greenspan has gone from world guru of high finance and darling of the political elite to being compared to Bill Buckner, the Red Sox first baseman whose infamous fielding error cost Boston the '86 World Series.

In reality is seems probable that Greenspan is neither God nor Goat but simply a victim (like the rest of us) of assuming that the regularity of his fiscal models would be matched by a corresponding regularity in the real world. We are all vulnerable to discounting the possibility of events of great impact and rarity in favor of the seductive regularity of averages. As pattern seeking creatures such biases seem pretty much hardwired into our cognitive architecture.

In fact it seems like the last few months of financial history are playing out as an utterly perfect illustration of the arguments advanced by Trader-Philosopher Naseem Taleb in his books Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan.

I'm not sure what I found more shocking, Alan Greenspan's utter humility in the face of a crisis
that seemingly calls core aspects of his belief system into question

"You found that your view of the world, your ideology was not right, it was not working?" said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee chairman.

"Absolutely, precisely," Greenspan said. "You know, that's precisely the reason I was shocked because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well."

Or his subsequent hubris.

"We have to recognize that this is almost surely a once-in-a-century phenomenon," Greenspan said,

Think about that. An 82 year-old man has just conceeded that the events of the past few weeks call into question fundamental assumptions, underpinning his entire professional life and body of work . Despite this, he is then willing to prognosticate with a fair degree of confidence, regarding the frequency of what we have just witnessed. Given that this is pretty much unanimously agreed to be unprecedented, we have exactly ONE data point. And from this we can work out the likely frequency of such events occuring in the future, how?
How do we know it is a once in a century deal? Perhaps this kind of thing happens on average once every twenty years or so and we have got insanely lucky over the last century. On the other hand perhaps it is staggeringly rare and only something we can expect to see once a millennium.

Is pretending to know the unknowable and proceeding to construct a brand new house of cards around that make believe knowledge on the ruins of the old, really the most advisable course of action? The question was not sarcastic I just don't know.

Such arrogance in the face of failure reminds me of a very similiar attitudes following the collapse of the ill-fated hedge fund Long Term Capital Management. (LTCM) Naseem Taleb covers the story in Fooled by Randomness

The market is very risky — far more risky than if you blithely assume that prices meander around a polite Gaussian average [i.e., the bell-shaped curve].

Anywhere the bell-curve assumption enters the financial calculations, an error can come out.

In 1993, [Scholes and Merton] joined some heavyweight Wall Street bond traders in the creation of a new hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management... The had at one point twenty-five PhD's on the payroll... In August 1998 the Russian government defaulted on its bonds, triggering a market meltdown. LTCM... was stuck without buyers... In the end, several banks reluctantly agreed to bail out the fund... only at the behest of the Federal Reserve Board, which was concerned about a wave of bankruptcies if LTCM went under.

[Merton and Scholes] made absolutely no allowance in the LTCM episode for the possibility of their not understanding markets and their methods being wrong. That was not a hypothesis to be considered... The fact that these "scientists" pronounced the catastrophic losses a "ten sigma" event reveals a Wittgenstein's ruler problem: Someone saying this is a ten-sigma either (a) knows what he is talking about with near perfection... or (b) just does not know what he is talking about... and it is an event that has a probability higher than once every several times the history of the universe. I will let the reader pick from these two mutually exclusive interpretations which one is more plausible.

Incidentally it also strikes me that Alan Greenspan is absolutely the wrong person to look to for advice about this particular crisis, not because I necessarily think he is wrong, or to blame for it, but because it seems to me that to asking a man in his eighties to objectively consider
whether or not, current events invalidate his entire lifes work is asking for the superhuman.

Maybe the most appropriate advice is found not in the pages of John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman but in William Shakespeare.

To paraphrase Hamlet, 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio than are dreamt of in your (economic) philosophy.'

Overconfidence that our understanding of things matches the real world seems to be at the root of a lot of tragedy.

So much of todays knowledge may prove to be founded on quicksand tommorow.

How much of todays corpus of economic and financial theory reflects an underlying reality in the external world and how much of it is mere mathematical masturbation? I don't know and I don't think the experts know either.

February 24, 2008

The Changing Moral Zeitgeist

I would like to dedicate little essay to my father. He and I have had many heated debates.
Disagreement is the rule rather than the exception in our discussions, and we rarely convince each other of anything. Nevertheless they sometimes open up avenues of thought I hadn't previously considered and often help me to clarify my own thinking on topics. We once argued over whether the Ancient Greeks 'knew that slavery was wrong' That argument inspired this essay.

The Changing Moral Zeitgeist

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies

July 4, 1776

In the ideals that it professes the Declaration of Independence is one of the most inspiring documents ever written.

Thats why it saddens me that I have to disagree with a part of its message. Not with the rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. I think in this regard the Declaration of Independence is an expression of a profound moral truth.

What I have a problem with is the self-evident part. I really wish that it were true but History has convinced me that it just ain't so.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'self-evident' thus.


adjective not needing to be demonstrated or explained; obvious

For most educated adults in the twenty-first century racism is perplexing because it is such an obvious evil. Society has reached an almost total consensus on the unacceptability of racial bigotry. This doesn't really feel like an accomplishment, racism seems such a blatant wrong as to not even worth debating. Put simply, to be racist is to be an idiot and/or a twisted hate-monger.

As a fairly young person in 2008 living in the west I find it hard to imagine how any intelligent, well-meaning person could be a racist. I lack the moral imagination to conceive of a world where racist attitudes are not only tolerated but the norm, even among intelligent cultured and well meaning people. In fact it is our present world that is historically remarkable for its lack of racism.

The English writer Leslie Poole Hartley famously said

"The Past is a foreign country. They do things differently there"

The past is not only foreign but more foreign than we most of us realize. They don't just do things differently there but they THINK differently there.

"And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races?… those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, and not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go… And the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness… is death… The men of the New Republic … will have an ideal that will make the killing worth the while.”

Who do you think said the above, dear reader? Adolph Hitler? Heinrich Himmler? In fact it was H.G Wells. Today Wells is remembered chiefly for such Science Fiction novels, as War of The Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Time Machine (and the movie versions that were made of them)

Wells was passionate about education, science, rationality and progress.

He believed in the desirability of a World State, a planned society that would advance science, end nationalism, and allow people to advance solely by merit rather than birth.

Wells was a co-founder in 1934 of what is now Diabetes UK the leading charity for people living with diabetes in Britain.

He meant well.

How did such a self-proclaimed champion of reason come to advocate a program of genocide more thorough and ambitious than even the Nazis ever hoped to undertake?

I don't know.

When confronted by a man like Wells my moral imagination fails me. His categories of thought of thought and frame of reference are too far away for me to be able to even begin to understand.

In his lifetime and after his death, Wells was considered a prominent socialist thinker.
Upon his death a commemorative plaque in his honor was installed at his home in Regent's Park.

What Wells's life illustrates is that the ideological horrors that gave birth to Auschwitz were not as far outside the worldwide intellectual mainstream of their time as we like to pretend with hindsight.

Abraham Lincoln is the most arguably the most revered president in American History, memorialized for ending Slavery and preserving the Union.

Here is what Lincoln had to say about race relations in 1858

"I will say, then, that I AM NOT NOR HAVE EVER BEEN in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races---that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and black races which will ever FORBID the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race."

4th Lincoln-Douglas debate, September 18th, 1858

I don't include this quote to disparage Lincoln or debunk his historical contributions and achievements. What I want to emphasize is that the above words were spoken by one of the most progressive men of his day, a man passionately committed to moral causes.

In many ways, the Doctor Dolittle stories by Hugh Lofting (written in the 1920s) are among my favorite children's stories. The authors warmth, love of children, and empathy for others shines off every page.

Right up until Polynesia, the doctors parrot starts calling Africans Coons, Niggers and Darkies.

How do intelligent, educated essentially good people come to hold reprehensible views?

In our collective imagination, the past is continually recast in the mold of the present, providing an illusion of continuity that masks just how different the the thoughts and attitudes of the past really were. Many of us get a large part of our idea of the past from movies.

Hollywood doesn't make movies about people from long ago. It makes movies about contemporary people in historical situations. Characters in movies set in the past - even those set only a couple of decades ago always have contemporary moral frames of reference. In movies made in 2008, "the good guys" can't be racist, even if the movie in question is set five hundred years in the past. I guess that this airbrushing of attitudes is necessary if we are to relate to the characters, but it does diminish our tremendous collective moral progress.

The fact is that nearly all of the bright, thoughtful, well-meaning people of the past held attitudes and opinions that would disgust us today.

Morally, just as much as technologically/culturally, we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

The roots of all Western culture can ultimately be traced back to the Ancient Greece, specifically to Fifth Century Athens. Greece is the wellspring of western Democracy, Literature , Art, Philosophy and Science. The Greeks also had slaves. Greek philosophy attracted the most brilliant men of the age, men who relentlessly questioned every aspect of their physical and social reality. They were no respecters of taboos and criticized the most fundamental aspects of their culture.

Despite earnest inquiry into every aspect of life the great Athenian philosophers never came to criticize slavery as a social institution.

I don't believe that this was out of a lack of moral courage. (Socrates took poison, rather than to betray his role of social critic) but out of a lack of moral imagination.

If we can't even understand the beliefs of men and women who lived a few decades ago how can we hope to understand the perspective of those who lived thousands of years in our past.

The things that seem effortlessly obviously true today, were arrived at through much struggle, suffering ,courage and WORK. What is now 'self-evident' is the result of decades and centuries of slow and painful progress up the moral ladder, with many setbacks along the way.
We are the beneficiaries of a tremendous moral inheritance as well as a technological and cultural one.

If we could speak to one of the slaves of ancient Greece or Rome today, what would he say? I am sure he didn't like BEING a slave, but I doubt as to whether even he would have been able to conceive of the evil of slavery as an institution.

In relatively more recent times we have the strange story of Anthony Johnson, a freed African-American slave turned farm owner. In 1654 he was responsible for the establishment of slavery in Virginia when a court ruled that John Casor, also a black man was, his personal property.

What we can learn from the moral failings of our ancestors?

I think that the most important lesson is a modesty in the face of our own beliefs. We are likely to have ethical blindspots as glaring as those who came before us and our descendants will be utterly bewildered as to why we could not see. I hope they don't judge us too harshly.

February 23, 2008

Game Theory and Relationships (July 14 2005)

Game theory is a branch of mathematics popularised in recent years by 'A Beautiful Mind' the bestselling biography of mathematican John Nash and the movie of the same name starring Russell Crow.

Game Theory is a field that is difficult to summarise. I guess you could say it is a study of the interaction between multiple self interested rational agents.One of the most famous problems of of game theory is a situation known as the prisoners Dilemma.

Here is a Summary taken from the University of Stanford Website.

"Suppose that the police have arrested two people whom they know have committed an armed robbery together. Unfortunately, they lack enough admissible evidence to get a jury to convict. They do, however, have enough evidence to send each prisoner away for two years for theft of the getaway car.

The chief inspector now makes the following offer to each prisoner: If you will confess to the robbery, implicating your partner, and she does not also confess, then you'll go free and she'll get ten years. If you both confess, you'll each get 5 years. If neither of you confess, then you'll each get two years for the auto theft."

In any close relationship, whether that of parent to child, boyfriend to girlfriend or husband and wife, there exists the opportunity to exercise emotional leverage to gain some personal advantage. This is analogous to confessing in the above situation.

The penalties of having your trust betrayed are comparable to the person who must serve ten years in the above scenario. I think MOST longterm relationships tend to produce situations and powerdynamics similioar to the prisoners dilemma in which the guiding considerations of action becomes strategy rather than fairness.

A successful mutually beneficial relationship is ultimately based on both parties leaving the potential advantages on the table... (Neither "Confesses" in the above scenario)

I have GREAT respect for people who have the confidence and trust in me to apologise for something they have done. Apologising for past actions and admission of error more than anything else leaves you open to the exercise of emotional leverage by another party.I have been in situations in the past in friendships and relationships where I have felt myself to be in the wrong on a particular issue BUT also didnt have the trust or confidence in the other party to apologise for my actions.

I was not willing to give up leverage.If one person in a relationship wants to make strategic moves, the other person has three choices. A) Conceed the game B) Try to win the game C) Walk away from the game/relationship.Gameplaying in MANY walks of life interests and fascinates me.. In relationships it bores and fruistrates me and I wish I knew of a way out of such dilemmas

Culturally engrained error

The following post was first published on my now defunct blog "Random Acts of Thought" on July 11, 2005 in the wake of the bombings on the London underground.

I havent posted to my blog in a while because I felt I had to articulate a response to what has occurred in LondonI realise I really dont have one.Here is what globalisation does.

1) Relentlessly crush cultural practices and values that are incompatible with the dominant American-led free market system of trade and thought

2) Empower individuals and allowing groups to have a disproportionate impact on the world.

Jihadists are using the very fruits of western civilisation to strike at it. Cell phones and the internet. What the multiculturalists consistently miss is that cultures are not varied and beautiful things to be admired and idealised on the national geographic channel or preserved like beautiful pieces of period architecture. Cultures have a practical use in that they are toolsets for dealing with the world that we live in. The primary value of cultural institutions is not aesthetic but utilitarian. In an increasingly interconnected world the playing conditions are being progressively leveled.

In the game of global competition, the players that employ a suboptimal strategy will continue to lose.I am reminded of the book Moneyball about Billy Beane, General Manager of Major League Baseball's Oakland Athletics. Billy Beane was able to establish a culture of objective analysis within a sport in which most personel moves and ingame startegy were governed by instinct, traditional wisdom and convention.

He relied on the work of amateur baseball researchers such as Bill James to decide which factors were the important ones in determing the usefulness of a baseballplayer toward the end of winning games. The results (On base percentage as a far more important statistic than batting average, the worthlessness of Wins in evaluating pitchers) cut deeply against the grain of traditional baseball culture.

However the As culture was more effective. It more accurately described the (baseball) world as it actually is. The result: Billy Beanes As won more games per dollar of payroll than any other team in baseball. They got more bang for the buck. Slowly and inexorably baseballs hidebound culture has changed to take these discoveries into account but the immense inertia and weight of the received wisdom was almost immensely difficult to overcome. People had a huge emotional investment in incorrect ways of doing things.

If it is immensely difficult for people to accept changes in baseball strategy even in the face of evidence how much more difficult will it be for them to accept changes in social organisation, changes in working life changes in social protections changes in government institutions? Real life outcomes are immensely more important than baseball penant races.

The deeply entrenched african cultural practise of nepotism has led to immense levels of corruption in africa. Despite its debilitating impact on African society the obligation Africans feel to extended family members have proven impossible to shift. African and Middle Eastern culture are both WRONG in key aspects. The outcome is is more losing. In baseball losing is reflected in the standings, in real life, in GDP and per capita income. How does this tie in to the London bombings? Terrorism is a response to losing. Blow up the playing field. Disrupt the game by any means neccessary since you cant win without changing the strategy to which your sense of selfworth is anchored. . Terrorists are pissing into the wind. It is the natural result of creating a mental link between your penis and your adherence to an objectively incorrect course of action.

But in an age of the hyperempowered individual, their capacity to disrupt becomes ever greater. As the losses mount and technology empowers small groups and individuals ever more, the temptation for the losers to be disruptive grows ever greater.

A List of Bad Ideas

The following post was first published on my now defunct blog "Random Acts of Thought" on July 4 2005
Here is a list of ideas I believe to be widely held (often subconsciously) but fundamentally wrong
1) Decreasing the gap between rich and poor is a good worth pursuing for its own sake.
2)The government is a good vehicle for ensuring a fairer world.
3) Sexual behavior, particularly women's, is an excellent indicator of an individuals moral worth
4) Suffering and poverty are inherently ennobling.
5) Extreme poverty is morally superior to extreme wealth.
6) Changing your mind is a sign of weakness and an indication of a weak or indecisive character.
7) Truly great leaders make decisions from their heart. They rely on their gut. analysis is for dorks.
8) Government has a duty to protect domestic jobs from foreign competition
9) All means of reaching conclusions are equally valid. Its all a matter of perspective.
10) There is no such thing as better or worse cultures they are simply different. We must suspend all judgement in these matters.
11) To assert the superiority of one culture/socioeconomic model over another in clearly a sign of entrenched bigotry/racism
12) The best road toward moral excellence is a set of clear rules, rigidly followed.
13) Religion is neccessary for the living of a moral life.
14) All religions contain great truth. To criticise the religions of others is a sign of arrogance/ignorance.
15) Some people have a duty to readdress the wrongs committed by their ancestors on the ancestors of other.
16) The physically strong and imposing are also morally ethically and intellectually more substantial.

Fooled By Randomness (June 04 2005)

Looking back I think I actually underrated this book. I come back s to this book and the later Black Swans frequently and they have had a definite impact on my thinking.

Reading a quite interesting book at the moment called "Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the markets"
Its written by a guy called Nassim Nicholas Taleb a deeply eccentric and highly intelligent Options Trader...
In it he discusses the fact that we judge traders (and people in general) almost exclusively by outcomes not on how intelligent their decisions were given the information they had available to them at the time. Essenitally its a treatise on the universilty of the monday morning quarterback problem. We dramtically downplay the element of chance... He argues that successful traders are often just lucky traders and what we assign to skill is primarily due to a random distribution of success and failure... "Of course this ground has been wellcovered in books like "A Random Walk Down Wall Street" BUT Taleb isnt arguing for efficiency of markets... He believes that markets are actually inefficient in key ways particularly in their response to unexpected events... This isnt a how to book designed to help you increase the size of your portfolio. Its more of a general survey of life as Taleb sees it. In it he touches on classical literature, neuroscience, behavioral psychology and a host of other areas, bringing in Homer, Karl Popper, Richard Feynman Georgre Soros and a host of of other characters. The whole thing is written in a rambling but elegant stream of consciosuness style that I found very enjoyable. What I find particularly amusing is the authors extreme arrogance about his own humility.
The book is a little bloated BUT I enjoyed the intelligent rambling and frequent autobiographical digressions

War Of The Worlds (July 05 2005)

The latest apocalyptic alien invasion movie to hit hollywood. This is actually only the second time HG Wells novel has been oficially adapted for the screen. (The first time was in the 1950s)It just feels like the 20th. The aliens out to conquer the earth thing has been done so many times that for me the idea really needs to be allowed to rest for a couple of decades or so.
Apart from the wellworn premise however, the execution here simply didnt grab me. It is an essentially silly movie with a ludicrous alien invasion plan.... Tripod killer vehicles are buried under the earth for thouands of years until the aliens decide to invade... then little alien pilots are inserted to steer them via lightning bolts. The alien tripods run amok causing lots of havoc and destruction. It seems a VERY inelegant invasion method for such presumably advanced aliens.. I think part of the problem is that Spielberg has kept the most dated elements of the original war of the world story but updated the setting. By transposing the story from its original turn-of-the-century setting into the modern day he has highlighted that datedness still further, regardless of heavy heanded september 11 alegories.
A final problem for me is the lack of fun. Silly material is no obstacle to a great movie... Speilbergs own Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park are wondeful in this respect... But here the silliness is handled with such gravitas and sobriety that the whole thing becomes dull.

Forming opinions as a non-expert

An issue that has interested me for some time is the following. On many issues, from the economy, to the environment, from foreign policy, to scienctific research there are highly intelligent, highly informed experts who disagree. How do I form opinions on subjects in which there is stark disagreement between experts? Do I read all their books? Where will the time come from? Often the arguments will be of a subtlety and complexity that is impossible for someone without a very thorough understanding of the subject matter to grasp. Equally there will be times when I am intellectually outgunned. The experts whose opinions differ are simplky smarter than I am.

From buying a home to purchasing stock to planning for the future intelligent decision making is impossible without at some point deferring to authority. The difference between an open society and a totalitarian one is that in an open society there are many- a market place- of authorities. The question is how do I from my position of relative ignorance and stupidity decide which authority to defer to? My only choices seem to be an evaluation of the expert and/or the opinion of other experts about the same claim.

Some ideas...
The popularity of the claim. On the whole, ideas which enjoy popular support in their field are probably true more often than those which enjoy less support. But how often is this the case. To what degree should the popularity of a claim bias us toward accepting its truth?

The personal desirability of a claim: Do I or the expert have a personal stake in whether the claim is true or not? If there is a lot of incentive to believe that a claim is true, wishful thinking may bias us in this direction.

The popularity of the expert. How much extra weight should be given to the opinions of an expert who enjoys a high standing and reputation in his field?

The age of the expert. What difference does the age of an individual play in evaluating the probabilistic likelihood that a given claim is correct? I have no idea but it is something I intend to research and think about in the future.

Evidence of flexibility of thought: Has the expert shown an ability to change his mind in the past on other issues.? To me an individual whose track record shows little change in his opinions over a lengthy timeframe must have ALL his claims viewed with an extra dose of caution.

The personal attractiveness of the expert. Given our preference for the beautiful the articulate and the charismatic, it seems to me that many opinions expressed by experts strong in such qualities are probably overpriced in the ideas market. Should we consciously discount the probability that the claims of charismatic experts are true? If so by how much?

All of us already factor a lot of this stuff in when making gut level judgements about whether something is true or not....
But I think it important to think about this stuff explictly rather than implictly. In evaluating experts intuitively our evolutionary biases are likely to impair our judgemnt considerably. We will be overly swayed by the experts personal charisma for example.

Pop Culture Literacy

First published on October 17 2005

When I was young, old shows and movies on rerun were a staple of TV as they had been for the previous decades. At random and in no chronological order I can recall Tarzan movies, Donald Duck, Tom and Cherry, Tweety and Sylvester, lousy Elvis Presley vehicles, Laurel and Hardy, the three stooges, Abott and Costello. It was pretty much impossible to grow up and not be exposed to Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn James Dean, John Wayne, Cary Grant Erol Flynn and all the other classic hollywood icons because their work was on such heavy rotation. So were TV shows such as Sgt Bilko, Jackie Gleason and the Honeymooners, Happy Days, The Twilight Zone.

That was then and this is now... Without anyone really noticing it seems to me that these movies and shows have almost entirely disappeared from the pop culture landscape.
Can a black and white movie even be considered mainstream entertainment anymore these days? I dont know... When I was a kid I watched old movies on their own terms. The oldness was not intrusive and rarely even occured to me. Im not sure if that is still the case for kids today.

My generation may be the last that is reasonably wellversed in the whole panorama of 20th century pop culture.. Why? Old stuff is quietly disappearing from main TV and being confined to media ghettos such as the Classic movie channel. Without anyone really noticing all these things have quietly slinked off TV screens around the western world I guess this really got into high gear in the early 90s. There is something creepy recognising the mortality of these icons.
How and why did it happen? In Hollywood I would have to go back to Jaws, and Star Wars, which pretty much begin the modern era of cinematic storytelling. driven primarily by dynamic visuals and RAPID storytelling. Narrative on steroids.... I think a consequence of this is that pre-star wars movies are left looking as creaky and anachronistic to modern teen audiences as old footage of skinny white basketball players in the 1960s NBA.

It could be argued that the beginning of the blockbuster era in the late 70s marks as abrupt a breaking point in the history of popular movies as the birth of rocknroll was to the music.. and I think that as time progresses what came before it will appear as less and less relevant. If I think of my own knowledge of popular music, I am pretty familiar with famous popular music starting from the 1950s. But If I try to go back further back... boom... Its like I run into a black hole. My mental filing cabinet not only thins out but is almost entirely empty. A famous blues or Jazz musician here and there is probably all that it contains.
With the rise of hip-hop culture eclipsing rocknroll in the mid 90s I wonder if we have come to a smiliar rupture. Will The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Jim Morrison remain part of our shared tribal vocabulary or will they simply vanish into thin air like the pop icons of the 1930s and 40s?
I guess the thing that has really hit me is that this process is not as organic as I had always assumed. At times the curtain comes swiftly down, and for suceeding generations what existed previously becomes almost completely invisible.

culturally sensitive police work

first published on November 9, 2005

This sickens me

I wonder WHAT it will take for western civilisation to wake out of its crisis of moral confidence and its appeasement of barbarism and evil.
The Australasian Police Multicultural Advisory Bureau has published and distributed 50,000 copies of an 82-page handbook for Australian police officers, directing them on how to deal with people from all the unfamiliar cultures that an Australian policeman may encounter. A Sikh, for example, may receive a three-day reprieve from arrest if the arresting officer happens upon him while he is reading his holy scriptures — a practice that takes fifty hours, and must not be interrupted. And Muslim husbands who beat their wives must be treated differently from other domestic violence cases, as a matter of cultural sensitivity: “In incidents such as domestic violence,” says the handbook, “police need to have an understanding of the traditions, ways of life and habits of Muslims.”

I prefer the cultural sensitivity expressed by General Napier of British India. He was asked to refrain from interfering in sati, the Hindu practise of ritual widow burning...

"You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours. "

Identification With Beliefs

First published on my old blog on April 21 2006

We dont change our minds very much....

One of the most damaging things to human discourse is the fossilisation of ideas. Ideas often become so entrenched within individuals or cultures that an open debate of their merits is impossible. At the root of this problem, it seems to me is the fact that ideas and beliefs serve two purposes often fundamantally at odds with each other. The first purpose is that of a model of reality and a guide for actions.

Correct ideas generally produce results superior to incorrect ones.
The individual or group which holds correct views in a given field is far more able to make useful predictions concerning it than one who doesnt. The weather service in London is more effective at making predictions concerning the future weather than an African witch doctor because its ideas concerning this subject are orders of magnitude more true and useful.

Cultures also hold beliefs and ideas. The truth and usefulness of those ideas which are dominant within them are an excellent predictor of cultural success

This fact remains incredibly problematic for multiculturalists who want to reframe the terms of debate in traditionally marxist terms of oppressor/opressed. Multiculturalism is a classically academic idea. In academia beliefs are abstract things with no real consequences. In the outside world they have consequences.

It is the second purpose of ideas which is the most problematic. It results in the otherwise inexplicably long shelflife of ideas which are false useless or harmful to the individual or group concerned. w
Ideas serve to distinguish the individual or group from others and serve as a marker for personal or group identity.
If my selfhood is inextricably bound up with what I believe to be true then a criticism of my beliefs becomes a criticism of me. The only solution is to thro up the trade barriers and limit the exchange of ideas this is exactly wha happens. The consequences of intellectual trade barriers is exactly the same as that of trade barriers in the exchange of goods and services... Stunted growth...

There are areas where the use of ideas for the purpose of identity is generally harmless and even beneficial to human happiness. Fashion, allegiance to sports teams, many traditional cultural festivals and celebrations all give a sense of identity and belonging. It doesnt really matter if a belief in Chicago Cubs baseball, for example is an irrationally entrenched one. Indeed it may even give the believer pleasure. Believing in the Chicago Cubs is utterly different to believing in the Democratic party. A belief in the Chicago Cubs is irreleavnt to being able to form useful ideas about Economics, Law, family life and a whole host of other issues. An entrenched belief in a political party seriously inhibits my ability in this regard.
It is vital that we as a society recognise the difference between the two categories of belief.

While entrenched cultural attitudes such as preference for soccer over baseball or brown bread over white are harmless and enjoyable ways for individuals and groups to distinguish themselves attitudes such as a belief in a rigidly gender stratified society or in socialism are not.

A faith based adherence to ideas with practical consequences is dangerous. The more consequential an idea the more vital is a free flow of ideas in the debate surrounding it. The academic ideas market is not very efficient. The ideas market for correct supply chain management in industry is FAR more efficient becasue the holder of incorrect ideas will be more directly exposed to the consequences of them. Financial markets, the ultimate ideas markets are INCREDIBLY competitive. So are the odds Vegas sets for the outcome of sporting events.

The bible's Leviticus, Platos Republic, Karl Marx's Communist manifesto and the Q'uran ALL advance theories about the optimal organisation of society. The theories advanced in these works are largely incorrect at least in regard to the 21st century. By any measure, societies that follow the blueprints advanced in these works will be less successful than those which are based on free markets...

The NFL Draft

(This was first posted almost a year ago on the eve of the the 2007 NFL draft.
As I write this in 2008 the jury of Brady Quinn is still out.)

The NFL Draft takes place today...

The Raiders and Detroit Lions, at the head of the line, when it comes to franchise ineptitude will be picking first and second respectively... As I have stated before on this blog, the most rational course of action for teams that suck in multiple areas (as high drafting teams invariably do) would seem to be trading down. That happens rarely.. I have no doubt that by the end of today Jamarcus Russell and Brady Quinn will have the hopes of mediocre organisations resting on their shoulders. Top five picks ARE the hallmark of a lousy organisation as well as a bad team. Lousy organisations are much further than just a draft pick away from excelllence.The cap space invested in a potential superstar can actually prevent a team from becoming competitive and effectively adressing the many other needs high drafting teams inevitably have.

What blows me away about predraftr prognosticators is their absurd confidence levels...

Gil Brandt's Draft guru states about Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn...

"He will be a Pro Bowl QB and will be able to take a team to the playoffs"

Not "might" not "could be" not "has potential to be" but "WILL"
Bear in mind that this is by a guy who was VP of player personel for the Dallas Cowboys for almost 30 years! (1960-89) An NFL insider who has closely followed the NFL Draft his entire adult life!
A guy who has watched Heath Shuler Rick Mirer, Ryan Leaf, Todd Marinovich, Tim Couch, Joey Harrington and David Carr all be touted as the superstar QBs of the future!

That a guy who studies more hours of football in a year than I will watch in a lifetime and has made his living in this game can make such statements of pseudocertainty in regard to a QB prospect shows just how dramatically people underestimate the degree of uncertainty involved in these decisions and why team after team plump for the can't miss golden arm prospect rather than spreading the risk



The following post was first published on my now defunct blog "Random Acts of Thought" on June 4 2005

An interesting article in the New York Times ran today concenring the degree to which beliefs are entrenched.

The vast majority of people hold essentially closed opinions on many many subjects and changes of mind are almost impossible.

I believe it was either Kuhn or Popper who stated that scientific theories are not so much discarded as that their proponents die. In general we cling to our beliefs with incredible tenacity. Differing degrees of intelligence seem mainly to influence how sophisticated our defense of those ideas is rather than our ability to abandon them in the face of conflicting evidence. Loyalty to ideas seems unfortunately to be something that is hardwired into us.

This is a subject Naseem Taleb discusses in his excellent book Fooled By Randomness.

The huge psychological resistance to changing our mind seems unfortunately hardwired into us. Idea, values, and beliefs become such an integral part of the self concept that refutation of them becomes a kind of challenge to the sense of "I"

Most people (including myself) instinctively distrust the opinion of individuals who frequently change their mind on issues. Flip flopping on issues is one of the worst sins a politician can commit in the public eye.

Why are changes in opinion accompanied with a loss of pride? The degree of difficulty involved in changing your opinion seems proportional to the energy and time you have invested in thinking about it. Inability to abandon existing ideas and beliefs is one of the most problematic of human traits and I would wager that it responsible for a large proportion of the evil and folly in the world

Freedom and sexual satisfaction

This post was first published on my now defunct blog "Random Acts Of Thought" on April 21 2006

A recent University of Chicago study offers further proof that that more freedom leads to more of everything that is good in life including more orgasms...

Apparently there is a correlation between the degree of gender equality in a society and and the level of sexual satisfaction reported by BOTH parties in those countries.

Unfortunately, petty bedroom tyrants arent in the habit of perusing University of Chicago studies. I have written before about the destructive effect of coercion on friendships, business and relationships... It appears that tyranny is as destructive of sexual enjoyment as it is of economic and intellectual growth. I cant say I am surprised.

Once again western civilisation is at the head of the pack from a utiliarian AND a moral perspective. We produce more software, more literature, more dishwashers, more art, more cars, and more orgasms.

Bullying and coercion produce suffering, inefficieny and poverty whether it occurs in Kabul or Kansas City. Let freedom ring! (or moan in this case)

A Virtual mugging

First published on my old blog on Friday, August 19, 2005

I found this so deeply weird I had to post it. From the New Scientist website.

Computer characters mugged in virtual crime spreeA man has been arrested in Japan on suspicion carrying out a virtual mugging spree by using software "bots" to beat up and rob characters in the online computer game Lineage II.

The stolen virtual possessions were then exchanged for real cash.The Chinese exchange student was arrested by police in Kagawa prefecture, southern Japan, the Mainichi Daily News reports.Several players had their characters beaten and robbed of valuable virtual objects, which could have included the Earring of Wisdom or the Shield of Nightmare.

The items were then fenced through a Japanese auction website, according to NCsoft, which makes Lineage II. The assailant was a character controlled by a software bot, rather than a human player, making it unbeatable.Ren Reynolds, a UK-based computer games consultant and an editor of the gaming research site Terra Nova, says the case highlights the problem of bots in virtual worlds.

Intellectual honesty and the Newspapers

first published on Random Acts of Thought on Feburary 22 2007

Active partisanship is an essential part of British newspaper culture. Newspapers in this country don’t sit on the fence, but have an active viewpoint they promote not just in the editorial or opinion pages but in the selection of news and headlines and the spin that is put on different stories. This is very different than the American Newspaper tradition in which the papers do their best to adhere to a neutral tone and obvious soapboxing if and when it occurs is largely confined to the editorial pages… there are biases of course. The Washington Post for example is a more conservative newspaper than the New York Times, but these differences are far more subtle than the differences between say The Guardian and The Telegraph

I don’t have a problem with either approach. However I still value fairness and intellectual honesty.

A while back the Telegraph led with the Headline


What is the problem here? Is it that Tony Blair is defying popular opinion or that the Telegraph (and its readers) don’t want road pricing. If it is the former, would the Telegraph run a similiar headline were the issue the millions of people who want city bonuses more heavily taxed? I doubt it… I have no idea how many names the Stop the War coalition amassed before the invasion of Iraq but it has to have been more than 1.8 million… Should Blair’s foreign policy decisions have been dependent on their approval? Almost nobody has a problem with politicians defying the popular will when they happen to be in the minority that agree with the politicians. Furthermore we don’t live in an Athenian style direct democracy. The problem here is that the Telegraph doesnt like road pricing. That is fine.. The 1.8 million people are not the relevant factor here. The feasibility fairness and cost of road pricing are.

February 20, 2008

Elections are not the Superbowl

The most frustrating thing about the manner in which the mainstream media cover politics is the misconception about what I as a viewer find useful.

I am not looking for the mainstream media to provide me with an election handicapping service. I will not be gambling on the outcome of the democratic primaries.

90% of political coverage is geared towards helping me pick winners rather than understand issues.

Candidate A makes proposes policy A

Candidate B proposes policy B

What I voter or spectator care about.

What are the merits of the two proposals?

What do experts in the relevant fields think about the effectiveness of the each proposal?

What downsides or unintended consequences can they forsee in each case?

Do proposals A and B involve different sets of tradeoffs?

Which sections of society are likely to pay the highest cost and which sections are likely to reap the greatest benefits from Proposal A as opposed to Proposal B

What are the associated price tags of proposals A and B? Are they the same?

What I as a voter or spectator don't give a damn about

How Candidate A is polling with hispanic women with household incomes
under $40,000

Which candidate has gained 6 points in the latest poll.

Pretty much any strategic considerations affecting the political positioning in the two camps.

Identity politics related voting patterns

Now if I was a campaign manager then I would undoubtedly care deeply about these issues.

If I was running for office and wanted to win I would also have to care about these issues as a matter of pragmatism.

But as a spectator or voter ALL I care about is the reasonableness of the policy proposals and my subjective impression of the candidates making them.

The only questions I want the media to help me answer are;

Given the different sets of policy position espoused by the available candidates, which do I think is most desirable/least harmful for myself, my family and the larger community?

Do these people have track records that suggests they are fairly competent and rational?

What the hell do the poll responses of hispanic single mothers have to do with that?


Politics is covered like sports.

I understand tactical analysis in sports programming.

Beyond who is likely to win their is nothing to discuss. Most of the fun of watching sports is getting to be an armchair quarterback and second guessing players coaches and the front office. I get why people like to second guess say Brian Cashman's free agent signings for the Yankees, or Tom Coughlin's play calling for the Giants. Heck I can even understand why a Wall Street Journal subscriber would enjoy second guessing the CEO of General Motors.

What I can not for the life of me understand is why someone would want to do the same thing with the Democratic primary. Do people actually enjoy identifying with the decisions of campaign managers? Are there people that go. "Damn, we need to get that hispanic single mother demographic locked down in time for the California primary" the way they talk about their favorite basketball team needing to draft a new point guard?

Perhaps there are... But do these armchair party political tacticians constitute the majority of the voting public? You would think so from examining the tone of the media coverage.

So far, I haven't even touched on why this style of coverage is morally problematic. The basic assumption behind all this Xs and Os chalkboard analysis of the political playbook is that winning and election is a valid end in and of itself.

In this cynical view policy formulations are merely a means to an end, just like sports plays. Staking out different positions on, say healthcare or social security is just like deciding between man to man defense or zone coverage.

Needless to say this perspective is morally bankrupt. Political decisions have practical consequences that for good or ill, will effect the lives (and livelihoods) of millions of people.

Now I am convinced that many politicians do indeed think like this. But it is the job of the media to hold them to account, not cheerfully endorse their ethically vacuous Power Uber Alles cynicism as valid game strategy. That they choose the latter course is a total abdication of their responsibility.

Incidentally even if I were so morally indifferent that all I cared about was correctly predicting the outcome of elections rather than informing myself about the issues being debated; watching demographic pie charts, poll results and debate on CNN would be a waste of my time. All the information has already been incorporated into the betting odds posted on gambling sites for anyone who cares to look. The betting market is pretty efficient Using all this data to get a jump on the election outcome is as futile as trying to use an article in last months Forbes to get ahead of the professionals in the the stock market.

January 04, 2008

College Sports scam

I read an excellent New York Times piece by Micheal Lewis of Liars Poker and Moneyball fame. One of the best things I have read on the economically exploitative student-athlete farce.
It makes the scale of the ripoff abundantly clear.

In 2005, the 121 Division 1-A football teams generated $1.8 billion for their colleges. If the colleges paid out 65 percent of their revenues to the players, the annual college football payroll would come to $1.17 billion. A college football team has 85 scholarship players while an N.F.L. roster has only 53, and so the money might be distributed a bit differently.

“You’d pay up for the most critical positions,” one N.F.L. front office executive told me on the condition that I not use his name. “You’d pay more for quarterbacks and left tackles and pass rushing defensive ends. You’d pay less for linebackers because you’d have so many of them. You could just rotate them in and out.”

A star quarterback, he thought, might command as much as 8 percent of his college team’s revenues. For instance, in 2005 the Texas Longhorns would have paid Vince Young roughly $5 million for the season. In quarterbacking the Longhorns free of charge, Young, in effect, was making a donation to the university of $5 million a year — and also, by putting his health on the line, taking a huge career risk.

At least Young was able to eventually to parlay his college football exploits into a lucrative NFL Career. The vast majority of young athletes that keep the cogs on the NCAA's money machine turning never see a penny of it.

I recommend reading the whole article here. Lewis focuses on football, but the same obviously applies to basketball. The NCAA tourney generates tremendous sums that most of the (often poverty stricken) kids who create the product that launched a thousand CBS commercials will never see.