A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 29 April 2014


Something which has always fascinated me is how productive some people are. I don't mean that they are hard-working - although they undoubtedly are - but that there are people who can produce thousands, even millions, of pounds worth of value in just a few minutes. Meanwhile, the vast majority of us live in a single house, drive a single car, and visits to nice places (the theatre, foreign climes, etc) are an occasional treat.

I should say that I have never had any moral objection to this. While I envy the super-rich (after all, who honestly doesn't?) my response to seeing things like the One Hyde Park apartments and their owners is "Good for them. I hope I become rich enough to live there someday."

A related issue is that of political leaders. I have always thought it strange that we assume in our political system that the best party to manage the national economy will also be the best party to manage the foreign affairs brief, or to determine education policy. (This is actually a large part of why I am an anarchist - I will openly admit that there are problems, most obviously small-but-widespread externalities, which would in theory be best solved by government intervention; however, the democratic system requires us to vote on so many issues at once, that there is basically no reward to a politician for having an honest, intelligent position on this kind of problem). And yet we invest vast amounts of power in small numbers of people, perhaps rightly so.

But what is it that makes these people so much more productive than you or I? Intelligence is obviously part of it, but are they really so much more intelligent that this makes sense of the orders of magnitude of difference in our incomes? Luck is presumably a large part of it - after all, where luck plays a large role you can generally expect lopsided payoffs. I find this rather depressing. I also wonder: where are all the failures?

Monday, 28 April 2014

Eurovision Song Contest Entries 2014

I have been looking over some of the videos for entries to the Eurovision Song Contest, and thought that I would note some of my reactions here. It should be noted that I adore the contest, even though I consider the vast majority of music it produces to be absolute dross. My recommendation is at best very week evidence that a song will do well, since my tastes do not seem to chime with those of the European public as a whole.

Basim (Denmark) Cliche Love Song
Seems to be a Bruno Mars impersonator. The song has little if anything to reccommend it. I assume it's supposed to be a satire, but the lyrics don't really suggest it. If only they'd enlisted Weird Al as a co-writer.

Ruth Lorenzo (Spain) Dancing in the Rain
What a boring song.

Emma Marrone (Italy) La Mia Citta
Better than the last two - it could have made a perfectly reasonable 90s rock song. Listenable, but you can probably find some better way to occupy your time.

Twin Twin (France) Moustache
Another satirical song - their profile at the contest website describes them as "firmly of the YOLO... generation" which is annoying enough to start. The lyrics are better than the others songs so far, and it's quirky enough that it could score a fair few points. I don't know how well it'll do without the music video, however, since the music itself is eminently forgettable.

Molly (United Kingdom) Children of the Universe
Actually a pretty good song. Unfortunately, the arrangement is absolutely dire. Honestly, it would be better with no backing than with this mess.

Elaiza (Germany) Is It Right
One of the things I love about Eurovision is the crazy combinations of instruments which get pulled out each year, and this does not disappoint with Accordion, Drums and Double Bass. The song is alright, but I really can't see it winning, again, it's just too forgettable.

Aram (Armenia) Not Alone
There's only so much intensity you can build up when you have only three minutes, and this goes from calm singing (accompanied by some incredibly hammy acting) to screeching violins to screaming voice far too quickly.

Aarzemnieki (Latvia) Cake to Bake
A very fun song - certainly my favourite so far. Clever lyrics, clever chordal progressions, well worth a listen.

Tanja (Estonia) Amazing
I was expecting more club-dance-numbers, given the success of Euphoria in 2012 and Only Teardrops in 2013; surprisingly, this is the first one so far. It's not a particularly interesting song.

Sanna Nielsen (Sweden) Undo
Rather dull. That said, the singer appears to be the First Lady of the United States.

Pollapoenk (Iceland) No Prejudice
The last two Icelandic entries were both very good; this fails to live up to those, instead competing with France for the Strangest Music Video award. It's not a terrible song by any means, but the politically-correct lyrics are very boring and it feels a bit disjointed.

Hersi (Albania) One Night's Anger
There's a solid twenty seconds of good song before it goes the same way as Spain.

Tolmachevy Sisters (Russia) Shine
Yet another non-descript song, not really going anywhere, and without any particular musical merit.

Dilara Kazimova (Azerbaijan) Start a Fire
At two-and-a-half minutes in, I thought this a reasonable quiet song which - unusually for Eurovision - resisted the temptation to head for a big climax. Then, a climax came out of nowhere, but at least it didn't go too overboard - the piano was unnecessary.

Maria Yaremchuk (Ukraine) Tick-Tock
In the wake of massive international sympathy this is an excellent chance for Ukraine to take advantage of the massive political aspect to voting in Eurovision, and the song isn't half bad. I would not be at all surprised to see a Ukrainian victory.

Axel Hirsoux (Belgium) Mother
Another high-pitched, quiet and forgettable song - the only difference being that, rather than having a female singer, it uses a male castrato.

Cristina Scarlat (Moldova) Wild Soul
Yet more overwritten modern claptrap.

Valentina Monetta (San Marino) Maybe
A respectable song, but certainly one that would not get significant exposure without this kind of event. (I do not regard giving arbitrary exposure to songs as a good thing). I would pick on the lyrics, but the sad thing is that by modern standards they're not all that bad.

Suzy (Portugal) Quero Ser Tua
It's getting very hard to think of new ways to describe the phenomenon of songs with no particular musical merit using modern arrangements. Basically, rather boring.

The Common Linnets (Netherlands) Calm After the Storm
Most of this is pretty good. The problem is with the singing, which is entirely wrong for this and clashes with the rest of the music - something far more subdued is called for.

Sergej Cetkovic (Montenegro) Moj Svijet
Another good song, but one which could do with another couple of minutes to develop towards a climax. I understand the desire to bring things to a climax, but three minutes simply isn't long enough to do that in without just sounding pretentious. (Incidentally, I've always wondered why we never try to enter Muse - they'd be perfect for Eurovision stylistically, where the whole flamboyant and over-the-top thing that is there shtick is the generally accepted norm). That said, I genuinely enjoyed this song.

Kallay-Saunders (Hungary) Running
Another serious contender to win. That is to say, it's catchy, modern, and I found it tolerable rather than enjoyable.

Firelight (Malta) Coming Home
Mumford and Sons have defected to Malta! I enjoyed this song, although it could have done with some classical references rather than the same-old platitudes which make up the lyrics to most pop songs.

Mei Finegold (Israel) Same Heart
I would mark this as a possible contender, were it not the Israeli entry. (That is, I don't expect other countries to vote for Israel, not that I personally dislike it more than I hate states in general and therefore am biased against it). Again, it's modern, and fairly bland but not completely so.

Carl Espen (Norway) Silent Storm
Another respectable song that I can listen to but generally wouldn't choose to.

Possibly to be continued. That's most of them anyway.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Sketch for an attack on a self-interest view of the basis of morality

1. We cannot be worse off for having more information.

For the purposes of this premises, X is defined as a constant level of utility.
2. If we have a choice between helping one person to an extent X, or helping 100 people to the extent X, with both of these options incurring equal cost to ourselves, we should help the 100 people.
3. If we have a choice between helping an extremely utility-poor person to extent X, and helping a considerably better-off person to extent X, with both of these options incurring equal cost to ourselves, we should help the utility-poor person. This holds regardless of our own level of well-being.

4. According to a self-interest view of the basis of morality, if given a choice between helping two sets of people, we should help the one we would expect ourselves to fit into. (e.g. helping family/country before foreigners)

It is my contention that, for a well-off person, premises, 3 and 4 are inconsistent - a well-off person would expect themselves to be helped more by a strategy of helping well-off people than one of helping the downtrodden. The objection that our principles should be devised at a level where we are ignorant of our positions within society conflict with my first premise. This will need a lot of tightening up, and I'm far from convinced that premise 1 is indeed true; however, it's something perhaps worth thinking about.

(This occurred to me while reading Jan Narveson's paper "We Don't Owe Them A Thing!"

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Response to MacFarlane and Kolodny on Modus Ponens

One of the most interesting arguments I have encountered recently is John MacFarlane and Niko Kolodny's argument that modus ponens is not actually a valid formulation in logic. They present it in a paper entitled Ifs and Oughts and provide some apparent counterexamples to the rule. I shall take their key example, and demonstrate that it relies upon false premises.

Ten miners are trapped either in shaft A or shaft B, but we do not know which. Flood waters threaten to flood the shafts. We have enough sandbags to block one shaft, but not both. If we block one shaft, all the water will go into the other shaft, killing any miners inside it. If we block neither shaft, both shaft will fill halfway with water, and just one miner, the lowest in the shaft, will be killed.

Action                               if miners in A               if miners in B
Block shaft A                    All saved                     All drowned
Block shaft B                    All drowned                All saved
Block neither shaft            One drowned              One drowned

We take it as obvious that the outcome of our deliberation ought to be:
(1) We should block neither shaft
Still, in deliberating about what to do, it seems natural to accept:
(2) If the miners are in shaft A, we should block shaft A
(3) If the miners are in shaft B, we should block shaft B
We also accept:
(4) The miners are in shaft A or they are in shaft B
But (2), (3) and (4) seem to together entail:
(5) Either we should block shaft A or we should block shaft B
And this is incompatible with (1). So we have a paradox.
Taken from MacFarlane, J. & Kolodny, N (2010), Ifs and Oughts, accessed at http://johnmacfarlane.net/ifs-and-oughts.pdf ; the thought experiment they credit to Donald Regan in Utilitarianism and Cooperation, via Derek Parfit in What We Together Do

The authors argue that the best resolution of this paradox is to reject the assumption that modus ponens is a valid logical formation. I shall disarm their argument by demonstrating the falsity of premises (2) and (3), which removes the necessary support for (5) and so avoids the paradox.

My disproof runs as follows:

(1) We cannot act upon facts of which we are not aware. [I take this as obvious]
(2) That we should do something implies that we "can" do it. [The classic "ought" implies "can", a generally accepted principle]
(3) That we should act upon a fact implies that we are aware of the fact. [from (1) and (2)]
(4) If we are not aware of a fact, it is not the case that we should act upon it. [from (3)]
(5) If the miners are in shaft A, we are not aware of this fact. [from the original problem]
(6) If the miners are in shaft A, we should not act based on this fact. [from (4) and (5)]
(7) If the miners are in shaft Bwe are not aware of this fact. [from the original problem]
(8) If the miners are in shaft B, we should not act based on this fact. [from (4) and (7)]
(9) Hence premises (2) and (3) in MacFarlane and Kolodny's argument are false. [from (6) and (8)]

I believe that MacFarlane and Kolodny confuse the false premises "If the miners are in shaft A, we should block shaft A" and "If the miners are in shaft B, we should block shaft B" with the true premises "If we are aware that the miners are in shaft A, we should block shaft A" and "If we are aware that the miners are in shaft B, we should block shaft B".

HT: Nathan Duckett

Monday, 14 April 2014

Natural Rights are insufficient for political libertarianism

A somewhat simplified version of the natural rights view of political morality associated with Rothbard and Nozick would run roughly along the following lines:

  1. People have natural rights of life, liberty and property, and anything which breaches these rights is impermissible.
  2. The state (or at least, anything more than the minimal state) inevitably breaches these rights.
  3. Therefore, the state (or at least, anything more than the minimal state) is impermissible.
I shall demonstrate that this argument is unsound, on the grounds that we can within a natural rights framework justify a state vastly larger than the minimal state given certain empirical assumptions. I make no comment as to whether these assumptions actually hold in the real world.

Suppose there are two societies, living side-by-side. They start off with equal allocations of resources, neither is subject to significant outside interference, and in fact the only difference between them is that one, Ancapistan, has no government at all while the other, Trotskygrad, has a government which interferes in many different activities. Contrary to all previous human experience, this massive government intervention works and people in Trotskygrad enjoy a remarkable standard of living - so much that the most well off inhabitant of Ancapistan (itself a pretty pleasant place to live) is still worse off than the least well-off person in Trotskygrad. Given a choice between the two, would you rather be born into Trotskygrad or Ancapistan?The answer should, quite obviously, be Trotskygrad. (Any fellow libertarians who might be reading this: admitting you'd rather live in Trotskygrad doesn't harm your pro-liberty credentials one jot.)

Now, I should go into a bit of the history of Trotskygrad. It was formed by a socialist collective of a few thousand people who grouped together to buy some land and form their own nation, under an explicit social contract carved out of granite and displayed in the central square. Every individual member of the collective signed a paper copy of this social contract, and any person wishing to become a citizen of Trotskygrad must sign the contract. This commits them to paying heavy income taxes, to remaining a citizen of Trotskygrad for at least five years, and to obeying all the laws agreed by the General Assembly - some of which can be quite onerous. In exchange they are guaranteed a job, healthcare, education for their children, and various other benefits of many different natures.

It seems then that anyone with the mental capabilities of an adult may then be compelled either to sign the contract, or to live elsewhere. The argument that one has grown up in Trotskygrad does not compel the community to allow one to stay, any more than an adult may compel his parents to allow him to continue living in his childhood home. Signing the contract represents consenting to being dominated by a state, with all that that implies. If an individual does not sign the contract, then Trotskygrad is no more obliged to accept the individual than homeowners are obliged to let strangers into their house.

Perhaps there are certain inalienable rights, which a person may not transfer to another person or to a group such as Trotskygrad? Perhaps there are, but it seems far from clear to me what these might be. In any case, it is hard to see how many activities of the state could fall into that category. Taxation can be seen as a way of paying for a bundle of services - protection against crime, education, healthcare etc - and while having the price of a good based upon your income is a very strange idea, and a highly inefficient way of paying, it does not seem particularly morally different from paying a fixed fee. Committing to live in a place? Perhaps it might not be possible to commit to this indefinitely (in which case the planned mission to Mars is already morally scuppered) but I don't see why committing to live somewhere for a few years is different to either working on an oil rig (where you're stuck on a platform in the middle of nowhere for a couple of months) or for a football club (where you sign a contract to play for them for several years). Making decisions for your children about education and such? Well, that applies to private education, not just state education.

Most people believe that we have certain obligations to others who are not so well off as ourselves. Indeed, a couple of months back the Manchester chapter of GWWC hosted a talk by an ethicist who went through pretty much every moral system which is still taken seriously by mainstream philosophers, and concluded that with a single exception they all led to the conclusion that we are obliged to give at least 10% of our income to effective charities. Now what if the most effective way of giving to charity were through the state?

Suppose that, by consenting to the welfare state, I make myself slightly worse off but in doing so bring several beggars off the streets. Then, assuming there is nothing better I could do with the money, it seems sensible to conclude that I have a moral obligation to consent to the welfare state. (Alternatively, I could of course not consent and instead make a private charitable donation with the same effect, but why would I given that by stipulation I would be better off compared to this had I simply consented?)

And so, it might be that I must consent to the state even though I am worse off for so doing. If this is the case, is the state justified in presuming that I consent and acting as though I already had? I'm really not certain - I have a vague intuition that it would be, but this is of course no substitute for systematically thinking the problem through. And as I intend to explain tomorrow, the question is in any case moot.

To conclude, even within a natural rights framework, individuals may consent to the state and indeed may have a moral obligation to do so - however, this relies on certain assumptions about the state improving people's lives.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Links, April 2014

Foreign policy is of course an area ripe for being affected by cognitive biases; however, when I saw this article (original paper here) claiming that "all of the cognitive biases in our [complete list of known cognitive biases] all of them favour hawks" I was suspicious - it seems implausible to me that in a list of forty of so biases, all of them would push in one direction. My prior in favour of the article has been raised by this article however, which describes combining a survey of attitudes regarding Russia and Ukraine with a test to see if people could place Ukraine on a map.

It was found that there was a statistically significant (for what that's worth) relationship between being unable to accurately place Ukraine on a map, and favouring military intervention. (Is this evidence that cognitive biases can really be overcome?)

Elsewhere, Robin Hanson observes that, since cognitive biases developed because they were effective ways of thinking, perhaps this is not really a problem.

I don't know how accurate this representation of the spectrum of political beliefs is - and I'm not entirely certain I even understand it - but it's interesting enough to be worth linking to.

A while back a quiz comparing your political views to those of the major parties of the UK was floating around Facebook; my results are here. The correlations with the parties seem to have changed since I took the quiz, and so they may well change in the future, but as of the time of writing I am in 1% agreement with the BNP. This is something I am (mildly) proud of.

I don't know what my views would have been had I been born 80 years ago, but now I know what Superman thought back then.

Get in! Possible contributing factor: bra are generally designed for right-handed women, which makes it difficult to operate them for left-handed women and for right-handed men standing in front of the woman but very easy for a left-handed man.

Bra from the perspective of the presumably right-handed Randall Munroe.

Short video on love and attraction. To my romantic mind it's sad to see how much this seems to be associated with looks, but then again I guess looks are by far the easiest thing to assess about a potential partner.

Speaking of shallow romance, consider this fascinating theory about the Twilight series. It certainly threw the whole series into a different light for me. (On a somewhat related note, if you have read and enjoyed HPMoR then you should read Luminosity, its Twilight-equivalent, which can also be found here).

While I'm still talking about fiction: Harry Potter and the Brokeback Mountain, a video splicing together footage from across the films so as to imply Harry to have had affairs with both Ron and Cedric Diggory.

The first time I was exposed to the debate between Determinism and Free Will, compatibilism didn't seem like a sensible position and I couldn't really face the absence of free will because it would seem to remove all grounds for morality, so by default I adopted libertarianism (in the free-will sense rather than the political sense - that ought to be clear, but I'll just make certain) and started hacking away in a controlled fashion - could one have morality despite determinism? Would it really be so bad if there were no genuine moral rules or injunctions? This post at Practical Ethics suggests that a lot of people share my concern, since there is a strong correlation between belief in free will and desire to punish wrongdoers. To me this seem strange from a logical standpoint, since most of our moral intuitions serve as limitations compared to economically efficient punishment and moral irrealism doesn't forbid us from punishing people - it gives us license to punish whoever we like, whenever we like (although this may come into conflict with our other goals, so it may not be a good idea except in certain circumstances).

Recently, a group of us tried to recreate the foundations of microeconomics while assuming that all agents are perfectly rational utility minimisers. This course in Buddhist Economics is probably somewhere around the same level as a model of good economics.

Now I want to hold a music concert inside a giant cello. It has that fantastic old-timey, warm-and-reliable look about it.

There is a vast amount of fanart being produced relating to Frozen; all of the pictures I've seen, this is my favourite. And have some music to go with it.

A fascinating statistic regarding immigration. If nothing else, it ought to put to bed any concerns about "native culture being overwhelmed".

Despite my extreme political distance from the BNP, I think I'd still be wary of wearing this t-shirt. But I very much hope that someone would wear it.

Market cost-pressures, finding new and unusual ways to save fuel and thus protect the environment since forever.