Pur Autre Vie

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How We Know What We Know

Here's one way to think about knowledge, truth, etc.  It's an artificial thought experiment, but it's intended to focus attention on what I think are important issues.  It relies on two analogies, which are really variants of the same thought.

For the first analogy, imagine that we have dozens (or hundreds or thousands, doesn't really matter) of machines.  Each machine is like a slot machine:  you pull a lever, and a variable amount of money comes out.  However, these machines have a few unique features:

1.  Each machine has two levers.  You can pull either of these levers (but not both) once per hour (or whatever - assume we have the capacity to use each machine in such a way that they never "go to waste," that is, go unused when they could have given a payout).  It doesn't cost anything to play.

2.  The machines are completely opaque, in the sense that you can't tell what is going on inside by direct observation.  The only information you can obtain about each machine is a list of its historical payouts.  The list indicates which lever was pulled for each payout.  It is impossible to determine what the payout would have been if the other lever had been pulled.

Now let's assume that we always want to pull the lever that results in a higher payout.  At first, we will have no choice but to pull levers more or less at random.  (We have no basis for predicting which lever has a higher payout.)  As we gather data, we can consider how to use it.  For instance, one machine might always pay $1 if the left lever is pulled, but $2 if the right lever is pulled.  We should pull the lever on the right side, not the left.  Of course I am using "always" in a limited sense.  We can't rule out the possibility that in the next round this machine will pay $100 from the left or right lever.  "Always" is a backward-looking statement.

Now assume that everyone agrees on the state of affairs I've described, so there are no radical skeptics or anything when it comes to the basic situation.  (No one is saying things like, "How do we know there are really machines?")  However, people take different attitudes to what we can know about the machines' payouts.  Some people hypothesize an "underlying reality" that is built into the machines and that we can model using quantitative tools, giving us access to "the truth" about the function determining the payout stream.  Many of our theories may be wrong or imprecise, but there is a truth "out there" that we are capable of discovering through empirical investigation.  Other people think that any knowledge derived in this way is contingent at best and relies on unfounded assumptions about the degree to which the future will resemble the past.  To these people, "the truth" never comprises an absolute grasp of what is inside the machine (which is fundamentally inaccessible to us), but rather is a more complicated function of usefulness and "fit" with observational data.  Other people might think that there is no basis for any prediction, or for any knowledge about future payouts, because it is impossible to tell whether a machine will diverge from its historical pattern (as machines frequently do, even if they had previously been stable for years).  There is a good reason to pull a lever, but no good reason to pull any particular lever at any time.  We have no access to "the truth" and maybe it doesn't exist.  It is true that some machines seem to be utterly reliable.  But on the other hand, sometimes machines that seem utterly reliable start behaving weirdly, and we have no demonstrably effective way of sorting reliable machines from unreliable ones.

The second analogy is basically the same thing.  We are playing a video game.  We have access only to inputs and outputs, not the source code.  So in other words, we can make our characters jump across the screen, and we can propose a sort of theory of the physics underlying the video game world.  But the physics might change in ways that are unpredictable from level to level.  (Suddenly the coefficient of friction on the ground is much lower - it is an "ice" level.)  And the physics might even change on replaying a level.

You can imagine the same attitudes forming as in the previous example.  (Really the two examples are just about identical.)

Now I think one thing to note is that it seems respectable to deny that we have access to some kind of absolute "truth" and nevertheless to believe that we can do "better than random" when pulling the levers.  We can doubt whether we will ever reverse engineer the "one true source code," and yet we can navigate the video game world.  I don't think our only choices are at the extremes.  In fact, I think the extremes are more or less untenable, although there's room for disagreement.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Notes on the Famine

I recently read The Irish Famine:  A Documentary by Colm Tóibín and Diarmaid Ferriter.  It is a very good book, though a very hard one to read.  I'll have more to say about it.  Briefly, though, I think it's important to recognize a few things that should bear on our understanding of the famine:

1.  Ireland's demographic and economic structure was horribly dysfunctional well before the famine broke out.  (See my previous post on the book, and note that the passage I quote was written well before the potato blight ever reached Ireland.)

2.  Partly as a result of Ireland's preexisting problems, addressing the famine was an incredibly difficult task.

3.  The government of the United Kingdom took the famine very seriously and the officials who administered the relief programs were by no means incompetent or callous, on the whole.

4.  Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that the government took the famine remotely as seriously, or addressed it remotely as effectively, as it would have if the famine had taken place in Britain.

I'll have more to say later.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Reason I Am So Inefficient

Today's XKCD is a good illustration of my old point about bounded rationality:

Of course, if you already knew the time cost of A and B, then there would be no problem.  But if you have to spend some amount of processing power analyzing A and B, and if processing power is scarce, then you are faced with a higher-level optimization problem, which may itself demand processing power to solve (in this cartoon, much more processing power than is actually saved).

I'll write a more complete post about this soon.  I think it is actually a reasonably deep problem that should influence our conception of rationality.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

That's A Little Real for Me

Alec Wilkinson has a story in the New Yorker called "Read It and Reap," about Modern Farmer magazine.  As I'm writing this post, you can read it for free through that link, but I'm not really writing about it to recommend the story (it's about average for a New Yorker piece).  I mention it because there's a passage that I think gets at a funny dynamic in life.  The editor of Modern Farmer, Ann Marie Gardner, is putting on a dinner, and she needs to buy some chickens.  But the farm where she buys the chickens has only frozen ones—unless, that is, she can wait a few minutes so they can slaughter some more.  Gardner is conflicted:

A bird in the other room squawked, and Gardner flinched. “That’s fresh, that’s real,” she said. “That’s a little real for me. Let me think about this. We really need chicken.” 
She walked out to the parking lot and called the chef who was to grill the chickens. “I’m having a crisis, because they haven’t killed the chickens, and he’s going to kill them for me,” she said. “I’m really seriously thinking, Couldn’t we just do pasta?” She walked in a tight circle. “It’s true, it’s very fresh chicken,” she said, nodding. “That’s one way to look at it.” When she walked back inside, the man said, “Next ones coming through the window are yours.” Gardner took out her checkbook. “I love the chef’s attitude,” she said uncertainly. “ ‘It’s very fresh.’ They’re not sentimental about it.” Another bird squawked, and Gardner put her hands to her cheeks, then pressed her fingers to her eyes. “People who raise chickens say that if you saw the individual personalities they have you’d never want to eat chicken again, so I guess my next up is to get some animals, huh?” Sniffling, she wrote a check for $84.93, and took the chickens, which I had to carry, because when she touched them she discovered that they were still warm.
I sort of sympathize with Gardner, and I sort of don't.  That is, I think it's probably very natural to feel the way she does upon coming face to face with a live animal that you intend to consume.  Most of us spend our lives a long way away from the animals we eat (in my case, I try not to eat animals, but I eat plenty of eggs and milk that I'm sure are produced in squalid conditions).  It's a reality that is intentionally kept hidden away.

But then, part of me (the vegetarian/self-righteous part) thinks that it's awfully convenient to switch back and forth between concern and unconcern so easily.  I mean, that's a little unfair.  But the chickens don't stop getting killed when you drive away.  You just can't see them anymore.

And I think this is part of a broader dynamic, where there's a weird...  alliance is too strong a word, but a weird mutual understanding, a synchronicity, between people at opposite ends of the spectrum.  I get what this farmer is doing:  he's making a living rearing and slaughtering chickens.  He and I just disagree about whether that's the right thing to do.  (In fairness, his farm is probably vastly more humane than a standard factory farm, for instance the ones that provide the eggs I eat.)  But this magazine editor, even though her sentiments are superficially close to mine, occupies a sort of untenable middle ground.  She's a dilettante.  Unlike the farmer (who gets his hands bloody) and unlike me, she doesn't take the fact of chicken slaughter seriously, until it's thrust into her life.  And then she drives off, soon to forget about the whole thing (or forget about it enough, at any rate, to keep enjoying chicken).

In the same way, I think priests and (serious) sinners sometimes get each other in a way that casual churchgoers can't quite comprehend.  To a layperson, some things just seem beyond the pale.  But the priest has struggled with good and evil and understands how people can come to a place in their lives where even fairly terrible sins are understandable.

Anyway it's an interesting dynamic and I actually think it has good narrative potential.  I'm sure it's been exploited in literature but I'm not, at the moment, coming up with any examples.

Truth, Reality, and the Location of Properties

I've been thinking a bit about philosophy lately.  In everyday life, we draw sharp distinctions between ourselves and the world, and we judge the truth of our thoughts and statements by how closely they align with what is "out there."  But I don't know how well those distinctions hold up, and how well our theory of truth fares, when we really drill down.

I recognize that a lot of what I am about to say is not original, and I may very well be making a hash of it.  But here goes.

You might think that it's straightforward to say of an object that it has a property p, such as color, temperature, and so on.  But how do you attach property p to the object?  In general, you do so by observing the object and then drawing conclusions.  But this means that properties you attribute to the object are, at most, hybrid properties that are generated by an interaction between your mind and the object.  Of course that's inevitable; it's hard to think of a property that can be attributed to an object without being observed by a person.

So there's a very real sense in which the object's p-ness is in you, not in the object (or not only in the object).  Another way of thinking about it is that your p-ness is in the object, because you put it there.  (There was no p-ness in the object until you came along.)  Either way, the object's p-ness does not stand on its own, it requires some interaction with you before the p-ness emerges.

Now there are some properties that might seem to be more objective.  For instance, you could use a thermometer to take a measure of an object's temperature, and the reported temperature might seem to be a kind of p-ness that is in the object but isn't in you.  (It doesn't matter how the object feels to you, you are simply taking a reading off the thermometer's display.  In a way, instead of putting your p-ness in the object, you are putting a thermometer in it.)  But that's hard to swallow:  the whole concept of measured temperature had to be created and formalized by people before it could be used to measure an object's p-ness.  So once again it appears that the object's p-ness belongs at least partly to us.  Temperature as a concept is a kind of p-ness that belongs to us, and we collectively put this p-ness into the objects around us whenever it suits us.

I'll have a lot more to say about this.  Sometimes I have an idea that seems really insightful, and then later I realize it's all just word games.  That may be what is going on here.

Thursday, November 06, 2014


Sarang once wrote, of Hailey Leithauser, "Naturally delighted to find a contemporary poet so precisely to my taste."  That is roughly how I feel about William Cobbett, though he is not a contemporary poet (he was a newspaper editor in 19th-century England).  I discovered the passage below in The Irish Famine:  A Documentary, by Colm Tóibín and Diarmaid Ferriter.  This is Cobbett's reaction to the conditions in Ireland (this is more than a decade before the famine, so it illustrates how bad conditions were even in "normal" times):

"Gentlemen, it is impossible that Ireland can be suffered to remain in its present state!  What!  Vessels laden with provisions ready to sail for England, while those who have raised the provisions are starving on the spot where they raised them!  What!  Landlords living in England, having a 'RIGHT' to drive the King's subjects out of this island, on pain of starvation from hunger and cold!  What!  Call upon England for meal and money to be sent in charity to save the people of Ireland from starving, and make the relieved persons pay rent the same year!  What!  Demand allegiance from a man whom you toss out upon the road, denying that he has any right to demand from any part of the community the means of sustaining life! ...What!  Give to 349,000 of the English people as many representatives in Parliament as you give to the whole Irish nation, and bid the latter be content ..."

The passage gains much from the use of repetition.

Stating the Obvious, Like the Worthless Piece of Shit That I Am

I'm just going to go ahead and state the obvious:  the United States should maintain a well-trained, well-equipped staff of doctors, nurses, and other personnel who can be deployed to fight an outbreak of infectious disease.  Specialists should design procedures well in advance of any actual deployment, and the unit should be supported by dedicated laboratories that can quickly study the disease and assess the data as it comes in.  Equipment, such as clothing and mobile containment units, should be designed carefully, and stockpiles should be maintained around the world.

This would all be very expensive.  In particular, drawing a lot of skilled medical professionals from actively caring for patients is never an easy thing to do.  But once the professionals are trained, they should be able to go back to regular practice, with periodic re-training and simulation exercises (much like military reserve officers).  And while the equipment would be expensive, it would be a drop in the bucket compared to the overall military budget, and it would probably spur development of valuable technology.

On top of all that, you have to compare the costs of maintaining a unit like that to the costs of not doing so.  The Ebola outbreak will be tremendously expensive for West Africa, and a similar outbreak could happen anywhere.  Spending a few billion up front seems like cheap insurance.

I'm agnostic about whether the U.S. should do this unilaterally, or whether it should be done through some sort of international organization.  Certainly it would be helpful to spread the costs around, and with international participation it would be easier to maintain fluency in all of the major languages.  It's true that this would involve sharing the technology, but that should not be a big deal, since it is "defensive."  (I guess the nightmare scenario is that a country participates in the program, learns its weaknesses, and then deploys biological warfare against the U.S. in a way designed to take advantage of deficiencies in the program.  That seems pretty unlikely though.)

The big question would be where and when to deploy the program.  West Africa seems like an easy case, but you can imagine situations where it would be much more fraught.  (For instance, if a similar outbreak happened in Syria.)  The program would have to involve not just medical professionals but also military or peacekeeping personnel, for crowd control and protection.  Probably the government would need to invite the professionals into the country and provide them with legal protections (the last thing we want to see is criminal proceedings against medical professionals based on any errors or hard choices they have to make).  All of this should be thought through ahead of time.  Maybe countries could put a treaty in place so that the legal protections are already there and don't have to be negotiated in real time.  (The government would still have to extend an invitation, but by treaty that invitation would come along with indemnification and procedures for entry into the country, etc.)

But anyway, we are at a point in history when our prosperity and our technological prowess demand that we invest substantial resources into this kind of thing.  It is crazy for thousands of people to die for lack of what I expect will come to be seen as a basic government service.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Cuomo and Moreland

It has become fashionable to believe that Governor Cuomo is corrupt or at least unethical, based on his handling of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption.  The charge, as I understand it, is that Cuomo disbanded the commission prematurely.  This confuses me, because my reading of state law would seem to indicate that the governor can hire and fire a Moreland commission basically at will.  The law is a fairly short one, and so I will reproduce it here in its entirety (you can ignore the second paragraph, which basically says that serving on a commission won't interfere with your pension rights):

Examination and inspection by the governor. The governor is authorized at any time, either in person or by one or more persons appointed by him for the purpose, to examine and investigate the management and affairs of any department, board, bureau or commission of the state. The governor and the persons so appointed by him are empowered to subpoena and enforce the attendance of witnesses, to administer oaths and examine witnesses under oath and to require the production of any books or papers deemed relevant or material. Whenever any person so appointed shall not be regularly in the service of the state his compensation for such services shall be fixed by the governor, and said compensation and all necessary expenses of such examinations and investigations shall be paid from the treasury out of any appropriations made for the purpose upon the order of the governor and the audit and warrant of the comptroller.

Notwithstanding any inconsistent provision of any general, special or local law, charter, administrative code or other statute, service rendered by a person appointed by the governor pursuant to this section shall not constitute or be deemed state service or re-entry into state service under the civil service law, the retirement and social security law or under any charter, administrative code, or other general, special or local law relating to a state or municipal retirement or pension system so as to suspend, impair or otherwise affect or interfere with the pension or retirement status, rights, privileges and benefits of such person under any such system or to interfere with the right of such person or his beneficiary to receive any pension or annuity benefits or death benefits by reason of the selection of any option under any such system.
The law is contained in Section 6 of the Executive Law.  A few things are noteworthy.  First, a Moreland commission is an executive body.  Far from being independent, it is so intertwined with the office of the governor that the governor himself can effectively constitute a one-man Moreland commission.  Second, the powers of a Moreland commission are sweeping and discretionary.  A Moreland commission doesn't have to be even-handed or answerable to anyone but the governor.  So for instance, if a Moreland commission issues a subpoena, I highly doubt you could convince a court to quash the subpoena on the grounds that the Moreland commission should also be issuing a subpoena on someone else.  The existence of other potential targets for investigation has very little to do with the price of tea in China.

Now, I'm not saying a Moreland commission couldn't abuse its powers.  But normally one would expect abuse to take the form of overreaching:  harassing political enemies, issuing sweeping subpoenas, that kind of thing.  The charge here seems to be that Cuomo did the opposite:  he prevented his commission from issuing enough subpoenas, etc.  It's a bizarre charge to level against a governor who was under no obligation to establish a commission in the first place.

Again, one can imagine scenarios in which this would nevertheless constitute corruption.  For instance, if someone paid money to Cuomo in return for disbanding the commission, that would almost certainly constitute bribery.  I've seen no allegation of that, though.  My understanding is that the commission made some recommendations and Cuomo acted on them.  Then he disbanded the commission.  Some commissioners said, "Wait, we're not done!"  Cuomo said, "Yes you are."

Remember that Cuomo could have, in effect, "appointed himself" to conduct the investigation that he instead delegated to the commission.  Would it have then been illegal or unethical to stop investigating once Cuomo was satisfied that the investigation was complete?

Now, one can mount a different charge against Cuomo.  One could say that his behavior was neither illegal nor unethical, but that he should have conducted a more thorough investigation of public corruption.  But this strikes me as a fairly toothless argument.  There are many things that Cuomo should do, in the abstract.  It would be very nice, for instance, if he supported a law equalizing the taxes applicable to Uber-style car services and taxicabs.  But for whatever reason, people think that his failure to conduct a more thorough investigation into corruption is somehow worse than his failure to do any number of other sensible things.  In fact, people think that Cuomo's failure to conduct a more thorough investigation into corruption puts him beyond the pale, even though as far as I can tell only one of his predecessors (his father, as it happens) has ever appointed a Moreland commission to investigate public integrity.  (The Moreland Act has been on the books since 1907.)  If that's what you believe, then you must also believe that Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt (by way of example) were so reprehensible that it was essential to vote them out of office in order to send a message.  (Unless you believe that corruption was less prevalent in New York in the 1920s and 1930s than it is today, thus excusing their inaction.)  Which would also seem to imply that it would have been unacceptable to support either man for the presidency.  Which is just crazy, since FDR was probably the best President of the 20th century, his Cuomo-like Moreland failures notwithstanding.

The Blame

As my last post shows, I think, my thoughts are taking me in different directions.  On the one hand, the ability of the Republicans to gain political advantage by sabotaging the United States is disgusting.  On the other hand, all of these tactics would be far less effective if the Democratic agenda were popular.  In democratic politics you just can't expect to stay in power if you can't command popular support.  On the third hand, the popularity of the Democratic agenda is to a large degree a superficial judgment that has little to do with the substance of the policies and much to do with a perception of weakness and incompetence, so we are back to the first point.  (So for instance, in the abstract you might think that the popularity of Obamacare would be decided "on the merits."  But in fact, I would bet that a fair amount of its unpopularity has to do with its disastrous rollout and the accompanying media circus.)

I guess basically these thoughts are not in so much tension as it first appears.  Basically:  Republicans are abhorrent, but there's only so much you can do given the way voters see the world.  American politics are probably going to be ugly so long as whites can be mobilized around Republican policies.  Maybe I'll write a post on alternative coalitions that I would like to see emerge.

Thoughts on the Election

Yesterday's electoral results are obviously disappointing to Democrats like myself.  But in some ways what is truly depressing is the longer-term dynamic that seems to be in play.  Voters can be mobilized by an inspiring candidate like Barack Obama, who handled both the 2008 and 2012 elections masterfully.  But all of the incentives for Congressional Republicans point toward severe obstructionism.  The goal is not just to block Obama's policies, but to undermine his administration along every dimension.  Block his nominees so that his government is never fully staffed.  Shut down the government periodically, doing real economic damage and shredding the credibility of the United States.  After Democratic legislation is enacted, refuse to entertain even technical, uncontroversial fixes.  Republican governors turn away stimulus money and refuse to extend Medicaid because it is part of Obamacare.

The basic attitude, in other words, is that if the voters really want to elect Democrats, there's nothing the Republicans can do about it, but if that happens, the Republicans will sabotage the government as much as possible and refuse to cooperate on anything.  The Democrats can have whatever power is strictly entailed by their electoral victories, but they won't even have a rational bargaining opponent to do business with.  As a result, Democratic administrations are held to a standard of perfection that would be difficult to attain even if they weren't constantly under siege.

Because the American government isn't designed to function under those circumstances, in the absence of a supermajority, periods of Democratic rule will always be marked by weakness and ineffective governance.  When Obama had a supermajority, he passed a stimulus bill that helped prevent a depression, a healthcare reform bill that dramatically extended health insurance coverage, and a financial reform bill.  But the moment he lost his supermajority, he faced near-complete powerlessness on just about every issue.  It was easy for Republicans to cast him as ineffective and weak, because that was the reality they had created.

Now I don't know whether this strategy is good for the Republican agenda in the long term.  It creates a dynamic of punctuated equilibrium, where Democratic initiatives are stifled for decades and then come pouring out in a burst of activity.  As a result, when Democratic ideas are enacted, they are enacted without any meaningful Republican input, and arguably the result is much further to the left than would otherwise be the case.  For a very long time, the country was rigidly laissez faire, and then the New Deal swept through and forever expanded the role of the public sector.  For a very long time, blacks couldn't vote, and then the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act swept away almost every barrier to black voting.  (Recently the Supreme Court and Republican state legislatures have pushed back a little.)  Health care was fragmented and patchy, and then a massive expansion was enacted all at once.  So the strategy may be good for conservatives and bad for conservatism.

Arguably all of this is not so different from what happens under a British-style parliamentary system.  There, a new government is swept into power and completely controls the agenda.  But over time, the realities and complexities of governance make the government seem weak and tired, and the opposition is able to seize the reins.  The difference, I think, is that the British system allows proper governance to happen when the government has merely a solid majority, not a supermajority.  In other words, the zone of political paralysis is much smaller.

But it's fair to note that in a Parliamentary system the Democrats' defeat would have been much more sweeping, and Obama would have submitted his resignation to the Queen by now.  And it's also worth noting that the Democrats can fight back against these tactics.  Bill Clinton was famously good at it.  You need a knife fighter, not an intermittently popular "above the fray" figure like Obama.  (I acknowledge, though, that much of Obama's legislative ineffectiveness is structural and not personal to him.  And Bill Clinton was a once-in-a-lifetime political talent.  You could make the case that given the structure of American politics, it's better to roll the dice on someone like Obama and try to do all your policymaking in those brief periods of supermajority.)

It's also fair to note that Obama's policies are legitimately unpopular, and while we can cast blame on the media, superPACs, white resentment, etc., there's an element of incompetence in Democratic politics that shouldn't be tolerated by the party.  (Again, Republican obstructionism tends to magnify any shortcomings, because there is no margin for error.  But those are the rules of the game as it is currently played, and there is no excuse for playing into the Republicans' hands.)

Anyway, the essence of my complaint is that power and accountability are deeply divided in this country.  Unless the Democrats have a supermajority, the Republicans can easily frustrate everything the Democrats want to do and weaken the United States to a great degree, and voters don't pay enough attention to allocate blame appropriately.  The Republicans occasionally overplay their hand, as in the government shutdown, but voters quickly forget, and anyway many voters have no meaningful comprehension of the link between policies and consequences.  (As far as I can tell, all of the best Obama policies have been deeply unpopular.  Healthcare, stimulus, bailout . . .  is there a major Obama accomplishment that is approved by even a majority of the voters?)

So it appears to me that the system is deeply broken, and while Republicans are entitled to gloat for a few weeks, I hope they don't suffer from the illusion that their role in American politics is anything but destructive and immoral.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Inadequacy of the MTA

I was walking in the park today when a young gentleman approached me with a sad story.  He had lost his wallet and therefore had no cash or Metrocard to get to his home in the Bronx.  Could I perhaps spare a dollar or two?

I asked him what subway he needed to take.  "The Q train," he told me.  This was good news, because we were not very far from a Q station.  I offered to walk him to the station and swipe him in with my Metrocard.

But we had walked only about 5 or 10 steps when he identified a defect in my plan:  the Q train doesn't run to the Bronx.

Chastened, I took a moment to consider our options.  Luckily we were not very far from the 2/3 and the 4/5, both of which run to the Bronx.  (In fact those are the only trains near Prospect Park that go to the Bronx, at least on the weekend.  On a weekday you could take the B.  However, you could also take the Q and then switch to the 2/3 or 4/5 at Atlantic, the 4/5 at 14th Street, or the 2/3 at Times Square.  All of those are free transfers.)

So I offered to swipe him onto the 2/3 or 4/5, but he declined my offer.  I guess neither of those trains could meet his needs.  I wished him luck and went on my way.  I hope he managed to find the train he was looking for.  But to editorialize a little, this really hammers home just how inadequate the MTA is.  Here was a young man, stranded without his wallet, forced to ask strangers for help getting home—and there was no train that could take him where he needed to go.  Shame on you, MTA!  Shame on you!

How to Make a Living with Alcohol

I despise sociobiology as much as the next guy, but sometimes I can't resist its tawdry embrace.

You can think about reproductive strategies the same way you might think about civilizations' niches.  That is, the way an organism "makes a living" in the competition to reproduce its genes is comparable to the way a society "makes a living" in the global competition to survive.  In particular, let's consider the problem of attracting a mate.  And let's focus on a social animal like humans.  Let's imagine that for some reason, a certain set of attributes is rewarded.  Confidence, charisma, cheerfulness.  A "winning personality."  This could become favored for a lot of different reasons that we don't need to get into, although I'll mention that confidence is in a sense the sine qua non of human attractiveness, because people (or at least men) who lack confidence are unlikely to reproduce no matter their other attributes.  You have to put your hat in the ring.  And of course this is highly circular.  If confidence helps, then women should want their sons to be confident.  And a good way to achieve that is to have sex with a confident man.  So even a small initial benefit can become a hugely important trait through a sort of runaway process.

Now let's analogize these personality traits to food production throughout history.  So we can ask the question, how does a civilization "make a living" in the sense of feeding itself?  Let's contrast two environments.  In tropical or dry maritime climates (like southern California), you have a long growing season and freezes are rare or nonexistent.  So you "care" about the weather all year round.  A hard freeze would devastate agriculture in California and Florida, not to mention places like Hawaii or Brazil.

But then there are environments like Sweden (or really, much of northern Europe), where the growing season is short but, during that short growing season, there are moderate temperatures and an intense amount of sunlight.  You can grow grains (particularly barley and oats, but also wheat, and in places like Minnesota you can grow corn too).  You can also grow annual vegetables and fruits (like berries).  But you can only grow things like citrus in greenhouses (as Iceland does).  Let's ignore greenhouses.

Now here's the thing about these areas toward the poles.  There's a sense in which they don't care how cold it gets in the winter.  Let's say there's an abnormally cold January in Denmark, with temperatures 30° colder than usual.  That's going to be very unpleasant, but it shouldn't have a big negative impact on agriculture (assuming the weather is back to normal by planting season).  On the other hand, a January that is 30° colder than usual will be devastating to Florida's agriculture, I would imagine.

So there's a sense in which these more polar civilizations "make their living" by trading away winter weather for especially good summer weather.  They suffer near-total darkness and very low temperatures during the winter, but during the summer they have superabundant sunlight.  They concentrate their good growing conditions on a few months and then make hay while the sun shines.

Now back to genetics.  Some people "make a living" by maintaining a constantly high level of confidence, charisma, out-going-ness, and so on.  But this strategy isn't available to everyone.  And in particular, it is a poor strategy in a winner-take-all, "market for superstars" kind of environment.  Let's somewhat artificially quantify this personality trait on a scale of 0-100 (artificial because it is actually multidimensional), and call it "charisma" (though it is meant to encompass not just charisma but a whole host of personality traits).  In a winner-take-all environment, if you score an 80 and your friend scores a 90, then he's going to be the one impregnating your wife, and your genes are kaput.

So at that point, it's time to think like a Swede.  You want to give up charisma at irrelevant times (just as Swedes give up sunlight/warmth during the winter, when it is irrelevant) and ramp up your charisma at relevant times.  If you drop your modal charisma to 60, and then you're able to push it up to 95 at crucial moments, maybe you can compete.

But how does your brain know what the crucial moments are?  When are you supposed to flip the switch and go from 60 to 95?  Well, a good environmental cue would be alcohol.  People drink alcohol in social settings where there are likely to be women present, and quite often those women are looking for mates.  Also, if you are drinking, the women are probably drinking, and so their judgment is impaired.  Their ability to distinguish permanent charisma from temporary charisma is at a minimum.

And so maybe this is how a certain reaction to alcohol evolved.  Alcohol brings a rush of happiness and confidence (perhaps over-confidence, but for evolutionary purposes over- is better than under-).  You're sort of dour and withdrawn until you get a few beers into you, and then you're garrulous and full steam ahead.  (Again, maybe to the point of obnoxiousness, but better to err in that direction.)

As I said, I generally despise sociobiology, but I find this account compelling, even though it is a just-so story.  One thing you could say about a good society is that it might shield women from being fooled in this way, either by allowing easy divorce and implementing a thorough child-support system, or by protecting women at the front end with screening mechanisms (for instance, pushing people to select mates outside of alcohol-fueled environments).  But these things are probably good ideas whether or not the sociobiological story I've told is correct.