Archive for the 'liberty' Category


All linky, no thinky 2: The Linkening

So I’m joining the rising tide of anti-intellectualism that’s destroying Classical Liberal Arts Institutions, or whatever, and taking a course on reactive programming on Coursera (one of those MOOCs that’s destroying &c.).  Feels good to stretch my brain again; I’ve wanted an excuse properly to learn Scala for a while, and maybe this time around I’ll actually grok monads.  (If you’re wondering what “reactive programming” is, it’s writing Erlang in languages that aren’t Erlang.  So far as I can tell, at any rate.)


Is fairness a process thing or an outcome thing?  I suspect most of us’ll pick one until we come across an instance of the other we don’t like, at which point things go all Black Monolith and we club each other with femurs.

Money shot:

As I see it, many upper middle class parents desire their child to be slightly more successful than they are, and in related but not identical fields and ways.

Duh, you say, which tells me you haven’t read it.  “But why wouldn’t you prefer to hire a better worker?”  Why didn’t you buy a Bentley Mulsanne instead of a used Camry?  “So practical!”  Shut up, you’ve made my point.  Why hire a superstar developer for a gajillion dollars when all you need is someone to poke node.js with a stick?  “But assholes drive Bentleys!”  You think Mark Zuckerberg’s an asshole, don’t you?  “Huh?”  Just scroll down already.

The real insight here is into the minds of so-called “consumer advocates”.

Teetering dangerously close to reaggravating my outrage fatigue.

Oh look, a nice comforting hobby-horse.  Meta-analysis shows that “saturated fat is not the problem”.  No shit, buttercup.  Fat loss is widely correlated with improved cardiovascular health, and a fat loss diet is, de facto, high in saturated fat coming from your own god damn adipocytes.  Here’s the paper’s author giving me an enormous confirmation-bias boner:

Saturated fat has been demonised ever since Ancel Keys’s landmark “seven countries” study in 1970. This concluded that a correlation existed between the incidence of coronary heart disease and total cholesterol concentrations, which then correlated with the proportion of energy provided by saturated fat. But correlation is not causation. Nevertheless, we were advised to cut fat intake to 30% of total energy and saturated fat to 10%.” The aspect of dietary saturated fat that is believed to have the greatest influence on cardiovascular risk is elevated concentrations of low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Yet the reduction in LDL cholesterol from reducing saturated fat intake seems to be specific to large, buoyant (type A) LDL particles, when in fact it is the small, dense (type B) particles (responsive to carbohydrate intake) that are implicated in cardiovascular disease.

We make kids go to school because it’s “good for them”, and everyone agrees that it’s “good for” kids to go to college.  So why not round them up at gunpoint, herd them into cattle cars, and send ‘em off to West Bumfuck State?

As odd as it may sound, the majority of time and resources of the FTC is not spent on punishing bad business practices as authorized in the FTC Act. The agency overwhelmingly concentrates on enforcing another act also passed in 1914, the Clayton Act, and specifically section 7, which prohibits mergers and acquisitions where the effect “may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly.”

This is why I don’t blog about politics any more:

Pierce, Rogers and Snyder find that political partisans are more upset about an election loss than a random sample of parents were upset by the Newtown shootings.

An interesting discussion on how humans can add value to computer programs when those programs are really, really good.  The context there is chess, which is a pretty well-understood game of finite complexity.  I claim that humans have been doing this for decades in software development, whose practical complexity is limited only by what you can convince your publisher is actually possible.  Worried about computers taking over your job?  Computers have taken over mine on the regular over the past two decades, and as a result I keep getting better and more interesting jobs.

“Creative destruction” is something that most people who aren’t raging anarchocapitalists like to write off as abstract, idealistic propaganda.  Fortunately, Bryan Caplan is a raging an-cap, and he’s set it all out in time-series graphs so you can actually see it.

I have to admit, I threw this in just for the shock value.  But see previous no-think-link about college being good for kids.

Why do altruists help people?  Because they want to be seen helping people.  This should surprise precisely no-one.

Rob Ford lol.


Tune in next time for part 3, when we’ll discover whether this series is better-on-evens (Star Trek) or better-on-odds (Back to the Future)… or just shit (The Fast and the Furious).


Quis custodiet etc.

I don’t have the energy to blog about the NSA’s data-harvesting the way I might once have, but that’s okay, because Mike Masnick, Mike Riggs, and some guy on Reddit have said everything I’d have said (and more).  While the third link is presently lodging itself deep in my midbrain to nourish my sense of nameless, protean dread for the next few months, my frontal lobe would like to point out that Masnick’s post is the most immediately concerning (and Riggs’s post is why we’re fucked).  For the next few decades, at least (although the Germans were probably saying the same thing in 1931), I’m less concerned about secret-police brownshirts rounding up political dissidents* than I am about individual shitbirds using the data for their own nefarious purposes.  (Some say this is already happening.)  Those of you who might protest that the NSA is “only” storing metadata might consider the mischief caused if a true-believer with the courage of s/h/its convictions extracted a list of the phone numbers of people who’d called Planned Parenthood clinics within the past few months.  Other examples might occur to you.


* The “police rounding up dissidents” rant is a Drug War topic, and is ably covered elsewhere


Olympic regression complexes

As usual my queue of “someone was wrong on the internet” rant fodder is overflowing, but I continue to suffer from elevated levels of dilligaf secondary to chronic outrage fatigue.  Look, the TSA are being sadistic assholes again.  I guess that means only libertarians and (checks federal balance of power) some Republicans will raise a stink, while neocons and (checks federal balance of power) Democrats will snidely dismiss the complaint as “whining”.  So it goes in this best of all possible worlds.

I’m also suffering from fatigue fatigue subsequent to today being deadlift day.  With that in mind, I’ve gotta link to Wil Fleming’s outstanding post on T-Nation today:

That title is, um, less than encouraging.  It brings to mind absurdities like “Do 3×12 split-stance Zercher kettlebell half cleans with a slow, five-count eccentric to get hyooge!  Look, I said “clean”, it’s Olympic lifting and stuff!”  But Fleming is smart and his article is blindingly clear.  Regression complexes will make you more awesome.  (And somehow, until I watched his videos, I’d never realized that high pulls are a great way to practice scooping the bar.)  I’d give it two thumbs up but, well, hook grip.

On the off-chance that you’re bored by both my minimal political content and by that link, have some metal (you might, er, want headphones if you’re at work):


On public shaming and the expected utility thereof

Via Eric Crampton we discover this post by Timothy Burke:

It’s long and difficult to do justice with an excerpt, so I’ll quote this teaser and hope that it’ll motivate you to click through:

I heard just a small bit of a story on NPR this morning about “crunch time” in family life, where working parents feel the pressure of getting their kids fed with a decent meal, finished with homework, and to sleep at a reasonable hour, and how exercise and play both tend to fall out of the picture many days.

The segment I heard featured a woman who talked about how she cried when she saw the NPR solicitation for the story on Facebook and another mother who talked about how she didn’t think this is what family life was all about. And then the experts came on and said, “Everybody knows what they’re supposed to do” (in terms of making sure kids get enough exercise and eat well to avoid obesity) and concluded that what we really need to do is figure out why so few people do what they know they’re supposed to do.

In brief and incomplete terms: Burke laments the contemporary nanny discourse in which the Experts blame horrible social phenomena like kids playing too many hours of videogames on “noncompliance”, and then chide the noncompliant — and encourage others to do so as well — for being “a burden on the system”:

If you want an explanation of the meanness of 21st Century American public discourse, for the fractures in the body politic, this will do as a starting place. “Get that guy to wear his helmet, because otherwise he’s going to cost you money.” “Get that woman to lose weight, because otherwise she’s going to cost you money.” “Hassle that couple because their kid plays too many video games and might slightly underperform in school and not make the contribution to net productivity that we are expecting of him.”

We are offered a thousand reasons to complain of other people’s behavior (and to excoriate and loath our own) on the grounds that it will cost us too much. That we should talk about what is good and bad, right and wrong, mostly in terms of the selfish consequences, or at best, in terms of the kind of closeted idea of a collective interest that neoliberalism dare not directly speak of–sort of the nation, sort of the economy, sort of the community, but really none of those directly or clearly.

Now, Dr. Crampton has done an excellent job of phrasing the post in terms of the brilliant diversity of personal utility functions, and if I haven’t persuaded you by now that you should go read Burke’s excellent post in full I’m simply not able to do so.  But I can add one more very speculative wrinkle from the perspective of a glib dilettante physiology nerd.

Burke offers this rebuttal to the idea that we ought to go around shaming each other into what the experts tell us is good behaviour:

“Stop costing me money” in a society that also protects the autonomy of individual choice is a perverse and counterproductive angle of approach: it makes me want to do more of whatever that is up until I’m not allowed to any longer. It is, ultimately, the voice of the Boss, and at least for now, we can still say, most of the time, that the experts and the government and the human resource specialists and the doctors are not the Boss of Me. Small wonder that many policy wonks and technocratic experts flirt so relentlessly with prohibition and restriction as the big stick behind the soft talk.

I’ll offer another: By constantly policing each other, by constantly monitoring our behaviour for and censoring our discourse against anything that might invite expert-mandated criticism from others, we turn ourselves and others into tightly-wound highly-strung chronic stress machines.  This leads to chronic systemic inflammation with nonzero probability, and chronic systemic inflammation is, if not the root of all evil, certainly a top-level directory (and probably a big one, like /usr).  Any cost-benefit analysis of nannyism that doesn’t take into account the health effects of this sort of pervasive stressor, and its downstream pathologia, is incomplete at best.


Little risks

Deep in the misty past I’ve written about the “little risks” of the pervasive surveillance state — it’s not so likely that federal door-kickers are going to come ’round looking for the Jews in your basement, but vastly more likely that your grudge-holding ex will stalk you via government database.  Given the right circumstances, most people can be pushed into vicious, vindictive behaviour, and as Leviathan rolls on it hires more and more “most people” and gives them depressing amounts of power, access, and authority.

Eric Crampton highlights another risk of ubiquitous surveillance:

New Zealand’s finest are warning the users of adult websites the scam, which interrupts a users web session, has nothing to do with them.

The message featuring the police logo appears on their computer screen saying they have been fined for using the x-rated site and need to enter banking details and pay an instant fine.

Police have received a handful of calls about the scam from people believing the message is from them.

Leaving aside the psychological dimension of sex-shaming and secrecy that enables this sort of scam, it simply wouldn’t work if the idea of the police monitoring everyone’s web traffic were preposterous.  (Which it is, for the nonce, for logistical reasons if nothing else.)  But of course Serious People have been discussing sweeping and secret state surveillance powers for years now.


All linky, no thinky

WordPress is getting marginally — I use the word deliberately — more clever at hiding the good post-composition form in favour of the “easy” shit that makes it hard for me to do what I want.  I have sent in my demand for a full refund.  (“Isn’t this service free?”  Yes, quite.)


In an essay that at least 50% of the population of the Pacific Northwest should read, Megan McArdle argues that

Apparently we’re great relationship material, provided that one is willing to put up with nerdery.  (I suspect that Ms. McArdle’s analysis applies to nerds in general.)  Given the sort of person who comments on McArdle’s articles in general, I suspect that this ‘un’s comment section will go from zero to hilarious in about half an hour.


Next, Eric Crampton takes a kick at the question of whether or not smoking-related lost productivity (ergo income, ergo income tax revenue) counts as an externality:

I’ll quote for you his thought experiment; you should be able to derive the uncomfortable-to-paternalists conclusion from there:

Consider two people, alike in relevant ways at age 10 and equal in earnings potential, but with different utility functions. So they make different choices.

Mr. A decides that the rat race isn’t for him and decides instead to take a part-time job at 20 hours per week instead of 40. Were he to have worked a full time job, his earnings would have doubled and, because of progressive taxation, his tax payments would have more than doubled. But he’s not on welfare; he just can transform relatively little income into a fair bit of happiness because he really likes leisure.

Mr. B does not enjoy sitting idle; he consumes his leisure by smoking while working a full-time job. Associated health issues reduce his productivity and, as consequence, he earns a quarter less than he otherwise would; his tax payments are then perhaps a third lower than they otherwise could have been. Other sources have a lower wage penalty for smoking; we’ll stick with a big one for present purposes.

Substitute in your favourite “but that’s different!” income-nonmaximizing choices (getting a “fun” degree, working at a non-profit, &c.) for Mr. A’s labour force truancy and see how well you stack up against a workaholic smoker.  Probably you should be ashamed of yourself, and paying higher taxes.

(Will Wilkinson made a similar argument in favour of utility maximization a while ago, and P. J. O’Rourke did the same in a convocation speech he gave, but under the “No Thinky” stricture I simply can’t be arsed to look them up.  I’ve blogged about both of them in the past, so if you’re really curious the search widget’s to your right.)


Bryan Caplan notes

1. Suppose you lived in a society with a massive, age-old injustice.  Think slavery.  Are you the kind of person who would staunchly oppose this injustice anyway?

2. Suppose a colorful, feel-good movement advocating a massive, new injustice suddenly became fashionable.  Think communism.  Are you the kind of person who would staunchly oppose this movement anyway?

and suggests that those who are robust against one form of injustice are probably vulnerable to the other.


By way of Andrew Sullivan we find Laura Vanderkam doing what Sully calls “uncovering the contradiction” of self-help books:

Even the most over-the-top books offer a real benefit: they encourage the virtue of self-examination. To read self-help is to take stock of one’s self and to ask what kind of life one wants to lead.

These are profound issues, and what the genre’s critics sometimes miss, too, is that self-help readers are well equipped to explore them. That’s because the people who buy these books are, like all book buyers, “pretty comfortable,” says John Duff of Penguin. “It’s going to be that middle-class person, reasonably well-educated” and in “very rarefied” company, as “our market for all books is really very limited. Most people stop reading when they leave school.” Those who don’t stop probably have their acts together. Call it the paradox of self-help. “The type of person who values self-control and self-improvement is the type of person who would seek more of it in a self-help book,” Whelan says. “So it’s not the unemployed crazy lady sitting on the couch eating potato chips who reads self-help. It’s the educated, affluent, probably fairly successful person who wants to better themselves.”

So it turns out that people who’re interested in self-improvement are already doing pretty well?  As nethack would say, “I see no paradox here”.

I’m reminded of the standup comic who complains about fit people in the gym.  “Quit going to the gym; you’re done.”  Not ’til I squat 600, asshat, and then I’ll just want to squat 605.


Tam does some math — rather, some

and discovers that

The important point is that now we know that in the Inside-The-Beltway mind, Sandy was far more devastating than Katrina, despite the latter killing 1833* to the former’s 113.

This provides us a handy metric for future use: If you live in flyover country, you’re right around 1/16th of a real person to the bicoastal power elite.

You should click through to discover her sources and follow that footnote.  John Richardson follows up in comments:

According to the Constitution, shouldn’t those of us outside the bicoastal power elite be at least 3/5′s of a person?


Finally, have some fuckyeah:

For some people, modifying an existing car isn’t enough, even completely dismantling one and reassembling it 10x better just won’t satisfy them. Oh no, they just have to show off their amazing amount of talent and build a car from scratch, the jerks!

Fabrication porn?  Oh yes.  Better get a towel before you click through.


More unintended consequences

Airport security theatre is, we are told, intended to make people safer.  Of course, it doesn’t: People who would otherwise be perfectly happy to fly places decide that the numerous indignities visited upon them in the name of the War On Terror are too burdensome, and decide to drive instead.  Driving, as you’ve probably guessed by now, incurs more deaths per passenger-mile:

To make flying as dangerous as using a car, a four-plane disaster on the scale of 9/11 would have to occur every month, according to analysis published in the American Scientist. Researchers at Cornell University suggest that people switching from air to road transportation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks led to an increase of 242 driving fatalities per month—which means that a lot more people died on the roads as an indirect result of 9/11 than died from being on the planes that terrible day. They also suggest that enhanced domestic baggage screening alone reduced passenger volume by about 5 percent in the five years after 9/11, and the substitution of driving for flying by those seeking to avoid security hassles over that period resulted in more than 100 road fatalities.

(That’s Charles Kenny, quoted from that first link.)

An exaggerated perception of risk leads to dire unintended consequences.  So it goes.

It doesn’t end there.  Eric Crampton reminds us that the dose makes the poison, and in particular that there’s no evidence that light alcohol consumption (by the mother) during pregnancy leads to harm to the fetus.  “But what’s the harm?”, you might ask, because the idea of accepting light drinking by pregnant women makes you feel uncomfortable.  “Even if light drinking is more or less okay, no drinking is certainly safer, isn’t it?  It can’t hurt, can it?”  (That’s what’s known as a leading question.)  Crampton first points out that blatantly specious warnings are counterproductive:

Lower decile groups hear the “drink nothing” warnings, dismiss them entirely as nonsense, and go on to drink way too much while pregnant, doing real harm.

“Lower decile” is a curious euphemism.  Lower decile of what?  Intelligence?  There might be some correlation, but it’s not obvious.  Income?  Social standing?  Now we’re getting somewhere.  It’s clear that the zero-tolerance policy on pregnant drinking is built on the foundation of prevailing wisdom and fear of opprobrium — sure, a glass of wine at dinner once or thrice a week probably isn’t going to hurt the baby, but what would the neighbours think?  Crampton continues:

High decile groups hear the “drink nothing” warnings and, adding that to all the other advice they’re given about all the other costly-and-useless rituals they must follow during pregnancy, rationally decide to have fewer kids.

(Emphasis added.)

So at the margins, people who would otherwise like to have children are persuaded by spurious arguments that pregnancy and child-raising should be made more of a pain in the ass than necessary, and choose not to.  D’oh!


Reality is always right

So there’s been an awful lot of discussion on the Big Truck about the GOP’s rather optimistic interpretations of the polls, which gave rise to (among others) George Will gleefully predicting a landslide victory in the electoral college.  Well, there was a landslide EC victory all right, but it didn’t exactly go his way.  It turns out that if you want to use numbers to determine which of two things is larger, you’re probably better off with a Bayesian statistical model rather than a sheer fucking fantasy model.  Just saying “our model predicts such-and-so” only gives you the appearance of credibility until reality intervenes.

People can say whatever they like, of course, and if partisan hacks didn’t spout off nonsense I’d have a lot fewer things to blog about.  Still, it’s about time the truly fantastical ideologues got some push-back.

On a similar note: Remember when Citizens United was going to destroy democracy as we know it because those evil awful one-percenters were going to just buy every election in perpetuity?  I remember that like it was last Monday, which in fact it was.  Yeah, about that:

Spending by outside groups, it turns out, was the dog that barked but did not bite. Obama and other Democrats had long made dire predictions about the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commissionwhich allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited money on elections and created a new class of wealthy political groups.

I don’t need to tell you how that turned out, do I?  In the cold light of day it’s clear that voters are a heck of a lot less vulnerable to teh ebil advertisings than the Cassandras among us would like to portend.  Why, it’s almost as if the dire predictions of unlimited plutocracy were mere ideological bloviations after all!

People can say whatever they like, of course, and if partisan hacks didn’t spout off nonsense I’d have a lot fewer things to blog about.  Still, it’s about time the truly fantastical ideologues got some push-back.

anarchocapitalist agitprop

Be advised

I say fuck a lot



Statistics FTW


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