A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Friday, 13 July 2018

Anna Meredith & 59 Productions: Five Telegrams

The First Night of the Proms this year concluded with the premiere of a specially commissioned piece, Five Telegrams by Anna Meredith, themed around WWI communications and accompanied by a lights display. The five movements combined to around 22 minutes; it should be possible to find the video on iPlayer for the next few weeks, and who knows? Maybe it will be on YouTube after that.

The first movement was energetic, with lights that could have come out of a disco; it was fun, but I don't have any particular desire to hear it again. The second was quieter and more contemplative, with lights that were more obviously designed than random, but still leaving it unclear what actual value they were supposed to add beyond pretties. Perhaps there was something deep or interesting going on in the music; if so, I didn't catch it.

The third and fourth movements, however, were much better. The third, themed around the redaction of postcards sent home by WWI soldiers, had a driving flow with fun little lights going on and off in time; there was a rhythmic interplay between plucked strings and some Javanese-sounding percussion, with snatches of woodwind joining in. The fourth, themed around codes, had a similar energy but was much more showy about it.

The final movement was in some ways less enjoyable than the two which had preceded it, but nonetheless had clear musical merit. It portrayed the feelings of people experiencing the armistice, and after a truly wonderful opening with a cello solo built up towards a kind of climax, never clearly in either a major or a minor key: both present, neither overwhelming the other. It died away in what felt like a bit of a disappointment after twenty minutes of music, but was perhaps appropriate to the subject.

Overall I'd be very enthusiastic to hear the last three movements again, and for their sake would sit through the first two.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Dictionaries are No Longer Useful For Argumentation

Historically, one of the most important tools for resolving any philosophical debate has been the dictionary. When you encounter a thorny topic like "do we possess free will?", a healthy first instinct is to consult your nearest or most authoritative dictionary in order to establish exactly what the words "free will" mean.

The reason for this is clear. Such debates typically lead to people attempting to twist the meanings of words in ways that are favourable to their views. The only answer is to outsource the business of defining these words to people who have training and experience in divining the precise meanings of words, and who do not have a dog in the particular philosophical fight.

Unfortunately, this is no longer true. See, for example, this recent tweet from Dictionary.com:
 This is far from an isolated example of the social media teams of online dictionaries intervening in political discourse. See, for instance this article of 10 times Merriam Webster has majorly trolled Donald Trump. The common factor to these cases, of course, is that they are intervening from a progressive standpoint. It's not just the social media teams - the very fact that a dictionary is willing to include SJW terms like "mansplaining" is a sign that they are no longer impartial arbitrators of our shared language.

The consequences of this are clear. We can no longer argue things "by definition" or "by looking up what the dictionary says", because these alleged "definitions" are being rigged. Moreover, any attempts to argue in this way should be taken as signs of braindead progressivism.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Can Prediction Markets Reduce Sexual Harassment?

Recently the @litenitenoah twitter account observed that:
I'm not certain what ethical objections not-Noah has in mind, and suspect that I probably don't care about them. If prediction markets in sexual harassment (henceforth PMSHs) have the effect of reducing sexual harassment, then this is good and it will take a lot to convince me that the markets are overall not worth having.  (There used to be a prediction market in terrorism, which was shut down after outrage from politicians.) That said, it remains an open question as to whether or not PMSHs actually will have this effect.

After a couple of weeks of on-and-off thinking about this, I want to suggest that any PMSH will have both some specific advantages and some specific disadvantages. At present my fear is that the disadvantages win out; however,  The size of these effects will of course depend upon the precise way in which these prediction markets are implemented. One of my aims with this post, then, is to open up discussion about how exactly these markets can be designed so as to maximise the good and minimise the bad.

It is also worth stating, as a preliminary, a couple of limitations on all of this. Firstly, prediction markets are means of aggregating information, but they are not by themselves a means of governance. They can function as part of a government mechanism, as in Robin Hanson's futarchy, but only as a part. What this means is that while PMSHs may give us a reasonable idea of which men are abusers, it does not in itself provide a means towards actual trying men who may be guilty: any trial will require a concrete accusation from a concrete victim. This does not mean PMSHs can't reduce harassment, however, as we will shortly see.

Second, it is typically assumed in discussions of prediction markets that the existence of and odds given by markets do not affect the outcome being predicted. This may well not hold in this case - a victim might be emboldened to speak out against her harasser if the prediction market says he is probably a harasser, or might alternatively conclude that someone else is likely to come forward and there is no need to subject herself to examination in court. The fact that prediction market odds can affect the outcome is not by itself a problem - one might imagine a prediction market for individuals' health and life expectancies, with individuals buying bullishly on themselves so as to have a financial incentive to eat well and exercise - but it can cause problems, which we will discuss later.

Lastly before getting onto the ins and outs: I shall be proceeding on the assumption that prediction markets are basically efficient at aggregating information. If you disagree with this premise, please take that up elsewhere with Robin Hanson or someone, and accept it for the sake of argument in this post.

The case in favour

In my view, there are two large advantages which any PMSH would have, and two other advantages which PMSHs might have depending upon their design and size, and one other advantage whose size is difficult to gauge.

Firstly, there already exist informal whisper-networks, mostly though by no means entirely between women, about which men are not to be trusted or enabled. These networks can enable women to reduce their vulnerability to potential harassers, and can enable concerned third-parties to jump in to head off and stop harassment at an early opportunity. The effect of a prediction market would be to make this information, in an admittedly less-finely-detailed format, available to all concerned. Women should not have to change their behaviour to avoid being harassed, but since in some cases they can having access to PMSHs would give them a better idea of when this is necessary; concerned friends, similarly would be in a better position to know which men ought not to be left alone with young women for significant lengths of time, and which men really are harmless.

Second, harassers are frequently enabled by the institutions in which they work or serve. Larry Nassar, the former medic at Michigan State University and USA Athletics, was able to abuse over 300 women and girls because of silence surrounding his activities which had been going on since the 1990s. Such silences can only be maintained because institutions and the people within them have plausible deniability about whether they were truly aware of abuse going on. PMSHs would remove that deniability: having a high predicted odds of being accused of harassment would be an instant red flag that would make it much harder for institutions to engage in the kind of motivated ignorance which allows abuse to continue over extended periods of time.

An advantage which I think would be real, but can only speak for anecdotally, would accrue to men with prediction markets on their own odds of being accused of harassment. I do not wish to harass women; being of imperfect social intelligence, however, I frequently struggle to identify which behaviours will be taken as playful flirting or everyday platonic compliments, and which will be experienced as threatening by the women at whom they are directed. Of course I try to err on the side of safety, but I can hardly pretend that I have always succeeded here. Having an external evaluation of how threatening I am seen as would allow me to better calibrate my behaviour - was that girl giving of signs of distress that I didn't pick up on and the other guy did, or did he just want her to dance with him instead? Do I need to reduce the amount of alcohol I consume when going out on the town? Certainly I'm not alone in asking myself these questions - more than one male friend has expressed similar concerns in private conversations.

I wish to mention two other ways in which PMSHs might - might - serve to reduce sexual harassment. One of the biggest problems in tackling sexual abuse is that victims are, entirely reasonably, unwilling to publicly accuse their abusers because doing so will mean exposing deeply personal aspects of their lives to strangers. Whether you consider this to be the Patriarchy in action, an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of having a well-functioning justice system, or a bit of both, this is the constraint within which we have to work. PMSHs would allow women to provide information about their abusers anonymously, by buying bets that the abuser will in fact be accused.

The advantage I am most doubtful about - and which I think a PMSH would ultimately have to jettison - is that it may provide some material compensation to women who do expose their abusers. A woman who has bought bets on the man who harassed her may stand to make money by actually going public, which may make her more likely to go public and/or may alleviate her loss of privacy, for example by allowing her to spend a while in a new location without running down her savings.

The case against PMSHs

There are two issues with this, however, which I suspect mean that a well-functioning PMSH would have to prevent women from financially benefiting by accusing men. Firstly, it is not clear that this incentive would only affect cases where abuse actually did occur. This may therefore create cases where men are falsely accused of harassment by women who want to make money out of the accusation.

This is unlikely to be an especially widespread problem - while false accusations of rape do occur, they are at most a small minority of actual accusations. That said, the prospect of such accusations means that there will be an obvious new brush with which genuine victims can be tarred - any man accused of harassing women may simply claim that his accusers are mercenaries trying to destroy his reputation for money. This will both create extra stress for genuine victims, and may lead courts to wrongly fail to convict a higher proportion of genuine abusers.

It is possible that we may come up with a way to prevent false accusers from financially benefiting from their accusations. Suffice it to say, however, that I have not yet thought up such a way, and this is my greatest worry as to why PMSHs may ultimately be unworkable or counterproductive.

A second major concern is that rich abusers may be able to cover up perceptions of their threat level by buying all bets on their being exposed. This is not the absolute worst possible scenario - it would at least mean that they would pay some price for their misdeeds - but it might allow them a pretence of harmlessness which the informal whisper-networks would have quickly dissipated. We all know stories of rich artists who have raped young women and got away with it; while it might be better that they were in prison, at least their reputations provide a warning to other young women who fall into their orbits. These men might be able to counteract or upend these reputations by betting financially on their not being accused.

There are other, smaller, objections, mostly of the form that PMSHs do not go far enough or are insufficient - that they would only take into account abuse of women with money, or that only men who are already in some way notable would have PMSHs surrounding them. These objections might well be correct, but they are not reasons to oppose PMSHs, merely to think that they must serve as part of a whole package of measures we might take to reduce abuse.


My current suspicion is that the disadvantages win out - that PMSHs might well, on balance, make it easier for men to get away with abuse. There are ways to combat this - for example, by preventing men from betting on their own behaviour, and by preventing people from both holding bets that a person will be accused and accusing that same person. If these are even achievable, however, they may undermine the advantages that are supposed to make PMSHs useful.

This should not be the final word. I would welcome any suggestions as to how PMSHs can be designed so as to avoid incentivising false accusations - and as importantly, to avoid giving the impression of incentivising false false accusations - and as to how they can prevent rich abusers from rigging their own reputations. But it seems clear to me that such suggestions are sorely needed before PMSHs can serve as a tool for making women safer.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Notes on Never Eat Alone

I’m about 60% of the way through Keith Ferrazzi’s widely-recommended book on networking,
Never Eat Alone. As such, this is not a comprehensive review but rather a few notes on things
that have so far struck me while reading it.

Where is the actual work being done?
The impression one gets of Ferrazzi’s life from the book is that it (a) creates absolutely
enormous amounts of value for people and (b) involves little to nothing that we would
recognise as “ordinary work”. That’s not to say that he is lazy - the effort he apparently goes
to in making contacts and ensuring that he is adding value to their lives is nothing short of
heroic. But this seems to be all that is happening - there are descriptions of planning ahead
(i.e. planning which people to meet and befriend), and of strategies for meeting people,
directing meetings, and maintaining relationships, but none at all of making important
decisions. Indeed, there’s a mention of one senior business leader who attributes his
success to spending hours each day patrolling the factory, not actually achieving anything
but being sure to greet every individual worker, no matter how lowly, by their first name.

I don’t want to suggest that this kind of stuff is unimportant or that it “isn’t work”. But for it
to be viable for businesses to pay people like Ferazzi megabucks for it, one is led inexorably
to the conclusion that either (a) most business purchasing decisions have a very great deal
of latitude, such that decision-makers can actually decide from whom to buy based on who
the know and like rather than product cost and quality, or (b) the business world is a
chronically low-trust place, such that the creation of these relationships really is incredibly
valuable not just to the individuals concerned but to society as a whole - if there were not these
strong bonds being forged, the deals would not be going through at all. There’s probably also
a fair dollop of (c), that the book - being focused on networking, after all - misses out a lot of
Ferazzi’s other activities, but neither (a) nor (b) exactly fills one with optimism about the state
of the American business world.*

It me
He argues that conferences are basically useless for learning things, but that they are
nevertheless highly valuable because they allow business-people to make connections
leading to contracts. To wit, one of his “Don’t Be This Person” profiles (page 133):

THE WALLFLOWER: The limp handshake, the postion in the far corner of the room, the
unassuming demeanour - all signs that this person thinks he or she is there to watch the speakers.

The determinants of success
If I were to summarise the lessons of the book so far, they would be that social success
depends upon five factors: planning, research, organisation, confidence, and actively seeking
to create value for people.

Ferrazzi regularly thinks consciously about what his goals are, and sets out concrete action
plans for what he wants to achieve towards them in the next 90 days, the next year, and the
next three years. In particular, one aspect of planning I had never considered before s that in
addition to setting goals for himself, he identifies several people - not just for each goal, but
for each progress marker - who can bring him closer to his ambitions. The chosen goals and
targets are based on a mixture of introspection about what he truly wants, and consultation
with others (of course) about what his strengths and weaknesses are. There isn’t much
about tracking one’s progress towards these once started, but it seems safe to assume
that’s part of it too.

Second - he prepares for his networking. Quoting from page 69:

“Before I meet with any new people I’ve been thinking of introducing myself to, I research who
they are and what their business is. I find out what’s important to them: their hobbies, challenges,
goals - inside their business and out. Before the meeting, I generally prepare, or have my assistant
1prepare, a one-page synopsis on the person I’m about to meet… I want to know what this person
is like as a human being, what he or she feels strongly about, and what his or her proudest
achievements are.”

He suggests a variety of ways to go about compiling this information, all of which should
be available online - social media, company PR literature, and annual reports from the company.

A while back, one notoriously successful networker raised considerable furor by revealing that
he kept a list of his friends, ranking them on a variety of metrics including income, political
soundness (for his own warped value of “soundness”), and physical attractiveness. Ferrazzi
doesn’t recommend anything quite so calculating, but he reveals that he goes beyond merely
keeping a list of contacts to divide them up into 1s, 2s, and 3s, and makes contact with them
on a schedule according to their importance within this schema. He also advises that a new
contact will only remember you after they’ve had contact with you via three different media,
and he communicates accordingly - if he emailed them originally, he’ll strive to speak to them
on the phone and to meet them in person within the next few months, for example.

One of the reasons I’d be appalling in his job is that I’d have nowhere near his confidence in
pushing boundaries. I can just about get the idea of trying to meet people well above your
station and maybe even solicit favours from them - but his advice that people will tolerate
being contacted, unsolicited, five times a day seems remarkable. I used to work in a call
centre, and we would frequently have people screaming at us if we called them three times
in a week. Perhaps this is a difference between the UK and the USA?

But the most optimistic key to the golden gates, and a positive note to end on, is his emphasis
on unconditionally aiming to create value for other people. Whenever someone mentions a
problem to him, he describes his thought process as “Who do I know who could help this
person with their problem?” He portrays himself as generous with his time and keen to do
favours, and I have no particular reason to believe that he is being dishonest; and above all,
while he is clear that you should be receiving favours as well as giving them, states as the
title of one of the earliest chapters - Don’t Keep Score. This cuts both ways - being willing to
receive favours that you can’t repay as well as to give out favours with no particular prospect
of them being returned to you - but after all, there’s nothing wrong with being clear about
what others can do for you, so long as one is gracious in accepting them and pays it on to
someone else.

Overall the book’s advice seems actionable; the chapters are short, containing a minimum of
fat; and I am so far happy to add to the recommendations of it.

*Ferrazzi also finds the time for long monastic retreats, weeks building schools by hand in
Africa, spending six months unemployed between jobs, and the like. Again I have no
objections to his presence in the business world, he seems to be creating enormous
amounts of value for those who know him - but it contributes further to the impression that
what value he creates is concentrated within a relatively low number of events, as opposed
to the long grind of value-creation that characterises most jobs.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Three Routes to Elitism

Open and explicit elitism is a greatly underrated political position. Being contrary to the democratic ethos of our times, "elitist" is more commonly a derogatory adjective than a merely descriptive one. In this post, I shall set out three ways in which one might attempt to justify elitism, and suggest ways in which they may be flawed.

Route One: Aren't We Great!

This is the most basic route to elitism, and it is almost as simple as the title above suggests. This is the elitism of pub sessions, of putting the world to rights over a pint or six. Most people probably think that the world would be better off if they were in charge, but the difference is that we - being the cognitive elite, as evidenced by our smart conversations - are actually justified in this belief.

Well, clearly most people who engage in this kind of reasoning aren't justified in it. I actually do think that at least some of the people I know personally are justified in it, but the fact is that even explicitly elitist politics is highly unlikely to put Superforecasters and the like into positions of power. In practice, an openly elitist political system would resemble the average academic department. If we're lucky, a science department where people would at least be highly numerate; if we're unlucky, a humanities department, which are mostly full of "people like Hillary Clinton with faulty BS detectors, poor critical thinking skills, and severe social desirability bias." When one advocates for elitism, one should think of oneself as advocating less for the rule of sensible people like oneself, so much as advocating for the rule of humanities postgrads.

Route Two: Whig History

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge, a symbol of both Budapest and
Hungary. This is not the original bridge, which was destroyed
during the Second World War and had to be rebuilt.
Count István Széchenyi left an impressive set of institutions around Budapest. The most famous are the Chain Bridge across the Danube and the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, but he also founded the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the National Casino. In addition to this, he conducted various measures to improve the navigability of the Danube and to open it up to steamships, and wrote a great deal of classical liberal political theory. (Since I'm posing Széchenyi as a champion of elitism, it is interesting to contrast him with another figure of 1840s Hungarian politics, Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth was far better known abroad, since after the collapse of the 1848 rebellion he lived abroad as perhaps the single greatest voice of democratic liberal nationalism. Kossuth is every bit as celebrated as Széchenyi - the square in which the Hungarian parliament stands is named for him - but it is almost impossible to point to anything he established which lasted beyond 1849).

Going back further in Hungarian history, the arrival of the Renaissance in Hungary is credited more or less entirely to King Matthias Corvinus. Corvinus was not dealt an especially powerful hand - he started his kingship as a puppet of his uncle - but he greatly expanded his power by establishing a professional army, introducing legal reforms and curbs on baronial power, and creating meritocracy in state service.

The point at which I am driving is that some people do things. Sometimes these things are good, sometimes they are bad, but ultimately they create a small minority upon which progress is dependent. If you want society to progress, the best you can do is to create processes which select for these people and deliver as much power to them as possible.

One important thing to note is that while both of these lines of thinking lead to elitism, they lead to rather different elites - "Aren't We Great" suggests we want our leaders chosen for their intelligence, while "Whig History" suggests we should choose them for being driven and conscientious.

The biggest objection to this kind of elitism is the conservative worry that they will tear apart all that we have achieved. To be honest I think that's probably enough by itself - political deadlock is annoying, but kicking the machine to make it work is generally bad. One might also question the model of the world on which it rests. It may well be that the emergence of Hungary as a prosperous nation in the late 19th century owes a massive amount to Count Széchenyi, but how many other countries are there whose development could be traced to the positive actions of a single person?

Route Three: If not the elites, then who?

I don't think anarchy is feasible, at least for the foreseeable future. It's not that I don't see anarcho-capitalism as a valuable ideal towards which me might aspire, but that people have yet to breed out their tribal instincts and the abolition of the state would lead in short order to massive demand either for a new one, or to its effective replacement with clans. Given this, it makes sense to have a government which is at least somewhat under our control.

Since there must be a government, there must be someone in charge. So... why not the elites? It's true that power attracts people with unsavoury motivations and brings out people's corruption, but that will happen whoever you put in charge. Good traits - not just things like intelligence, health, and height, but also pro-social and trusting attitudes - are positively correlated for the most part. So if it's a choice between the common man and the credulous, unoriginal, unspiring elite in pantsuits... give me the elite every time.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Clearing out some old links

Solution here.

A neural net creating names for British towns. There's an associated Twitter account, though it does lose its charm after a while.

A lovely old profile of Derek Parfit (pbuh) and Janet Radcliffe-Richards. I don't really know the work of the Churchlands, but it's in my links folder so let's unload that too.

A brief discussion of the value of art, very interesting in the light of Hanson and Simler.


Some wholesomeness for you

Photos of a real war fought with bows and arrows. (Content warning: unpleasant photos of wounded people).

This is the future liberals want.

At least it's not brutalism.

Monday, 26 February 2018

The Pinkerian Case for Campus SJWism

Last week, courtesy of a commercial offer which I am shamelessly and ruthlessly abusing, I was able to attend a talk by Steven Pinker discussing his new book Enlightenment Now. I haven't yet had the time to look beyond the opening pages, so if you want a review on the book you should go to the one written by his ultimate fangirl. However, after the talk I was able to ask him the question:

"Many people who accept the trends you point to argue that due to the decline of religion and of thick communities, it is harder for individuals to find meaning and purpose in their lives. Do you agree with this assessment, and either (a) why not? or (b) do you expect it to continue?"

He disagreed with this assessment, giving two counterarguments. The first, which I don't find especially compelling (although IIRC I found it rather more compelling when Peter Singer said the same thing in a book I was otherwise disappointed by) was that people can find meaning in making a better world in general. People are not, in general, motivated strongly by the prospect of making the universe better. (Ctrl-f "charity"). There definitely are some people who are, and more power to them, but I don't think universalism can play the role in people's lives that, for many years, deities did.

His second, more convincing response was that people are finding new ways to build meaning in their lives. The example he himself gave was social justice movements on campuses - a purpose which many people choose for themselves as a purpose to which they can dedicate themselves. People may no longer identify as Christians, but they are very happy to identify as feminists.

Review: The Most Good You Can Do

I originally wrote this review in June 2015 for what was intended to be a collection of reviews of books with interesting and/or provocative these. Unfortunately, the person who was organising the collection did not manage to publish it before they left the ASI; I was reminded of this book by another discussion, and so am making the review generally available. This is the review as I submitted it, without any changes.

Peter Singer achieved prominence as a moral philosopher in the 1970s with a series of books and articles arguing for controversial positions in impeccably logical fashion. One article in particular, Famine, Affluence and Morality (1972) argued that as members of rich, developed nations, we have strong duties of rescue to people living in less developed countries. This line of thinking has spawned the Effective Altruism movement, a set of groups whose members are pledged to ending poverty, saving the world, and in general averting suffering wherever they see it. Effective altruists, due to their focus upon concrete impact, think and act very differently from members of other charitable movements. The Most Good You Can Do functions as an introduction to this movement, presenting an introduction to and defence of its main beliefs and practices.

The opening chapters give a brief description of the movement and of how it came about. This includes some of the controversial claims to which effective altruists tend to subscribe – notably, that one is unlikely to achieve a great deal of good by working for a typical charity. When one is employed by a charity, this is likely to fill a role in the charity which could equally well have been done by any other volunteer. If one instead finds a well-paid job and donates money to the charity, the net positive impact of one’s career is likely to be far greater. This has led to some effective altruists seeking out employment in financial trading, despite the rather poor reputations held by financial firms regarding the morality of their practices.

The second section of the book deals with some of the specific actions taken by effective altruists. These include reducing one’s consumption in order to give more, seeking high-earning jobs, and donating organs. The chapter on earning to give contains the first seriously philosophical sections of the book, a response to objections made by David Brooks and by the ghost of Bernard Williams. In response to the idea that earning to give sacrifices one’s integrity and alienates a person from their personal goals and projects, Singer claims (without much in the way of argument) that merely “doing good” is a perfectly adequate goal for one’s life – in which case earning to give, far from representing the subjugation of one’s aims to an imperative to maximise global utility, can be the ultimate expression of authenticity.

In response to the idea that going into finance upholds and strengthens the system of capitalism which impoverishes many and drives inequality, Singer engages in a brief defence of capitalism, pointing to the fact that it has “lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty”. Finally he considers the idea that going into finance harms people, and that ‘do not harm’ ought to be prior to ‘do the most good’ as a principle of morality. Singer questions this priority with an example drawn from the London Blitz, but seems to devote more attention to attacking the account of harm upon which the objection rests. It is unclear that Singer needs to defend earning to give against these specific objections – while finance is one career path for someone who earns to give, there are after all a range of alternatives including law, consultancy, and entrepreneurship.

In addition to these, Singer discusses a range of other careers in which one’s impact might be directly through the work – among others effective altruist advocacy, jobs in aid organisations, and medical research. Finally, he discusses the good one can achieve by donating parts of one’s body. Since many people are unwilling to donate kidneys except in exchange for kidneys to save the lives of their own friends and family, someone who is willing to donate a kidney without attaching conditions can start a “kidney chain” of multiple donations, perhaps saving five or six lives through a single donation. Unfortunately the number of such donors is currently small (117 in the UK in 2013; the US figure, adjusted for population, is worse), not helped by the fact that until 2006 such donations were in fact illegal in the UK.

The third section of the book discusses the factors which motivate effective altruists to undertake apparently sacrificial actions purely in order to help others. Singer suggests that the emergence of effective altruism represents a triumph of reasoning over emotion, and presents a range of evidence to show that members of the wider population are usually moved to act altruistically more out of instinct than out of reasoned consideration. He also argues that we tend to overestimate how much happiness we will lose out on by giving away money and to fail to recognise the sense of purpose and self-esteem which many people gain from helping others.

The final section of the book presents perhaps the most controversial claims which effective altruists universally take for granted: that some charities and causes are simply better than others. Singer observes that, while poverty and suffering exist the whole world round, it is generally a lot easier to relieve them in the third world than in the first world. Singer compares a program of Rubella vaccination by philanthropist Ted Turner, estimated to have prevented around 13.8 million deaths between 2000-2012 at an average cost of $80 per life saved, with a 2007 operation which separated two conjoined twins from Costa Rica at a cost running into millions of dollars.

After sharply criticising the practice of spending megabucks on improving museums while there are starving children in Africa, Singer turns to some issues which are not universally accepted even by effective altruists. The first is animal rights; the second, the perhaps less familiar subject of existential risk. Given that (hopefully) the vast majority of humans have yet to exist, one of the biggest threats to the sum of human wellbeing is the risk of becoming extinct. Efforts to reduce the risks of nuclear war, asteroid impacts, and unfriendly artificial intelligence, then, could be a remarkably effective form of charitable giving.

All in all, The Most Good You Can Do is very readable and serves well as an introduction to the effective altruist movement. Even as someone who has been involved with effective altruism for almost two years, I learned things from reading it. Since the book is more a summary of existing arguments than an attempt to break new ground, the arguments made are perhaps not as strong as one might expect, with an often unnecessary reliance upon utilitarianism.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Review: Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

Borges is a writer who I had been somewhat aware of for a while, read a few passages of and enjoyed, but never got around to reading deliberately. So when I set out a reading list for 2018, his collection Ficciones, generally regarded as the most accessible starting point in reading him, seemed an obvious inclusion.

Ficciones is a set of seventeen short stories, originally published in two separate volumes in the 1940s and then later collated; they first appeared in English in 1962. Borges wrote in Spanish, though he was heavily influenced by English writers, in particular G. K. Chesterton. There is a tremendous playfulness in many of Borges' stories, exemplified by my favourite story from the collection: Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. Pierre Menard is a deceased author and the story is an appreciation of his work, in particular of his greatest project: an attempt to rewrite Don Quixote in the exact same words used by Miguel de Cervantes. The narrator of this story therefore takes Menard to have made a conscious decision to write not in his own native land and time, but instead in "the land of Carmen during the century of Lepanto and Lope". His Don Quixote is a wild and romantic figure, in contrast to de Cervantes' more pedestrian protagonist.

There are other wonderful stories. The Library of Babel is an excellent counterpoint and companion to Pierre Menard, Three Versions of Judas is another masterful piece of intellectual trolling, and The Form of the Sword and Theme of the Traitor and the Hero provide scintillating plots which blast by in only a few pages. Borges' writing style goes after my own heart, with numerous allusions to both the real and the imaginary. But the quality is distinctly uneven. The Circular Ruins is eminently forgettable. The End will seem quite pointless to anyone who is not already familiar with the Argentine national epic Martín Fierro. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is The Secret Miracle, a story about a Jewish playwright in 1940s Prague struggling to complete his masterwork before his execution by the Nazis. By a miracle he is allowed to unfurl it all to its conclusion, to put each word into place - but only in his head, and it dies with him. There's a fantastic basis for a story there, but it seems so incomplete. One might argue that the point would be spoiled if we were to know what this play is about, but I'm not buying that - we already know that he was granted this miracle to complete it, something which no-one else inside the story would have been privy to. So the content of this play seems like a massive missed opportunity to draw parallels with the greater story, to exude some moral about life, or to draw some dramatic irony with the situation in which the playwright finds himself.

Indeed, with several of the less allusive stories one begins to wonder why one does not simply read the Wikipedia page for each of the stories. Perhaps one does not gain so much intellectually from reading Pierre Menard that one could not also learn from the Wikipedia page, but Borges' charming voice makes the extra reading time well worth the investment. Some of the better stories combine abstract theorising and an actual story, again making them worth the time to read properly. But unless one enjoys all of the writing styles which Borges employs, one is liable to find some of the stories to be distinctly full of air and little else.

Overall, I definitely recommend the book - if nothing else, most of the stories are pretty short and there's a pdf of Borges' collected works to be found on Google for free, so the costs of trying him and not enjoying it are trivial. More importantly, while there are some dull stories the greatest stories are magnificent, and the good significantly outweighs the mediocre. But if, after a couple of pages into a story, you still have no idea what it's actually about, take that as a sign that it may be worth skipping ahead to the next one.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Elephant in the Brain: some notes

The Elephant in the Brain, written by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson and recently out in paperback, is best viewed as two books on connected topics. The first is a convincing argument that "the elephant" exists: that we consistently engage in self-deceptive behaviour for purposes of social gain. The second is a serious of arguments, ranging from the highly plausible to the outrageous, that this explains various the function (or malfunction) of various human social behaviours.

The Elephant

The first section of the book presents multiple lines of argument leading inexorably to the conclusion that many of our behaviours are inexplicable in the first person but are on some level intended, in a way that a third party might easily observe, towards attaining social advancement. This is made possible by the modular structure of the brain, in which sections of the brain may have the ability to make decisions but not to communicate them or defend them. Crucially, we are unable to distinguish between those actions caused by the parts of our brain which also control what we say and those caused by other parts of the brain: hence, we will typically invent justifications for such actions which will own nothing to the actual motivations behind them.

The upshot of this is that one section of the brain can engage in devious, cynical scheming, and we are free to act upon this advice while having no conscious awareness of it, and therefore being able to honestly protest complete innocence when accused of holding these devious and cynical motives.

Hanson and Simler present a range of evidence for this, which I won't reiterate partly because other reviews will cover it and partly because I didn't take very good notes and really need to reread this section of the book. What I do remember finding illuminating, however, is the way they placed features of humans in the wider context of nature. Why is the American Redwood tree so tall? On clear and flat ground, being taller doesn't allow a tree to get any more sunlight but it does mean that the tree has to acquire more nutrients and transport them further upwards. The answer, of course, is that redwoods don't originate from clear and flat ground: they have to be as tall as, or taller than, the trees around them in order to have access to sunlight. The redwoods become so tall because of competition with other redwoods.

Similarly, how did humans become as smart as demonstrated by the graph above (taken from the book)? The answer lies in not in the abilities it grants over nature, but in competition against other people. This thesis is not new to Hanson and Simler, of course, but their presentation of it is especially clear.

I have some further thoughts following from the discussion of norms and how we subvert them, but they are not developed enough to appear even in this miserable excuse for a book review.

The Elephant in Practice

There then follow ten chapters, each discussing a different phenomenon from a Hansonian perspective. I don't want to go over all of these, so will briefly look at two that I found especially interesting. Firstly, they argue that laughter - which we often struggle to explain, of course, so looking for hidden motives may well be the way to go - serves the function of signalling that we are "at play". When one laughs, this indicates to those around oneself that one is not in a serious mood, which can allow one to say or do things that would normally be taken as threatening.

This theory is fascinating, and for lack of a better theory has changed my view on at least one issue: rape jokes. The ability to laugh at something is an indication that one is not concerned about it - if this theory is true, then, we should probably consider dark humour to be indicative of a lack of virtue, and indeed to actively discourage such a lack of caring in others. Perhaps this doesn't merit an absolute prohibition on such jokes - humour is a value which can weigh against other considerations - but it does suggest that we should be very cautious with such jokes and should never consider rape in itself to be suitable for a punchline.

There's also a defence of canned laughter, which I don't remember well enough to faithfully pass on.

The second section has already gained some attention when I shared a page from it on Twitter: their theory of art. This theory, originally developed by Geoffrey Miller, is that art developed primarily as a way to show off various attractive traits - in particular intelligence, creativity, and conscientiousness. They draw a distinction, which I assume must have been drawn many times before, between the intrinsic and extrinsic properties of an artwork. Intrinsic properties are those that we perceive in an artwork, extrinsic are those that which cannot be known - primarily facts about how it was created. Quoting directly:
The conventional view locates the vast majority of art's value in its intrinsic properties, along with the experiences that result from perceiving and contemplating those properties... In contrast, in the fitness-display theory, extrinsic properties are crucial to our experience of art. As a fitness display, art is largely a statement about the artist... If a work of art is physically (intrinsically) beautiful, but was made too easily (like if a painting was copied from a photograph), we're likely to judge it as much less valuable than a similar work that required greater skill to produce.
This has the consequence that as our ability to produce things has improved, artists have had to find new ways to make art difficult for themselves. They offer this as an explanation for why theatre continues to be popular, despite the various capabilities (camera angles, numerous takes, vast amounts of post-production editing) that film offers: it has the chance to go wrong, and so demands greater skill of the performers. I think this is not the whole story (and nor, for that matter, is Michael Story's theory that theatre serves to make lowbrow comedy acceptable for the middle and upper classes) - theatre offers advantages in terms of one's ability to focus on whichever section of the stage one prefers (regardless of whether or not, artistically speaking, it is the best), and the ability to tailor to particular performances (theatre actors can wait for laughs to subside, film actors can't). But it's a fascinating view on the topic.

As I suggested on Twitter, I am only partially sold on this. How good are audiences at realising that mistakes have been made? Sometimes it's clear - for example, a playgoer may see an actor requesting a line from the stage manager (I didn't see this happen when I saw Twelfth Night at the RSC the other day, but it happened very obviously a couple of months ago when I saw an amateur production of Arcadia) - but much modern art is highly abstract. If one of the lines on Jackson Pollock's No. 5 is out of place, how shall we know? If someone gets the timing wrong or plays the wrong note in some atonal piece of music, will anyone without a score be in a position to check?

I have some other thoughts on this in regard to popular music, which will be a post of their own because they're worth actually developing. For now I'm just going to raise three questions which I think are worth asking of the authors:

How sophisticated is the elephant, anyway?
Some of the signalling stories which Simler and Hanson tell are very complicated. For example, they argue that much advertising works not by influencing us as individuals, but by causing us to expect others to be influenced by it:
When Corona runs its "Find Your Beach" ad campaign, it's not necessarily targeting you directly - because you, naturally, are too savvy to be manipulated by this kind of ad. But it might be targeting you indirectly, by way of your peers. If you think the ad will change other people's perceptions of Corona, then it might make sense for you to buy it, even if you know that a beer is just a beer, not a lifestyle.
The classic strawman of evolutionary psychology is that almost no-one has a conscious aim of maximising their genetic footprint. The chain of reasoning "I will do X, because X will make me more attractive, which will allow me to attract a higher quality mate or to attract more mates, which will increase my genetic footprint" will almost never include the less clause, and may not even go beyond "I will do X" if X is something we are inherently motivated to do. The answer, of course, is that we don't need to think everything through - so long as a category of action reliably leads to higher fertility, we may well find ourselves inherently motivated to do it. This explains desires to eat and drink, to have sex, to parent our children well, and many other things. But these things which we are inherently motivated to do are fairly broad classes of action, with no particular cultural knowledge required. The Corona example is actually highly sophisticated cognition, involving not only instrumental rationality but also a theory of other minds. Do Hanson and Simler think this is all being done non-verbally, by evolved instincts - or is there a portion of the brain thinking thoughts, in a verbal fashion, but entirely detached from our stream of consciousness?

How far do signals rely on common knowledge?
Another example from their chapter on consumption:
Blue jeans, for example, are a symbol of egalitarian values, in part because denim is a cheap, durable, low-maintenance fabric that makes wealth and class distinctions hard to detect.
I had no idea about any of that. Indeed, I doubt most people consciously pick up on most of the signals which Simler and Hanson allege we send. So how far can we actually be expected to react to them?

Signalling vs. Creating Meaning
Depending on what kind of story we tell, the same product can send different messages about its owner. Consider three people buying the same pair of running shoes. Alice might explain that she bought them because they got excellent reviews from Runner's World magazine, signaling her conscientiousness as well as her concern for athletic performance. Bob might explain that they were manufactured without child labour, showing his concern for the welfare of others. Carol, meanwhile, might brag about how she got them at a discount, demonstrating her thrift and nose for finding a good deal.
If so many different messages could be sent by the same purchase, then none of them will be sent. I think these are far better explained as the stories we tell ourselves in order to create a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Once one raises this spectre, one wonders how much of their theory it could take over. Is the extrinsic value of art not that it could go wrong and is therefore a display of fitness, but that the process of creation is a way of creating meaning? Perhaps creating meaning is just another form of signalling, but this is something that has to be actually argued for.

One piece of evidence in favour of signalling over meaning-creation theories of fashion is a dog that hasn't barked - decorating the inside of clothing. The underside of a shirt could have many messages, verbal or pictorial, that would be understood by the owner but not by observers. The fact that we worry greatly about the outside of clothing but not the inside suggests that it the impression given to observers that we care about.


The book is very readable, and if you like Robin Hanson's other writings you'll like this. That said, it didn't quite live up to the praise given to it by other sources (e.g. Tyler Cowen) - there are some excellent passages, and some wonderful ideas, but there are also many ideas which are in sore need of greater defence. It's worth reading, quite possibly more than once, but it is not - in my view - Book-of-the-year level good, which is the level I feel it has been hyped to.