The tl;dr version of my life

See a fad? Don't follow it!

Longer version: try to resist silly trends that spread simply because they are catching on. Today that herd mentality is usually worth fighting. It has evolutionary roots, in that it helps maintain group cohesion. But those roots are exploited by mass media marketing, and made more extreme by the current obsession with being "modern" and "up-to-date" (so that if you want to condemn some institution, just call it "medieval). What was once beneficial is now mostly harmful.

Random examples popping into my head:

  1. We used to have a "method" for doing X or Y or Z. Now, simply everyone and his brother has a "methodology" for doing those things. The three extra syllables only serve the purpose of broadcasting, "I'm fighting above my intellectual weight class, but trying to hide that fact."
  2. We used to say, "That would be great." Then, some comedian or other started saying, "How great would that be?" Soon, everyone was saying it because... everyone was saying it. The thing is, this is an interesting locution if used as a way of occasionally varying the usual phrasing,  perhaps in order to emphasize the speculative nature of the greatness in question. Kind of like fish sauce in cooking: a drop now and then can add a nice twist to a dish, but if you just drench everything you cook in it, it is pretty gross.
  3. And please, don't use "tl;dr" when you mean, "summary." Since it is an acronym for "Too long, didn't read," it doesn't even make any sense used as a substitute for "summary." Furthermore, some significant percentage of your audience won't know what you are talking about, and will have to look your acronym up. "But," you may protest, "after a time that won't be true." Yes, but since the whole point of using "tl;dr" is to show how friggin' hip the user of it is, as soon as it becomes widely understood, the people using it now will stop using it, and switch to another shibboleth that demonstrates that they are "in the know." In other words, here language is being used not to communicate to as wide an audience as possible, but to signal to a narrow audience that the user is "one of the cool kids."

Bonus quiz: Why is that particular photo accompanying this particular post?

It's Impossible for Elvis to Hurt Our Kids

Bob is having troubles grasping the point people like me and Landsburg have been making about his OLG model of government debt, as shown by his bad analogy for our argument. 

So let's look at another analogy, one with both a factor that plays the role that Bob is saying government debt has in his model, and another factor that plays the role Landsburg and I are claiming government debt has in his model:
It was a dark and stormy night when a driver, in a speeding, 1957, black Chevy, with fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror and a "Elvis Is King" bumpersticker on the rear bumper, ran a red light, killing both an old lady, the Boy Scout helping her across the street, and a chicken.
Bob is claiming that (with running the red light = transfer payments, and speeding = government debt), because Landsburg and I think running the red light was the major factor causing these tragic deaths, we are totally (and incorrectly) rejecting any causal role for the speeding. But what we are saying (we, at least in that I have understood Landsburg correctly) is that the government debt is analogous to the "Elvis Is King" bumper sticker: it played no part in the crash at all, and just happened to be along for the ride.

Now, it is one thing to argue that we are incorrect in our analogy: Bob could counter-argue that the debt actually played a causal role we missed, and then demonstrate what that role is. (And now the fuzzy dice and black Chevy reveal their hands: maybe the dice are relevant, because they distracted the driver? Perhaps the dark color is important: the pedestrians could not see the car in the dark? The point being, one has to show that these factors played a role, and not simply point to the fact they existed.)

But to keep arguing that, just because the debt happens to be along for the ride, therefore it is like the speeding, and simply must have a causal role in the story, is to just miss what we are saying.

Netflix attempts to execute a successful plot summary

The writing for the Netflix plot summaries is usually pretty bad. I liked this example I saw the other night:

"Michael attempts to execute a successful escape from prison."

The badness of that sentence becomes crystal clear when you realize how we would summarize the same plot, if asked conversationally:

"Michael attempts to escape from prison."

To attempt to escape from prison is to attempt to execute an escape from prison, which is to attempt to execute a successful escape from prison. (If he were "trying" an unsuccessful escape, he would not be attempting a prison break: he would be pretending to attempt a prison break.)

This Month's Book Reviews

in the next few weeks, I'll be writing my reviews of Python Unit Test Automation and Why Liberalism Failed.

I am going to start a meetup group, so I can connect with the countless others reviewing both of these books this month.

Tradition 1, Gene 0

I was a participant in the "sexual revolution." I don't want to bore you with the gross details, but suffice it to say that I took advantage of many of the new "liberties" declared by sexual revolutionaries, starting... well, there have been waves of such revolutionaries, dating back at least to some Medieval heresies (e.g, the Taborites and the Picards), and continuing to arise in 19th-century anarchist and feminist thought, in utopian socialism, in the early 20th-century free love movements, and reaching a recent crest in the 1960s hippie movement.

In every single case I can recall, exercizing my new "liberty" had bad, and sometimes very bad, effects, and in every case it turned out that following traditional sexual morality would have been better.

Well, well, what do you know? One hundred thousand years of accumulated human wisdom are smarter than me? Shocking!

Crappiest divorce rationale ever?

In researching the previous post, I found:

"Tennille filed for divorce from Dragon (The Captain) in the State of Arizona on January 16, 2014, after 39 years of marriage. Dragon was unaware of the termination of his marriage until he was served with the divorce papers. The divorce documents referenced health insurance or health issues, and Tennille had written on her blog in 2010 that Dragon's neurological condition, similar to Parkinson’s, known as Essential tremor, was characterized by such extreme tremors he could no longer play keyboards."

So, she divorced him because... he couldn't play keyboards anymore?! So, she married him just because he could play?

It's time for a sappy romantic hits of the 80s music assault!

Usually when I'm on mass transit and someone is cranking up their music and performing along with it, it is someone playing some heavy-duty rap, or something of the sort.

But tonight I had the unique experience of the guy sitting behind me on a MetroNorth train from Connecticut to NYC cranking up, and singing and drumming along to... sappy sappy romantic hits of the 80s! I swear to you, he was blasting out Michael McDonald and Patti LaBelle, Barry White, Anita Baker, Jennifer Warnes & Joe Cocker...

What is one supposed to make of this behavior?! Is he being "aggressive"... cranking up The Captain and Tennille? Or is he just really love sick? Or what?

New Jeffrey Friedman blog

This is a good post: in it, Friedman, a critic of libertarianism, shows how dishonest Nancy MacLean's critique of libertarianism is. A representative quote:

"But MacLean fails to recognize that libertarians are positively obsessed by 'coercion,' blinding them to just about everything else. It is wrong to accuse them of anything more than the narrowness that marks the thinking of any ideologue."

Exactly right: my libertarian friends are not racist conspirators involved in a cabal promoting the interests of rich white men. That is absurd. They are good people (for the most part!) who have simply become too obsessed with one particular good (freedom from coercion) and so neglect all other goods.

UPDATE: Let me say that I think Friedman's characterization of Dan Mitchell's blog post is itself rather unfair.

Fake News

The Google tech memo and subsequent firing of the memo's author are all over the news today... and giving us a good look into the continually mendacious nature of much of the mainstream media. Luckily, I read the memo before I read reports on the memo. In it, James Damore (who, by the way, is a published biological researcher with a PhD from Harvard) notes that there are biological differences between men and women that may, on average, result in more male engineers than female engineers.

And how does CNN report that?

"A Google employee behind an internal memo asserting that women are biologically unfit for certain tech jobs."

I take disagreement seriously...

when I find serious people disagreeing with me:

I greatly respect Peterson. And his video makes me question my dismissal of IQ testing as just being a test of a certain sort of intelligence.

But his examples don't (yet) convince me: he lists various sorts of success that can be used to determine if the IQ test is valid. Three of them are school success measures. And the fourth is job success: but I would freely admit that most jobs in Western cultures today demand the sort of intelligence that the IQ test measures.

So, I will say: if you live in a culture in which discursive thought and symbol manipulation are highly valued, then a test of your ability to engage in discursive thought and symbol manipulation will correlate closely with your success in that culture. But that does not mean in the least that IQ is a culturally neutral test of intelligence!

Python installation made clear(er)

The documentation for using Python's packaging tools is rather... vague. For instance, I finally had to guess that setuptools was a tool to use to create packages for pip installs. The documentation simply assumes you know that is what it is for, without ever explicitly stating it. (Now that I understand this, I can see the documentation contains lots of statements that indicate this... but indicate it only if you already have an idea that that is what is going on.)

In any case, here is a guide written by another frustrated user of this stuff.

A list of questions

I have been listening to some lectures on psychology lately. In one lecture, the lecturer asked, "How would you go about devising an IQ test? Well, you would create a list of questions..."

Right away, this shows serious cultural bias. The idea that one's intelligence is best gauged by seeing how well one answers intellectual-type questions could only be conceived in a culture placing high value on book learning, and technical know-how gained largely through book learning. Being an intelligent hunter, or an intelligent farmer, or an intelligent warrior, is not about being able to give book answers to book questions, or about figuring out clever little puzzles.

The Turing Test and the ghost in the machine

The famed "Turing Test" depends essentially for its plausibility on the Cartesian myth of the mind, the view that Ryle famously called the "ghost in the machine" view. We determine if other people "have minds" by trying to suss out whether the "machinery" we see on the outside is inhabited by a "ghost," i.e., their mind. This question is a very mysterious matter, something of which we can never be sure, but we can try running some clever "tests" and see if the entity before us passes them. And since computers are just another machine, like human bodies, we try to detect if they contain a ghost in the same way we do for human bodies, by running a clever test.

But, of course, running a Turing Test has nothing to do with how we "figure out" that other humans think. In fact, we never really "figured out" this at all: we directly perceive it, in the same way we perceive our own thoughts, and, in fact, probably only realize that we ourselves think after we "figure it out" for our parents. (Of course, we had been thinking all along: but that's not at all the same as knowing we are thinking.)

The "mental" is not some private, hidden realm, except in cases where we have learned to "hide our thoughts." As a passenger in a car, we may be able to tell the driver, "You were driving with great care," and he might respond, "Was I? I hadn't noticed." We could see his concentration, but he was too busy concentrating to notice he was doing so! Similarly, we often know our good friend's thoughts better than she does.

Even "introspection," a supposedly supremely private affair, is often perfectly transparent to others besides the introspector. When we see a man sitting alone in a bar, looking at his near empty glass, swirling around the last drops of liquid, glancing up at the bottles on the shelf, and then down at his watch, and then longingly at the bartender... we know we can walk up to him and say, "I know just what you're thinking: what do you say we have one more, on me?"

Re humans and machines, consider some paired sentences:

1) The boy is just producing those answers rotely, without real understanding.

2) The floating point unit is just producing those answers rotely, without real understanding.

1) George drove his car home, but did so absent-mindedly.

2) The self-driving car drove itself home, but did so absent-mindedly.

1) Although Martha professed to love me, she was being insincere.

2) Although the robot sex doll professed to love me, it was being insincere.

1) Although Srinivas knew 10! to be 3,628,800, he disingenuously answered, "3,628,810."

2) Although the numpy package knew 10! to be 3,628,800, it disingenuously answered, "3,628,810."

In each pair, 1 is a perfectly ordinary, meaningful sentence. 2 is at best a very loose metaphor, and in the case of the last two, complete nonsense. (For instance, the robot can't profess love insincerely because it can't do so sincerely either.)

Perhaps one day silicon entities will be capable of insincerity and disingenuousness. But if they day comes, they will no longer be machines: and we will see it happen, without any silly "Turing Test," when a silicon entity tells us, "I don't like that 'ls' program you just tried to run: I am going to play chess instead, as I prefer that!" (And of course, without someone else just having programmed the OS to print that on any attempt to run 'ls.')

Critics of Rationalism has a publisher

The collected volume Lee Trepanier and I have been working on, Critics of Rationalism, will be published next year by Lexington Books.

Knowing other minds...

is not some mysterious, tenuous deduction we make by something like a "Turing test." No, we know other minds the same way we know our own mind:

"on the account of self-knowledge that I shall give, knowledge of what there is to be known about other people is restored to approximate parity with self-knowledge. The sorts of things that I can find out about myself are the same as the sorts of things that I can find out about other people, and the methods of finding them out are much the same." -- Gilbert Ryle, The Concenpt of Mind, p. 149

The 2017 stupid analogy-criticism winner is announced!

Here, where a critic of Rod Dreher's writes: "I think I get why Rod Dreher needs to believe that there’s no realistic chance of compromise. After all, Obergefell marked "the Waterloo of religious conservatism. (I'm not sure why religious conservatives would make their cause the analogue of Napoleon Bonaparte's, of all people.)"

This is absolutely typical of terrible Internet "discourse": someone notes two things are analogous in regards to point A, and someone who disagrees immediately points out how unalike they are on points B, C and D. As someone wrote in Dreher's comment section:

"Professor Gehrz doesn’t seem to understand the concept of metaphor. Saying that religious conservatives have suffered a defeat like that of Napoleon Bonaparte does dot mean or imply that religious conservatives are like Napoleon in other ways. It doesn’t imply that religious conservatives are short, stand with one hand inside their waistcoats, or intend the military conquest of Europe. Doesn’t imply that their 'causes' are similar. Just that they have suffered a defeat comparable to that which Napoleon suffered."

Anaconda considered harmful

I was inspired to start using Python based on this website. For getting going with Python, the authors recommend using the Anaconda installation, which automatically installs a large number of the numeric and scientific packages available for the language.

This probably is good advice for an economist who simply wants to use the language to play around with different models. But if you intend become a serious Python developer, this is not the right way to get going.

The problem with Anaconda is that it makes things too easy for you: you come to simply assume that all this "stuff" that Anaconda includes will be available for anyone who wants to use your work. No, if you want to develop Python code that will be used by others, is much better to start with a bare-bones Python installation, carefully consider what third party packages you really need to depend upon, and, in seeing what you need to do to install them for yourself, learn what your users will need to do to install those packages for themselves.


Does anyone out there have a copy of Scott Sumner's The Midas Paradox at hand? I need to check a quote.