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Your Brain, How Does It Work?

Posted by Ogged
on 06.28.14

Did y'all discuss the "how to win an argument" research? It's actually really interesting, not as how to win an argument, but how to think about what you think, so you don't act like an idiot.

Recruiting a sample of Americans via the internet, they polled participants on a set of contentious US policy issues, such as imposing sanctions on Iran, healthcare and approaches to carbon emissions. One group was asked to give their opinion and then provide reasons for why they held that view...

Those in the second group did something subtly different. Rather that provide reasons, they were asked to explain how the policy they were advocating would work. They were asked to trace, step by step, from start to finish, the causal path from the policy to the effects it was supposed to have.
The results were clear. People who provided reasons remained as convinced of their positions as they had been before the experiment. Those who were asked to provide explanations softened their views, and reported a correspondingly larger drop in how they rated their understanding of the issues. People who had previously been strongly for or against carbon emissions trading, for example, tended to became more moderate - ranking themselves as less certain in their support or opposition to the policy.

Nice.

If you did already discuss that, then there's the Facebook experiment, which has people up in arms, but feels a bit like "Facebook fucks with you, film at 11."


 

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On Deaf Ears

Posted by Ogged
on 06.27.14

I've only read a few paragraphs of Dave Eggers, though I'm sort of familiar with his persona, both good (something something Valencia), annoying (wacky hijinks) and more annoying (deep-down scold). I have an impression that the NY Times loves him, but when I saw that his latest book was a series of dialogues, I knew that even the Times would pan it. People, writers, children of humanity, dialogues are one of the few endeavors so difficult to do well that even being a genius isn't sufficient to pull them off; you also have to have extraordinary character to overcome the temptation to didacticism. Do Not Attempt.


 

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Various

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.27.14

1. My new hero. There is video footage but it's not necessary to appreciate her.

2. My terrible taste in music, let me show you that I'm gonna marry that girl. Marry her anyway.

Why you gotta be so rude? Don't you know I'm human, too?


 

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Memoir

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.27.14

When I do some sort of creative process, I am very attached and not at all open to criticism, and so I do not promote my stuff whatsoever. Including my personal blog - I don't want anyone's honest opinion on whether it is boring.

This summer I'm blogging my grandmother's travel memoir, and it is completely different. It's not my creativity, it's hers, and objectively she's a fantastic writer. And so I promote her by posting it on FB, but it also doesn't bother me when only a few people regularly click through. It resonates with them, which makes me really happy, and other people have other things to read, and all is well. I have no personal ego invested.

The one thing I think is odd is that absolutely no one from my family is reading the memoir. Even my dad, who is the only one who knew her, has mentioned several times how pleased he is that I'm transcribing her memoir, but hasn't actually read any of the entries. It's foreign to me that they're so...incurious. If it were an unreadable mess, I'd understand, but it's a very funny, upbeat account of their adventures, and the entries are relatively short. It's not exactly a slog.

Again, it's no skin off my back - I'm glad the memoir is being enjoyed by some - but it's so different than my own personal curiosity to know about my ancestors. Maybe I'm overly sentimental.

(For those of you who would like to see it, shoot me an email at heebie.geebie at gmail. Her name is very close to my real name, so I'm keeping the firewall intact.)


 

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A cheery read

Posted by Ben
on 06.26.14

Obama has a larger-spirited wish to help people than any of his predecessors since Jimmy Carter; though caution bordering on timidity has kept him from speaking with Carter even once in the last five years. Obama roots for the good cause but often ends up endorsing the acceptable evil on which the political class or the satisfied classes in society have agreed. He watches the world as its most important spectator.

You may, if you wish, explain to me in the comments that the author has everything wrong.


 

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Great-grandfathers

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.26.14

I've never been an immigrant before! I feel so exotic!


 

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Gun control

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.26.14

It feels like citizens are reaching a boiling over point on gun control - where regular people who are in favor of gun control are finally boiling over with fury at the current state of affairs.

At the same time, at least at the national level, Democrats seem to be falling all over each other to prove how well they can avoid pissing off the NRA. It would be nice if Democrats prioritized pushing their own constituents' agendas over not-pissing-off their opponents.


 

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Regular-awkward.

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.25.14

Not The Kiss.


 

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Border Towns

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.25.14

I saw a billboard yesterday whose message was "Laredo: the 19th safest city in the United States!" Poor Laredo. That's a pretty weak tourism bid.


 

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My Collected Wisdom

Posted by Ogged
on 06.25.14

I've been reading actual books again, thanks to a couple of things. First, my Kindle Paperwhite, which satisfies my psychological gadget-dependence, and lets me read in bed after my wife and older son (who is still in bed with us most nights) have gone to sleep. And also because "what the fuck should I read next?" has become easier: I started with A Misplaced Massacre, which really is readable and enlightening and excellent, but then I've moved on to the "Very Short Introduction" series, which lets you be an undergrad again, without all the awkward groping.

I just read the VSI to Jesus, which was pretty good, and which moved me to pick up the bible again. I figured I'd start with something uplifting, and tried Proverbs, which took only about fifty lines to start telling me that those who had spurned wisdom would cry out for help, but there would be no help, because fuck them. So I tried Paul's letter to the Romans, which took about fifty lines to start telling me that women and men engaged in unnatural acts would be damned. I realize I'm preaching to the choir at this blog, but man, the bible mostly sucks in totally predictable ways, doesn't it?

I'm generally a boring repeater of Nietzsche's line that there was just one Christian, and he died on the cross, but it really does seem true, and least if you stick to the texts, and not various monks and saints through the ages.

To summarize: books: occasionally interesting.


 

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Yummy In My Tummy

Posted by Ogged
on 06.24.14

Are you kidding me, Luis Suarez?

A World Cup thread.


 

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Reblogging buzzfeed for bloglame

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.24.14

I'd seen most of these surprisingly useful sites before, but this:

Move your mouse anywhere and the website will generate an image that has someone pointing at your cursor. It's awesome. Check it out here.

and especially this:

A website about a man who shares a shocking resemblance to Barack Obama. Blow your mind here.

made me laugh.


 

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Death by Fashion

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.23.14

Poison by Victorian garb! This looks like a fun exhibit if anyone is in Toronto.


 

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Piketty Reading Group: Chapter 6

Posted by LizardBreath
on 06.23.14

I'm up next week with Chapter 7, followed by lw with Chapter 8. Conflated unjustifiably muddles up similar but not identical aspects of Chapter 6 under the fold.

Prior reading group posts:

Piketty Reading Group Setup
Initial Scheduling Post
Introduction and Chapter One -- Robert Halford
Chapter Two -- Minivet
Chapter Three -- Essear
Chapter Four -- Unimaginative
Chapter Five -- X. Trapnel

I've been making short notes and highlighting things in the ebook as we go here, in a dutiful first year student way, so I went over them now, and found the only thing I'd written for chapters five and six was "Slavery eh? Is there anything it can't ruin", which arguably is more relevant to chapter four. However, with the local service station's most economic beer beside me, chapter six will no doubt pour out with a correspondingly palatable smoothness.

In six, Piketty unassumingly describes covering the brief window of 21st century data and extrapolating trends in the capital-labor split into the next few decades, which sounds like a light footnote on the preceding chapters. To do so, however, he has to conclude his historical data set presentation, then introduce you to a bit more Econ 101, then use the former as a mallet to beat the latter into a shape he thinks better resembles reality.

He starts, as ever, with the history of modern Britain and France, which both, as a proportion, have about a 15-20% shift from capital income to labour income over the period of the two world wars. There are some careful technical caveats about the construction of the dataset, uncertainties estimating the labour share of income in 18th-19th century due to the number of owner-operators, and attempting to account for the cost of portfolio management for owners of capital with a second "pure rate of return on capital". I get the impression he is trying to be scrupulously fair with his empirical data here, erring on the side of caution, so he can be firmer with his conclusions later. His use of s/g is also fairly novel and shows up trends hidden by these data problems when focusing on income split.

Once all of this is explained, we get a result of surprising consistency in pure rates of return on capital over the entire industrial period - varying in a range of 3-6%. The stability of roughly 5% returns across bonds and property in the nineteenth century is illustrative, as, with literary examples, Piketty manages to not only make you feel inadequate for not keeping up in this book, but guilty about never getting around to reading Austen or Balzac. Similarly higher return investments carried more risk, and higher portfolio management costs.

These pure, average, rates of return on capital, though in a surprisingly narrow range, do have a very long term trend of declining from 4-5% in the 18th to 3-4% today. This is a significant research result and the long, slow decline on capital return plays directly into Piketty's idea of a low growth, low return future. (It's also different to the Alvin Toffler / Future Shock / "everything is changing so fast now" story that we often tell ourselves in mainstream news culture.) It relies on extrapolation for the 21st century, obviously.

There are more details on the construction of the dataset. These are pre-tax returns in real terms (ie inflation stripped out), which probably makes them easier for comparison, but also pushes the whole tax policy comparison question to Part Four. On the other hand, the average rate of return is dominated by large incomes from capital, usually based on shares in corporations, which have higher rates of return than say a small retail savings account. He also notes that having a large number of financial intermediaries involved in investing capital and seeking best return is a historical feature of capitalism, not peculiar to our time.

Professor Piketty then leads us through a quick theoretical introduction to the marginal productivity of capital (MPK, though not used as a variable by Prof P) and the substitution of capital for labour, including clairifying edge cases, some science fictional. Note average return on capital, r, subtly varies from MPK, the return you can get on an additional dollar of investment today (thus the price generally, pricing being on the margin).
r = 0, MPK = 0, where there is no return on capital because no investment improves productivity eg no tool can make farming better
r > MPK, because institutional factors allow greater return on existing than additional capital, eg because of monopoly prices from the only shop on a plantation run by indentured labour
r = 0, 0 < MPK, because private ownership of capital is outlawed, as in the Soviet Union
r ~= MPK, the market economy sets the price efficiently (at least at the precision we wish to measure). This is what Piketty explicitly assumes for the next section, and is, so far as I can tell, entirely conventional: he doesn't need to build institutional price distortions into his model.

In general, MPK decreases as invested capital increases, in a supply/demand interaction. How much? Economists use production functions to argue about this, and this is where Piketty differs from predecessors too. A production function is f(X1,X2,...,Xn) where Xi is some kind of input for production. Depending on what you are analysing inputs for, this might be three different metals applying to a particular product, or as general as capital and labour, the focus here. Elasticity of substitution, s, describes how to swap one input for another. This brings another set of cases, and basically the rest of the chapter.

s = 0, there is only one way to make the thing, it's a live performance of Dolly Parton painting a chicken, or Excalibur, or something.
0 < s < 1, in a traditional agricultural society, capital was mainly in the form of land, and also not easily convertible into other forms of capital, like tractors or robots. It's not easy to substitute land for labour - you really do need more workers to harvest more rice. This runs into colonial times, where there was a lot of cheap land and not many people to work it, though with the capital maintenance cost of fighting indignant indigenous people.
0 < s < 1, because highly skilled and educated labour is crucial to an industrial society, and a PhD can't be replaced by a tractor. As mentioned earlier, there is an increase in the labour share of income over the very long term (1800s-today). However, empirically, this doesn't seem to be enough to tip elasticity under one, perhaps because lots of capital is still needed, and return on capital outpaces labour productivity investment (return on human capital, if you wish). Piketty is cautious on causes but clear his data does not show this condition applying today.
s = 1, a stable capital-income split determined entirely by the technology at the time (neoclassical technodeterminism bingo!). The popular Cobb-Douglas production function, which I didn't know about before this chapter but now of course think sounds like utter guff, is of this form. Piketty sees the original research in the 1920s-40s as reasonable enough given the data available at the time did suggest stability over a few decades prior, but from the wider timescales of his own research he now has a dump truck full of data showing that often, under capitalism ...
s > 1, eg during the Belle Époque, long stretches of 18th-19th century Europe, and now, there are lots of ways to use extra capital to get some level of extra return. Buy some Walmart stock, computerise your bathroom, sink that new Shanxi coal mine - it does still pay off ok, indeed, on average, a bit better than hiring a new employee.
s > 1, g ~= 0, when elasticity is high and economic growth is very low, this corresponds to Marx's "principal of infinite accumulation", huge amounts of capital are required to chase returns, and labour bargaining power is low, as in the early 19th century. Marx intuited a real dynamic but did not collect enough data - a few dozen accounts - to see this did not apply across even the British industrial economy, and he didn't make use of contemporary national capital stock estimates in Capital. In the event the economy grew its way out of this Malthus-like trap. Oh, but you may have noticed economic growth is pretty low recently.
s -> infinity, you can always buy more robots (or slaves) without impacting the financial return of the new robot.

As a long aside, the whole Cambridge Capital Controversy was mostly talking past each other, and time would have been better spent out collating data on national accounts.

In conclusion: "In any event, it is important to point out that no self-corrective mechanism exists to prevent a steady increase of the capital/income ratio, β, together with a steady rise in capital's share of national income, α." i.e., the rich get richer. What exactly "the rich" are, or other classes, is examined in later chapters


 

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On the Moral Turpitude of Certain Unfogged Commenters

Posted by Ben
on 06.22.14

a fable ~ trouble in paradise ~ two kinds of schedules ~ if you can do the time … ~ play up and play the game ~ grandiosity

There are those who have friends in real life, too—let us imagine ourselves a member of such a group of friends. We all wish to engage in some kind of contest with each other, a game of some sort, two teams playing against each other. We'll be vying with each other to accumulate points, and points will be accumulated by performing certain feats, for instance, causing a ball to go through a hoop. ("Hoopball", we'll call it.) We could stop there—you get a point for causing the ball to go through the hoop—but it wouldn't be much of a game, so we'll give it some more structure—after getting a point you have to turn over the ball to the other team, say; you can't just carry the ball around but have to dribble it; the hoop will be elevated; if you jump to make a shot you have to actually get rid of a ball (we're chess enthusiasts and this seems like a nice way to incorporate touch-move); whatever.

These are all rules, but they aren't there to tell you what to do or not to do (or what might befall you if you do, or don't do, something they mention) while you're playing hoopball. They constitute hoopball as the particular game it is. WIthin hoopball all vertical jumps are followed by getting rid of the ball in one way or another before landing. Getting the ball from one side of the court to the other is accomplished by passing or dribbling, never by just carrying it.

If we're good and conscientious players, we could go some time with just rules of this sort. But the laws of the game aren't the laws of physics and, of course, we're only human; inevitably someone will jump for a shot, choke, and land with the ball, or stop dribbling and unthinkingly start again, or get too much into someone's space, or something like that. Not intentionally and certainly not maliciously, just accidentally will do—but what do we do now? What becomes of our game? Something's happened which falls outside what's allowable.

We can't just go back to the way things were right before whatever it was; we couldn't reset the state that way. (Whereas if we're playing chess and I touch a knight without uttering the magic words "j'adoube" and then attempt to move a bishop, you can just say "you already touched your knight".) We could declare the game a bust and start over, but that approach obviously has its share of difficulties. We could also just say: if some Not Hoopball action such as double-dribbling should take place, then the game will continue, in the following fashion—with the ball in the opposing team's control, or with an interfered-with player allowed to take an interference-free compensatory shot, or whatever.

This is a concession to practicality which should not be understood as changing the nature of the rules in question as constituting the game. However, it does create the condition whereby a pernicious kind of confusion can arise. Augmenting the rules by acknowledging that actions which are not legal might nevertheless be performed in the course of a game hasn't increased the stock of legal actions, it's just told us what we should do if one of the illegal actions is performed. (Remember, we still aren't contemplating anyone performing one of these illegal actions intentionally as such.) And that's not a bad thing to have formalized, since their occurrences might disrupt the game differently. So we add these things to the rule book. Now that they're there, however, someone might look on the rules + schedule of responses to certain illegal behaviors as being, instead, a list of legal actions with a schedule of prices. After all, we could have rules like that, if we wanted to add extra dimensions of strategizing to the game—we could have a rule saying something like "any player may stop the game for one minute by performing such-and-such an action; when the game resumes the opposing team has the ball". Performing that action would then be legal, and it might sometimes be worth the associated cost.

We can actually get to a similar state without worrying about accidental violations of rules: suppose that in the course of play one of us is injured (not by another player, just, say, a twisted ankle or whatever). We could decide that in that event the game just keeps going, but because we're gentlefolk we decide, instead, that play should halt while the injured party is seen to, and state as much in the rules. Now someone could think: a legal way to halt play is to injure myself (the associated cost here being obvious), or at least to appear injured.

At least some people who believe that intentional fouling, or flopping, is unproblematic, or even proper, are confused along these lines, stating baldly that the existence of set penalties just means that one is explicitly allowed to do the penalized thing. On this view the only thing that is against the rules sensu stricto is one that doesn't have a codified response, so that would-be rule-violators have to get increasingly sophisticated as the game accrues a history. Others seem to reason by inversion from "if you can't do the time, don't do the crime" to "if you can do the time, do the crime", acknowledging that while you're still breaking the rules, you should still do it, provided that you can live with the punishment. This is the sort of reasoning that corporations engage in with respect to fines for law-breaking—the cost of doing business, if you insist on doing it in a particular way. (I suspect the second position will tend to collapse into the first.)

In a way, these takes have a point: while it is illegal to foul another player, it isn't illegal to foul another player and take one's lumps—one doesn't get further penalized for that. The whole complex is something that the rules acknowledge; the lumps were added because illegal behaviors might crop up as a way of dealing with them. That's one of the reasons I claimed in the earlier thread that the metagaming of deliberate fouling couldn't be made against the rules; it's a strategy of exploiting and using the rules themselves.

What's so bad about all this, though, that I'd say it indicates moral turpitude? It's not just that a mistake about the nature of a game's rules has been made. Someone who engages in such a practice isn't even playing the game. One is tempted to say that a cheater wants so badly to win a game that he breaks the rules, but that isn't true; winning can only be done within the game, and the cheater's actions take place without it. What the cheater wants is the external rewards and recognition that come with a straight victory,* not the internal rewards of having excelled at the game. Cheating also, of course, undermines the efforts of the other players to play the game properly. It's a bad scene. Deliberate fouling seems even worse to me than garden-variety cheating, perhaps because while the latter simply contravenes the rules, the former exploits them; perhaps because the latter is covert while the former is pretty much out in the open, seemingly expressing disdain for the idea of competing within the rules, or for the idea of the game itself.

Honest violations of the rules happen; the responses encoded in the rules out to reflect that. We could add extra clauses saying something like "if the violation is deliberate, then increase the severity of the penalty thus", but in addition to merely changing the risk-reward calculation, such a rule ought to be otiose: it would be like having a rule saying "also, these are the rules" or "no cheating". (We already know implicitly that the fact that a certain response to a violation of a rule is codified in the rules doesn't mean that a more severe response might in some cases be in order; imagine one player fouling another and obviously trying to really incapacitate him. Or, say, flashing a knife—something probably not contemplated in the rules at all.)

Playing a game is something we do together, with rules structuring it and giving it a certain shape; someone who strategizes about the rules is doing something else while feigning community. It is, in fact, contemptuous toward and corrosive of the very idea of community. This is offensive. It's bad enough when confined merely to certain corners of our social lives together (i.e., that part involving the playing of games), but it is, I think, substantially the same as the "cost of business" view of corporate law-breaking, in which the law generally just establishes a schedule of prices one might be called on to pay in exchange for engaging in certain behaviors. It's bad faith. Someone who, say, passes a law suppressing the vote, knowing it will be overturned, but also knowing that it will be on the books long enough to have an effect, or any number of other odious things, is engaged in the same kind of strategizing.

* is this use of "straight" offensive or otherwise deprecated? This just occurred to me. What about "straight job"? (I have used this phrase to describe my current job, distinguishing it from an academic job.)


 

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Misinformation

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.22.14

The futility of trying to correct people's misinformation. On the one hand, depressing! OTOH, I'm glad people are actually seriously studying the phenomenon.


 

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