Pur Autre Vie

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

Saturday, June 15, 2013


There is an interesting piece in the New York Times about Jeremy Johnson, a Utah man accused of running a giant fraud.  But this anecdote, told by his younger brother, is the thing that really caught my eye:

He recalled the time the brothers were horsing around at home, sliding down the stairs in a cardboard refrigerator box. When a baby sitter came over, Andy Johnson says, his older brother tossed his shoes into the farthest end of the box and then sniffled that he couldn’t reach them.  
“He whipped up some tears and told her ‘my shoes are in the box,’ ” Andy Johnson recalled. When the baby sitter crawled in to retrieve the shoes, the brothers gave the box a gentle push downstairs. “I think that was the end of the baby sitter.”
I've got some bad news for Johnson:  there's no statute of limitations on murder.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


From Robert Skidelsky's John Maynard Keynes:  Fighting for Freedom:

Boothby, Robert (1900-86), British Conservative MP, 1924-58.  An early and leading parliamentary 'Keynesian', he was a 'Schachtian', mainly because of his intense hostility to the gold standard.  The first edition of his autobiography I Fight to Live was misprinted I Fight to Love.

[Edited to add:  Boothby was maybe not such a nice guy.  Among other things, he apparently carried on a long-term affair with Harold Macmillan's wife.  "You never had it so good!" I bet he told her.  But seriously, that's not cool.]

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The World According to Derp

Yesterday Josh Barro wrote a post about his disagreements with Erick Erickson, concluding with this:

Basically, Erickson is derpy. And Erickson has big appeal to conservatives because lots of them are derpy. But the country is getting less derpy, and in time the Republican party will have to get less derpy, too. That’s my project, and I don’t expect Erickson to like it.
 Paul Krugman linked to Barro's piece in a post entitled "Moral Derpitude."  On Twitter and elsewhere, people have been pushing back against the use of the word "derp."  For instance, Ross Douthat just tweeted:
I'm inclined to agree.  But what is the definition?  Noah Smith has written a post defining it as holding strong Bayesian priors and repeating them in the face of contrary evidence:

English has no word for "the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors". Yet it is a well-known phenomenon in the world of punditry, debate, and public affairs. On Twitter, we call it "derp".
Barro seems to like Smith's definition, and so does Matt Yglesias:
But to me it seems problematic.

Imagine two possible examples of "derp" or "derpiness":

1.  In the first scenario, a liberal has a strong Bayesian prior belief in racial equality.  That is, he doesn't think whites are genetically superior to blacks (or any other race).  Now a study is published supporting the thesis that whites are genetically superior to blacks (these studies are piling up, Will Saletan tells us).  The liberal nevertheless argues repeatedly against the superiority of whites as a race.

2.  Fox runs a piece with the headline, "Obama's Hip-Hop BBQ Didn't Create Jobs."

Now in Smith's framework, the liberal is being "derpy" and Fox is not.  I doubt Smith himself would embrace this conclusion, but it's a fairly straightforward application of his definition.  So the definition itself does not seem to work.

I would use a different economic metaphor.  There are irreconcilable differences between different ideologies.  But a lot of disagreements are not irreconcilable, they simply reflect misinterpretations or factual mistakes.  Sometimes those errors are willful, other times they are not, but in any case they would be eliminated in an ideal deliberation between ideologues.

So think of these arguments as taking place somewhere within a "production possibilities frontier."  That is, if you are operating at the frontier, then there is a strict trade-off between the ideologies—any misunderstandings or misinterpretations have been eliminated, and only pure disagreement remains.  But if you are operating deep in the interior, you are basically making mistakes that would not exist in a perfect world.  You are misconstruing the other side's case or ignoring relevant facts.

It's not a perfect analogy, since some ideologies probably benefit from muddying the water and ignoring relevant facts (whereas in the traditional concept, moves toward the frontier benefit everyone).  But the point still holds, I think:  some people are moving the debate toward the frontier, or operating more-or-less at the frontier (making the kinds of arguments that would be made in an ideal deliberation), and others are degrading the debate or making foolish arguments that would have no place in a proper discussion.

The latter is derpiness, it seems to me.  And I think this is how Yglesias uses the term:
"Death panels" don't reflect a strong Bayesian prior, they are an erroneous argument against Obamacare based on incorrect factual premises.  "Derp" may not be generalized stupidity, but it is also not so narrow as Smith's definition would suggest.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Beer, Models, and the Looming Dystopia

The title of this post is a bit of an exaggeration, but I am genuinely worried about where our society is going.  In short, I think our inability to understand or criticize the "science" that we increasingly rely on is a major problem.  I'll use a somewhat silly example to explain what I mean.

Consider this (not yet available) app that will produce a "map" of beers.  I won't try to give a detailed explanation, which I would likely mangle.  But the point is that it takes user-generated data from a beer review website and then uses it to determine the degree of similarity between beers.  The app then creates a map such that geographical proximity indicates similarity.

Now, the app might "work" in several different ways.  One way it might work is for the beers to cluster into "regions" that correspond to style categories.  This seems to have happened to a pretty large degree.  Another way for it to work is for it to generate successful predictions of what a beer drinker will like, based on the answers to a few questions.  This is apparently the intended purpose of the app, and I expect it will do fairly well.  As I said, the app isn't yet available, so I can't test its success in this area.

Now I should say that I think it is a cool app, and I will probably buy it if/when it becomes available (assuming I have a device that can run it).  But what strikes me about this endeavor is that it doesn't really have much in the way of theoretical underpinnings.  I don't mean the math—the math looks very impressive (though how would I know).  I mean that if it works, we won't know precisely why it works.  We have a general idea, of course, but in a way it would be serendipitous for the underlying data to yield useful predictions.  If it turns out that the neutrino travels faster than the speed of light, then physicists will have some fucking 'splaining to do.  But if the beer app can't generate a ranked list of 5 stouts I will like based on a ranked list of 5 IPAs I like, then it doesn't really have any broader implications.  It's just not as useful as we might have hoped.

And there's more.  The app might "work" for essentially bad reasons.  You can imagine that people might use a word to describe a particular "style" of beer (whether or not it is meaningfully distinct from other "styles" in any fundamental way), and that you could then get "false positives" in the software.  That is, it might indicate that two beers are similar to each other even though their similarity is purely a social phenomenon.  (You can also imagine that identical beers with different labels might end up in very different "locations" on the map.)  Of course, the program might still faithfully report the way people experience beer, so it would be a success in a way.  But the point is that it is very hard to tell what success means.  Do the style clusters on the map mean anything?  I suspect so, but I don't think the app can tell us that.

And moreover, the app might "work" one day and not the next, or "work" for one person and not another, and we wouldn't know why.  It is essentially a black box.  We know the algorithm, but we don't know why it works sometimes and not others.

It seems to me that a lot of knowledge is like this.  I think there is a temptation to call this kind of thing "scientific" or "empirical," and in a sense it is.  It is certainly data-driven.  But it seems like a very provisional kind of knowledge.  It is deeply qualified and we don't know what the qualifications are.  It might be the best we can do, and we might be willing to trust it quite a bit (for instance, to allocate marketing resources for a brewing company).  But it rests on an unproven foundation and it is very hard to identify the appropriate scope for applying the knowledge.

I recognize that this is sort of a general Humean problem, but I feel it is a bit more of a real-world concern in cases like this than in cases like whether the sun will rise tomorrow.  As I noted, there is a temptation to call these fancy models "scientific" or "empirical" and to discount criticism of them as backwards and ignorant.  But it is dangerous to put more and more of our ideas into black boxes, with all dissent labelled as anti-scientific.  We risk being far too confident in our "knowledge," and allowing that confidence to bestow unearned political victories on particular ideologies.

To give a real-world example (because who really cares if a beer-mapping app doesn't have theoretical underpinnings?), Esther Duflo has been canonized as a saint of the modern Gladwell-inflected technocratic movement.  These are TED people, the kind of people who believe that democracy is dirty and corrupt, and that much better outcomes would be achievable if only we could put "the smart people" in charge.

Now I am sure Esther Duflo's work is very good, but it suffers from some of the same fundamental limitations as the beer app, and I don't think this is appreciated widely enough.  (Here is a paper by Angus Deaton (PDF) making the case.)  Duflo has a lot of influence that stems from what you might call the rhetorically advantageous position of her work.  She may use the influence for good, but that would be somewhat serendipitous.

But having brought her up, let us somewhat abruptly put Duflo aside.  Even in the worst case her work is useful, although it may be given too enthusiastic a reception  by the technocratic "elite."  It is the mindless enthusiasm of that reception that scares me.  I am afraid that we are entering a time when all sorts of policies will be "black boxed," derived from models that are not subject to meaningful inspection.  This is roughly what I think cost-benefit analysis is, at least in theory (in practice I don't think it amounts to much beyond a threat of litigation).  Let's say the black box tells us that we should tear down a poor neighborhood and build a highway or something.  Traditionally this would have been controversial, a political and constitutional issue.  But increasingly I think we will be tempted to "put it beyond politics" by running the numbers to determine whether it is the "optimal policy."  Dissenters will be called anti-scientific (just as people who believe that blacks and whites are equal are branded as anti-scientific), and they will be ridiculed.  After all, they just don't get quantitative science (or genetic science as the case may be).

This is a worry for me partly because I think we will be justified in relying heavily on quantitative models that don't have theoretical underpinnings that can be articulated or assessed.  We don't have a choice, really.  (And I am open to the possibility that all knowledge is like this, though again, I don't think you have to go full Hume to see my point.)  But I suspect we will be very bad at drawing lines and maintaining open minds as we go down this path.  Already I think far too many people think of democracy as a hindrance, a sort of necessary evil that hopefully won't get in the way of the "smart people."  This is of course a deeply flawed idea, but I don't think that will slow it down much.

Not the Season for Figs

I am much amused by the "God hates figs" slogan used by Westboro Baptist Church counter-protesters, which I stumbled across while looking up Bible passages for my last post.  Here is the reference from Mark 11:12-14 and 20-22 (again from the New King James version at BibleGateway):

Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry.  And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it.  When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  In response Jesus said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again." 
And His disciples heard it. 
. . . . 
Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.  And Peter, remembering, said to Him, "Rabbi, look!  The fig tree which You cursed has withered away." 
So Jesus answered and said to them, "Have faith in God."
 To me this is a much harder lesson to understand than "by their fruits you will know them."

By Their Fruits You Will Know Them

David Brooks has a pretty good column in the New York Times today.  His basic point is that it is not as easy as one might think to lead a good life by maximizing income and then giving away most of it.  The point is similar to the theme of Crime and Punishment (the Dostoevsky version, not the Becker version (PDF)), although the fact pattern is somewhat different.

I think Brooks is probably right, and his reasoning is fairly persuasive.  However, I think he goes astray here:

But a human life is not just a means to produce outcomes, it is an end in itself. When we evaluate our friends, we don’t just measure the consequences of their lives. We measure who they intrinsically are. We don’t merely want to know if they have done good. We want to know if they are good.
Brooks seems to think that there is a distinction between doing good and being good.  In this instance, I think Jesus had the better view.  From Matthew 7:16-20 (I quote the New King James version from BibleGateway):

You will know them by their fruits.  Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?  Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Therefore by their fruits you will know them.
Of course there are subtleties here, but the basic point is sound.  What would it mean for someone to be good if he does nothing but evil?  What would it mean for someone to be evil if he does nothing but good?  Is it possible that Raoul Wallenberg was intrinsically evil and his Nazi and Soviet antagonists were intrinsically good?  Brooks is confused and Jesus is clearheaded.

Now it is true that "when we evaluate our friends, we don't just measure the consequences of their lives."  But this is because we care about a lot of things that have nothing to do with morality.  We are ready to forgive moral transgressions, not only because they are inevitable, but because friendship is a "thick" bundle of connections, and not a simpleminded maximization of a "morality" polynomial.  I do not personally know anyone who has ended a friendship solely or even primarily for moral reasons (though moral defects, along with other distasteful personal attributes, may tip the scales).

Anyway I haven't attended a church service, aside from funeral services, in over ten years, but I still find "by their fruits you will know them" to be one of the most useful insights I have encountered.  It can be applied to people, institutions, ideas—it captures something deep about life and you will seldom go wrong by keeping it in mind.

Lord Gage is a Lord

A few passages from John Maynard Keynes:  Fighting for Freedom, by Robert Skidelsky.  From p. 11:

The convalescent Keynes loves to potter round his farm, watching the corn being threshed [note:  "corn" must be used here as a generic term for grain, not maize], the sheep being sheared, checking the quality of the milk and the condition of the pigs.  He gave a big bonfire party on Guy Fawkes Day:  Quentin Bell made the mask for the guy, there was beer and sausages for the farm labourers, a little speech from Maynard.  Lydia attended dressed as a pig.  The Saturday shoots, in which Clive Bell and members of the Keynes family sometimes took part — Keynes himself never shot — had decidedly unbucolic accompaniments.  The farmers would gather in Keynes's spacious hall, reconstructed by George Kennedy, whose walls were hung with Post-Impressionist paintings, and be directed by Lydia to a lavatory leading off, where a Matisse hung, with the words, 'Now you boys will want to do your little water in here.'  On Christmas Day Lydia made her own contribution to the feudal system by distributing presents to the 'forty-five people in the little community'.  The locals thought it was all a bit of a pretence, one of the farm workers remarking, 'Lord Gage [Maynard's landlord] is a lord and knows how the thing should be done.'

From p. 16:

The lanky, stooped economist in his serge jacket and straw hat and his tiny, birdlike wife with her Russian accent and exotic headscarfs must have made a strange impression on the rustics as they puffed their way slowly round their little estate.  Maynard loved to think of himself as a benevolent landlord, dispensing protection, festivals and fun in the traditional way — a thought not unconnected, Quentin Bell suggests, with 'a mistrust of communists and crypto-communists'.  But the performance was unconvincing.  Lord Gage was an aristocrat with intellectual interests, Keynes was an intellectual with squirearchical pretensions.  It was the idea of the role, not the role itself, which appealed to him.  He was no countryman.  He talked about his labourers as fantastical, two-dimensional creatures, comic but not sympathetic.  They in turn were disconcerted by his calculations, his inquisitiveness, his ferocious intelligence.  Quentin Bell writes:  'They did not know what to do with so much brilliance.  In a way they admired him and were proud of him but . . .  they did not love him.  In matters of business he came amongst them like a man armed with a rapier who meets rustics armed only with clubs.'  Such was a neighbouring tenant whom Maynard persuaded to erect and maintain an expensive fence between their properties at his expense — pointing out with scintillating logic why it would be enormously to his neighbour's benefit to shoulder the cost of the erection.  On one of their potters round the farm, when Lydia had been trying to get Maynard not to overtax his strength, he turned to his shepherd and said:  'What would you do if an old sheep looked at you as Lydia is looking at me now?' — a question, Bell remarks, 'which anyone might have found it difficult to answer'.