A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Idiot's Guide to Dark Magic

Book names, from top: Practical Meditation, Face to Face with God, How to Meet & Work With Spirit Guides, Practical Candleburning Rituals, Book of Spells, Psychic Development for Beginners, Pendulum Magic for Beginners, Life After Death (by Deepak Chopra), Cosmic Ordering Guide, The Chakras, Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, Personal Development with the Tarot, Becoming Clairvoyant, Homeopathy, Angels: Guardians of the Light, Magic Eye(?)

This is a pile of books which has accumulated over the last couple of weeks in the charity shop where I am currently volunteering. During my less busy periods on the till I have glanced over some of these books, and I intend to present some of it in a hopefully entertaining fashion.


Face to Face with God
As the name might suggest, this is an (ostensibly) Christian book. However, it presents a view of our relationship with God which pretty much every Christian I know would consider to be heretical. Instead of encouraging you to just pray like a normal Christian, it provides advice on how to "ambush" God, and presents the process of getting to speak to Him as an arduous journey. The rhetoric of the book reminds me of the writer in one of Adrian Plass' diaries who contends that the idea of moving mountains with one's faith is intended to be taken entirely literally.


Practical Candleburning Rituals
Surprisingly, this book is also an ostensibly Christian one. See this page, taken from the contents section:


As an example of what is meant by "Christian rituals", take this ritual designed to "win the love of a man or woman":

 


Essentially, these are standard pagan rituals - legitimated by the inclusion of biblical readings, in this case from Song of Songs. Given that followers of organised religions tend to be less superstitious than the average citizen of developed societies*, I also wonder what the target audience of this book is.

Book of Spells
My manager was interested to know whether there were any spells which would cause every customer to spend £50 in the shop, so I looked up the section on "prosperity". Unfortunately the best day to perform such spells is Sunday - i.e, the one day when the shop is closed - and the best time to perform them is 5AM - i.e. well before the shop opens. I guess the shop will have to work without the undoubtedly awesome power of magic.


Psychic Development for Beginners
Well, this at least contains some solid practical advice. For example, see this guide to moving cars out of your way when they're driving too slow for your tastes:

Have you ever been driving on the Interstate highway system and become annoyed because someone driving slowly in the fast lane was holing you up? Well, I have and here is how I handled it...
 I altered my basic state of conciousness to my basic psychic level (eyes open, of course) and addressed the driver something like this: "Sir, I would be very grateful if you would pull into the right lane and let me pass because we have an urgent need to get where we are going. Thank you." He immediately pulled into the right lane. I mentally thanked him again and passed him.

Or alternatively, the author's instructions on how to remotely reserve yourself a convenient parking space: 
Before I would leave home I would alter my basic state of conciousness to my basic psychic level and visualise the parking space nearest to the building to which I was going (supermarket, work, etc).
I would visualise the space as being empty, with a sign on it that read, "Reserved for Bill Hewitt."
Guess what! It worked one hundred percent of the time!

 Homeopathy
This provided an interesting introduction to the history and the theory behind homeopathic "medicine". Homeopathy was first practised in the 1790s by Samuel Hahnemann, a trained doctor who was dissatisfied with the state of formal medicine ("alleopathy") at the time - and to be fair, this was at a time when bloodletting (that is, having a patients' blood sucked out by leeches) was still being proscribed as a treatment. He devised a theory that the body has certain "natural healing powers", and that therefore rather than seeking to treat a disease we should encourage the body to heal itself. He recognised that many symptoms of disease are in fact side effects of the body fighting disease (whether this was actual medical knowledge or merely a lucky guess, I don't know) and for this reason recommended that a disease be treated by consuming substances which produced bodily reactions similar to those of the disease to be treated.

As for the whole "the more dilute the active substance, the more effective it is" thing? Apparently that hypothesis was the result of genuine experimentation, when Hahnemann found that the more he watered down his cures, the better his patients ended up doing.

Having started reading from a pretty sceptical standpoint, I came away with the tentative conclusion that homeopathy was probably more scientifically grounded and less harmful than the official medicine of Hahnemann's time - after all, this was more than half a century before Ignaz Semmelweiss would come along to persuade surgeons to perform the basic task of washing their hands between operations - but does not seem to have really advanced since then, whereas modern medicine has of course improved immensely since then. It's as if the conventional wisdom of 1794 was "We must burn half of everything we produce, so that evil spirits will leave us alone!", Hahnemann came along to say "No, that's silly. We should only burn 20% of everything we produce, my experiments show that we end up better off this way," and then 220 years later conventional wisdom has moved on to "Burning our things is stupid. Boy are we glad we don't do that any more!" while Hahnemann's followers are still yelling "No! We must burn 20% of all we have, lest we be assailed by evil spirits! You madmen!"


*I can't remember where I read this, but it was the finding of a genuine study, honest! If there are any anti-religion people reading this, then please remember that this would be perfectly well explained by the brain having a certain level of superstition it tolerates/demands and religion satisfying this, so this is hardly a strike in favour of religious people being more rational than unbelievers.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Guns Should be Privately Owned, for the Good of Oppressed Foreigners

Individuals with handguns are no match for a modern army. It’s also a delusion to suppose that the government in a liberal democracy such as the United States could become so tyrannical that armed insurrection, rather than democratic procedures, would be the best means of constraining it.  This is not Syria; nor will it ever be. (Jeff McMahan, Why Gun Control Is Not Enough)

McMahan follows this with an unsupported assertion that, had the Egyptian public made use of guns, they would not have succeeded in removing Mubarak. I say this is ridiculous: revolutions need guns, and while they are no longer sufficient they are still necessary. Missiles can destroy tanks but they can't hold a frontier; drones can kill leaders but they cannot communicate to the international community that this is a popular uprising rather than a mere coup d'etat.

I'm also slightly nonplussed by the assumption that armed resistance to a government must always constitute "armed insurrection". It is surely possible to - by force - compel the government to stay within its bounds without challenging its dominance or authority. The most recent example of this would be Cliven Bundy, but a more presentable case would be that of the Black Panthers.

In any case, let's assume that the USA (and, for that matter, the UK) are in no danger of becoming so oppressive as to merit rebellion. Would this make banning guns a good idea? I'm not going to be able to answer the question in full here, but I shall present a (to my knowledge) completely original argument in favour of developed and generally civilised nations allowing their citizens to own guns.

The argument is roughly as follows: while the nations which we inhabit may not merit rebellion, there are many nations which do. (When I say that a nation "merits rebellion", this should not be taken as an endorsement of rebellion in this country; rather, I mean that the country is sufficiently badly governed that (a) a revolution might possibly be a good thing were it to happen, or that (b) the threat of rebellion is useful as it acts as a limitation upon the tyrannies of the state, since dictators will fear rebellions and wish to avoid causing them).


In these countries, it is good for guns to be possessed by the general population, as a check on state power. Therefore, we should wish to avoid these countries passing anti-gun legislation. Indeed, allowing its citizens to possess weaponry may be seen as the sign of a state which is willing to be responsive to their demands. But if the more civilised and powerful nations of the world are banning guns then this becomes harder, for two reasons. First, this weakens the strength of permitting private citizens to own guns as a signal for democratic intent; second, it weakens or removes the moral authority of nations which seek to compel gun toleration elsewhere while not accepting it in their own countries. Hence, for the sake of citizens of the developing world, gun ownership should be permitted in developed nations and positively encouraged amongst the oppressed peoples of the world.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Dilemma of Many Prisoners, Rawls vs. Utilitarianism, and Tell Culture

I

The Prisoners' Dilemma is a classic exercise in Game Theory, and I shall present the traditional version of it. Two criminals are held under suspicion of having together committed some crimes, and there is enough evidence to pin them down for one particular charge but not for all. The two criminals are kept seperate, and each approached with an offer. They can confess to all their crimes and rat out the other criminal, in exchange for a lighter sentence, but this will lead to a stiffer sentence for the other prisoner. Putting this into numerical terms, if neither confesses then each will receive a sentence of five years; if one confesses and the other doesn't, then they will receive sentences of two years and twelve years respectively; and if both confess, then each will receive a sentence of nine years. Putting this into a table:

                  Prisoner B     Confesses                         Does not Confess
Prisoner A                        
Confesses                        pA imprisoned 9yrs            pA imprisoned 2yrs
                                        pB imprisoned 9yrs            pB imprisoned 12yrs

Does not Confess           pA imprisoned 12yrs           pA imprisoned 5yrs
                                       pB imprisoned 2yrs             pB imprisoned 5yrs


From the perspective of the prisoners together, it is clearly best for neither of them to confess, since this leads to a combined total of 10 years in prison, and if either or both of them confesses then the total time spent in prison is increased. But from the perspective of an individual prisoner, one is always better off for confessing - being imprisoned for nine years rather than twelve (if the other prisoner confesses) or for two years rather than five (if the other prisoner keeps silent). So the end result of each of them pursuing their own self-interest is in fact the worst result of all, whereas if they could somehow coordinate so that neither confesses, both would be better off.

I first encountered the Prisoners' Dilemma around the age of 12 - if memory serves, in Tim Harford's The Undercover Economist. I found it fascinating, and looked forward to the day when I could study economics and learn more complex - and (to my 12-year-old mind) therefore more useful - game-theoretic models. A fascinating puzzle, certainly, but how much did it really have to tell us about the real world? After all, the world is full of many different agents - how could we hope that a model with only two agents would be useful for thinking about it?

II

John Rawls is indisputably the most influential political philosopher of the last century. He argued that decisions about the structure of society should be decided from behind a "veil of ignorance" in which people were ignorant of a great many facts about themselves - crucially, where in society they would be. The basic intuition is that if you have a choice of two societies A and B:

Given the choice of these societies, Society B is, from the perspective of an independent observer, clearly the better. But if you are at the level within society indicated by the blue line, then you would presumably endorse society A over society B, for the simple reason that it gives you personally a better deal. Rawls believed that a set of social institutions ought to fulfil various conditions, but there were two conditions that he prioritised above all others: it should be just, that is, that people should endorse this set of social institutions from behind the veil of ignorance, and it should be stable, that is, people should be willing to continue to endorse these institutions when coming out of the veil and into the real world. He endorsed a strategy of minimax - that is, the institutions should seek to maximise the utility of the worst-off individual within society. His reasoning for preferring this over straight-up utilitarianism (very roughly: seek to maximise the average utility accruing to all members of society) is the burden that utilitarianism places upon the worst-off. Compare societies C and D, representing utilitarianism and minimax respectively:
A member of society C will, most likely and on average, be significantly better off than their counterpart in society D. However, the worst-off member of society C will, even if she endorsed utilitarianism behind the veil of ignorance, be unable to support it when living in it. Hence the society is unstable, and we must prefer minimax.

(One could equally say that non-worst-off people under utilitarianism could make this same complaint of minimax, given how much better they would be under utilitarianism; I put this to my political philosophy lecturer, who so far as I can tell is a fully-paid-up Rawlsian lefty, and the response was something along the lines of "That's a shining example of rich privilege.")

Rawls rejects repression of the worst-off to maintain stability as "stability for the wrong reasons"; however, perhaps he might be able to accept people making a commitment behind the veil to accept what they have when they emerge from the veil. If such an agreement could be upheld, then surely we could endorse utilitarianism and many people would be far better off?

The problem, of course, is that when one has come out of the veil and discovers that one's own interests have been sacrificed in the name of improving average utility, one has no reason to hold to such an agreement but has everything to gain by pushing for a move to minimax. Let us engage in a highly idealised model of the situation, where two people have to choose what strategies to pursue. The principle of utility will supply one with 10 utils and the other with 4 utils, while minimax will supply them with 6 utils and 5 utils instead. When behind the veil they are aware of these numbers. If either of them, emerging from the veil, then chooses to endorse minimax, minimax occurs. They have two strategies available to them as to the strategy they choose within the veil for endorsing a set of institutions when leaving the veil - either seek to maximise average utility regardless of where this leaves them, or endorse whichever set of institutions leaves them personally better off.


               Person B        Follow self-interest       Promote social utility
Person A
Follow self-interest       pA mean utility 5.5         pA mean utility 7.5
                                      pB mean utility 5.5         pB mean utility 4.5

Promote social utility   pA mean utility 4.5         pA mean utility 7
                                      pB mean utility 7.5         pB mean utility 7

We're back to our old friend, the prisoners' dilemma. If we could all commit to following the principle of utility, the world would be so much better. But because people are individually better off for not co-operating, the world of all worlds (at least, of those within this chart) is instantiated.

We don't actually need Rawls for this problem with acting according to utilitarian principles, though he is a particularly highbrow example. Take Peter Singer's famous drowning child analogy for aid to the third world. Not only utilitarianism, but virtually every system of morality known to man, dictates that we should give vast amounts of money to help the third world. Yet with a few honourable examples (the most famous ones being Toby Ord and Julia Wise & Jeff Kaufman) no-one actually does this - it's simply not in your interests to give thousands of pounds away every year for no discernible benefit to yourself. The sum total of human happiness would be far greater if people donated much more to effective charities - or indeed, just gave money directly to those worse off than themselves - but rich westerners and poor third-worlders can, in a veil of ignorance as to which of them is the first world and which the third world, be seen as the participants in a prisoners' dilemma with a payoff something like the following:

               Africans         Follow self-interest           Promote global utility
USA/Europeans           
Follow self-interest      West mean utility 6              West mean utility 8.5
                                     Africa mean utility 6             Africa mean utility 4.5

Promote global utility  West mean utility 4.5           West mean utility 7
                                      Africa mean utility 8.5          Africa mean utility 7

(I assume that the first world gets 10 utility and the third world gets 2 utility, the first world can sacrifice 3 utility to equalise utility at 7 for everyone).

It goes beyond considerations of morality. Consider Brienne Strohl's suggestion of "Tell Culture", as opposed to "Ask Culture" and "Guess Culture". The whole context is too long to explain here, but short enough that if you haven't already you should be able to read her article in a couple of minutes and come back here. Go on, off you go.

As is noted both in her article and in the comments, Tell culture is highly dependent upon honesty from all the people involved - if one person is dishonest about their motivations or the strength of their desires, they can reap large rewards in status and in achieving their values - but at the cost of other people within the system.

Alternatively, take the issue of how civil we should be with those we have significant political disagreements with. Scott Alexander, one of my favourite bloggers (the habit of titling sections with Roman numerals didn't come from nowhere!) has written in favour of being polite and focussing on reasoned discussion and debate; his opponents in this debate argue that, since [they] are right, [they] should do whatever it takes to make certain that [their] political ideas are implemented, including belittling, straw-manning, lying about and insulting opponents. It seems obvious to me that if one of these methods were to be chosen for universal usage, it should be Scott's advocated system of politeness and honesty; but from the perspective of an individual who believes him or herself to be right, one would surely prefer the more intellectually violent approach.


III

As I skated over earlier, there is a crucial way in which all of these examples differ from the standard Prisoners' Dilemma model, which is that they have far more than just the two parties to the matrix. In the charity example I was able to sort-of hide this by viewing it all in aggregates, but for tell culture and all sorts of other beneficial or potentially-beneficial social norms it becomes a lot harder.

In The Invention of Lying, nobody lies until one man suddenly gains the ability to do so. He takes advantage of this for significant advantage before undergoing character development and starting to use it for good - or at least, what he sees as being good. If someone like George Constanza had gained this ability, then his personal gains would have been absolutely massive - exceeded only be the damage wreaked upon the rest of society. Let us define a society as "a group of people conforming to one or more rules or principles governing their behaviour". The bigger a society is, the more gain there is to be had by taking advantage of people's expectations that you will conform to that rule. If the two prisoners were allowed to communicate, then perhaps they could work out a way to co-operate. As the number of prisoners increases, though, the harder it becomes to achieve this co-operation.

What other things affect the ability to achieve co-operation in such dilemmas? Feelings of goodwill between the prisoners are very useful - if your wellbeing is a part of my own wellbeing function, then I may be motivated to sacrifice my own interests to promote yours. These feelings of goodwill can be achieved in numerous ways - obviously ties of family and friendship are significant factors, but something as little as sharing a language or living on the same continent can serve to increase people's benevolence towards one another.


IV

With this in mind, what can we do to promote greater co-operation in the Dilemmas which arise for us in our lives? One traditional response is to create an enforcer of co-operation - indeed, this is generally seen as the key function of government - to prevent us from theft and other such crimes which benefit ourselves at the expense of the rest of society. But in many cases this is not a practical solution - the typical office can hardly afford a policeman to enforce a ban on internal politics. Plus, the useful parts of real-world governments tend to come with a lot of unwanted and grossly harmful parts - indeed, government itself creates many dilemmas. If everyone were to refrain from lobbying for pork-barrel or minority-interest spending, then government would be cheaper and would do less harm to competitive markets, but it is not in anyone's individual interest to stop competing for government to favour their particular interest groups.

We can attempt to keep societies small - it will be harder for a person to get away with pursuing personal interest at social expense in small societies than in larger ones. But this doesn't really solve the problem for most human interactions, since small societies are unlikely to be able to practise the division of labour necessary to sustain the full richness of modern life.

"Moral bioenhancement" might move us somewhere towards a solution, but is potentially just pushing the issue to a new level - sure, society as a whole is better off for people taking moral bioenhancement treatment, but an individual who only pretends to take the treatment (or who had previously taken an antidote) can still take advantage of the rest of society due to the expectation of co-operation. Besides which, it's not clear to what extent this is merely futuristic and to what extent it is pseudoscience.

What about feelings of goodwill? If nothing else, this is a solid self-interested reason to be nice to other people. But again, this is far from anything approaching a complete solution.

So is there something which can be done to promote co-operation among large groups of people, without relying on undependable things like trust or crude things like state or vigilante violence? Comment are welcome.

Friday, 20 June 2014

England are out of the World Cup

One of the reasons I haven't posted in over two weeks is that I've been watching the World Cup. I've been trying to resist the long-standing instinct to support England, and being involved in the students' sweepstake at the church I go to in Manchester has helped a bit. I drew the USA, and so that's who I'm supporting.

Incidentally, I love the US shirts. They should really be topped off with a tricorn hat in my opinion, but they're still rather elegant.

In any case, this whole "not supporting England" is now a lot easier, with England knocked out after only two games. The comment which has been going around is that "we went into the tournament with no expectations, and we've still been disappointed." At some point recriminations will start flying about concerning precisely why England did so poorly, and my great fear is that action will be taken by the FA in an attempt to remedy it.

Why do I fear this? For the same reason I fear attempts by governments to solve many problems - I fully expect them, if anything, to aggravate the problem. In particular, I worry that they will conclude that the problem is that too many foreigners are playing in the Premier League, and implement limits on the number of foreign players a club may have on its team. In his "plan to boost English football", Greg Dyke - chairman of the FA, former Director-General of the BBC, and holder of numerous other public-sector appointments - called for a limit of two non-EU players per team in the Premier League and a ban on non-EU players in the lower leagues, and calls for a reduction in the number of EU players although of course, due to the UK being in the EU, this would be much harder to enforce.

Dyke, along with various others, argues that there are too many foreign players in the Premier league and that this stymies the development of homegrown talent. He sees this as a threat to "English football", and therefore argues that there should be limits on foreign talent. There are several gaping holes in this argument.

First, let us focus on the vagueness of the phrase "English football". What does he mean by this, and how is it threatened by large numbers of foreign footballers playing in the English leagues? Perhaps he means the quality and profitability of the leagues, but it is hard to see how having foreign players threatens this. The quality of domestic teams is greatly improved by the presence of foreign star players in English leagues.

Perhaps he means grassroots level football. There is perhaps something of an argument in his defence here. If there is no chance for young English players to get a job in football, perhaps because the positions are being filled by foreign players, they may well play less often. But is this really plausible as a major effect? Most people who regularly play football have no hope of ever being employed in the sport - if a team hasn't recruited you by the time you're 18 or so, they never will, and yet tens of thousands of people turn out each week to play in the Sunday leagues and on school and university teams and a whole host of other things. And that's just the organised football - think of the innumerable parks filled with friends having a kickabout with nothing more than four jumpers and a ball. People don't play because they hope to be spotted by a team, they play because they enjoy the sport and because it is an important institution for social interactions.

Perhaps he means the national team will be weakened - clubs have less incentive to develop homegrown talent when they can buy talented players from elsewhere. While this is pretty plausible, it is hard to see why this is an especially bad thing. Whereas the clubs and leagues are major sources of income and wealth for the country, and provide a great deal of entertainment to people around the world, and grassroots football provides a number of benefits - hedonic benefits, better health, etc - what does the national team actually do? There is a hedonic benefit when the team wins, but this is very small given how few matches the national team plays compared to the clubs. Will the average England supporter's enjoyment of the rest of the World Cup be damaged so very much by the national team's absence? Apart from that, the only effect I can think of is a (claimed - I'm sceptical given the timing and absence of a link to the actual research) increase in domestic violence immediately following matches.


In any case, even if the success of the national team is something worth attempting to increase, will this achieve it and will it be worth the cost to the overall quality of football in the leagues? It seems far from obvious that reducing the quality of the league in which most English players play will help develop a stronger team.

In fact, I believe Dyke is almost diametrically wrong: there problem is not that there are too many foreigners coming to England, but that there are not enough English players going abroad. Look at this graph of the percentages of players who play in their home country:


England is noticeable primarily for how few players it exports. (It's not that England managers are unwilling to use homegrown but foreign-playing talent - going through the team lists of the top European non-English teams, Barcelona have no-one English, Real Madrid have no-one English although they have the Welshman Gareth Bale, Bayern Munich have no-one, AC Milan have no-one, FC Porto have no-one, Inter Milan have no-one, Valencia have no-one...). This seems like a far more serious issue to me - players are missing out on valuable experience of football in other countries, and miss out on playing in either of the world's top two teams.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Review of The Fault in our Stars (book)

WARNING - Spoilers ahead.

It's a fair while since I've just sat down and read a book. If you can read a book without breaks except for meals and using the toilet, then that says something good about the book. The Fault in our Stars tells the story of Hazel and Augustus, a teenaged couple facing the fact that we are all going to die and the universe has no inherent meaning and that they in particular are going to die soon due to cancer. In a sense it's pretty morbid, but they remain surprisingly upbeat for people who find the whole "dying with courage" to be a load of trite nonsense.

There are three things in the book I can think of that, in my opinion, deserve criticism. The first was the tendency for scripted dialogue, e.g. a argument in the opening pages about attending support group:

Me: "I refuse to attend Support Group."
Mom: "One of the symptoms of depression is disinterest in activities."
Me: "Please just let me watch America's Next Top Model. It's an activity."

And so on. It communicates what is being said, but at the same time it feels a bit lazy to me.

The second is that the pace of the story is not really very clear. It'll skip a week or so, then go into detail about a single day, and there's nothing wrong with that but it makes the whole relationship feel very rushed, even though it is apparently happening over the space of several months. Perhaps this was a deliberate stylistic decision - the novel is at the very least influenced by Romeo and Juliet, the most rushed romance of them all - but it still feels a but jarring when Augustus invites Hazel to come to Amsterdam with him when they've known each other for barely 100 pages.

Finally, even though the novel is written in the first person, from Hazel's perspective, I don't feel like you get a great view of what makes her an individual. Maybe it's just my lack of emotional intelligence shining through here, but while you can easily paint Augustus as a playful teenager, old beyond his years, given to dramatic monologues and gestures, who would be right at home in an Oscar Wilde novel, it's far harder to paint a picture of Hazel. There's morbidity, and there's a fear of hurting others and an acceptance of social exclusion, but in her speaking patterns and her desires it's difficult to see her as tremendously different from any other teenage girl.

With that said, what in particular do I wish to compliment? There are some very nicely turned phrases; Green does an excellent job of making you care about the characters, they're believable and interesting. The pre-funeral is a wonderful scene, if a bit cheesy. Dying is represented painfully accurately.

All in all, I'd definitely recommend the book. I've spent a lot more time dwelling on what I didn't like, but I think that's more because in general the novel is consistently enjoyable and worth reading.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Links, June 2014

A proposal to reduce distracted driving, by making things less distracting rather than banning them.

Middle Ages prohibitions on people having sex.

Tom Lehrer is, in my opinion at least, the greatest musical satirist to have existed - equally competent as a bitingly sharp critic of society and as a composer of wonderful melodies. This is a fascinating article on his life  - I was vaguely aware that he'd invented a drink of sorts, I didn't realise it was the FREAKING JELLY SHOT. I knew he'd studied at Harvard, but he went there when he was FIFTEEN. And I (grade eight piano, grade seven cello) would struggle to play a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto, if I even could; he would do so, with his hands playing in different keys!

It's probably too late to make this change for the 2014 World Cup, but Lindybeige's suggestion to replace the penalty shoot-out makes a lot of sense. I'd quibble with some of the details, but so far as I can tell it would a) better represent actual football, b) involve a larger proportion of the team, c) generally take less time than 30 mins of extra time plus 5-15 mins for a shootout.

A tour of British accents. It's far from complete - indeed, none of the three accents which I most regularly encounter (Estuary English, Brummy, and Mancunion) appear - but it does an excellent job of bringing out the differences between accents.

"Factors that were independently associated with increased probability of extra-marital partnerships [included]... spouse longer erect penis." Also, boys contribute more to marriage stability than girls.

Suppose Tyler was right when he wrote this post, which argues that libertarians will never achieve their goals but will always be intellectually important. That's probably bad for people in general, but possibly good for me personally, as an aspiring libertarian intellectual.

"Normal" people are strange. That has consequences for the rest of us.

As a former RPS champion, it's nice to see that I was automatically doing much of this in my normal gameplay.

Evolution, destroying all that is natural, beautiful and loving. This week: motherhood!

Poetry of Afghan women. There are some excellent lines in there, I'll quote a couple of my favourites:
When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.

My lover is fair as an American soldier can be.
To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.
See also the accompanying podcast.

A fascinating attack on home ownership. There are obvious good reasons for home ownership - principal-agent problems regarding landlords, tenants and maintenance, for example - but there are serious downsides too.

Sporting governance - all the idiocy of real politics, but without the constraints of people having ever though about economics or ethics!

I read Scott Alexander's Piano Man parody by singing it while playing along on my piano. I frequently had to stop, torn somewhere between laughing and being utterly horrified.

A genuine success of government. It'll be interesting to see if this can be replicated on a wider scale: it seems silly to me to think that government can never improve things, the key question is whether it can do so on a predictable basis without spiralling out of control or large unintended consequences.

Speaking of unintended consequences, the assault on the Bin Laden compound has led to an outbreak of Polio.

Frozen and higher education? I just had to link to this...

A new arrangement of Siegmund's Horn Call.

Is there a poster version of this really pretty picture of Elsa's ice palace?

It's often remarked when looking at maps of Africa that whole national boundaries were created by lazy bureaucrats with maps, pencils and rulers whereas "real" borders - those determined by genuine links of language and culture - are far more complicated and nuanced. This analysis of actual borders shows this to be the case largely for the Americas too. I'm quite fascinated by the tendency towards horizontal borders in the more "natural" continents or Europe and Asia - perhaps it's just a chance result caused by the existence of Russia, but I don't see any a priori reason why countries should tend to have greater variety of longitude than latitude so this is an interesting thing to think about.

Another thing I need to turn into a poster.

One of the most common arguments in favour of a need to equalise incomes and wealth is that unequal distributions lead to unequal political influence. There's a crucial problem with this: they don't.

"Because he composed the music without the benefit of knowing what the title was going to be, Copland was often amused when people told him that he had captured the beauty of the Appalachians in his music".

A profile of Paul Krugman. Reading this was what led to me deciding to actually read Pop Internationalism, as opposed to merely keeping it on my Amazon wish list.

Going by the books on this list which I have actually read, I come out as four parts Ravenclaw, four parts Gryffindor, three parts Slytherin and only one part Hufflepuff. From the same author, One Direction's What Makes You Beautiful as a Goedel sentence.

Despite what this says, The King's Gambit seems (to me) to be pretty popular online. I personally play the King's Bishop's Gambit as one of my favourite openings (others of my favourite openings include the Benko, the Queen's Gambit, the Sokolsky, and the Grand Prix Attack).

Pakistanis would rather turn down free money than fill in an anonymous form acknowledging gratitude to the Americans giving it to them. At first I assumed this was a failure of US soft power caused by the War on Terror, although thinking over it I wonder if it has more to do with cultural factors - I'm reminded of responses to the Ultimatum Game where people would turn down generous offers for fear of acquiring costly obligations.

Andrew Cuomo might not be so terrible compared to many other Democrats - what with cutting spending and promoting civil rights he could even be one of the small-l libertarians (stereotyped as right-wing on economic policy, left-wing on social policy) thought to make up around 20% of the US population. My key worries is that he could end up running against someone like Rand Paul, in which case I daresay most self-described libertarians would flock to the Paul banner and do a lot of damage to those of us who are trying to reclaim the whole "compassion for the poor" thing from the left.

Very hi-res picture, very pretty.

Harry Potter, as Ayn Rand might have written it.

Sweden, utopian model of income equality, turns out to have high wealth inequality. I'd be interested to see the level of social mobility alongside these.

Some thoughts regarding the Queen's Speech

The Queen has opened parliament and announced its plans for the next year. The BBC reports here, and I'm just commenting upon a few issues which interested me.

Immigration

There's no mention of immigration in the speech; according to some second-hand reporting, a) the Conservatives wanted to have something about limiting it but the Lib Dems stopped them and b) Labour have been denouncing the lack of planned increases in restriction of immigration. If this is the case, then good for the Lib Dems and yet another reason not to vote for either Labour or the Tories.

Charging for plastic bags in England

I'm in two minds about this. In one sense it makes a lot more sense for plastic bags to be charged for along with everything else in the supermarket, but then again you'd expect supermarkets to charge for bags if it really represented much of an increase in efficiency. When I'm shopping my tendency is to use the self checkout, scan everything in, pay, and then pack things into bags. I'd have to change the ordering of that a bit if charging for plastic bags were implemented. There doesn't seem to be any obvious loss for me in making this change. I suppose the thing that worries me about the policy more than anything is that it doesn't really seem to me like a great deal of thought has been put into it. Have they really done a full analysis and concluded that yes, the best way to reduce waste of bags is really to charge exactly 5p per bag, or have they just chosen 5p because it's a nice round number?

Anti-crime legislation

I have a feeling that I will hate the anti-crime bill which, it is announced, will give police "tougher powers to seize the assets of crime bosses, tackle cyber crime" and "make possession of written paedophilia a criminal offence". The "seizing assets of crime bosses" sounds like it could easily turn into US-style civil forfeiture or lead to Catch-22 type situations where the police seize your assets, you want to launch a legal appeal but you can't because you can't afford a lawyer, and you can't afford a lawyer because the police have seized your assets.

Far more puzzling, though, is the criminalisation of "written paedophilia". I can understand why you might make possession of graphic paedophilic material illegal - harm involved in production, protecting the identity of the children pictured - but none of this seems to apply to written material. Children will not be harmed in production, and unless the material not only recounts actual events but also fails to take the very basic step of changing names, there are no identities needing protection either.

One might argue that by denormalising paedophilia we can make child molestation less regular. This is an empirical claim, and so far as I can tell it is almost certainly wrong. Studies have shown that showing violent movies tends to reduce violent behaviour, and I would presume that something similar would be in play for sex - masturbation (I suspect) acts far more as a substitute for sex than a complement.