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Honesty, magic, and science

A chocolatier friend posted this to Facebook (quoted with permission):

Just turned down an invite to sell chocolate at an event because they were going to advertise it using *free Tarot readings*

Three reasons:

-Do we as a society need more of this nonsense?

-Do I want to deal with customers that naive?

-Do I trust organizers that are either credulous or unethically pandering?

Nope, nope and nope.

I think that this is an excellent example of sticking up for principles in ways that it seems a lot of the people around me find nonobvious: refusing to sanction something you think is deceptive. This is a good practice and needs to be more widespread.

I've previously criticized the practice of crediting "matching donations" drives with gains from controlling others’ behavior, but not the corresponding loss of information they would otherwise have contributed (or the loss from accepting their symmetrical control over you). Similarly, there’s a temptation to count the gains from exploiting an event full of Tarot-credulous customers to sell your actually-high-quality chocolate, but not to count the loss of allowing such an event to exploit you. When you help someone else attract attention to something dishonest, you are imposing costs on others.

That said, I think things like Tarot (and "Magic" in general) are hard to talk about reasonably because people mean such different things when talking about them. Obviously which Tarot cards one draws are determined by a pseudorandom process, and not one meaningfully causally entangled with the future life outcomes of the person for whom the Tarot cards are being read.

However, like many other divination processes, Tarot can serve as a seed around which the reader can signal-boost their own insights about the person being read for. Often we have subtle intuitions about each other that don't make it into consciousness but are fairly insightful. I've done a Tarot reading (once), and while I don't need the cards to weave a story about someone with my intuitions, it's easy for me to imagine someone only having access to that kind of intuition if they're in a headspace where they imagine that the cards are "telling" them the story.

I also wonder whether it's possible to consistently apply this epistemic standard. The replication crisis really happened and we need to update on it - even "science" isn't immune to casual deceptiveness and sloppiness with the facts. Someone giving a TED-style talk on psychology research is also likely to be saying stuff that's intuitive but not based on solid knowledge, and making up a story whereby we "know" these things because an experiment was performed.

(I'm not saying that science isn't real. Science was clearly real at some point in the past, and some forms of science and engineering now seem to be making real progress even to this day. I'm just saying that not ALL contemporary "science" is clearly better than Tarot.)

IF we don't apply this epistemic standard consistently, then what we're actually doing is calling out the out-group for deception, while tolerating in-group hypocrisy. We have cultural cover in our in-group for calling out Tarot as lies, but people would probably look at us funny for refusing to associate with someone giving a talk on power poses for the same reason. This might actually be the right choice, I'm not sure - in practice it's close to what I do - but it seems important to notice when that's what we're doing.

Social vs objective respect

Does Donald Trump deserve our respect now?

"I support any president of the United States. It's very important that the American people coalesce behind the president," Buffett told CNN's Poppy Harlow in an exclusive interview from Omaha on Thursday.

"That doesn't mean they can't criticize him or they can't disagree with what he's doing maybe. But we need a country unified," Buffett added. "He deserves everybody's respect."

I hear others asking, how can we respect this man, given his obvious flaws? This question comes from conflating two very different notions of respect. One type is social respect, an acknowledgement of someone's social standing. The other is objective respect, an estimate of someone's character or ability.

When people with an affinity for hierarchical social structures say "respect my authority," they are explicitly talking about social respect. But in most cases, the two meanings are difficult to disentangle. Practical abilities really do help you win status games, feeling high-status helps you be better at things, and the halo effect is a thing. So people often verbally conflate these two things. They point to roughly the same cluster of things, but designate different parts of the cluster as the central case. The words can be the same, and used to describe the same things, but the concepts are very different.

I think that it is, right now, very important to have an accurate, uninflated view of Trump's character and ability. I also think that it is very, very important that Trump perceive governing by legitimate and lawful means as a feasible way to hold high social status. Unfortunately, much of the proposed resistance to a Trump presidency cuts exactly the wrong way. Continue reading

On just not getting it

A lot of contrarians and Trump supporters have been talking about how people who were surprised by Trump's victory clearly just don't get it and need to learn about how the world really is.

This mixes together two things that are actually quite different:

  1. Surprise at Trump's widespread support.
  2. Surprise at a systematic divergence between opinion polls and voting results.

Continue reading

It is not a scandal that Donald Trump sexually assaulted a child onstage.

Sorry to write about Donald Trump again, but he’s such a good foil for talking about justice. I'll keep this short.

People have been talking about an incident in which he publicly tried to kiss a child without her consent.

This is wrong behavior, and it is also normal adult behavior.

It is a scandal that Donald J. Trump, who is probably a serial rapist, and has obviously committed multiple sexual assaults and bragged about them, is not in prison. The scandal is not that some exceptionally bad thing occurred, but that this is apparently the expected, normal outcome. That the women assaulted by Trump apparently believed that they had no legal recourse, that they did not think that this was unacceptable behavior that would be punished as such if they spoke up.

It is not additionally a scandal, given the apparent absence of rule of law in this country, that the Republican party has nominated this criminal for the Presidency of the United States. (The scandal there is that he seems totally uninterested in actually doing the job, and therefore likely to cause an unusually large amount of damage to the current world order, to no purpose. I'll try to write about this before election day.)

It is separately a scandal that it is normal adult behavior to kiss a child who clearly does not want to be kissed by you.

It is not additionally a scandal that the Republican presidential nominee engages in normal adult behavior in public.

If you think that this ought to be scandalous, the place to start is by objecting to it in the cases where you have the social power to change behavior - when you personally witness it. That’s the beginning of the process. The end of the process is that it’s actually scandalous when anyone - bad person or not - sexually assaults a child in public.

Frank Loesser and corruption in America

The movie musicals of Frank Loesser (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Guys and Dolls) are a straightforward celebration of a certain sort of peculiarly American form of corruption and adulteration. Both are about people dressing up formally and obeying elaborate forms of etiquette while optimizing for nothing but scamming one another. Highly recommended if you haven't already seen them - Frank Loesser is also a gifted lyricist and the choreography is great, so they're fun to watch.

Guys and Dolls is about how the occasional infusion of a person of integrity leads to the corruption of other people of integrity. Almost all the characters are gamblers, except for people who literally work as Salvation Army missionaries or police officers, and one stage performer. The gambling is made to seem charming since it resembles a children's game (all these grown up children just want to play with cards and dice and watch horses run fast and argue over who’s going to win), but it's clearly compulsive and antisocial behavior. The gamblers all dress up smartly and speak with elaborately formal diction, and in general it's a lot like The Godfather as an extreme romanticization of gangster culture (h/t Cracked) which plays up the honor ethic and sense of style. However, at one point a big out-of-town gambler who's lost a lot of money at a crap game pulls out a gun and a set of blank dice, claiming he remembers which side is which, in order to "win" his money back from the game organizer at gunpoint. So the honor is clearly sort of fake, but there’s some pressure to preserve appearances.

Marlon Brando's male lead character falls in love with a woman working for the Salvation Army, but in the process of being reformed by her, manipulates her into leaving town one night, leaving her mission unstaffed so that some gamblers can use it as a venue, and then lying to the police to protect them. The other male lead, played by Frank Sinatra, finally agrees to get married to throw police off his trail, and in the process gives an engagement speech in front of his fiancée about how happy he is that she's trusting him even though she knows he's scamming her.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is based on a satirical business handbook with the same title, and it's about how to use sociopathic Machiavellian manipulation to advance in a corporation. It's explicitly about clubbiness among graduates of the same college - at one point the young talented protagonist following the book's advice pretends to have gone to the same college as the CEO to curry favor with him. More generally, it is about coordination between people of a privileged class who want to continue extracting monopoly rents together instead of facing real competition - there's a scene where the other executives are meeting in the executive washroom to try and coordinate against the upstart. Near the climax there's a song called "Brotherhood of Man" about how top executives and board members should show solidarity with the rest of privileged middle and upper management and keep employing them them even if they don't add value. The protagonist becomes chairman of the board, and at the very end decides that he'd rather be President of the United States, so he shows up at the White House to implement the exact same strategy.

Increase bottleneck throughput by shortening queues?

I've been reading Yes to the Mess by Frank Barrett, and I'm confused about a queueing problem mentioned in it. He gives an example from Kip Hawley's book Permanent Emergency, which I'll quote here:

The Powder River Basin was the single biggest leverage point for increasing profitability in Union Pacific territory [...] one of the most important coal-producing areas in the United States - a place where our trains always seemed to get bottlenecked at a single line of rail leading to the coal fields while transporting coal to many of the nation's electric power plants.

Because on-time performance from this particular spot was so important - a serious delay in delivery could endanger the supply of electricity to the entire city of Atlanta - Union Pacific spent enormous energies trying to improve efficiency. We rushed high-priority coal cars to a continuous queue just outside the single-point entry to the basin. We advanced new, empty cars right after the previous train moved out loaded with coal. But instead of maximizing efficiency, we were overdoing it. One of the consequences of focusing so much operational and tactical energy on wringing every last second out of the process is that we left ourselves precious little slack when something did go wrong. [...]

It is simply the nature of large, heterogeneous systems like a railroad network to have things go wrong all the time. And as soon as something went wrong with one train, the other trains we'd stacked up behind it were stuck. Lining up all the trains in a row, we realized, had effectively squeezed all room for error out of the system and was slowing down our delivery schedule.

After letting that conundrum soak in, one of our brainstorming teams proposed a solution that directly contradicted the time-maximization mode we'd been toiling in. What if, rather than rushing the empties to the gridlock point, we staged the coal cars far away from the troublesome intersection and then flowed them in, so they arrived when the intersection was clear? Rather than trying to cram in as many priority trains as possible, we dispatched the cars to a collection of holding points dispersed across the railroad, making sure that the Powder River Basin's access point wasn't idle for very long. It worked. Not only did it clear up the gridlock, it also increased the number of daily coal trains by 30 percent. [...]

Another way of thinking about that solution was that railroad dispatchers were building resilience into the process. Previously, we'd put all our eggs in one perfect basket, leaving us no viable secondary options if the basket filled up. It was true that our new system of flowing in trains was not technically as time-efficient as the first system, but by accounting for the time eaten up by unpredictable problems that plague any complex network, it was ultimately more successful.

I don't understand how this can possibly be true.

I understand how this could improve average on-time performance. Keeping all available coal trains queued at the Powder River Basin means that they are not available elsewhere, so if there's a delay at that single bottleneck, it will cascade throughout the network. The first queueing train probably increases utilization of the one coal field line, but the tenth improves performance much less in expectation there, while it could easily improve performance in emptier areas of the network by quite a lot.

What I don't understand is how this could possibly improve throughput at the intersection, unless there's some key factor I'm missing. It's conceivable that the bottleneck could have been overutilized, or that there wasn't just the one line and there was an alternate route that farther-away trains could have gotten to, or that the section of track trains were queueing on was also sometimes needed as an exit, but nothing like that gets mentioned by Hawley as far as I can tell. The claim seems to be, simply, that shorter queues caused higher throughput.

What am I missing?

Some excerpts from Catistotle's Kittycatean Ethics

Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and pounce, seems to aim at some red dot, and hence it has been beautifully said that the red dot is that at which all cats aim. But a certain difference is apparent among ends, since some are ways of being at play, while others are certain kinds of works produced, over and above the being-at-play.
[...]
If, then, there is some end of the things we do that we want on account of itself, and the rest on account of this one, and we do not choose everything on account of something else (for in that way the pounces would go beyond all bounds, so that desire would be empty and pointless), it is clear that this would be the red dot, and in fact the reddest dot. Then would not an awareness of it have great weight in one's life, so that, like mousers who see a mouse, we would be more apt to hit on what is needed? But if this is so, one ought to try to get a grasp, at least in outline, of what it is and to what kind of knowledge or capacity it belongs.
[...]
And it would seem to belong to the one that is most governing and most a master art, and politics appears to be of this sort, since it prescribes which kinds of knowledge ought to be in the cities, and what sorts each cat ought to learn and to what extent; also, we see that the most honored capacities, such as mousing, household cattery, and meowing skill, are under this one. Since this capacity makes use of the rest of the kinds of knowledge, and also lays down the law about what one ought to do and from what one ought to refrain, the end of this capacity should include the ends of the other pursuits, so that this end would be the feline red dot. For even if the red dot is the same for one cat and for a city, that of the city appears to be greater, at least, and more complete both to achieve and to preserve; for even if it is achieved for only one cat that is something to be satisfied with, but for a litter or for cities it is something more beautiful and more divine. So our pursuit aims at this, and is in a certain way political.
[...]
Now taking up the thread again, since every kind of knowing and every pounce reach toward some red dot, let us say what it is that we claim politics aims at, and what, of all the dots aimed at by action, is the reddest. In name, this is pretty much agreed about by the majority of cats, for most cats, as well as those who are more refined, say it is being in a box, and assume that living well and doing well are the same thing as being in a box. But about being in a box-what it is-they are in dispute, and most cats do not give the same account of it as the wise. Some cats take it to be something visible and obvious, such as pleasure or wealth or honor, and different ones say different things, and even the same cat often says different things; when sick one thinks it is health, but when poor, that it is wealth, and when they are conscious of ignorance in themselves, cats marvel at those who say it is something grand and above them. And some cats believe that, besides these many red dots, there is some other red dot, by itself, which is also responsible for the being red of all these other dots.