Saturday, May 23, 2015

Response to a bunch of nonsense

This was originally going to be a Facebook comment in response to this article, but ended up being much, much longer.

Wow, that is a hot pile of nonsense, but in a way that is illuminating. It's interesting in how it approaches some standard topics, and I was actually surprised that it didn't bemoan the higher population and life expectancy of humans as a great sin. I typically expect anti-induatrialism with modern collectivism.

Let's first start at the beginning. It is revealing that, in order to assign Original Sin (guilt by birth), one has to destroy the concept of individuals. This article was refreshingly honest and straightforward in its attempt to deny the existence of people. Most things I read talk around it and wouldn't be so bold as to say "you're not a person" flat out.

This raises the obvious question that if I'm not a person, and given that my being a person is something of which I have the most direct evidence, then how can anyone be a person? If I'm not a person, and you're not a person, then there is no basis on which to conclude that anyone is a person, so people don't exist and neither do societies. At this point, at the beginning of the article, the author firmly establishes that he's no longer talking about reality, so pretty much anything goes. As an aside, think about what his implied criteria are for declaring some entity "a person." You would have to have a virgin birth to some non-human mother on some distant planet without any contact with any other people. If us normal "non-persons" don't count as persons, what, if anything, does?

We then get into near-total determinism, with a collectivist bent. The determinism is important because it means that you can't take any credit for the things you have achieved. The collectivism is important because it means that you have a personal (whoops, can't use that word for us non-persons!) responsibility for things which your collective has done.

The problem with going the determinism route (aside from the trivial fact of it being self-evidently false), is that it also destroys one's ability to make decisions based on new information. This is obviously true and inescapable if you've bought into determinism: if all of your opinions and actions are determined, then you have no ability to change your mind based on arguments. If determinism is true, then whatever the article is pointless, because everything I'm going to do is already determined. If determinism is false, then the central argument of the article vanishes.

The collective-deterministic angle also undermines the later point in the article about the value of geniuses. If Einstein (who, let's remember, is not a person) discovered something great, he didn't actually do anything. It was just his genes and environment and everybody else that discovered relativity. And hey, since we all are responsible for the things other non-people did, it was actually me who discovered relativity, and wrote all of Mozart's music, and built the Saturn-V rockets, and painted the Mona Lisa! I should put all of that on my résumé!

It was at this point that I expected him to start getting into how nothing really exists, and was pleasantly surprised that he didn't go full Kantian.

The bit about individualism being the root of bigotry and discrimination based on nonessentials is just bizarre. By framing equality as something detrimental to individuals ("The big flaw in humanity is that we always cling to short-term comfort over long-term prosperity (because we see ourselves as individuals, instead of part of a whole), and certain classes of people were benefiting from doing things the old way, even if humanity as a whole was not."), he is making his job unnecessarily difficult. He is, in effect, saying "hey, all you white, straight, rich men! Diversity and equality will only come at your expense and only has misery to offer you, but you should do it anyway because you're not a person and don't matter." When presented with an argument like this, it's not hard to see why some people are less than enthusiastic about diversity. Rather than admonishing rich, straight, white men for not being willing to hobble themselves for no personal benefit, try something like "do you like eBay? Then you want more women in business (Meg Whitman). Do you like Chinese food? Then you want more immigration. Do you like iPhones? Then you want more gay CEOs. Think of all the amazing stuff you could have if more people could get into the awesome-stuff-making business, be it tech, music, food, or anything else." By presenting (say) racial integration as something one does despite its negative impact on oneself, the author is agreeing with the racist assertion that integration hurts white people, but is taking the other side and saying "do it anyway."

To tie it together, the author falls back on the collective guilt concept and uses it to set up a Kafkatrap. A Kafkatrap is an incredibly useful concept invented by ESR and is worth a read on its own. In short, a Kafkatrap is a logical fallacy of the form "Your refusal to acknowledge that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…} confirms that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…}." There are many variants of the Kafkatrap, and the relevant one in this article is what ESR calls the "Model C Kafkatrap," in which the fact that you benefit from other people doing something bad makes you guilty by association.

Finally, the article relies on the idea that we are responsible for fixing things we did not cause, contribute to, or support. The money quote is "Telling those kids that, as white people, they are responsible for fixing inequality is just a statement of fact." In what way is this a fact? How do we come to know this fact (even putting aside all the epistemological problems with determinism)? About 250 years ago, Hume recognized that facts aren't going to get you to a system of morality which requires me to give up my values for the sake of someone else. You always need something supernatural or mystical, be it the Christian god, Marx's false consciousness, Rawls' original position, Plato's forms, Kant's noumenal world, and so on. So even if all of the rest of the piece weren't so problematic, it would still rest on the groundless idea that if someone, somewhere is suffering, then that is a moral strike against me.

All is not lost, however, and there are factual, non-ridiculous, self-interested arguments in favor of equal rights. As I mentioned above, if you judge people based on nonessential characteristics in a particular context such as race, religion, gender, and so on, you are ultimately hurting yourself. I don't care about the sexual orientation of the CEO of the companies from which I buy my electronics, and if I did, I would be greatly limiting my options. Also, I want people to judge me for the essential characteristics of mine, and so will hold myself to that same standard.

What a self-interested justification for equal rights does not get you is a duty to pay reparations, either in money or in spirit, for things you had no part in, control over, or support for.

P.S. The caveat of "nonessential" characteristics in regards to judgments is important. What is essential is context-dependent, but is still objective. There is no reason to care about someone's blood type or gender when buying a pack of gum from a clerk or working for a boss, but these characteristics are essential when getting a blood transfusion or choosing a spouse.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Some musings on unwed parents and poverty

My dad sent me an article about inequality a few days ago. The two points of the article were:

  1. that the minimum wage is not well targeted at reducing poverty
  2. that a large factor in poverty is family structure

The article cited the figure that 72% of black kids today are born to unmarried parents, up from 24% in 1965. Also, the poverty rate for children of single mothers is drastically higher than for married couples. So my dad and I were coming up with potential hypotheses for why this might be. Of interest is a Brookings Institute report with some numbers and a hypothesis that some of the change over the past half century might be because of a decrease in the number of shotgun weddings (a wedding arranged to avoid embarrassment due to an unplanned pregnancy).

We were talking about getting data on shotgun marriages (indented regions are written by my dad):

I think it would be hard to get data on marriages after pregnancy. I doubt the birth records would indicate how long the parents had been married.

Well, all you would need is the ability to link up birth certificates to marriage certificates. You would find a birth certificate, look at the mother, and see if she has a marriage certificate older or younger than 9 months. I don't know anything about the practical difficulties of obtaining such a database.

Even if you knew they had married after pregancy, how would you exclude pregnancy in anticipation of marriage. "We were getting married anyway, so we I got pregnant, we just started our family"

With that data alone, you couldn't. You could make a pool of "shotgun wedding candidates," i.e. people who got married close to or after pregnancy and then interview a random sample about whether they considered their marriage "shotgun" or not. You could then extrapolate to the broader population. For fun, you could measure some other variables so that your extrapolation was more accurate.

Just collecting that data alone would be an interesting project in and of itself, without any accompanying policy analysis or anything.

I would have thought that blacks, as more churched than whites, would have had a higher rate of shotgun weddings, but I have no data and that would not support the theory.

It seems reasonable on its face. If so, then the decline of shotgun weddings might have a disproportionate impact on blacks in terms of unwed births if indeed shotgun weddings were a significant force against unwed births. Again, without any data, it is just wild speculation.

I come back to thinking about it as rational people responding rationally to the options and incentives they face. Lecturing people about the value of marriage, while incenting them to have out of wedlock kids is self defeating.

Well, it depends on how strongly they and their peers buy into the lecturing. Social/peer pressure is clearly a powerful force, and I don't think it is unreasonable to expect that an increase in the stigma against unwed births could offset monetary incentives for single motherhood.

An interesting question is whether the social stigma itself is altered by the monetary incentives. This would probably take effect over time, as the introduction of monetary incentives drives more people to single motherhood, despite facing a stigma. Say you have three time periods: t=0, t=1, and t=2. At t=0, there is no governmental reward for having a child out of wedlock. There is a significant stigma against single motherhood and only a small fraction of women choose to have unwed births.

At t=1, monetary benefits are introduced, but the stigma is unchanged. The balance of monetary benefit versus social cost is tipped for some fraction of women and they choose to become single mothers. At the end of t=1, the stigma against single motherhood is weakened since it is difficult to maintain a social stigma against a large fraction of a population.

At t=2, the monetary benefits are the same, but the stigma is lowered, so more women decide to become single mothers, further reducing the stigma.

If you could somehow revive the stigma at t=3, you could potentially lower the single motherhood rate by making the social-cost/monetary-benefit calculation unattractive for the marginal woman. The difficulty is that it would be extremely hard to get people to buy into the idea that single motherhood is an unspeakable horror when 73% of the children in the community are born to unwed mothers. It's just too normal to be taboo.

I have to assume that people have out of weklock kids because it makes sense for them to do that. It would not make sense to you and Sarah, but you guys face different incentives and options.

I haven't looked at the specifics, but depending on the level of government subsidies and one's earning potential, it may literally pay to have additional kids. That's a scary thought, since, if true, the government is paying mothers to birth children into poverty.

Anecdote, I know, but I read an article a while ago about a researcher at Penn who was studying this issue. She pointed out the windw of her office and noted that the Penn campus was filled with sexually active young women, but they were not having babies. They had a lot to lose by interferring with their studies and job prospects, so they availed themselves of birth control and abortion. Impoverished high school dropouts with no further educational expectations and terrible job prospects may not see themselves as having anything at all to lose by starting families. They do not expect to be financialy secure in a few years, or ever. They may have as much interest in having children as do the Penn students. Should they put those plans on hold forever? Until they have good jobs? They don't expect ever to have good jobs, and they are probably right.

I think that part of the issue is that having a kid when you are young reduces your chances of getting a good job, so it is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Meanwhile, they see the option to live a life pretty much like the one they lived growing up. Not great, but... life.

Plus, depending on the level of government benefits, they might even come out ahead financially. Or, at the least, not very much behind.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Update on "When European 'Austerity' Isn't"

Back in June 2012, I wrote a post about how little actual "austerity" had happened among European governments. Most governments had increased their level of spending between 2008 and 2011, and only three governments had decreased their spending from 2007 to 2011. Now that Eurostat has the numbers from 2012, we can see how things have changed in the past year. As before, all numbers are taken unmodified from Eurostat.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Public School Peril: a Parallel

Horror story of a DC public school.

I had a very brief experience teaching ballroom dance to middle schoolers in an after-school program at a public school, in Woonsocket, RI. Woonsocket is apparently a relatively poor town, but the school buildings were brand new, so it couldn't have been that bad.

The author's comments about most of his time going to maintaining order match my experience exactly. He also talked about how ridding the class of the 2-3 worst offenders drastically improved the experience. If I could have kicked out the worst 2-4 kids (from a class of about 20), the difference would have been transformative. Instead, the majority of my time was spent trying to undo the damage caused by these few. I spent 15 minutes one day trying to keep a student from leaving the building.

For a stark contrast, I also taught a ballroom after-school program to high-school students at Andover, the world's greatest educational institution. To a person, they were attentive, eager, and well-behaved. I taught more in an hour at Andover than in five at the public school.

I commend this guy for sticking with the job as long as he did; there's no way I could have done the program for longer than I did. As it was, I would spend the hour after the class bitching to my girlfriend about how horrible the kids were. There's no chance in hell that I'd put myself through an ordeal like that again.

The whole thing was a huge waste of time for nearly everyone involved; the kids weren't getting much out of it and my time could have been put to better use doing almost literally anything else. It's a sad state to be in and there doesn't seem to be a simple way out. Being able to expel or flagellate the few troublemakers would be a start.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Easy solution to the melting ice caps

People are always belly-aching about how the polar ice caps are melting. "Oh, the sea level is going to rise and flood coastal cities!" Blah blah blah, as if this is some unsolvable problem.

But, as we all know, human ingenuity knows no bounds, and there is a simple, cost-effective solution to the "problem" of arctic ice melting: just re-freeze it. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals how simple this solution would be.

  • According to the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington, the arctic pole is losing an extra 280 km³ of ice per year beyond the seasonal fluctuations.
  • Ice has a density of 0.9167 g/cm³, so 280 km³ (2.8e17 cm³) is 2.56676e17 grams of ice lost per year.
  • 1 Watt can freeze 8 grams of water per hour, according to the ever-trustworthy beowulff on the Straight Dope message boards.
  • The state-of-the-art nuclear reactor design is the European Pressurized Reactor, which, for the low-low price of $11 billion, pumps out a hefty 1,600 MW
  • A single EPR could freeze (assuming 100% efficiency) 1.28e10 grams of water per hour, or 1.12e14 grams per year.
  • It would therefore take 2.56676e17 / 1.12e14 = 2,291 EPRs to re-freeze the yearly arctic ice loss. At $11 billion a pop, that's $25 trillion to build enough power plants to stop the melting of the polar ice caps

So all this worrying about melting ice caps just boils down to a lack of creativity. For a mere $25 trillion, we could build 2,291 nuclear reactors in the arctic circle and use them to run giant freezers. It's so obvious, I can't believe nobody's thought of it before.

You're welcome, world.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Using a Wiimote in Mupen64plus

After much head-wall-banging, I got a Wiimote to pair successfully with my computer and work as a controller in Mupen64plus! There was a lot of trial and error, so I've created a guide to getting a working setup so future generations don't have to go through what I did. The details are in this git repo, which includes detailed instructions and config files.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Trying an Android ROM

Against my better judgment, I am going to take another shot at installing a ROM on my phone. The battery life could use some improvement, and people have claimed that some of the 3rd-party ROMs can help with that. I know I have promised myself not to play with ROMs on my phone again, since the result is usually a big waste of time with nothing to show for it, but this time is different.

Brace yourselves for a follow-up in which I immediately regret this decision.