Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The parable of Jack Welch and Aaron Feuerstein

I just stumbled across an old article on the profit motive. I agree with the general sentiment that greed as a motive for public behavior ain't such a bad thing. But the author (Radley Balko) really slips up when he writes,
Certainly, there's room for a large corporation to invest in its community, to sponsor local arts, education, and charity programs. But community investment plays into "ruthless profit-seeking" too. A company that is seen as a good "corporate citizen" is a company more likely to win favor and patronage from members of the community.
While a company's ultimate motivation for such behavior may be profit-driven, the favor and patronage comes from the anti-greed sentiments the author's disparaging. The "boo corporations suck!" crowd doesn't make much sense to me, but if those chants get us some profit-driven community investment, they can't be all bad. Read more.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Oh my gawd, shoes!

My word of the day is magnanimity, which pretty much means benevolence except that it's more impressive to say.

Everyone knows about Muntazer al-Zaidi, the shoe-slinging Iraqi journalist who may be in jail for the next fifteen years. Mark Bowden wrote an article in today's Wall Street Journal suggesting that Bush ask the Iraqi government to pardon Zaidi. That's a great idea, right? Would it be some huge international faux pas for Bush to make such a request? I'm looking at you, Conflict Analysis and Resolution majors.

I used to work with a woman who often tried to get arrested (unsuccessfully). We would go to lunch and joke about appropriate projectiles to hurl at President Bush. If the perpetrator was a young American woman with a nerf missile, how would her experience be different from Muntazer al-Zaidi's? At least she'd finally be arrested. Read more.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The New Civil War

On Salon.com:

The South's attempt to kill the North's auto industry is the latest battle in an ongoing conflict.
It's an interesting bit of pseudo-public choice reasoning. Of course, if we're going to play that game, Lind should immediately demand the repeal of the federal minimum wage, which puts workers in the south, where the cost of living and therefore wages are lower than elsewhere, at a disadvantage relative to workers in the north. Well?

Of course, his actual proposals in the article involve reducing the key advantage of federalism: competition between governments. He argues that we should institute more regularizing federal policies so governments in the south cannot make it more attractive to live there. How utterly backwards. Read more.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Weddell Seal Voices

Listen to every sound clip on this page and be inspired. The scientist whom Werner Herzog interviewed in Encounters at the End of the World said that the seals "sound like Pink Floyd." Maybe Pink Floyd's songs would carry well underwater. Read more.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I don't know about the internet sometimes

Link to the Past is a pretty good game. Read more.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Dante's Inferno: the Game!

Back in the beginning of the Pretentious Days of Games Journalism* (i.e. when New Games Journalism became a thing), there was some discussion about postmodernism in games. One person conjectured that videogames were an inherently postmodern medium. At the time I thought it was a cute thing to say, but obviously false, at least for my understood definition of "postmodern."

Now I'm not so sure.

Do watch the movie on the site. Dante slams a giant cross into a zombie-demon-creature's skull.

*Disclaimer: I love Pretentious Games Journalism, and have participated in its creation. Read more.

Burglar held captive by ghost for 3 days

No comment, aside from the tag on this post, of course. Read more.

Crow vending machine

Welcome to my new co-blogger Katrina. As you might be able to tell by her first post, she's an amateur biologist. I'm an amateur economist, of course. So it's fun to stumble upon stories that combine both of our interests:
In June, Josh Klein revealed his master’s-thesis project to a flock of crows at the Binghamton Zoo in south-central New York State. The New York University graduate student offered the birds coins and peanuts from a dish attached to a vending machine he’d created, then took the peanuts away. Klein designed the machine so that when the crows searched for the missing peanuts, they pushed the coins out of a dish into a slot, causing more peanuts to be released into the dish. The Binghamton crows quickly learned that dropping nickels and dimes into the slot produced peanuts, and the most resourceful members of the flock began looking for more coins. Within a month, Klein had a flock of crows scouring the ground for loose change.
It's reminiscent of that old monkey economics study.

I recently finished Walter Williams' grad-level entry microeconomics course. On the last day, he reflected on a story from his graduate days. When he was taking the oral exam at UCLA, Jack Hirschleifer asked him, "Do whales have utility functions?" Williams replied that they do. Hirschleifer immediately countered, "Can you devise a test?" Well, it now appears that at least crows and capuchin monkeys have tested positive for utility functions. Don't be surprised when it's proven among other animals. Read more.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Get froze

Robin Hanson writes:
You who agree, however, let other readers here know it isn't just the two of us. The rest of you, consider saving your life!
Well, I agree. Sign up for cryonics. If we're wrong about it, you're only out a life insurance policy.

(I'm a cryocrastinator for now. But as soon as I'm out of grad school and have the money. . .) Read more.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Hi, my name is Katrina and I love cephalopods like this one in the genus Magnapinna (aka Bigfin).

Oh man, do you see the tentacles on that guy? He looks like a jellyfish, idly waiting to ensnare prey as they swim through. No other squid feeds passively, so it would be a great example of convergent evolution. Maybe. They could also drag their long elastic tentacles across the ocean floor to snag delicious deep sea critters. No one has seen a bigfin eat. Read more.

Hackwatch: Off to an amazing start

Radley Balko recently started something called "Hackwatch," where he chronicles rapidly shifting political opinions now that the political balance of power has changed. The first entry is absolutely priceless:
Your inaugural hack-tastic politico: Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

Here’s Kyl in 2005 on the subject of using the Senate filibuster to hold up Supreme Court nominations:
Republicans seek to right a wrong that has undermined 214 years of tradition – wise, carefully thought-out tradition. The fact that the Senate rules theoretically allowed the filibuster of judicial nominations but were never used to that end is an important indicator of what is right, and why the precedent of allowing up-or-down votes is so well established. It is that precedent that has been attacked and which we seek to restore….

My friends argue that Republicans may want to filibuster a future Democratic President’s nominees. To that I say, I don’t think so, and even if true, I’m willing to give up that tool. It was never a power we thought we had in the past, and it is not one likely to be used in the future. I know some insist that we will someday want to block Democrat judges by filibuster. But I know my colleagues. I have heard them speak passionately, publicly and privately, about the injustice done to filibustered nominees. I think it highly unlikely that they will shift their views simply because the political worm has turned.

Here’s Jon Kyl’s warning to President-Elect Obama last month:
Jon Kyl, the second-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate, warned president-elect Barack Obama that he would filibuster U.S. Supreme Court appointments if those nominees were too liberal.

Kyl, Arizona’s junior senator, expects Obama to appoint judges in the mold of U.S Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and Stephen Breyer. Those justices take a liberal view on cases related to social, law and order and business issues, Kyl said.

“He believes in justices that have empathy,” said Kyl, speaking at a Federalist Society meeting in Phoenix. The attorneys group promotes conservative legal principles.

Kyl said if Obama goes with empathetic judges who do not base their decisions on the rule of law and legal precedents but instead the factors in each case, he would try to block those picks via filibuster.
Read more.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Programmers are nerds: News at 11

If you're reading this on Google Reader (I highly recommend it), go to the home page and input the Konami code:

Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, b, a Read more.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Oh my God Frank Turner is good

Read more.

The Indirect Object Fallacy

Oh, the joys of generalizing. Recently I've been thinking of how to generalize certain types of incorrect thinking I believe are related. I've taken to calling it the "Indirect Object Fallacy." I'd consider it a subset of the Mind Projection Fallacy. (Or see here if you want something more in-depth.)

The Mind Projection Fallacy goes like this: humans are ignorant. However, our minds don't deal well with absolute uncertainty, so we create models of how the world works. When we're really, truly ignorant, those models tend to mistake the states of our mind with the states of the world. Inherent properties of our brainspace become inherent properties of the world.

My (adorable) nephew is a good example. A while back--I think he was 4 years old--we tried to explain to him that his mommy was daddy's wife, Wes's sister, Tim's sister-in-law, grandma's daughter, and so on. He wouldn't have that--in fact, he broke down crying, saying that she wasn't a sister or any of those things, she was mommy. My nephew didn't understand that his viewpoint of "mommy" wasn't a state of the world, an objective label slapped on his mother, but a state of his relationship to someone. It's meaningful to say, in an objective sense, that someone is a mother, but I sure don't think of my sister-in-law as "mommy."

In the E.T. Jaynes' paper linked above, Jaynes is more concerned with probabilities. Jaynes sees probability, rightly, as human uncertainty, and he criticizes scientists for viewing mere ignorance as indeterminance in nature. As an example, we see the probability of a flipped coin landing heads as 0.5. However, this is a statement of human ignorance; in fact, if one were to model the very fine details of a coin flip, things change very rapidly. A coin flip is determined by the weight of the coin, the strength and angle of the flip, distance to the ground and gravity, air resistance, and so on. If all of these are modeled properly, one would be able to predict the outcome of a coin toss at a much higher probability than 50/50.

The Indirect Object Fallacy is an aspect of the Mind Projection Fallacy. It happens when someone mistakes a word that must, ultimately, have a specific indirect object as being universal. In the Overcoming Bias post linked above, Yudkowsky uses the example of a horrible alien monster carrying away a sexy woman with a ripped dress, as if a non-human would find a human woman sexy. Sexiness is a word that must have an indirect object--a woman must be sexy to someone or something. We can only refer to her as being universally sexy if, in fact, all possible minds find her sexy.

(Now, maybe my proposed name doesn't make much sense. After all, I just said that an adjective needs an indirect object, and don't verbs exclusively need those? But that might be part of the confusion. We get away with the Indirect Object Fallacy because it doesn't sound funny when we say things that fall in this category. However, if you can think of a better name, go for it.)

Now, what's particularly interesting to me about this fallacy, and why it deserves some kind of separation from Mind Projection, is how extremely emotional and defiant people get when you take away their universalizations.

As a (maybe petty) example, think about musical taste, or taste at all. John Stuart Mill proposed that we could determine objective taste democratically (if all the participants actually experienced the art in question), but we have some reason to believe he wasn't exactly on to something. A good way to dissolve the Indirect Object Fallacy is to ask yourself, "How would this work on the moon?" For instance, "How good is Bach on the moon?" The idea is not to consider how much you'd like Bach on the moon, but to consider how much the citizens of the moon (of which there are none) would enjoy Bach. Would they think he's better than 50 Cent? Would emo still be unlistenable garbage? Would 28 Days Later still have problems? Of course they wouldn't. All of those above adjectives require indirect objects. Bach isn't good or bad on the moon. He isn't anything. If no one exists to hear it, it's impossible to attach those adjectives.

But try telling that to these poor girls. They're absolutely devastated that their conception of "good" isn't universal. "How could they vote for that LOSER, THAT LOSER THAT DOESN'T SHAVE!?"

And if you think adults are immune to that sort of unwarranted passion for other people's tastes, you need to spend more time on videogame message boards.

A few other examples: The Labor Theory of Value, a key element of much Marxist and anarchist economics, is an Indirect Object Fallacy. It says that the value of an object lies in the cost, toil, or work required to obtain it. But "value" is one of those sneaky words. What's the price of gold on the moon? How much would you get if you worked 50 years to mine some gold, build a spaceship, and fly to the moon to sell it? Hint: the answer is nothing. Value always has to take an indirect object. Marx tried to get around this by tossing in the "socially-necessary" clause, but if that doesn't imply subjective value, I don't know what does. As much as we may care for the plight of proletariat, the value of an object, of work, of everything, lies only in others. Amusingly, subjectivism was the original answer to the question of value; the Labor Theory of Value only popped up to answer the water-diamond paradox, something economists have now much better answered according to subjective theory. I probably don't have to point out how much certain individuals cling to such an obvious fallacy.

Following my deconversion from Christianity, a friend asked me to read Tim Keller's The Reason for God, in which Keller commits the same fallacy. This post is here because I've been thinking about how amazingly similar it is to the Marxist mistake. He argues that widespread beliefs in universal morality are anchored in a de facto belief in God, so if we act morally we must believe in God, no matter what we proclaim:
We all live as if it is better to seek peace instead of war, to tell the truth instead of lying, to care and nurture rather than to destroy. We believe that these choices are not pointless, that it matters which way we choose to live. . . We can hold on to our intellectual belief in [moral relativism] and yet live as if our choices are meaningful and as if there is a difference between love and cruelty. Why would we do that?
Didja catch it? "Meaningful" requires an indirect object. I don't believe for a second that my actions are meaningful on the moon or to the plant-people of pj238. I simply believe that my actions are meaningful to the people my actions affect. Furthermore, one can replace others as the indirect object with God. So it's possible for someone to 1) believe in objective morality, 2) believe in God, 3) only care about morality being meaningful to that God, and 4) ignore the meaning to other people, thereby murdering and so on if that's what he believes God wants. (And, no surprise, this is exactly what we find.)

By Keller's argument, if the human race had a morality developed such that stealing and murder were right, and this were universal to humans, and we all tended to feel as though this were objective even though we couldn't say why, this would be equally good evidence for God. Sorry, but much like Marxists, you can't make this case without ultimately ascribing an indirect object. Just as a Marxist can't get away with objective value without adding "socially-necessary," a theist can't get away with objective meaning in life without adding "to God." Keller's argument is still for a subjective morality, he simply chooses a very big indirect object.

Addendum: It's possible to have even more fun with this. Keller might respond that, were our morality evil, this would be evidence for no God rather than a God, but he couldn't get away with that. Keller contends that our current morality is inexplicable in terms of evolution. If universal morality not explained by evolution is evidence for God--and widespread killing and stealing certainly seems to be counterproductive from an evolutionary standpoint--then my example still holds. However, it might be evidence for an evil God. In which case we can play around some more and decide whether the God Keller proclaims to exist is "good" or "evil" based on what our universalized traits are. I can think of at least one trait that's pretty darn evil. Read more.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Read more.

The War on Christmas

For the record, I'm completely apathetic what people say to each other around Christmas. But I'm vehemently opposed to measures that try to force one traditional phrase over another. Read more.

Politics Isn't About Policy

The original quote is from here. Will Wilkinson shares some evidence. Read more.