Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Friday, December 15, 2017

Court Transcript

THE COURT:  What do you mean when you say your client said it in "the Chili's way"?

MR. STONE:  He wasn't saying it in a threatening or menacing -- he sang it, Your Honor. Like the Chili's jingle.

THE COURT:  The Chili's jingle?

MR. STONE:  Yes Your Honor. It was a sort of joking --

THE COURT:  I have no idea what you're talking about.

MR. STONE:  Well the ads are from a long time ago. I think it's just one of those catchy things --

MR. KOUVACS:  Your Honor if I may. [singing] I want my baby back baby back baby back.

THE COURT:  Oh right yeah! [singing] I want my baby back baby back baby back. I want my baby back baby back baby back. I didn't know that was Chili's.

MR. STONE:  It's an advertisement for baby-back ribs, Your Honor.

MR. KOUVACS:  [singing] I want my baby back baby back baby back.

THE COURT:  I thought it was from that movie.

MR. KOUVACS:  [singing] Chili's baby-back ribs!  No, Your Honor, at least originally it was an ad campaign for Chili's.

MR. STONE:  It was in a movie, Your Honor.

[crosstalk]

MR. STONE:  Austin Powers.

THE COURT:  It was a sort of obese Scottish character.

MR. KOUVACS:  He's right, Your Honor, but I actually think it was in the second one.

THE COURT:  The second movie?

MR. KOUVACS:  Yeah. The Spy Who Shagged Me.

THE COURT:  [singing] I want my baby back baby back baby back.

MR. KOUVACS:  The joke was that he was going to eat Mini-Me.

THE COURT:  Excuse me?

MR. KOUVACS:  The obese character was going to eat a baby, and so the jingle was sort of dark comedy. Not entirely un-menacing, Your Honor. I would argue --

THE COURT:  [singing] I want my baby back baby back baby back.

MR. STONE:  It wasn't a baby --

THE COURT:  [singing] I want my baby back baby back baby back.

MR. KOUVACS:  Well, wasn't Mini-Me a baby?

[crosstalk]

THE COURT:  Mini-Me is a clone. He's small, but not a baby.

MR. KOUVACS:  Get in my belly!

MR. STONE:  [singing] I want my baby back baby back baby back. Anyway Your Honor --

THE COURT:  We can move on. It's just so catchy. [singing] I want my baby back baby back baby back.

MR. KOUVACS:  [singing] I want my baby back baby back baby back.

MR. STONE:  [singing] I want my baby back baby back baby back.

THE COURT:  [singing] Chili's baby-back ribs!

MR. KOUVACS:  You do know the jingle, Your Honor!

THE COURT:  It's so --

MR. STONE:  [singing] I want my baby back baby back baby back.

THE COURT:  -- good.

MR. STONE:  Is anyone else hungry? Because I think we were going to recess at noon, and I know it's a little early --

MR. KOUVACS:  [singing] Chili's baby-back ribs!

THE COURT:  Let's recess until --

MR. STONE:  I can look it up on my Blackberry.

THE COURT:  -- 2:30.  Good, I'll -- good.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Pro-Treaty

If I had been in Ireland at the time of the formation of the Irish Free State, I think I would have been pro-Treaty.

Churchill

One kind of interesting thing is that Churchill was constantly subtweeting the United States in his great wartime speeches. I've quoted his "finest hour" speech, which flatly says our fates are intertwined. Here is another:

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
There's plenty more but I think you get the idea. Again, his decision to use good American English and not to throw in a bunch of "oys" and "shites" greatly elevates the oratory.

To Be Sure

It's worth dwelling on why "bloodyminded" is good. It's good because it's expressive. It encapsulates a concept that would otherwise take several words to say. It's not just a misspelling of an American word or an inferior version being passed off as the genuine article. It's not annoying or stupid.

By the way, none of this is a knock on the talent of the British people for using the English language. Consider the following passage from one of Churchill's great speeches:

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."
This is great British rhetoric that is vastly more effective because it is written in American English. Imagine if Churchill had said:

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour." Oy!

More Thoughts

Also it's not cool how they, you know... how they use certain words that are really sexist and obscene. If you disagree with someone, call her "wrongheaded" or "misguided" or, sure, "bloodyminded." You don't have to resort to the worst sort of misogyny.

You all know what I'm talking about.

The Exception That Proves the Rule

"Bloodyminded" is okay. Is that a Britishism? It's okay. If it's a Britishism, it's the one good Britishism.

The Skittish Empire

It's very important that we not import Britishisms into our language. I've seen a lot of this crap lately and it has to stop.

This isn't about xenophobia. I've got no problem with phrases like "muy bueno." Mexico is our neighbor, and we've benefited greatly from cultural exchange. Moreover, its language is complementary to ours. It adds color. "¡Hijo de la gran puta!" is just better than its English equivalent. More evocative. Basically Mexico can be regarded as a friend and ally.

The British are different. When they tried to make us talk like them, in spite of our ardent wish for peace, we were forced to take up arms. British people don't have flashlights, they have torches. They don't have yards, they have gardens. Affluent British families send their children to "public school," which means private school. Their cars have boots. Sorry, their motorcars. Filled with petrol. They stand for election. We run.

Who was the most annoying kid at college? It was the guy who said "shite" instead of "shit," right? Don't bother trying to deny it. (This brings up an important point, which is that Britishisms are vastly more annoying when used as affectations, which they always are.)

But affectation or no, British English is devoid of merit. Can you imagine taking yourself seriously as a "civilisation" while shouting "oy"? Jesus. That alone would prevent me from raising my children there. Picture it—your kid comes home from school and says, "Oy! Aren't there any biscuits left?" She means cookies. And no, there aren't any fucking cookies left, not for disappointing witless little shits who say "oy" when they mean, like, Sopranos-style "eyyyyyy." Which, again, the Italians are all right. The British are not.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Forming Beliefs Part 1

This is the first post of two. In this post, I'll give a very general, simplified description of how people form beliefs. In the next post, I'll describe the scary implications for politics in today's media environment.

I draw my basic framework from Hilary Putnam's Reason, Truth and History, but I want to emphasize that I have probably misunderstood him, and my errors shouldn't be attributed to him. Also, I suspect that many of the ideas Putnam exposed me to were not original to him. Anyway it doesn't matter, I just want to be clear about where I'm drawing my ideas from. I also want to be clear that I'm not aiming for psychological accuracy, although I hope to describe belief-formation in a general enough way that the psychological details could be brought onboard without too much disruption.

The basic idea is that people form beliefs when the evidence crosses a certain threshold. That threshold is subjective—each person has to decide for herself what constitutes good evidence for any particular belief. And of course there are layers of this, since once you've accepted one belief it forms the predicate for other beliefs.

One upshot, which Putnam dwells on, is that there is no sharp distinction between objective and subjective views. This is because of the subjectivity inherent in setting the thresholds for belief. However, this is not an area I care to focus on at present.

To complicate things slightly, it is possible to think about this in continuous terms. So in other words, instead of abruptly believing something once the evidence crosses a threshold, you could calibrate your confidence upward (or downward) as evidence accumulates. Then you could set different confident thresholds for different situations. For instance, before you undergo surgery, you might demand a very high degree of confidence that the procedure is safe and effective. But you might be willing to try a new kind of wine with very little confidence that it will be tastier than your usual choice.

I don't think the distinction matters much. If you replace a discrete threshold with a continuous function, it might affect the terminology somewhat, but otherwise it is very similar. Applying your beliefs to the real world often transforms it back into a discontinuous question (you can't have 80% of a surgical procedure).

Now consider what we mean when we say that someone approaches this rationally. Clearly there are better and worse ways to assess evidence, and we can use the term "irrational" to describe bad approaches. But I don't know how fine we can slice the salami. There is no obvious "right" way to incorporate evidence into your beliefs, although there are many obvious (and non-obvious) wrong ways.

Put that aside for a moment, though, and consider that people have limited resources to devote to these calculations in the first place. Maybe more importantly, people have limited resources to gather evidence. Even the most well-informed person will generally possess only a tiny fraction of the evidence that might bear on any given question. And yet people must form beliefs and make decisions. This means that people have to form beliefs about sufficiency of evidence without even knowing most of the evidence that could theoretically be gathered. Sure, you can choose to educate yourself better on any given issue, but there are sharp limits to how much aggregate time you can spend.

This raises the specter of an infinite regress. To make an informed decision about any of the things I've described, a rational person should weigh evidence and form a belief about the merits of the decision. This requires thought and evidence-gathering. But how much thought? How much evidence-gathering? To make an informed decision about that question, a rational person should weigh evidence and form a belief about the merits of the decision... (I've written about this before in a slightly different context, but I'm too lazy to dig up the old post.)

You may say that the infinite regress problem is an academic one. I'm not so sure, but anyway there's no question that people are forced to use shortcuts to deal with the problems I've raised. This, in turn, should make us humble when we make claims about what rationality means. This is a question I will return to in the second post.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Harassment and a Kind of Blindness

Here is a reasonably good piece about the gray area between workplace harassment and acceptable flirtation. For now I will simply observe that for me, it is virtually impossible to detect certain social cues. I would compare it to a kind of blindness, the lack of some essential sense organ that could help me navigate this terrain. Of course this can be debilitating in all kinds of situations, but it makes workplace relationships especially difficult.

So in other words, I think these discussions should probably take account of the different ways that people will experience whatever social expectations are decided on. That's why this line from the piece is so important:

It feels great to be chased when you are attracted to the person doing the chasing. Otherwise, the chaser might be seen as a predator.
This is a dynamic that might be a trivial concern for some men, but it makes dating prohibitively risky for others. (I would add that "predator" would apply to "chasing" in the workplace, while "creep" would generally be the term for "chasing" in ordinary social life.)

Not trying to troll here, obviously women's experiences shouldn't be held hostage to socially awkward men. On some level if you can't recognize the boundaries then you shouldn't play the game. Just pointing out that people are going to have widely divergent experiences with whatever system we end up with.

[updated to clean up word choice and formatting]

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Stress in the City

Today on the train a (probably homeless) man turned and coughed vigorously on me, spraying spit all over my face, coffee, and iPhone. He made no attempt to cover his mouth. He didn't apologize and I didn't say anything. I don't know if he did it on purpose or not. (I mean of course he did it on purpose. What I don't know is whether he targeted me or simply didn't care.)

I don't know... stuff like this really wears me down. If my schedule had allowed, I would have gotten on a train going the other way, showered, and switched out my coat for a clean one. As it was, all I could do was wipe off my face and iPhone as well as I could. I switched cars at the next station to avoid a repeat occurrence.

I think random little encounters like this are underrated as a source of stress. In theory one of my favorite things about New York is its mass transit. But experientially it is an absolute shitshow. Being coughed on is one of the worst things that's happened to me, but I'm regularly harangued by proselytizers and beggars or simply jostled needlessly. (I realize that sounds like a mild complaint, but it's surprisingly stressful to spend 15 minutes getting out of people's way in a crowded car.)

And of course that's putting aside the stress that's caused by train delays, malfunctions, etc. I'm a big believer in dense urban living, but I can see why some people just can't deal with it. Some days I can't deal with it. If/when the environmental cost of cars falls far enough, I might end up being more of a suburbanite.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Against Universal Open Primaries

A quick note on the controversy about the DNC. It's an issue I hope to return to after I've done some reading, but I want to address one separate issue that is likely to come up. For purposes of this post I will frame my argument in terms of the 2016 primary, which is admittedly somewhat confusing, but I think shows why people have come down where they have on this issue.

States have different rules about who can vote in party primaries. Although we use the terms "closed" and "open," you should really think of these rules as forming a continuum. At one end, "open" states allow anyone to vote in party primaries, subject only to a requirement that you can't vote in more than one. At the other end of the spectrum, "closed" states permit only registered party members to vote in the primaries, with a very early deadline for switching party registration (New York is famous for its very early deadline). In between would be states that only let registered party members vote, but that make it easy to switch parties very soon before the primary is held. So for instance, imagine a state that requires you to be a member of a party to vote in its primary, but permits you to switch parties same-day by simply checking a box on your primary ballot. That is functionally an "open" state even though formally it runs "closed" primaries. A state that allows party-switching a week before the primaries is significantly more "closed" because most voters can't be bothered to do that, but that is still more open that a state with a several-month period before a party change becomes effective.

Now it's not clear in the abstract who benefits from relatively closed vs. relatively open primaries. On one hand, Sanders often got a lot of votes in closed primary red states from voters who would never vote Democratic in the general. The reason is that there has been a shift in party identification, so that lots of Republican voters are "stranded" with Democratic registration. They wanted to vote for Trump, but they lived in closed primary states and hadn't bothered to change their registration, so they had to choose between Clinton and Sanders. They chose Sanders for a variety of reasons, but presumably most of the time they simply wanted Trump to face the weakest possible opponent in the general election. (Whether they estimated correctly is a discussion for another time.)

On the other hand, closed primaries in blue states often prevented Sanders supporters (who are often not registered Democrats, and who often don't vote at all) from voting in the Democratic primary. This was cited by Sanders supporters as a significant contributor to his loss. By way of example, Clinton trounced Sanders in New York because she was very popular with Democratic voters.

On the third hand, Trump was obviously eager to face Sanders instead of Clinton, or at least to make it a close and costly primary. It is not at all difficult to imagine a situation in which Republican voters, taking advantage of an open primary, choose to vote for the weaker Democratic candidate. In fact you can even imagine a situation in which, if all primaries are wide open, both parties nominate conservative Republicans as a result of clever maneuvering by the GOP. This is admittedly far-fetched, but I think it is much less far-fetched that the Republicans might succeed in tipping the nomination to a weak candidate.

I worry that Sanders fans welcome this possibility. Many of them actively despise the Democratic Party and want its politicians to lose office. They might welcome Trump voters into the Democratic primaries as a way of destroying the party. Even Sanders supporters who are broadly supportive of the Democratic Party and its policy goals may not be able to resist the temptation of getting a boost from Trump voters. They will persuade themselves against all evidence that Sanders is getting support from Republicans because they actually agree with him and might vote for him in the fall, when in fact they are ardent Trump fans intentionally sabotaging the Democratic primary.

This could theoretically work the other way as well. And in fact something resembling it happened in the 2014 Republican primary in Mississippi in for Thad Cochran's U.S. Senate seat. Cochran was challenged by Chris McDaniel, a complete asshole. Democrats voted in the runoff election to keep the seat in Cochran's hands. (It was inevitable that the winner of the Republican primary would win the seat.) Now this is a little different, because the Democrats were engaged in asshole-avoidance, not sabotage. But it's not hard to imagine the opposite happening, particularly if there is a really wacky conservative challenging a strong establishment Republican in a swing state.

Anyway long story short, the DNC may very well need to be reformed, but I would not support universal open primaries as a "reform" measure. Many Sanders supporters want this for the wrong reason, and a party shouldn't make it legal and feasible for the other party to destroy it.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Fox News

I will crank out another clickbait nemo dat post sometime, but this post will focus on Fox News.

Yesterday it was revealed that Paul Manafort and Rick Gates had been indicted, and it was also revealed that earlier this month George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. Papadopoulos's "Statement of the Offense" (link to PDF), in particular, indicates that Russians purporting to act on behalf of the Kremlin made repeated contact with the Trump campaign and probably tipped the campaign off about the hack of John Podesta's email. How the Trump campaign responded to those overtures is not yet fully known to the public, and that is the focus of intense speculation at this point, but it's clear that at the very least there was low-level collaboration.

So in short, it was a bad day for Trump. Several of the people I follow on Twitter provided running commentary on Sean Hannity's Fox News program, and so I ended up watching it on YouTube. And in fact it was remarkable. To put it in context, Hannity has long been one of Trump's biggest fans, and there was even speculation that he would leave his position at Fox News to work for the administration. But Hannity is probably more effective helping Trump from outside than he would be as a formal administration employee.

Anyway the program can probably best be described as mindless propaganda. It did not rise to the level of well-crafted propaganda—Hannity did not bother to maintain a coherent narrative, and he did not confine himself to the literal truth—but it was delivered with a straight face and with no hint of reservation. Any viewer with no grasp of the underlying facts and with lower-than-average skepticism could come away convinced that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are guilty of treason while Trump and his associates are being falsely maligned. (I won't get into the details right now, but the basic game is to pretend that the sale of Uranium One amounted to treason, driven by large contributions to the Clinton Foundation. In fact the deal did not permit any export of uranium from the United States, and perhaps more importantly then-Secretary Clinton had little to do with it.)

People on Twitter have started referring to Fox News as "state television," and that's basically right. Conservatives would claim that Fox merely counterbalances the liberal-dominated media, but there's an important distinction between the alleged liberal bias of mainstream news and the blatant sycophancy of Fox News. Mainstream media is less partisan and less predictable. It plays by rules that may be annoying and may be (are) easily manipulated at times, and it has a permanent, ineradicable ideological slant.

But it also has some redeeming features, most notably a reasonably strong impulse to get the literal facts right. The mainstream media also won't shamelessly carry water for any particular person or party. (Again I should probably qualify that with "reliably"—at times the media really does bend over backwards for someone, but in doing so it respects limits, and it is generally fickle.) The media won't stay on sides or cover things up.

So Fox News is not just a conservative mirror image of the mainstream media. It is a propaganda outfit with minimal regard for any kind of truth. And it has been this way for a long time, although its devotion to Trump is arguably new in its intensity and lack of ideological grounding, as Matt Yglesias pointed out:

I don't have anything original to say here, I suppose. I will try to write a few further posts about what I think the implications are, but the short version is... they're bad.