Pur Autre Vie

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

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Is Walkable Urbanism on the Way Out?

I've been thinking a bit about urbanism, wealth, and prosperity.  The basic thought is:  as cars get more and more energy-efficient, and assuming they become safer and safer (with the adoption of driverless cars), I wonder whether traditional walkable urbanism will really make sense anymore.  Don't get me wrong, I love walkable urbanism.  I think connecting dense neighborhoods to business districts with reliable mass transit is an inherently good way to organize a city.  But many of the benefits of organizing society that way may be disappearing, and many of the downsides may be on an unstoppable upward trend.

So let's start with the big downside that I think is going to plague walkable urbanism for the foreseeable future.  It is really expensive.  In my neighborhood (which is eminently walkable and well-connected to Manhattan by mass transit, albeit with a 40-70 minute commute), you would have to spend in the $600,000 to $1,000,000 range for a two-bedroom apartment.  And many of those apartments carry monthly maintenance fees in the $500 to $1,000 range - and that is not counting property taxes.  So New York is increasingly a dense, walkable, livable city that is accessible only to the hyper-affluent.  (Other neighborhoods are cheaper, but rents are rapidly increasing almost everywhere in the city, and usually to live somewhere cheaper involves significant tradeoffs in terms of safety, amenities, and commute time.)

Now it's true that living in a sprawling city involves certain financial costs that you don't have to pay in New York.  For instance, I think it is truly unnecessary to own a car in New York, whereas in most mid-sized cities in the U.S. it would be a real hardship to live without a car.  But bear in mind that a lot of New Yorkers pay $1,344/year in transit costs (that is, 12 30-day unlimited-ride subway cards at $112 each).  Owning a car is not that much more expensive than paying $1,344/year.  And that's especially true for a family that can get by with one car - in that case, you are saving $2,688/year plus whatever you would have to pay for subway cards for the children in the family.  (Living with one car is not workable for everyone, of course, but it will be much easier when cars are self-driving.)

So walkable urbanism is perhaps not an affordable lifestyle for the vast majority of Americans.  And although to some degree this is a result of the low supply of urban areas in this country (that is, the supply of housing in walkable cities is unnaturally low because of bad public policy, driving prices up), to some degree I think this is an inevitable function of the way mass transit works.  In a walkable city, location is everything.  Living 500 feet from the subway station is vastly better than living 2 miles from the subway station, particularly in areas prone to inclement weather.  (2 miles may be much more bearable in a climate that is enjoyable year-round.)  But if you have a car, 2 extra miles means just a few extra minutes, a very low price to pay.  So once an amenity is in place, the effect on land values is spread out tremendously.  Instead of a spike of high value around an amenity like a park or a museum or a library, you have a large area of slightly-elevated land prices.  It becomes affordable for everyone (or at least, everyone with a car) to have realistic access to the nicest amenities in the city.

Now the sprawled-out cities pay a big cost for their affordability, which is that they use a fair amount of energy for transportation (though less than a lot of people think), the cars pollute the air (though how many small cities have air as dirty as New York's?), and people spend a lot of time in traffic and suffer a lot of injuries/deaths due to car accidents.  But if efficient, driverless cars end up dramatically reducing these problems, then really the big remaining problem is that people aren't walking enough and are therefore more prone to obesity and other health problems.  That's unfortunate, but there are steps that could be taken to get people to exercise.

So cities may end up being suitable only for the very rich and the very poor:  people who can afford to spend $3 million on a house that anywhere else would cost a few hundred thousand, and people who can't afford to own a car (or use driverless cars, if they become available on a non-ownership basis).  Sprawling mid-sized cities may be poised for a comeback, and dense walkable urbanism may soon be a niche product without widespread appeal.

Democrat First, Liberal a (Distant) Second

Just a few thoughts on institutions and ideologies.  You can't quite apply the same moral reasoning to institutions that you can to individuals.  The constraints are different, the decision-making process is different, the moral status is of course different.  But you can still think about an institution's role in history, and you can apply some basic judgments.

The reason I bring this up is that some liberals sometimes say that they can never vote Democratic again, because of the party's various sins.  And that's fine, obviously it's important to have some standards when you vote, and if a party doesn't live up to your standards (and another party does), then by all means do what you think is right.

But I just want to observe that as between the Democratic party and the liberal/leftwing movement in American politics, the Democratic party is far more trustworthy on most of the important issues.  I can easily imagine affluent liberals throwing Social Security under the bus, for instance, but I can never imagine the Democratic party doing it.  Affluent liberals are eager to embrace wealth maximization as the logically correct policy criterion, but I doubt the Democrats ever will.

And in particular, I think that while plenty of affluent white liberals are happy to embrace the emerging scientific consensus that blacks are racially inferior to whites, it is absolutely unimaginable that the Democratic party ever will.  Over the period from 1948 to 1968 (that is, from the adoption of the 1948 civil rights plank, through the integration of the military, and then through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act), the Democratic party bound its destiny so tightly with the rights of black Americans that the two essentially merged into each other.  The Democrats decided that black rights were worth fighting and (politically) dying for, and the result was that whenever the Democrats had power, they used it to roll back the southern reign of terror, to integrate blacks into the key institutions of American society, and eventually to build a society in which overt racism is socially and politically unacceptable in both major parties.  Now, this has worked  out decently well for the Democrats, electorally, but the party is uncompetitive anywhere race is highly salient, and increasingly white people simply won't pull the lever for a Democrat no matter what.

And so now we return to racial science.  Liberals, for a variety of reasons, have put science and the work of scientists on a pedestal and love nothing more than to tar their opponents as "unscientific."  Now, traditionally eugenics was regarded as bad science, that is, not just immoral but factually wrong.  But because liberal rhetoric is aghast at the idea that morals might ever intrude into the world of science, white liberals were only ever a few twin-studies away from eagerly embracing the conclusion that they are simply better (that is, genetically prone to be smarter and less criminally inclined) than black people.  (Black liberals, I suspect, won't be so eager to cast aside the "myth" of racial equality.)

So again, as between the Democrats and affluent white liberals, the Democrats are far more trustworthy, that is, unalterably bound up with doing what is right in the world.  Again, you can't take a complicated institution like a political party and label it "good" or "bad" as a moral matter, especially because so much of the Democratic party's stance is structural (at this point, it needs those black votes).  But the point is that Democrats are implacably on the right side of history, and liberals are squishy.  I know that I will vote Democratic until I die, but I am not nearly so sure that bien-pensant liberalism will be at all attractive to me in 10 years.  I don't even know if it will be recognizably liberal, in the sense of being concerned with the well-being of people who are oppressed or poor.  Its commitments (to technocracy, "science," the market, Muslim-bashing, and the professional classes) are likely to drive it even further into unsavory territory.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

I Like My Version Better

Caledon:  You can be blasé about some things, Rose, but not about Titanic.

Rose:  Actually, I can be blasé about anything but Pascal.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Embarrassing Moments

Had this conversation with my girlfriend:

My girlfriend:  If each menu item were assigned a different prime number, you could communicate your entire order in one number, which would be the multiple of all the items you want to order.

Me:  That system wouldn't work, because there could be more than one order that would result in the same number.

My girlfriend:  No there couldn't.  You just factor the number and you know exactly what was ordered.

Me:  But what if the number could be factored in different ways?  Like, how can the waiter tell if you wanted two "4's" or one "8"?

My girlfriend:  That's why you use prime numbers, none of the numbers is a factor of another.  Neither of your numbers is prime.

Me:  But what if one of the prime numbers is a factor of another prime number?  What will the restaurant do then?

My girlfriend:  If a number has factors other than itself and one, it's not a prime number.

By that point she was embarrassing herself so much that I had to stop the conversation.  Apparently she's never heard of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy.  In this case, she might as well have said:  "No true prime number has factors other than itself and one."  Yes, dear.  [Nodding dutifully.]  Whatever you say.  I sometimes wonder whether two people, like us, who are so different in terms of intelligence, can really be happy together.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Fairly Simple Way to Think About Macroeconomics

I've been thinking a bit about macroeconomics.  As always, I make no claim to originality.  Just thinking things through "out loud."

Okay, so take this as a rough sketch of the economy.  There are productive resources that can be used to satisfy people's desires.  People express those desires through consumption and investment decisions, and often people can choose to consume/invest now or later.  The central bank sets short-term interest rates.  If people collectively decide to buy more economic output than can be supported by the economy's productive resources, then prices are driven up and the result is inflation.  On the other hand, if people collectively decide to buy less economic output than can be supported by the economy's productive resources, then resources are left idle.  One of those resources is labor, and when it is left idle this results in elevated unemployment.  (A quick note:  we can never achieve absolutely full employment of all resources in the economy.  Even in a wartime economy, some resources are wasted or simply can't be used at a reasonable price.  So there's a concept of using resources to the maximum degree possible without causing inflation, and this is considered full employment.  A separate project, which the central bank is not usually responsible for, involves trying to increase the amount of consumption that the economy can support at full employment.)

I've slipped in a few implicit assumptions to which we will return, but first think about what the central bank is trying to do.  It is trying to set interest rates so as to shift purchasing forward or backward in time to avoid inflation (on the one hand) or idle resources (on the other).  You can think of it almost like inventory management at a factory.  Given time periods T1, T2, ... T10, you are just trying to shift spending around from period to period to maintain a steady level of economic activity.  It's a quite dry and technical thing.  You've got essentially a supply of economic resources, and a demand for those resources, which is capable of being shifted across time.  You're just trying to line them up, chronologically, so that they are in balance as much as possible.

And the tool to shift spending across time is the interest rate.  The price of purchasing something now as opposed to later is the rate of interest, which puts an opportunity cost on spending money.  (You can spend $100 today or $100(1+x) next year, where x is the interest rate you could obtain in the market.)  Alternatively, the interest rate is a direct cost of borrowing money.  (You can spend $100 today if you promise to repay $100(1+x) next year.)  So the central bank is just trying to set the "right" price for immediate purchasing power, and that price is the same thing as the interest rate.  Again, if it sets the price too high, people will shift their spending into the future even though resources are available, and those resources will go unused in the present.  If it sets the price too low, people will shift their spending into the present even though the economy is already at full employment, and instead of increasing economic activity, people will simply bid up the price of scarce resources.  The result is inflation.

(Inflation is not a simple function of money supply.  It results from an interaction between purchasing decisions and available resources.  You might say that money only has the potential to cause inflation when it is put into motion.  By analogy, money is electrons and spending is electric power.  Power systems don't go down because of a shortage of electrons, they go down because of a shortage of power to push/pull those electrons through the system.  Likewise for money in the economy.  In fact I like this analogy very much.  The central bank is like a utility that raises and lowers electricity rates in an effort to match supply and demand of power on the grid.  It is not an exact metaphor, but it gets at the technical nature of the project.)

(One other note.  Spending is not always a straightforward function of the interest rate.  For instance, imagine that my goal is to have $x when I retire.  If the interest rate goes up, then I might be able to save less today in order to generate $x when I'm 65.  So as the interest rate rises, my spending might actually go up!  I think on balance, though, it is plausible that interest rates generally work in the more straightforward way.)

I think this is a (highly simplified) version of the model that most people use to think about these issues.  Two implications that follow:  (1) if inflation is low and steady, then by definition interest rates are not too low, and (2) the "correct" interest rate could in theory be negative, in which case the economy will not be at full employment even if the central bank lowers interest rates as low as they can go (zero).  At that point, government spending is cheap or free (from a social perspective, if not a fiscal one), because it mobilizes resources that would have been idle otherwise.  You see these themes again and again in, for instance, Krugman's writing.

Note that there is an asymmetry built into this model:  prices are assumed to adjust upwards quickly if interest rates are too low (inflation), but prices are assumed not to adjust downwards so quickly if interest rates are too low (deflation).  In theory a rapid deflation could leave prices so low that all resources are put to use.  This is more or less the anti-Keynesian position, I believe:  prices will adjust so that resources are always used at an appropriate level, and so the central bank has no business trying to achieve a particular level of economic activity.  Recessions are market outcomes and are therefore good for one reason or another.  Just let prices adjust and the market will take care of everything.  New Keynesians reply that prices aren't so flexible ("menu costs"), so resources end up going idle after all, and a whole literature has developed around this question.  But anyway price flexibility is worth thinking about.  In a sense it is the core of the debate.  I think there are other reasons, besides the New Keynesian ones, to suspect that deflation is not adequate to bring about full employment.  A topic for another time.

One thing that occurs to me is that certain products aren't really subject to inflationary pressure, at least directly.  Imagine that the central bank has set interest rates too low, and so people are spending more money than they otherwise would have.  If they buy things like refrigerators, clothes, etc., then of course they will use up existing inventories and draw resources into production, and when those resources become scarce the result will be inflation.  But if they just start streaming expensive movies/TV shows over the internet (instead of bargain movies/TV shows), then there really aren't any inventories to deplete or resources that need to be drawn into use.  It's a windfall for whoever owns the streaming rights to premium content, but no resources are being diverted from other uses.  I guess the indirect effect is that resources might be drawn into production of premium movies and TV shows, but that's not 100% clear.  It depends on market structure and exactly what TV/movies people want.

Anyway, just a thought.  Overall I think the framework is a nice, simple way of capturing the current macroeconomic debates.  I think it's also a good foundation onto which to add other concepts, which maybe I will do in the next few posts.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

How To Take Away What Is Fake In You

I was thinking about a scene from "Oki's Movie," and then I realized I own it!  So here is a transcript of the scene.  A film instructor (who is also a director) is giving advice to a student.

Film instructor:  "Your sincerity needs its own form.  The form will take you to the truth.  Telling it as it is won't get you there.  That's a big mistake.  Don't be so stubborn.  You have potential.  Dialogue is great.  The characters' emotions aren't fake.  There's a real sensibility.  But if you don't fix this, it won't stand as a feature.  Can't your understand?"

Student:  "Do you want me to be greedy?  Is that why you do it, because of greed?"

Instructor:  [laughs]  "What the hell do you know?  So I'm doing all this shit because of greed?  I'm showing you how to survive.  You can't even change this?  Turning points!  Two turning points!  That's how to take away what's fake in you, idiot!"

Student:  "I can't.  I just can't do it."

Now, I don't know how good the instructor's advice is.  Hong Sang-soo may be winking at the audience, as the first paragraph of this review suggests.  But anyway I love that line:  "That's how to take away what's fake in you, idiot!"

I think this feeds into two of my current obsessions, beer styles and process vs. substance.  But I better defer those topics to another day.

What Slips Away

I think one of the saddest things is finally abandoning a long-held dream.  The terrible finality of that knowledge, that you are never going to do it.  That it's time to cut your losses.  Admitting to yourself that you don't have what it takes.  Knowing that it would have been possible, in fact that it might be trivially easy for some people, but that you lack the willpower to do it.

Especially if you've built up some kind of narrative that you've maintained socially, and that will now only be a source of embarrassment.  So people will bring it up - weren't you going to do ________?  How is that going?  And you have to admit:  that's never going to happen.  That was all a kind of affectation, a pretense.  I wanted, so badly, to be the kind of person who does _______.  I did what I thought you are supposed to do, I shared my ambitions almost as a way of committing myself, counting on precisely this embarrassment to keep me going.  But I didn't keep going, and now I have to admit that I have seated myself too high up at the table, as in the old parable:

"When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.  If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, 'Give this person your seat.'  Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place."

But as I said, the really sad part is admitting it to yourself.  That you took your own measure and fell short.  Clinging to unachievable dreams is pathetic in its own way, but it is also perversely admirable, like the scorned wife who refuses to go quietly.  Your self-conception is as much a part of you as your memories, and giving up a dream is like performing major surgery, a kind of amputation.

I suppose you can take some amount of comfort in the idea that it would be a big mistake to limit yourself to realistic dreams and ambitions.  Sensible, maybe, but off-putting and inhuman somehow.

Sympathy for Vronsky and a Few Thoughts on Madame Bovary

I just finished reading Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert.  People seem to think that Emma Bovary is less sympathetic, somehow, than Anna Karenina.  I am not sure that's right.  It's true that Anna is shone in a sympathetic light, but I think Emma is too.  She is a victim of the grip that romance has on her impractical mind.

(This is how Jeffrey Eugenides opens The Marriage Plot, with a description of the books that Madeleine Hanna had read:

To start with, look at all the books.  There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Brontë sisters.  There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov.  There were the Colette novels she read on the sly.  There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot.  There was, in short, this mid-size but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn't trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth.  And then you waited for the result, hoping for "Artistic," or "Passionate," thinking you could live with "Sensitive," secretly fearing "Narcissistic" and "Domestic," but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating:  "Incurably Romantic."

It seems to me that Emma Bovary is very much the kind of character Eugenides had in mind, that is, a woman in the grip of a certain romantic idealization of the world that leaves her ill-equipped to make the compromises that real life forces on us.  Unfortunately I don't think Madeleine develops in that way, in fact I'm not sure she develops much at all as a character.  But anyway this idea of having been infected with incurable romanticism, this is a very Emma Bovary thing it seems to me.)

I also find this completely unfair (stop reading if you don't want to find out what happens in Anna Karenina!):

"Anna Karenina has a repellent husband, embarks on an affair with a man who ultimately betrays her love, and commits suicide."

How does Vronsky betray Anna's love?  Vronsky is not the most admirable man in Russian literature, but he treats Anna pretty well I think.  Or at least, he treats her well by his own lights.  I can't think of any way in which he betrays her.  I think one of Tolstoy's great achievements, and Flaubert's too, is that characters who should be repellent are understandable and even likeable.  (And by the way I don't find Karenin so repellent.  Unattractive, maybe, and very James-like in his fusty pedantic uselessness . . .  okay, I guess the word "repellent" is apt, but he too is understandable and almost likeable - he is being the only way he knows how to be.  It is only his misfortune that it is a disgusting way to be.)

But so I think Emma Bovary has an undeserved reputation.  The book is a tragedy because her predicament is so understandable and the logic of her destruction is so true to human life.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Beliefs, Attitudes, Pain, Optimism and Doubt

So there has been some interesting back-and-forth in the comments to my last post.  I want to broaden the point a little, although my thoughts are not focused enough to write with much precision.

Let's say that you have to decide whether to believe a proposition.  For some propositions, there may be a very clear piece of evidence that (for practical purposes) resolves the question.  For instance, you may have a scale that you regard as highly reliable in measuring weight.  Now strictly speaking, this entails a bunch of foundational beliefs about whether the gravitational constant might change dramatically at any moment, whether a demon might have substituted a less-reliable scale while you weren't looking, etc.  But let's ignore these "absurd" possibilities, just as we do in real life.  For the proposition that the coffee in a cup weighs 250 grams (plus or minus a gram), a simple measurement may constitute adequate evidence to adopt the relevant belief and take any appropriate action (in my case, I would stop pouring and drink the coffee).  We'll take this as an unproblematic case, though I have unwavering faith in the ability of philosophers to "problematize" it.

Now consider the position of an alcoholic who is faced with the proposition, "I will successfully refrain from drinking for the rest of my life."  This proposition may be very important, because if the alcoholic accepts it as a belief (or attributes a very high likelihood to it), then he will propose marriage to his girlfriend.  If, on the other hand, he does not believe it (or assigns something less than a very high likelihood to it), then he will consider himself unsuitable for marriage, and may even end his relationship so that his girlfriend can find a more suitable long-term partner.  (I'm not suggesting that's the correct approach for him to take, it just happens to be his choice in this example.)

There may be a lot of evidence available to the alcoholic, in the sense of "data that bear on the likelihood of the proposition."  But assessing that evidence is not straightforward.  Basically, the alcoholic is presented with the problem, "Am I more similar to the population that has a good chance of remaining sober, or am I more similar to the population that doesn't?"  There are infinitely many ways in which he is similar to each population, so the similarities have to be prioritized and weighted, and there is no demonstrably "right" methodology for doing so.  The alcoholic may also have to predict how his risk factors will change over time (for instance, maybe it will be easier to stay sober if he can get a job in Utah, or maybe it will be harder to stay sober if his wife becomes chronically ill).

Now I think that in this case, adopting a belief (or attributing a likelihood) is not so different from adopting an optimistic or pessimistic attitude.  This doesn't quite fit my "evidential threshold" framework, but I think it captures what I was getting at.  If we had two similarly situated men, and one decided that his likelihood of staying sober was high enough to propose marriage, while the other didn't, would it really be wrong to say that the difference is that one man has a more optimistic attitude than the other?

I suppose it would be possible to distinguish between "subjective" optimism and "objective" optimism.  In other words, imagine that an alcoholic faced with this situation makes all of his methodological choices with "no thumb on the scale."  That is, he doesn't consciously shade any of his estimates based on his attitudes.  (Query whether this is logically possible, much less realistic as a psychological matter.)  Nevertheless, it seems as though you could rank men from "pessimistic" to "optimistic" based on their conclusions, although you might want to call it a kind of objective (or non-subjective) pessimism or optimism.  But I suppose this raises the possibility that I might be using the word "attitude" to mean something like "series of modeling choices," which makes my point tautological, maybe.  Or maybe the point is that it's possible to re-cast values and attitudes in the form of modeling choices, which is sort of the other side of the coin.  (But then is there any room, anymore, for "subjective" optimism?)

Apologies for the vagueness and unsettledness.  This bears more thought, I think.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Belief and Evidence

I've been thinking about belief and evidence.  I suppose it's natural to think of confidence as varying continuously from 0 to 1, but in reality there are discrete, yes-or-no decisions that have to be made, and so the question is whether the evidence has pushed your confidence level across a threshold.

But in reality, evidence is often scarce.  And so there is the question of setting thresholds in light of scarce evidence.  And in fact some of the most important decisions will turn on beliefs that are inherently difficult to assess in terms of evidence.  So what is to be done?

I don't know.  It strikes me as being similar to the "bounded rationality" problem.  In short, the problem is that if you have scarce processing power, then you have to allocate it judiciously, but the allocation problem itself requires processing power.  But how much processing power should be allocated to the allocation of processing power?  To answer that question requires processing power.  But how much should be allocated to that problem?

To give a more down-to-earth example, imagine you are buying some kind of ingredient online.  It is available in different amounts (measured in different units) and at different prices (specified in different currencies).  If we are assuming that you are perfectly rational, then you should pick the best combination of quantity and price.  And we could simplify this by assuming that you only care about minimizing the per-unit price (so you don't care about the overall quantity).  It's a very simple calculation at that point, in that it involves no judgments.  It's arithmetic.

But it's still not simple enough.  You value your time, and you don't want to spend an undue amount of time converting all of the quantities and prices into common units.  And so there is a possibility that you will select a price quote that is strictly worse than another option, by your own lights.  (Now I want to be clear:  we are assuming that you have all of the vendors' price quotes at your fingertips.  In other words, this is a processing problem, not a search problem.  A search problem has roughly the same dynamic, though.)

And then there is the possibility that you will spend the "wrong" amount of time converting units and currencies.  If you spend too little time, you are likely to end up paying too much.  If you spend too much time, you will end up "paying" more in time than you gain in improved price.  And so the right amount of time to spend processing the data is a function of the expected gains from each calculation.

But calculating the expected gains for each calculation is itself difficult.  I suppose you could do a handful of conversions, then see what the distribution of prices and quantities is, and then use that to predict what the lowest price will be if you convert x prices.  But doing this calculation itself takes time.  You might choose to make an informal calculation - glance at the prices you've converted so far, see that they are in a tight range, and simply pick the best one.  Or see that they are all over the place, and convert a few more.  This economizes on meta-processing but it risks failing to optimize on processing itself.

Anyway enough.  This is not a new problem, there is a whole concept of "satisficing" that addresses it.  My point is just, it seems we are in a similar position when it comes to reasoning our way through decisions when the evidence is inherently limited.  We have to set thresholds uncomfortably low, or we have to abandon rational thought altogether.  And it seems to me that in fact as you set thresholds low enough, and you bring in enough informal and subjective evidence, you essentially turn a reasoning process into an emotional one.  That's not quite right.  Your beliefs become more like attitudes, more "political," the more you rely on low thresholds.  This is why deciding that you love someone is as much a choice as it is a conclusion.  Our language in this area is (maybe appropriately) fuzzy.  You determine that you love someone, or you determine to love someone.

So your beliefs end up merging seamlessly into your values and dispositions.  And so of course you are open to accusations of being "unscientific" or lacking rigor, or whatever, but that is just how life is lived on the low-evidence end of the spectrum.

You Must Change Your Life

A couple of translations of the same poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.

The first:


Torso of an Archaic Apollo
Translated by C. F. MacIntyre

Never will we know his fabulous head
where the eyes' apples slowly ripened. Yet
his torso glows: a candelabrum set
before his gaze which is pushed back and hid,

restrained and shining. Else the curving breast
could not thus blind you, nor through the soft turn
of the loins could this smile easily have passed
into the bright groins where the genitals burned.

Else stood this stone a fragment and defaced,
with lucent body from the shoulders falling,
too short, not gleaming like a lion's fell;

nor would this star have shaken the shackles off,
bursting with light, until there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

From Rilke: Selected Poems (Univ. of California Press, 1957)


The second:


Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875 - 1926

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.


I much prefer the second one, though I have no idea which one is "better" as a translation.  (Someone seems to have gotten to Google Translate, which currently matches the second poem exactly for the line, "to that dark center where procreation flared," which does not seem like Google's usual clunky literal translation.)

[UPDATE:  As Sarang points out, the second translation is by Stephen Mitchell, as I could have discovered if I had scrolled down.  Some other good translations there too.  I think the process of translation (or specifically, multiple translations) actually adds quite a bit of richness to the poem, almost as though you can use parallax to work out its dimensions more precisely.]  [Or if you prefer, it's like computed tomography - like a CT scan in which multiple passes can be combined to infer something that no single scan could show.]

Here is a poem by Elisa Gabbert that refers to the poem.  Like a barbarian, I tried reading every other line (so 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 19, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18).  If you ignore the punctuation, it kind of works, or at least it works for me.