Monday, May 25, 2020

Mass Effect 2 viewing angles

I recently started replaying the Mass Effect trilogy, having not much else to do while under quarantine. It's been about 7 or 8 years since I'd played through any of the games, since the ending of ME3 really made the rest of the series feel pointless. Now, with some emotional distance and a fresh perspective, I'm going through again and noticing some things that I didn't appreciate before. This post is about viewing angles and why you miss out on some of the pretty skies that exist in the game (and still look pretty great even today).

First things first, let's get our bearings straight. I'll take a random screenshot from a combat portion of the game (click on the images for a larger size):
Swiggity Swooty
Breaking out the measuring tape, we see that the aiming reticle is indeed in the middle of the screen:
Yup, dead center.

And there are some pretty things to see in the sky:
The finest skybox that 2010 has to offer
So why don't we look at that more? It's due to the gameplay. Let's take a look.

Gameplay demonstration

For the rest of the post, I'm going to use a different level, since I took more and better screenshots while playing through this one. Here's what it looks like when looking straight ahead, with the reticle at the horizon:
Notice that we can see some of the skylights on the ceiling. Not the prettiest sky in the game, but sufficient to demonstrate the point. As expected, half of the screen is ground and half is "sky" (ceiling).
As an aside for those who haven't played the Mass Effect series, it is a cover-based shooter, especially in 2 and 3. You are (mostly) safe when in cover, as long as enemies don't flank you and get cut to shreds pretty quickly when standing out in the open (especially on "insanity" difficulty). This means finding cover and moving between cover locations while having a good line of sight on the enemies is the core of the gameplay. Also: play Mass Effect. It's great.

How does this flat angle work when we're looking for cover?
We can see a four possible cover locations, and from this angle, it isn't clear whether we could jump over the railing to get to location 4.

What if we look slightly downwards?
Woah! Huge difference! Now we can see many more cover locations, and it is clear that the railing to location 4 is thin enough to jump over.
Also, we can see clearly that there is a floor on the very right side of the screen, so we know that we could walk along that side or that enemies can come up the right side and flank us.

But now look what happened to our view of the sky/ceiling:
We have 1575 pixels for the ground and only 585 for the sky. That's about 73% ground. Also, compared to the "looking flat" image above, we don't see any skylights! If we spent the whole time playing like this, we might not even notice that the room has a skylight. Think of the poor skylight modeler who poured their heart and soul into that skylight, only to have it be completely off-screen.

For comparison, let's see what happens if we look up:
Skylights for days!
Wow, very skylight. Much scenery. We get a sense that this is a room in a building with some stuff going on outside, so why not play like this all the time?

Because we can't see the gameplay-critical information. That 4th cover point is completely obscured, and we can't even determine that the railing is a railing and not a wall. We also can't see the floor on the right, so we miss another path to move down or worry about defending.

Now, what happens when we add enemies?

We need to give as much screen space to them as possible, and there's even a risk that there could be something right on the other side of our cover that a flat or upward-looking view would obscure. Also, the vast majority of enemies in the game are ground-based, so knowing where they are in relation to their cover and ours is critical.

Here's a video of me playing this section.

The mouse wobble at 0:30 was due to a weird thing where zooming in with the sniper rifle sometimes causes the mouse acceleration to go wonky. It isn't just because I'm bad at the game. I beat Dark Souls, so I'm a real gamer.


The fundamental problem is that the split isn't really "ground (green) vs sky (purple)" as suggested above, it's "gameplay (green) vs pretty (purple)". For the record, I absolutely planned out that color alliteration. 100%. I wouldn't lie to you.

In a fast-paced action game like Mass Effect 2, you're naturally going to do things that tip the balance in your favor, even subconscious things like the default viewing angle. You need an angle looking slightly downwards to get a perspective on the battlefield and see where the cover spots and floors are so you can plan your traversal through the terrain.

Additionally, the game designers are limited in how much "pretty stuff" they can put in the "gameplay" part of the screen, since if that area becomes to visually cluttered, you would have a hard time recognizing which things are cover and which are just pretty doodads. It must be a very difficult balance to make something visually interesting, but still immediately recognizable as "valid cover" when the bullets are flying and you need to relocate quickly.

How would you fix this? I'm no game designer, but I have some ideas.

  1. Place the camera higher above Shepard's head with a wider field of view, so that you could still see the ground in front of obstacles, but also more of the sky. The downside of this is that you lose some view of your character, which makes it feel less like an intimate third-person action game and more like a top-down tactics game. I made a terrible, crude mockup of what this might look like:
  2. Regularly place enemies at higher elevations, so the player naturally looks upwards more often. If you put more gameplay in the "pretty" section, then it becomes the "gameplay" section. But again, you run into a problem: if the background of the "pretty" section is too busy, you won't be able to see the enemies. For a military simulator game where part of the point is trying to pick out enemy soldiers camouflaged against a similar-looking background, that would work, but for a game where you want the enemies to stand out, that's a problem. The game puts a big red box around enemies, even when they're behind cover, so it isn't going for "try to spot the enemy against a background" as part of the difficulty. However, if you still need to think a lot about finding good cover and moving between cover spots, then you would have to alternate between looking down to find cover and then up to shoot at flying enemies. Not the end of the world, but it does change the feel.
  3. Find some way to put pretty stuff at ground level without making it hard to spot enemies or cover. I'm sure that's easier said than done.
As I thought about it more, this seems like an unavoidable problem with cover-based 3rd person shooters, at least to some extent. If you give up on the cover-based-ness, then looking at the ground in front of you isn't as important, and you can spend more camera real estate on other things.

Conclusion conclusion

Well, I didn't really solve any problems, but at least I figured out why I spend so much time looking at the ground and not the pretty assets. As a reward for reading this far, here's a screenshot of the Objectively Correct romance option in ME2.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Controversy after OCON 2016

I got back from an awesome OCON filled with guitar-cello duets, talent-show selfies, an awesome fireworks show, and oh, right, some interesting talks about Objectivism as applied to art, childhood education, and foreign policy. It was my second time going (first was last year), and I had a great, but exhausting time.

Obvious disclaimer is obvious: I speak only for myself. My opinions are not necessarily those of ARI, OCON, my employer, people on Facebook who attended OCON, or crab people.

Today, I saw a blog post by an anarcho-capitalist ("ancap" for short) student flutter across my Facebook feed which was highly critical of multiple aspects of the conference. As a bit of background for non-Objectivists, libertarianism (of which anarcho-capitalism is a subset) and Objectivism have a complicated relationship. Objectivism is a single, complete philosophy which includes a theory of politics while libertarianism is a "big tent" of many different philosophies which are united only by a rough consensus on some matters of politics. To greatly oversimplify the situation, libertarians tend to say to Objectivists, "you like the free market, you're basically one of us," to which Objectivists say "our disagreements on the layers of philosophy below politics are too great for Objectivism to be considered a kind of libertarianism." As with all things true on the internet, the relationship can be summed up with a gif:
If you're interested in more, here's what Ayn Rand (the creator of Objectivism) had to say about libertarians.
Back on topic, many fellow conference-goers responded to the initial post with a great deal of condemnation, suggesting that the student obtained the grant under fraudulent pretenses, that his behavior was rotten, etc. Many people took issue with the beginning of the article's focus on the cost of nearby food (there were at least two grocery stores within two blocks) and technical issues with some of the presentations (which I did not notice, though I missed a number of the early-morning talks). There was not much explanation behind the more substantive criticisms of positions taken (Ted Cruz, Iran, Ron Paul), which people interpreted as further indication that the author had prejudged Objectivism and had gone to the conference only to gather material for an attack piece.

My take: since the article was posted to a site by Lew Rockwell, who is apparently an anarcho-capitalist, part of the reason for the lack of substance behind the criticisms is due to the article being written for a specific audience. When writing for an ancap audience, you can simply say "they criticized Ron Paul" and rely on your readers to know why that's bad and what it implies. This applies to any group of people; when you have a shared context, you don't have to spend time explaining the basics.

To my fellow Objectivists, I can appreciate the frustration over someone smearing something you like, but the vitriol doesn't help us achieve any values. At best, angry comments offer an outlet for frustration (I'll defer to the psychologists on the utility of that), and at worst, it paints us as bullies who can't handle even substance-free criticism. And seriously, be careful when throwing around accusations of "fraud." There are real consequences to watering down the definition of "fraud," and they are particularly bad for those who criticize the government. I don't know the details of ARI's application process for student grants, but assuming he didn't blatantly lie on whatever application he sent in, ARI knew to whom they were granting the scholarship.

In response to the reaction on Facebook, the author wrote a follow-up piece which went into much more depth about specific disagreements with Objectivism and people at ARI. With or without your permission, I'm going to spend the rest of this already-too-long blog post addressing those points. To save you, dear reader, the trouble, I've bulletized the main points of the piece and provided links to the Ayn Rand Lexicon (henceforth "ARL") which address each issue. I also have my own responses below.
  1. "I thought objectivism properly understood was easily reconciled with anarcho-capitalism": see ARL on anarchism. EDIT: Another, more detailed article on Anarchism vs Objectivism.
  2. Foreign policy, specifically Iran: See ARL on foreign policy. I'll have a little more to say below.
  3. Government ‘Enforcement’ of Rights: ARL on government.
  4. The Moral Status of Government: More below.
If you're really interested in the arguments about government's role and justification, Ayn Rand articulated the points with far more clarity than I will in The Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. But if you've made it this far, I'm guessing you're interested in what I have to say, or are looking for solid proof that I'm some horrible person, in which case I'll save you the trouble by admitting that, for a brief part of my childhood, I preferred Return of the Jedi to The Empire Strikes Back.

0. Objectivism as compatible with anarcho-capitalism

This essentially boils down to the old "open vs closed" objectivism debate. For the precious few of you non-Objectivists who have waded through this much verbiage, the debate revolves around whether Objectivism is "the stuff Ayn Rand wrote or personally authorized," and is therefore closed to modification, or "a school of thought, with a range of disagreements about basic or high-level principles," in which case it is open to modification. Put another way, the debate is "given that Ayn Rand is dead, can Objectivism be modified?" Open Objectivism says yes; closed Objectivism says no. This relates to anarcho-capitalism because Ayn Rand was very explicit in rejecting anarchism, so if you accept closed Objectivism, then there isn't really much else to talk about.

Personally, I accept the closed Objectivism argument. If you want to disagree with her on philosophical issues, that's fine, but don't call the result "Objectivism." Take a bit of pride in your work and name it after yourself. If I created a philosophical system that was pretty similar to Objectivism but had four metaphysical axioms instead of three and talked about "Parrot Epistemology" instead of "Crow Epistemology," (that's a little Objectivism humor for you right there) I'd call it "Danism" and say it was inspired by or based on Objectivism. It would be wrong call it Objectivism because if it doesn't have three axioms and a crow, it isn't Objectivism.

To psychologize for a moment, I suspect this tendency comes from wanting to call oneself "an Objectivist" but then disagreeing about specific issues. The (false) dilemma then arises: do I give up the label "Objectivist" or change what Objectivist means? My strategy is not to take the label "Objectivist" too strictly or seriously. If I find that I disagree with Ayn Rand on something, I'll let her make her case, and come to my own conclusion or decide that I don't know enough about the subject to have a firm opinion. If I reach a conclusion different from hers, that's fine because I don't put much stock in being "an Objectivist." There is a major difference between "I agree with the philosophical principles Ayn Rand identified because and to the extent that they are true" and "I must, as a matter of duty, agree with every single word ever uttered or written by Ayn Rand."

Ayn Rand had an essay condemning people who try to use the prestige of a term or movement to promote incompatible ideas, but for the life of me, I can't remember what it was called. The person is metaphorically committing intellectual trademark infringement. They use the prestige of the name to promote something different or incompatible.

Oh jeez, this is getting long. I'm going to grab a glass of wine and forge ahead.

Ahh Francis Ford Coppola. I may not know what you did to become famous, but I appreciate your winery giving me a free bottle to perform a swing dance.

1. Foreign policy

This section will (hopefully) be shorter than the previous one, since I don't know enough about foreign policy to have strong opinions. I can identify some places where the article gets some things wrong, though. For general Objectivist principles of foreign policy, see the lexicon and for current thinking on what to do about Islamic totalitarianism, see Winning the Unwinnable War, which I've bought but have yet to read.

So let's dive into some quotations!
The notion that the political leaders of Iran, ostenisbly [sic] with the consent of their population (after all, governments are formed by the consent of the governed in the objectivist view), must “alter their constitution, “denounce terrorism” (which I’m sure is to be defined by morally just US officials), and “acknowledge the state of Israel” before any negotiations begin is a recipe for war.
The first mistake here is in "after all, governments are formed by the consent of the governed in the objectivist view." This parenthetical confuses an "is" with an "ought." Objectivism holds that for a government to be legitimate, its power must derive from the consent of the governed, but it definitely does not deny the existence of governments which rule by the fear of the governed. Now, Objectivism is not a social contract philosophy, and does not hold that actual written consent is required for a government to be legitimate. There's no "implicit social contract" floating around somewhere that we all have somehow agreed to. There is no problem in punishing someone for murder if that person did not consent to the principle that murder is bad.
It does not follow [original emphasis] that since crimes occur between state and non-state individuals in another country, that a third, otherwise unassociated party has the moral authority to call for the “total destruction” of the way of life (Islam) of the conflicting parties.
Quite correct, but that is not the argument being made. This is where my lack of knowledge of foreign policy rears its head. The argument is not "the Iranian government hangs gay people from construction cranes, so we need to destroy them," it is "the Iranian government provides direct material and financial support to groups which have attacked and killed Americans." Destroying the government of Iran, therefore, is a matter of self-defense against someone who has already attacked us. Elan Journo's argument, as I understand it, is that we are already at war with Iran, since they have repeatedly attacked us, so fighting back would not be starting a war, it would be finishing a war that someone else started. Yes, yes, the Shah was bad and we supported him. Again, I don't know enough to have a first-handed opinion, so the most you'll get out of me is "I didn't know that. I'll have to think more about it."
Because of the tremedous [sic] destruction wrought in war, the provocation for which you adovcate [sic], this foreign policy is an anti-human policy. As such, it is not [original emphasis] an element of a philosophy “for living on earth” (as we were reminded objectivism is, at least five different times by five different speakers). Rather, it is a policy for “death on earth,” and a philosophy which accepts it part and parcel is a philosophy for precisely the same.
Again, the argument is that they have already attacked us and continue to do so, therefore our options are to stand by and let them kill us or stop them. Force in this instance is justified in the same way as force against a serial killer is justified: to live on earth, you must stop people from killing you.

2. Government ‘Enforcement’ of Rights

At this rate, I'll be done with this post just in time for the next OCON.
One is not logically permitted to assert that individuals are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and that therefore, ipso facto, we must form governments to protect these alleged rights.
This is not a primary claim, but one arrived at after a lot of build-up. Rights are first discussed in chapter 10 of 12 in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, a comprehensive description of her philosophy. Objectivism doesn't start with "individuals are entitled to certain rights," it starts with "open your eyes. Hey! There's stuff!" and then builds up slowly to reach high-level concepts of rights. Ayn Rand's essay The Objectivist Ethics walks up through this entire line of reasoning. The part about rights and governments comes up about 90% of the way through.
Before addressing the second part of the non sequitor, let’s focus on the first. What the hell is a right to the pursuit of happiness?
Got you covered. It is the right to take those actions necessary for a rational being to achieve values that are in fact life-enhancing. Want to know more? Read The Objectivist Ethics. It's in there.
Suppose it makes someone rather happy to use Dallas police as target practice, or for others to use minorities as punching bags and bullet pin-cushions. Hey, they’re pursuing their right to happiness aren’t they?
Objectivism is not subjectivism. Rand chose the name "Objectivism" to emphasize that distinction. It isn't enough just to do whatever you feel will make you happy, you have to figure out what will actually benefit your life in a long-term way. Doing drugs might feel good in the moment, but it is actually self-destructive. The right to the pursuit of happiness is based on the ethical standard of the pursuit of life-enhancing values.
See, what’s needed to denounce both [original emphasis] of these forms of behavior is a consistent theory of property — of just ownership over scarce resources (bodies included).
This is backwards. It isn't the right to property that justifies a right to life, it is the right to life which justifies the right to property. A right to life means the right to take those actions necessary to support one's life. Quoting Rand, "Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave."
I assert, as a substantive challenge to you, my dear objectivist friends, that you have no theory of property. The absence of such a theory, and the patchwork substitution for it with banal references to what is actually a secessionary document, creates an ideological vacuum. All sorts of conflicts are thereby justified (see Point One above).
Theory of property rights.

I'll add that given the limited time of the lectures at OCON (or any lecture given by anyone ever), a certain context of knowledge must be assumed. You can't begin every lecture by reading the entirety of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (henceforth "OPAR"). Different lectures assume a different baseline context of knowledge, and the ones that referenced the Declaration of Independence assumed a certain level of knowledge of the Objectivist defense of rights. This is a fine balancing act that such a conference has to play. People have different levels of knowledge of the philosophy, and the organizers and speakers have to try to put together a program that is accessible to first-time attendees as well as interesting to 14-year veterans. Sometimes this means taking the Objectivist theory of rights as a given.
But suppose we accept, arguendo, that one does have the rights so cited (this requries [sic] setting aside the objectivist admonition that rights are positive, rather than negative as is the libertarian position — but that is a discussion for another time).
 As Wikipedia defines them, Objectivism does not advocate for positive rights with the exception of police protection of person and property, if one considers that a positive right. As an aside, I find it strange to consider police protection a positive right. I mean, yes, it is "someone (the police) is obliged to do a thing for you (protect your life and property)," but then it leaves negative rights without any enforcement capability. Considering police protection as a positive right seems to say "you have the right to property, but if someone violates that right, then eh, that's a bummer." I'd have to think about it more.
Private security firms and their employees, of which there are already three times as many as state (anti-)security agents, are perfectly capable of enforcing rights.
But they do so only within a context in which there is a single, ultimate arbiter. If security firm A and security firm B have a disagreement about some infraction, they can go to the government to have the dispute resolved. If A doesn't agree to the resolution and tries to force B to do things A's way, the government can resort to overwhelming force to enforce the decision of the court. This is why having a fair court system is so crucially important.

Imagine instead you have A and B, but no government. They disagree, even after having their dispute mediated by C, an impartial arbiter. Now the only thing stopping them from resorting to violence is the fear of mutual destruction. We have models of this behavior, they are gangs. They are characterized by periods of relative peace punctuated by all-out violence when mutual threats break down or one gang becomes much weaker than another.
Thus, for my critics: I challenge you to the following: prove that a right to the pursuit of happiness does not breed conflict, and prove that the state is necessary to enforce rights.
This gets into the nature of human beings and what counts as a rational pursuit of happiness. A core conclusion of Objectivism is that the interests and rights of rational men do not conflict. If I go out into the world and pursue my values, trading with people who are doing the same, then we can all be better off and nobody is threatened. When I go to CVS to buy some gum, I am pursuing my happiness by getting some yummy gum and the CVS workers are pursuing their happiness by working to earn a living. It is only by robbing the store, which entails treating other people not as rational equals but as victims to be plundered, that I could breed conflict. But this is not the pursuit of happiness of a rational individual; it is an attempt to circumvent rationality by gaining a value (the gum) while attacking what is required to create it (voluntary exchange). On this point, I highly recommend The Objectivist Ethics.

Proving the state is necessary to enforce rights is a big topic, but the outline is that in order to banish force from social affairs (which itself is necessary to allow people to act on their judgment), there needs to be a single, final arbiter of what constitutes a violation of rights, and it needs to have a monopoly on the initiation of physical force. Otherwise, you end up in the bad outcome with A and B I described above.

Okay, now it's really late, so I'm going to speed through the rest. Right after I get another glass of wine.

Shut up, sunk cost fallacy! You have no power over me!

3. The Moral Status of Government

So this is about taxation, and here, I think you disagree less with Objectivists than you think you do.
I was told by [O]nkar Ghate that Rand would have preferred that taxation be voluntary. Well, to him and to others who hold this view, I invite you to examine reality. You might notice that taxation is defined by the element of coercion. A consentual [sic] transfer of funds from one party to another is not “voluntary taxation.”
First off, Ayn Rand advocated voluntary funding of government. She wrote an essay called "Government Financing in a Free Society," in The Virtue of Selfishness about this very issue. Yes, taxation implies coercion, so "voluntary taxation" is a contradiction. However, it is shorter than "voluntary funding of government services," and within the context of an Objectivist conference, the meaning is understood.
Conversely, when funds are involuntarily transferred from one party to another, it is called taxation, also known as theft.
Total agreement here.

It should be noted that, in the transition to a free society, coercive taxation would be one of the last things to go, not the first. The legitimate functions of government still need to be funded, and pulling out the rug by outlawing taxation would be throwing the good out with the bad. There are plenty of things that can be eliminated tomorrow without any disruptions to legitimate government business such as minimum wage laws, most regulations, restrictions on free speech, and many more. There are other things which should be eliminated eventually, but not overnight. For example, the public schools should all be privatized, but it would be worse to shut down all public schools tomorrow because schooling is not a legitimate function of government. Even if the entire population was on board with privatizing all education, changes in management and funding structure take time to do well.

It is also important to realize that we are nowhere near the point where we can eliminate taxation based purely on political consensus. We are so far away from having even a whole percentage point of the population interested in eliminating coercive taxation that it just isn't worth spending a lot of time thinking about exactly how that transition will take place. It is worth having a high-level answer to someone who says "okay, I'm on board with this whole government protecting rights business, but how do you pay for it?", but our efforts are better spent convincing people that we should move towards voluntary government financing before coming up with detailed plans on how much money would actually be raised.

Final Thoughts

I'm so close to being done that I can see the whites of its eyes!
Other possible challenges abound. Why praise the neo-con, war-monger, anti-lifer Ted Cruz
The Objective Standard outlines the argument well. Basically, the case was that he is surprisingly good on some things, really bad on others, but his ability to act on his bad policies is relatively limited.
I couldn’t let myself forget the ARI/objectivist defense of intellectual property. This is a major error.
Oh god I want to go to sleep and intellectual property is so complicated but I have to add a response or else something bad will happen wait why do I care about someone being wrong on the internet?


I'll just link the patents and copyrights page of ARL and pretend that suffices.

I'm done

This took way more time than I should have spent on it, but there you go. I'm sorry you didn't have a good time at OCON; in addition to the profound and good ideas, there are a lot of cool people there from all walks of life. In what seems like the unlikely event that you decide to come back again next year, come and find me. I'd be more than happy to discuss the ideas raised to the best of my knowledge and ability.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The sad state of free speech in college

I just saw some videos of the shameful assault on free speech at CSULA by students, faculty, and the president of the university. A speaker named Ben Shapiro was set to give a talk called "When Diversity Becomes a Problem" and had received permission and a venue to speak. In the week before the event, students demanded that the event be shut down, citing the usual (and usually false) claims of "racism" and "hate speech." The president canceled the event, but Young Americans for Freedom and Shapiro decided to hold the event anyway. A professor, Robert Weide, threatened to assault students sponsoring the event. Shortly before the talk started, the president un-cancelled the event, but hundreds of students barricaded the doors to prevent Shapiro and the audience from getting in the room. Here are some videos I found of the event.

And here is the video of the speech.

Shapiro and the students had to sneak in through the back, escorted by police. Keep in mind that this is a college campus in America in 2016 and not French Resistance fighters in Nazi Germany.

That college students in a civilized country would resort to physical force to try to shut down free speech is appalling in itself, but there is something deeper that is wrong with it. The students, and the faculty and administration which encourages and supports them, are mounting a direct assault on the very concept of college education. Let me explain.

The purpose of college is to learn facts and methods for understanding and integrating facts. This assumes that people are capable of learning, otherwise attending college would be pointless, as no transmission of ideas between people would be possible. The reason that people go to a college campus rather than simply checking out books from a library is so that they can exchange ideas with other people in person. Finally, the process of learning requires each individual judge for him or herself the validity and merit of any idea before deciding whether to accept or reject it. If this were not the case, then everyone could save a lot of time and trouble by printing out a list of views and values to unquestioningly accept and we wouldn't need to waste time with asking "why."

The students and administration are directly attacking the process of learning through exposure to new ideas. They are saying "because some people do not like this idea, nobody is allowed to hear it." It is particularly ironic that the people demanding forced ignorance because Imagine if this principle were practiced consistently throughout a college. All it would take is one flat earther to shut down the geology department, one intelligent designer to shut down the biology department, or one person who can't speak Spanish to shut down the Spanish department. The students, faculty, and administration are attempting to make the truth subject to a tearful veto in which anyone who is offended by an idea can have that idea banned from campus.

If you are at college not to learn and help others learn, but to avoid new ideas and resort to violence to prevent others from learning, you have no business being at a college. The proper response from the administration would be to suspend or expel every student who blocked access to the lecture. By their actions, these students have shown that they are enemies of thought and learning. Such a person at a university is like having a Luddite who wants to smash all computers working at a tech company, a police officer who thinks that crime is superior to law, or a child-murdering babysitter. Their beliefs are in irreconcilable conflict with their occupation and the only solution is to remove them from said occupation. A student who refuses to learn or to let others learn has no business being a student.

Of course, the administration has shown that they are unwilling to defend their academic integrity (or legal requirements of a state school). I would be extremely surprised if any of the enemies of thought and learning received so much as a slap on the wrist. The fact that the administration tolerates and encourages this kind of behavior only serves to teach the students both at CSULA and elsewhere that violence is an acceptable and legitimate means of resolving differences of opinion. It is this point which has me worried. When people come to accept that ideas can be countered by physical force, then we are truly screwed. I hope, but do not expect, university administrations to come to their senses before too many more students are taught that censorship is good.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Letter to the city government

So I just found out that, despite promising to end the program this month, the Mountain View city government has decided to extend its stupid food scraps collection pilot "indefinitely." This program cut garbage pickup services in half to once every other week and instead allowed residents to put food scraps in composting bins to be picked up. Upset at this pointless extension of a decrease in useful services provided by the city government, I wrote them the following email:

I just found out that the food scraps pilot, which my household was entered into without our consent, will be extended indefinitely. This is unacceptable. We were told that this pointless waste of time and money would be ended at the beginning of this year, which was bad enough. That we are being forced to continue to foul up our environment with trash around our houses in a complete failure of the duties of the city government to honor the provision of services that are its responsibility.

There is not, and never will be, a shortage of landfill space in the United States, so the basic justification for the existence of the program in the first place made no sense. As an example (and only an example) of how much of a non-problem waste disposal is, consider the following. According to this article, an average modern landfill can store about 66,000 tons per acre. Death Valley is 1,920,000 acres, which means about 127 billion tons of garbage could be stored in Death Valley. In 2012 (the most recent year available), the entire US produced 250,890,000 tons of trash, which means that, without any recycling at all, there is enough space in Death Valley for 505 years worth of trash of the entire US. If one considers only the trash discarded to landfills in 2012, which was 164,270,000 tons, then Death Valley could store 771 years worth of trash. Obviously, it wouldn't make sense to ship all of the country's trash to one location, but the point of the example is to illustrate just how much of a non-issue garbage disposal is in the US.

The goal of "zero waste" is pointless, even in theory. Waste is an inescapable part of biological existence. Every living cell of every organism that has ever lived on this planet produces waste. The reason waste is harmful to humans is that it causes human health problems and can harm open spaces that humans use for recreation and enjoyment. This is why the invention of landfills is beneficial: rather than spreading waste out over places we care about, we concentrate waste in a small number of places that are not otherwise of much value to humans. This is an unmitigated good, because it allows us to have cleaner human environments. By keeping trash next to one's house for an extra week, the food scraps program is turning back the clock on human development and closer to the times when human had to live in their own filth. It is a small step, of course, but one which has no possible human justification. When given the choice between a cleaner human environment and a dirtier one, the Mountain View city government evidently decided that its citizens should live in a dirtier environment.

It is merely a waste of money for the city government to pay people to drive trucks to pick up empty green bins, but it is unacceptable to continue a program which was promised to end this month. End this program now, and restore our garbage service to the previous levels.

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.