A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Thursday, 12 March 2015

All government departments are useless, but some are more useless than others

From a description of the Taxpayers' Alliance's proposed budget:
the Plan makes for sobering reading. An implementation of the first, less stringent, programme would, among other things, see the abolition of no less than three government departments (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; for Culture, Media and Sport; and of Energy and Climate Change), an end to national pay bargaining in the public sector, and a sizeable cut to Scotland’s grant from the UK government.
Compare those departments: the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is basically a highly inefficient  way of subsidising big business, The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is an undeniable waste of taxpayers' money. The Department for Energy and Climate Change is despised by conservatives and libertarians, and is loved by lefties. Global Warming is a politically polarising issue in the UK, with everyone from the centre-right to the far left viewing it as a massive threat demanding government action and everyone right of there denouncing it as a myth.

The average left-winger will struggle to find much to say against cutting the first two departments there. If you were constructing a bipartisan deal to slash government, then they would be prime candidates for destruction. The inclusion of the DECC, however, firmly stamps this proposed budget as "right-wing". Quite apart from the issue of whether Climate Change is something that the government needs to respond to, trying to get rid of the DECC is a middle finger raised at the political left which will obstruct this contribution to debate from being taken seriously.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Diminishing Marginal Returns is not known A Priori

Taken from an online discussion of Austrian economics, in which someone is attempting to prove that the law of diminishing marginal returns can be known a priori.
The law of marginal utility is indeed universally true. Any person will value less of a good more than if he had large quantities of it. For instance, the cigarette addict will value his last two cigarettes higher than if he had all twenty in his pack. He would also value two cigarettes far less if he had a whole carton of them at his disposal. Of course he would prefer to have more of them, which is your point and actually a consequence of the law. The law of marginal utility states that with an increase in quantity, the value of each individual item decreases. Thus, he can put each one to its next best use: 

A.) Smoking one now.
B.) Smoking one in an hour.
C.) Magic tricks with a cigarette.
D.) Having a cigarette for a friend.
E.) Smoking one in two hours.

Or, if he's down to his last two, all other uses will be put aside so that he will prefer to smoke one now and the other in an hour, instead of using one for a magic trick, saving one for a friend, etc. The reason he would want more is so that he could achieve all of his desired ends.
Counterexample: suppose your friend will be visiting in an hour and you would like to smoke with him. If you have two cigarettes, you hold onto them so that in an hour each of you will smoke one. If you have only one cigarette, you prefer to smoke it immediately.

Thus, we have a case where your preferred use for your first cigarette is different across the cases where you have differing numbers of cigarettes. Hence, a possible counterexample to the law of diminishing marginal returns, meaning that it cannot be known a priori.

I'm not familiar enough with Austrian economics to know if this is the argument that Mises would use to "prove" diminishing marginal returns, but in any case this argument is bunkum.

(Neoclassical economists have a far better way of establishing the law of diminishing marginal returns: we simply assume it. But at least we're honest about the fact that we're assuming it and have the tools to relax that assumption if necessary. Fortunately it seems to hold up pretty well in the real world).

Monday, 16 February 2015

Tribalism in Action

I don't know if I've mentioned it here before, but I support Aston Villa FC. I am also very fond of my home city of Birmingham. Earlier I was reading this article about our new managerial appointment and was surprised the feel a flash of disgust at reading the word "Birmingham" - the context being "The Birmingham club are third from bottom on 22 points...".

The explanation as to why I felt this flash of disgust is obvious - with football primed in my mind, when reading the word Birmingham I thought not of the canals and parks which I spent so much time perambulating when I am back home, but of Birmingham City FC - Villa's rivals.

There isn't any greater point to this post, it's just interesting to observe that the same word can have both positive and negative connotations to the same person, dependent upon the way in which the word is primed.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Various books review from 2014

Further to my reading list for the upcoming indeterminately long time period, I will provide some quick reviews of the books I have actually read in the last few months instead of reading those on my reading list, in other order they appear on my Kindle (which roughly correlates with the reverse of the order I have read them). Books which I have read to completion are marked with an asterisk after the author's name.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin (Louis de Bernieres)*
See here. Also, see a forthcoming article at ESFL focussed upon political themes in the novel.

An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives (Mencius Moldbug)
Really suffers from being very long. I've spent a couple of hours reading this and am only in the third chapter. May post a longer review if and when I read more of it.

Good Omens (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman)*
Amusing, but suffered from very sudden swings in the story. As a result, we had massive build up and then suddenly the apocalypse started mid-conversation, lasted half an hour, and then ended very anticlimactically.

Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)
I still have about 30% to read, and certainly intend to read that at some point. And hopefully to reread it all, making proper notes on the thing. A fascinating book, highly recommended.

The Bible Unearthed (Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman)
Very convincingly argued, discusses the historicity - or otherwise - of the Old Testament. I am about 40% through, and again I intend to continue reading it. Wikipedia has a summary which I haven't properly read but may be helpful.

Reasons and Persons (Derek Parfit)
I have read only small parts of this - I was reading section three for an essay, and then my Kindle disappeared for several weeks. Very thought-provoking, though less convincing than many (all?) of the other non-fiction books here.

Transmission (Nate Soares)*
An interesting enough short story. It's no Three Worlds Collide, and if you've spent much time in the Less Wrong memeplex then there probably won't be anything especially new to you in it, but perfectly readable as a bedtime story for adults.

Moby Dick: or, the White Whale (Herman Melville)
Was ever a more boring book written? I've criticised Moldbug for being too loquacious and for that I apologise when the monstrosity of a manual that is this book is present in the world. Feel free to try reading it, but I'm not a fan.

Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare)*
I find it hard to take the romance seriously - it is just so ridiculously overblown - but perhaps that's the point. It was enjoyable, and the fact that I finished reading it is a point in its favour.

The Last Girlfriend on Earth (Simon Rich)*
Very amusing. Particular highlights include the stories Occupy Jen's Street, I Love Girl, Trade, and possibly others which I can't remember. Also, very cheap on Kindle. Highly recommended.

Rapture (Susan Minot)*
I didn't really get anything from the book that I couldn't have got from the Salon review.

The Obsidian Poplar, and other stories (various authors)*
So-so. The titular story was a retelling of the rape of Persephone which I felt to be rather awfully sympathetic to Hades, but at least that jerk Zeus also got a bashing. The various (I believe teenaged) authors wrote better than I could have, but it wasn't up to the standards I would expect of professional writers.

The Cry of the Icemark, The Last Battle of the Icemark (both by Stuart Hill)*,*
I enjoyed these when I was younger, and I still found them readable now, but I would not generalyl recommend them to anyone without a specific interest in fantasy literature. The Cry of the Icemark  is a wonderful book, but unfortunately the books which follow it in the Icemark trilogy read more like medium-quality fanfics than actual novels - the pacing is all off, every new challenge must be the greatest yet, and in general things are made out to be epic without doing the necessary groundwork. The Lord of the Rings is epic, and it relies upon an absolutely vast groundwork and background; in the Icemark trilogy, the background seems to be completely ad hoc, invented precisely five minutes before it gets introduced into the story. Christopher Paolini was arguably guilty of similar problems in the Inheritance cycle, but he at least gave us a map of Alageasia and gave descriptions of things with no relation to what was happening at the time, so that if and when they did appear he was simply fleshing out things which were already there.

Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K. Jerome)
The wry humour is amusing. I would recommend at least starting this novel, even if you subsequently don't enjoy it.

Das Kapital (Karl Marx)
Interesting in the same way that an autopsy can be interesting. I've only read his first chapter, on "Commodities", and it is fascinating to see how he arrives at the Labour Theory of Value. As we all know from Mises et al, the economic value of a good is subjective; however, if you make the mistake (one which Marx copies from Aristotle) of thinking that a good's exchange value is an objective property of the object, then his argument almost makes sense.

Reading list, January 2015

Quite a while back I set myself a summer reading list. I did appallingly at reading the books on it, most of which still anguish on my Kindle (I did eventually finish reading Poor Economics). Despite this, I'm going to set myself a new reading list for the upcoming year. I now have a Goodreads account, where I will hopefully be writing reviews of each book that I read.

As a clarification: in the spirit of experimentation, I am aiming less to commit to reading entire books here, than merely to start reading them and reach (say) 10% of the way through. If I still feel a book is worth reading, then I should read it all, but I don't want to force myself to read entire books if I am not gaining from them or enjoying them.

The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt
In my partial defence, I read this last summer - or rather, I listened to the audiobook. It is the latest book for the new and shiny Effective Altruists Reading Group, so I have started reading it on my Kindle and am making notes on it. This is the exception to the "I just have to start the book" rule.

Free Will: An Introduction, Helen Beebee
Useful for one of the courses I am currently taking. I'm putting it on here largely as a reminder to myself that I ought to be reading it properly.

The Libertarian Reader, editor: David Boaz
I received this for Christmas, and hope that it will provide me with some easy topics for ESFL articles.

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
An English MA student I once got chatting to at a bus stop recommended this to me as her favourite book. (My new source of conversation when I can't think of anything else to talk about: ask for book recommendations). I read the first twenty (?) chapters or so when I was an English GCSE student and found it reasonably interesting, but never got around to continuing it.

I will aim to add more books to this list as time continues.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Links, December 2014

Earlier in the year I started doing links posts. Then there was a month when I didn't have enough new links. Then I had far, far too many, and didn't feel like sorting through them for a considerable while, during which time the list grew longer and longer. So, after a long absence, here is a bunch of links.

Vox: 7 things the most-highlighted passages tell us about American readers.

A true story of Turkish politics. It tells the strange tale of a coup, launched by democratically-elected politicians, against the military leaders.

Yet another reason to protest against the Chinese government: it gets you lavish, all-expenses paid holidays.

I wonder what became of this: an attempt to crowd-fund a drone for the defence of Ukraine.

Why is Barcelona FC so strong: Tiki-Taka or Lionel Messi?

We're nearing Christmas, so why not celebrate in the traditional way? That is, to have a man on hand to perform "one whistle, one jump and one fart." That man went down in history as Roland the Farter.

A rather more modern entertainment: rap mash-ups, to the Thomas the Tank Engine theme tune.

Theological Engineering Exam. "For all questions, assume a perfectly spherical Jesus of constant density D... 25 grams of wafers and 20 ml of cheap wine undergo transubstantiation and become the flesh and blood of our Lord. How many Joules of heat are released by the transformation?"

An artist's impression of what various Pokemon would look like if they were real. Some of them look fine (e.g. Eevee), some look different but alright (e.g. Pikachu), and Togepi looks disgusting.

Philosophers have argued for many years on the possibility of zombies which lack concious experience. The answer to this question has an important implication: whether zombies should be regarded as capital or as labour.

Speaking of philosophers: the views of major political philosophers, explained with reference to the question "Should Batman kill The Joker?"

The story of Isabel Moctezuma, daughter of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II. By the age of 18 she was a widow four times over, and had been impregnated by Hernan Cortes. She is presumably an outlier, but still it causes one to wonder: if this was how bad it was for women in the royalty, how terrible must life have been for the average woman in those times.

While I'm in a feminist mood, I'll link to this fascinating review of the Hermione Granger series of books and this picture of the wrong way to stare at a girl:

I first saw the picture below on Twitter, but it went around Facebook too:

Also, yet another reason not to trust the state to handle this kind of thing: a man spends six months on bail for receiving, not making, a video in which a woman was believed to be having sex with a tiger. What happened after six months? The police finally realised that the tiger was talking, and that it was a man in a tiger suit.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Response to Kane on luck, indeterminism and free will

"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are far more than our abilities."
      - Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

In this article I shall provide a summary of Robert Kane's paper Responsibility, Luck and Chance: Reflections on Free Will and determinism (Journal of Philosophy 96 (5), pp217-240; 1999). I shall then present two challenges to the view he elucidates.

Before I get into the serious meat of the paper, allow me to quote its opening words:
Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that "to solve the problems of philosophers, you have to think even more crazily than they do". This task (which became even more difficult after Wittgenstein that it was before him)...
Oooh! Burn!


Kane is responding to the arguments of Daniel Dennett. Dennett is a compatibilist of sorts - he argues that we have moral responsibility, and this is frequently taken to entail possession of free will but to me it feels more like a denial that moral responsibiliity requires one to act freely. (Dennett's position is actually very similar to one I very briefly wondered about back when I was a naive fresher who hadn't read much philosophy - see the section titled Moral Identity here.) Furthermore, Dennett argues that libertarian free will is in fact rather unsatisfying: it seems to involve people doing things for no very good reason, as opposed to his conception in which people perform actions in accordance with their character and may be judged for an action in terms of how representative the action is of their character. If  under similar but non-identical circumstances the agent would have acted differently, then the action may be seen as an aberration for which the agent should not be held responsible. If large changes to the situation would have been required to change the action, then an action is representative of a wider trait of the agent and is therefore something for which the agent ought to be held responsible.

Kane's aim is to present a view of libertarianism which actually seems worthwhile. He argues that rather than having a character which determines our actions, we form our character through the actions we take. He labels the key decisions we make which determine we shall become "Self-forming actions", and argues contra Dennett that there are good reasons for making these choices, but they are not all immediately visible - indeed, many of them lie in the future.

A particular challenge that Kane aims to deal with is as follows: suppose a man has the choice of going on holiday to either Hawaii or Alaska. He deliberates over this decision, and finds several good reasons for going to Hawaii - it is more pleasant, cheaper, etc - and none for Alaska. At this point, what kind of freedom is it which allows the man to still choose Alaska? This is surely less a case of meaningful choice than of perverse randomness.

Kane's response it that we do not possess free will in that kind of case - it would indeed be perverse to choose Alaska. Instead, we possess free will pretty much entirely in our SFAs, but the preferences which dictate our many other choices stem from SFAs. The man's choosing to go to Hawaii would not be an SFA, and would not of itself be a meaningful choice; however, his preference for hot over cold might stem authentically from his past enjoyment of summers, and so the choice may still be indirectly meaningful.

He also responds to the problem of "moral luck". Suppose a woman is walking to an important interview, when she sees a person being mugged in an alley. She has pepper spray in her handbag, and so could save the person who is being mugged, but this would cause her to be late for her interview. If it is truly indeterminate as to whether or not she does the moral thing by stopping the mugging, then what is there to distinguish it from luck as to whether she saves the person? How, then, can she be either praiseworthy or blameworthy for her action?

Kane responds that, since the businesswoman has good reasons for multiple courses of action, and these courses of action conflict with each other, she is at an SFA. She may be viewed as simultaneously attempting both courses of action - stepping in to stop the mugging, and hurrying along to her interview - and succeeding at one, failing at the other. Suppose that, in the event, she keeps out of the mugging and just rushes along to her interview. Kane would say that she could not control whether or not she succeeded at stepping in, nor could she control whether or not she succeeded at moving along; nevertheless, she could control which one of the two it was that she succeeded at. Hence she is responsible for her decision to move on.

So much for what I intended to be a quick summary. I find his account very appealing, and would very much like to believe it. Unfortunately, I have two key issues with it.

Multiplicity of potential SFAs

Brian is addicted to smoking. He knows it is bad for him, and every single day he swears to himself that he will quit. Yet, every day without fail, he will give in and sooner or later he will pick up the first cigarette of the day.

It seems in this case that each and every one of Brian's attempts to quit smoking has the potential to be an SFA. If he were to succeed, it would be a classic example of an SFA. It also seems strange to claim that certain decisions can be SFAs only if they go in a particular direction. Yet this seems to commit us to the idea that Brian is making an SFA every single morning, in spite of the fact that each and every one of these SFAs is the exact same decision.

If it does not seem strange to classify a decision as an SFA only when it goes a particular way, consider Brian's brother Steve. Steve also smokes, and has been thinking about giving up. However, he decided once and for all that he is approaching retirement and has earned a vice or two to keep him going in his old age. This seems like a very good candidate for an SFA, and does not seem importantly different from the decision made every day by Brian.

Lack of responsibility for failure to act

Let us go back to the case of the businesswoman. She did the presumably immoral thing of moving on and abandoning the mugging victim. This is something for which we want to be able to hold her morally responsible. Unfortunately, according to Kane it seems that we cannot.

Remember, according to Kane the businesswoman was simultaneously trying both to help the person and to move on. She failed at the first and succeeded at the second. According to Kane, then, she was trying to move on and therefore is responsible for doing so; however, she was also trying to help the person, and it was not in her power to succeed at this. Suppose then that we ask her; "Why didn't you help the mugging victim?" She can then honestly respond: "It's not my fault! I was trying to, it's just that I failed at doing so!" I see no reason why this should not generalise across all actions where we wish to hold someone responsible for failing to do something. "I was trying to give money to the poor! I just failed, because I was prevented by buying this shiny new iPhone!" "I was trying to fulfil the terms of the contract! I just failed, because I was prevented by my desire to save money and effort!" "I was trying to resist my urge to do unspeakable things to this person! I just failed, because of my desire to forcibly have sex with them!"


While I would very much like to endorse Kane's account of free will, it has severe problems which seem to vastly exaggerate the importance of certain small decisions, and which prevent us from holding people responsible for failing to act in certain ways.