Pur Autre Vie

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

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Privilege of Not Being Scared by Trump

Something can be correct and yet corrosive to discourse.  This is basically how I feel about "privilege talk," or at least, the promiscuous resort to it.  Quite often, instead of productively shifting a conversation toward the unstated assumptions that underly a point of view, talking about your opponent's privilege marks the end of rational discussion.  I want to emphasize, it's not that talk about privilege should be verboten, it's that it should be used judiciously.  Also, I observe that it is a rara avis in terris who can't profitably examine his own privilege, as we are reminded by Luke 6:41:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
 But nothing is more unedifying than a discussion about discussants' relative degrees of privilege.

Anyway all of that having been said, let me be the kind of hypocrite everyone despises and make a point about privilege.  Arguments have recently sprung up that might be categorized as anti-anti-Trump.  That is, they are not really pro-Trump, but they defend him along some dimensions.  Two recent examples have been provided by Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) and Bill James (of sabermetrics fame).  Here is Adams:

Trump’s immigration plans are scary business for sure. His call to deport illegal Mexican immigrants and to temporarily ban Muslim immigration sound racist on the surface. But one layer below the surface you can see that he is consistent about protecting U.S. Citizens from non-citizens. That’s the job description of the President of the United States. If you are a citizen, Trump has the strongest immigration plan for keeping YOU safe, even if it is bad news for non-citizens.
. . . .
You can hate Trump’s sense of humor and his insensitive ways. But you will also get used to it. And when you do, you’ll no longer see it as a lack of empathy. Because it isn’t.
And here is James (and here is an allegedly more readable version using x's as paragraph breaks) [update:  here is the most readable version yet!):

The slogan “make America great again” has two parts: (1) It implies that America used to be something that it no longer is, and (2) It argues that the responsibility of the President is to stand up for America, and not to worry about what the Europeans or the Mexicans or the United Nations delegates think about this. Trump is implicitly saying that we have lost touch with certain values that used to characterize America, and I think that that is absolutely true. I think it is always true; every generation loses touch with certain virtues from the past, and then re-discovers those virtues only after the consequence of losing them becomes visible. We have lost touch with the virtue of toughness. We despise toughness, not as individuals but as a collective, and we sympathize with whiners when we should ignore them. The consequences of this are becoming visible, and they will become more visible until we realize that toughness is a real thing, a real virtue, and that we need more of it. And I believe that it is true that the responsibility of our elected officials is to stand up for America, and I believe that we have had many failings in this regard.
In fairness to both Adams and James, they (especially James) spend a lot of ink criticizing Trump for his intolerance and other negative attributes.  My point here is to observe that it is very easy for a middle-aged white man to make the claim that Trump is "consistent about protecting U.S. Citizens from non-citizens" or that Trump will "stand up for America" or that his sense of humor does not reflect "a lack of empathy."  It is not so easy for a Muslim or a Mexican-American or a black person or a gay person to see things that way.  And this is the essence of privilege, this blindness to the specificity and contingency of your own point of view.

Sure, Trump will "stand up" for Americans, so long as they look like Scott Adams or Bill James.  (Or at least you can make an argument that he will.  I tend to doubt it.)  It is precisely because Trump is spreading venomous bigotry about Americans who do not look like Adams and James that he is to be regarded as dangerous, scary, and not remotely interested in "standing up for America," at least not in a sense that we should find laudable or even acceptable.

Friday, February 19, 2016

A Simple Theory of Beer Week

It is apparently beer week in New York.  And yet I don't care at all.  Partly this is because I am taking a little break from drinking, but also it reflects the fact that beer week has little observable effect on the beer scene in the city.  If anything, it invites unpleasant crowds.

I don't think this is necessarily true in other cities, and I have a theory about why.  Let's start with Adam Smith's observation that "the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market."  Extending this concept slightly, imagine that each member of a population has preferences ranging from very common ones to very uncommon ones.  And imagine that it takes a critical mass of customers to support a business.  Then you should expect small towns to have businesses that appeal to common tastes, while big cities should be able to support more specialized, esoteric businesses along with the common ones.  It's not that urbanites are necessarily more eclectic in their tastes, though they may be.  It's that if 1% of the population likes a particular kind of food, then there are 100 potential customers in a town of 10,000 but 80,000 potential customers in New York City.

But spatial concentration isn't the only way to obtain a critical mass of consumers.  You can also concentrate consumption at a particular time.  A town can hold a festival or a fair, at which unusual foods are served.  Partly the town might just be attracting consumers from a large geographical area, essentially turning into a bigger city for a day or two.  But another way to think about it is that people might want certain foods only infrequently.  Imagine that each resident wants Greek food only once every 12 months.  In New York City this would mean 666,666 visits to Greek restaurants every month - enough to support a lot of Greek restaurants.  But in a town of 1,000 people, it would only support 83 visits per month.

But if you coordinated it so that a Greek food vendor only comes to town once a year, during a festival, then all 1,000 residents will be ready for Greek food, and the vendor can make enough profit for the visit to be worth his while.  By concentrating its demand into a small period of time, the town is, very briefly, punching way above its weight in terms of demand for Greek food.  This may be the only way the town will ever consume any Greek food, since it can't support a Greek restaurant on a permanent basis.

And so it is with beer week.  Ordinarily, a city might support a limited variety of beers.  But during beer week, the city can temporarily support a much bigger range of beers.  If you usually drink wine, but you occasionally like to drink beer, then beer week is the right time for you to drink beer.  And if you normally drink a common beer style, but occasionally crave something more adventurous—again, beer week is the perfect time to find something new.  This surge of demand for beer can make it profitable to sell even relatively unpopular styles, and so the variety and quality of beers might be excellent.

But New York just doesn't need to do that.  There are already far too many beers for a person to try.  Beer week has negative aspects, as well.  It draws novices into the market, with their unrefined tastes.  It causes congestion.  It invites hype and "whale-chasing" (buying a beer merely because it is rare).  In other words, New York is probably already "too big" in terms of the optimal beer market.  Concentrating its demand even further is pointless and counterproductive.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Very Sad

It seems to me that something comparable to the Great Famine in Ireland is occurring today, and not just in the obvious places like Syria, but almost everywhere.  This leads to a pretty serious problem—how can you lead a normal life while responding appropriately to the humanitarian disaster that is unfolding around you?  So for instance, you could save up for a trip to Italy, or a honeymoon in Hawaii, or whatever.  But is that really the right thing to do?  Probably not, right?  But how can you lead a decent life in the face of such misery?

The very least you can do is vote Democratic.  (Or Labour or Social Democratic or whatever your equivalent is.)  But that's not enough.

(And this is not even considering the environmental disaster that is about to overwhelm us.)

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Two Kinds of Minds

I'm not really sure what the idea of a Boltzmann brain is supposed to convey—I think it's about the relative likelihood of a "real world" vs. a hallucination generated by a randomly-occurring self-aware fluctuation, the logic being that if the universe lasts infinitely long, then the likelihood of the latter gets arbitrarily close to 100% or whatever.  (I really don't care to engage with the details.)

I essentially believe that if you are a Boltzmann brain, then your "world" is as real as the one we inhabit.  Or another way of putting it is, "reality" is not a function of some kind of metaphysical existence, it's a function of the reliability of information.  Water is real because I've experienced it before and I will experience it again, and it can be expected to follow certain laws at all times.  It doesn't matter whether there is really such a thing as water, or whether I'm hallucinating.  What matters is that the thing that I observe and call "water" behaves as if it is real (if it is a hallucination, it is a persistent and predictable one).  The Boltzmann brain may or may not experience anything as "real" as the water I experience, but if it does, then that water is perfectly real for the brain's purposes.

So far so good.  But what do we make of analytic truth, and the fact that reality seems to conform closely to it?  After all, these things don't have to be true in a dream.  So why would they have to be true to a Boltzmann brain?

You might say that analytic truth and certain kinds of inductive truth have to hold because they are the preconditions for rational thought.  (I understand this to be an argument that Kant made, though I haven't read his version of it.)  But again, this only seems to be true if the mind is bound by the laws of the world it observes.  That has to be the case for a brain that evolves within a world like ours, but I don't see why it has to be true of a Boltzmann brain.  Sure, the universe giving rise to the Boltzmann brain may need to obey certain physical laws, but why would the universe observed by the Boltzmann brain be bound by those laws, or any others?  Would it really remove the conditions for rational thought if there were a little "magic" in the world?

So we can divide minds into two types:  those whose perceived worlds include their own brains, and those whose perceived worlds don't.  But you don't necessarily know which type of mind you are.  Our organic brains seem to be of the first type, and in fact maybe there is a good argument that any mind that observes an orderly world with neat correspondences between observation and analytical truth must be the first type of mind.  But I haven't fully figured this out, I am just thinking it through.  One implication I wonder about is whether the singularity will mark a transition from one type of mind to another, since there is no particular reason that synthetic minds would need to be bound by the constraints imposed by our natural laws and analytical truth.  On the other hand, maybe that is a desirable feature.  On the third hand, maybe it is a computationally expensive feature that will have to be abandoned!

I've gotten to the point where I'm not sure I'm making any sense whatsoever, which means it's time to click "publish" on this blog post.