Category Archives: Uncategorized

Bob the Builder, and the Neo-Puritan Deal

It’s story time, and our protagonist’s name is Robert Moses. He’s responsible for building most of the highways and bridges around NYC, as well as much of the parkway infrastructure in New York State.

Let’s say a new highway was getting built. What would Moses’s job be?

Moses was the guy who oversaw the design work to propose the highway, lobbied the legislature and governor for funds, got the budget passed, oversaw the construction work, and collected any revenues afterwards if there were tolls. He was very clearly the but-for guy.

He personally accumulated massive amounts of political power and funding and responsibility, and used it to force aside political opposition to get things built when no on else could. He built his own fiefdom within the New York State government, that was in practice unassailable by mayors and governors, made himself the natural coordination point for getting funding for things, and leveraged his power to get more power etc, which he used to build more things, setting off several related positive feedback loops:

Robert Moses had credibility because he got credit for everything that got built. Therefore, he could shape the narrative to assign him the lion’s share of the credit for future projects, less he use his moral authority to discredit naysayers.

Robert Moses had power because he controlled ongoing funding sources and political offices overseeing most government construction. Therefore, he could use this as leverage to acquire control over new offices and projects, lest he freeze decisionmakers out of existing construction.

The man was a power-mad maniac. But the interesting thing is how his public persona - and a lot of how he got his initial endowment of power, credibility, and consistent media support - was entirely built around a personal brand of meritocracy, the impression that he was a disinterested, technocratic public servant, above the politics of pull.

Robert Caro found this interesting enough to biograph, and I think he's a good case-study of how narratives of public service, meritocracy, and objectivity can be a sort of elitist self-dealing.

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Estimating COVID-19 Mortality Rates

In the early days of the pandemic, there wasn't great data available, and it wasn't easy to do better than trusting the standard epidemiological estimate that around 2% of people who got COVID-19 would die. My back of the envelope estimate at the time was way higher, but no one else I knew seemed to think that number made sense, so I let the matter drop. But now we have enough data to check.

Recently, my sister reached out to me to check her own thinking on the matter. She used the same method I initially did - simply dividing the number of deaths by the number of resolved cases (deaths + recoveries) - to estimate that in the US, COVID-19 kills around 1 in 6 people who get it.

The problem with using only resolved cases, in a country with an ongoing pandemic, is that if people die faster than they're marked recovered, death rates can be inflated - and if they recover faster, deflated. Ideally, you'd want to wait until all cases have been resolved one way or the other. Fortunately, there are now countries where that situation nearly holds.

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Blatant lies are the best kind!

Mala: But then why do people get so indignant about blatant lies?

Noa: You mean, indignant when others call out blatant lies? I see more of that, though they often accuse the person calling out the lie of being unduly harsh.

Mala: Sure, but you can't deny - you've seen yourself - that people actually do get more indignant when they say that, than when they're pointing out a subtle pattern of motivated reasoning. How do you explain that, if "blatant lie" isn't a stronger accusation?  Continue reading

Reason isn't magic

Here's a story some people like to tell about the limits of reason. There's this plant, manioc, that grows easily in some places and has a lot of calories in it, so it was a staple for some indigenous South Americans since before the Europeans showed up. Traditional handling of the manioc involved some elaborate time-consuming steps that had no apparent purpose, so when the Portuguese introduced it to Africa, they didn't bother with those steps - just, grow it, cook it, eat it.

The problem is that manioc's got cyanide in it, so if you eat too much too often over a lifetime, you get sick, in a way that's not easily traceable to the plant. Somehow, over probably hundreds of years, the people living in manioc's original range figured out a way to leach out the poison, without understanding the underlying chemistry - so if you asked them why they did it that way, they wouldn't necessarily have a good answer.

Now a bunch of Africans growing and eating manioc as a staple regularly get cyanide poisoning.

This is offered as a cautionary tale against innovating through reason, since there's a lot of information embedded in your culture (via hundreds of years of selection), even if people can't explain why. The problem with this argument is that it's a nonsense comparison.  Continue reading

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.

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