“Very boring writing style”

“To call his writing plodding is a gross understatement”

“This book is impossible to read; Hobbes’ style of writing is ridiculously long winded and very difficult to comprehend.”

“learned once again that I, unfortunately, just do not have the patience or attention span for the minutiae of philosophy.”

“The main idea is nice, but who cares about it if the whole book is inedible? The first part of the book is just bullshit which has nothing to do with the society. Read a summary, don’t waste your time.”

From the google reviews here. They really make you want to read the book, right? Of course I could have picked some other review quotes; there are significantly more 5 star reviews (42) than 1- (14) and 2 star reviews (14) combined. Anyway, I was first introduced to Hobbes’ thinking about 10 years ago in high school, and so I have already read ‘a summary’. I’m currently reading an abbreviated version of the book.

Sometimes half the fun of reading books like these is to spot assumptions and value judgments which were considered par for the course at the time the books were written, or at the very least not particularly controversial, yet today make the reader do a double take and think ‘what the f*#%$?’ Here’s an, interesting, example:

“as for witches, I think not that their witchcraft is any real power; but yet that they are justly punished, for the false belief they have, that they can do such mischief, joined with their purpose to do it if they can: their trade being nearer to a new religion than to a craft or science.” (Chapter 2, ‘Of imagination’).

Incidentally I do urge you here to remember that ideas like witchcraft are not in all parts of the world considered just a thing of the past; there are still people living today who are punished for witchcraft. Some other quotes from the book below:

“whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calls good: and the object of his hate and aversion, evil; and of his contempt, vile and inconsiderable. For these words of good, evil, and contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that uses them: thee being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves; but from the person of the man (where there is no commonwealth); or (in a commonwealth) from the person that represents it; or from an arbitrator or judge, whom men disagreeing shall by consent set up, and make his sentence the rule thereof.” (Chapter 6, ‘Of the interior beginnings of voluntary motions; commonly called the passsions; and the speeches by which they are expressed’)

“The greatest of human powers, is that which is compounded of the powers of most men, united by consent, in one person, natural, or civil, that has the use of all their powers depending on his will; such as is the power of a common-wealth: or depending on the will of each particular; such as is the power of a faction or of divers factions leagued. Therefore to have servants, is power; to have friends, is power: for they are strengths united.” […]

“The value, or WORTH of a man, is as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power: and therefore is not absolute; but a thing dependant on the need and judgment of another. […] as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the price. For let a man (as most men do) rate themselves at the highest value they can; yet their true value is no more than it is esteemed by others.” (Chapter 10, ‘Of power, worth, dignity, honour, and worthiness’)

“the felicity of this life, consists not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such (utmost aim) nor summum bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he, whose sense and imaginations are at a stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter. […]

I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death. And the cause of this, is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate power; but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more. And from hence it is, that kings, whose power is greatest, turn their endeavors to the assuring it at home by laws, or abroad by wars: and when that is done, there succeeds a new desire; in some, of fame from new conquest; in others, ease and sensual pleasure; in others, of admiration, or being flattered for excellence in some art, or other ability of the mind.

Competition of riches, honour, command, or other power, inclines to contention, enmity, and war: because the way of one competitor, to the attaining of his desire, is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other. […]

Men that have a strong opinion of their own wisdom in matter of government, are disposed to ambition. Because without public employment in council or magistracy, the honour of their wisdom is lost. And therefore eloquent speakers are inclined to ambition; for eloquence seems wisdom, both to themselves and others. […]

Want of science, that is, ignorance of causes, disposes, or rather constrains a man to rely on the advice and authority of others. For all men whom the truth concerns, if they rely not on their own, must rely on the opinion of some other, whom they think wiser than themselves, and see not why he should deceive them.” (Chapther 11, ‘Of the difference of manners’)

“Nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of body, and mind; as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself. […]

For prudence is but experience; which equal time, equally bestows on all men, in those things they equally apply themselves unto. That which may perhaps make such equality incredible, is but a vain conceit of one’s own wisdom, which almost all men think they have in a greater degree, than the vulgar; that is, all men but themselves, and a few others, whom by fame, or for concurring with themselves, they approve. For such is the nature of men, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves” […]

“From this equality of ability, arises equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only), endeavor to destroy, or subdue one another. And from hence it comes pass, that where an invader hath no more to fear, than another man’s single power; if one plant, sow, build, or possess a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united, to dispossess, and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life, or liberty. […] there is no way for any man to secure himself, so reasonable, as anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him: and this is no more than his own conservation requires, and is generally allowed. Also because there be some, that taking pleasure in comtemplating their own power in the acts of conquest, which they pursue farther than their security requires; if others, that otherwise would be glad to be at ease within modest bounds, should not by invasion increase their power, they would not be able, long time, by standing only on their own defence, to subsist. And by consequence, such augmentation of dominion over men, being necessary to a man’s conservation, it ought to be allowed him.” […]

“in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.

The first, maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety, and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second to defend them, the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons, or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man. […]

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time; wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, ther is no place for industry; because the fruits thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. […]

“The desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin. No more are the actions, that proceed from those passions, till they know a law that forbids them: which till laws be made they cannot know: nor can any law be made, till they have agreed upon the person that shall make it.

It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor condition of war as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: but there are many places, where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small families, the concord whereof depends on natural lust, have no government at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before. […] To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the two cardinal virtues. […] It is consequent also to the same condition, that there be no propriety, no dominion, no mine and thine distinct; but only that to every man’s, that he can get: and for so long, as he can keep it. […]

The passions that incline men to peace, are fear of death; desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them. And reason suggests convenient articles of peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement. These articles, are they, which otherwise are called the Laws of Nature” (Chapter 13, ‘The natural condition of mankind as concerning their felicity, and misery’)

As for South American ‘savages’, Darwin’s visit to Tierra Del Fuego was much later but if you want a description of how their social arrangements differed from those of the visiting Europeans it’s probably not a bad place to start; Europeans still had not interacted much with the Fuegians at that point. I wrote a post about that stuff not long ago. This book also has a few chapters devoted to related topics. Another previous post of mine related to topics covered in Hobbes that you may want to consider (re)reading is this. Hobbes was to a significant extent a product of his time, but it’s easy to forget that so are we – the people who read him today.

I’ve read the first half of the abbreviated version today and I’m not sure I’ll read any more of it today. I may give the book another post later on, I haven’t decided yet.


October 13, 2012 Posted by | Books, Philosophy, politics | Leave a comment

A few thoughts on politics

“Before you can reason, you need to know.”

Razib Khan, in what is certainly one of his best posts this year. It also includes the related advice: “Whereof one does not know, one must be silent.” Go read the post if you haven’t already, there’s a lot of good stuff there.

Just for fun, I decided to very quickly run through a very reductionist version of my own views on politics as they are today:

i. Reality is what it is. Numbers are what they are. They ought to be relevant when it comes to peoples’ political views but most often they are not. Of course I agree with Razib’s quotes above.

ii. Anybody can make an implicit mental model of the world and through various processes fit the data at hand so that political ideas they like look optimal for people they like to convince, including themselves. Everybody do this.

iii. People almost never hold political opinions because they have thought long and hard about them; because they’ve read a lot of relevant stuff and know a lot about the subject matter. Political opinions are mostly just signalling mechanisms. Most people parrot what they assume to be the right answer given the social context. But the fact that they will often not utter a single original thought during the debate does not mean that they don’t care deeply about the subject; most people care a lot about political stuff. But few people care enough to use an at least semi-data-driven approach to manage their opinion-updating mechanism (if any updating takes place at all. People rarely change their opinion about political matters.).

iv. Political debates are not about sharing information and/or increasing knowledge. They are about winning. Winning is all that matters to almost everyone who voluntarily engage in such debates. Who is perceived to have won a debate and who has presented the strongest case, in terms of policy evaluation against the data, rarely correlate. Debating techniques matter a lot more than the strenghts of the specific arguments put forth.

v. Politics is in my mind the area of discourse containing the largest number of logical fallacies pr. argument.

vi. There are always some tradeoffs which apply/are relevant when political choices are made and evaluated. To repeat what I wrote in i.: They ought to be relevant when it comes to peoples’ political views but most often they are not.

I very rarely argue politics, and I’ve actually made an implicit ‘vow’ to not engage my little brother in debates because he thinks it’s more or less fine to ignore data and that makes me angry. I still slip sometimes, but it seems perfectly obvious to me that my mind is better engaged elsewhere. I understand the reasons why people think about politics the way they do, and the reasons why they behave the way they do when they do think about politics, a lot better than I used to do.

A slightly longer version of my views would require many posts, and most of you have read at least some of them (because I’ve already posted them). For people who have not read Eliezer Yudkowsky’s ‘Politics is the Mind-Killer‘ sequence of blogposts on lesswrong: You should follow that link and start reading. It’s a while since I read that and I’m sure I don’t agree with everything he says, but his approach is quite similar to my own (read: his approach impacted my approach) and you’ll probably learn something.

May 20, 2012 Posted by | politics | 2 Comments

Election stuff (reposts, ect.)

My recent post on the voting decision.

[A spaceship has just reached Earth…]
“A hatchway opened, crashed down through the Harrods Food Halls, demolished Harvey Nichols, and with a final grinding scream of tortured architecture, toppled the Sheraton Park Tower. After a long, heart-stopping moment of internal crashes and grumbles of rending machinery, there marched from it, down the ramp, an immense silver robot, a hundred feet tall.
It held up a hand.
“I come in peace,” it said, adding after a long moment of further grinding, “take me to your Lizard.”
Ford Prefect, of course, had an explanation for this, as he sat with Arthur and watched the nonstop frenetic news reports on television, none of which had anything to say other than to record that the thing had done this amount of damage which was valued at that amount of billions of pounds and had killed this totally other number of people, and then say it again, because the robot was doing nothing more than standing there, swaying very slightly, and emitting short incomprehensible error messages.
“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”
“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”
“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”
“I said,” said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, “have you got any gin?”
“I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.”
Ford shrugged again.
“Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happened to them,” he said. “They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.””

(here’s the book)

Some stuff from a recent post:

“democracy made it possible to have status games where people didn’t argue about religion and politics started to matter a lot when it came to tribal affiliation. As the power of the state grew, handling more and more stuff, dealing with all kinds of related – and unrelated – stuff, it became a lot easier to use political cues as tribal markers. Political discussions got both complex enough for people to use discussion performance as an ability and loyalty signal, and the matters the politicians dealt with became important enough to merit people’s attention, at least in theory.

So people started telling their children both which god to believe in and which politician to vote for. They told their children. And they spent a lot of time arguing with other people, the other people who’d found out that ‘politics is the new religion’.

Some people enjoy political debates. Perhaps they like the mental gymnastics that some other people might get by dealing with mathematics or playing chess. Perhaps they think their opinion is important, that other people care about it. Maybe they think that they can change other people’s minds and thereby support the group by converting others to group X, just as they’re told to do by their politicians (and priests).

A lot of political views have an important value as a signal about which kind of person you are and/or which kind of person you’d like to be. Part of why you dislike the ‘opponent’ is that you disagree with him, but that’s not really all there’s to it. It’s also that you don’t trust him. He didn’t bow to Huitzilopochtli. His political views might have no influence on anything relevant to your relationship; you might be perfectly able to meet with him, have a long talk with him about his life, his family, his work, his hobbies – and you might end up being his best friend. Only that’s usually not how it goes, because when you hear about that ‘troublesome’ view on ‘the environment’/’god’/’fiscal sustainability’ you tend to make the ‘troublesome’ views relevant, because – he didn’t bow to Huitzilopochtli. Some people overcome politics by finding another individual with the same views or views which are dissimilar but unimportant, because their parents taught them the magic of ‘you should be able to be friends with everybody’ – which works for both until they meet a guy who bows to Huitzilopochtli. He will not be friends with them until they bow to Huitzilopochtli, and just a bow usually isn’t enough. So they have a tribe too which they’re forced into, even if they’d like not to be tribes members at all.

It’s not that political views matter in the big picture. Your political views that is. They don’t, they really don’t. But they matter in the small picture. Once a societal norm is firmly established it tends to get a life of its own. So people talk about windmills and fat taxes and public pension schemes instead of whether they should pray to Ares or Dionysus. If you talk about it many hours each year, you watch news and so on much of which is also just political posturing and games, then to actually go to the election booth on election day and cast your vote isn’t really a big deal. Also, politicians like voters more than supporters who don’t vote, just like priests like believers who give money to the church more than believers who don’t, so there’s consensus in the tribe that voting is the correct behavior, and if you don’t vote, you don’t bow to Huitzilopochtli and then you’d better have a good explanation.”

I should probably link to this one too (in Danish). And maybe this and this as well (in English). Yeah, a bit snarky, I know: “The illusion of control is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events, for instance to feel that they control outcomes that they demonstrably have no influence over.”

No, in case you were wondering this post didn’t take long to write, it was just adding text and links from bookmarks collected at random points in time. I’ve never spent less time dealing with an election. Not wasting my time with this stuff was a good idea.

September 14, 2011 Posted by | politics, voting | Leave a comment


“Of course, it is unlikely that one’s vote decides the outcome of the election. One’s vote has an impact on the outcome only when (1) the votes of all other voters are evenly split between the two candidates, or (2) one’s preferred candidate would lose by one vote if one did not vote.
P [the probability that your vote is decisive] has been calculated in several ways. Under one approach, each voter can be viewed as picking a ball out of a bag in which p fraction of the balls are labeled candidate 1 and (1 – p) are labeled candidate. Each voter is assumed to have a prior as to what p is. If there are N voters and N is odd, then P1 for any voter is simply the probability that exactly one half of the remaining (N – 1) voters would pick a ball labeled candidate 1 and the remaining one half would pick a ball labeled candidate 2, given this voter’s prior p. P then becomes:

P = 3e^[(-2)(N-1)(p-½)^2]/[2*(2PI(N-1))^(½)]

P declines as N increases, and as p diverts from 1/2.” […]

“Voters do not decide how to vote by picking balls out of hats. On election day, it is more reasonable to assume that all voters are committed to voting for either candidate 1 or candidate 2. Each voter has some prior, p, of the fraction of the population of potential voters who are committed to candidate 1, based perhaps on preelection polls. The rational voter knows, however, that this p is measured with error. Thus, in deciding whether to vote, a rational voter must calculate the probability that her vote will make or break a tie, given p, and the inaccuracy with which it is estimated. This probability is inversely related to (Np (1-p))^(½), the standard deviation of the estimated number of people voting for candidate 1, and thus also becomes infinitesimal as N becomes large.(3)

Several people have noted that the probability of being run over by a car going to or returning from the polls is similar to the probability of casting the decisive vote.(4) If being run over is worse than having one’s preferred candidate lose, then this potential cost of voting alone would exceed the potential gain, and no rational self-interested individual would ever vote. But millions do, and thus the paradox.

There are essentially three ways around the paradox: (1) redefine the rational voter’s calculus so that the rational action is now to vote; (2) relax the rationality assumption; (3) relax the self-interest assumption. All three routes have been pursued.” […and the rest of the chapter deals with these]

From Mueller, chapter 14: The paradox of voting. Note that if you relax the also somewhat unrealistic assumption that everybody know who they’ll vote for beforehand, voting becomes more risky and thus less attractive given risk averse voters.

There’s an election coming up and it’s likely that I’ll post a bit more on related matters in the time to come. Before people start to claim in the comments section that Danes are people who care a lot about the poor and stuff and that’s why we usually have a relatively high voter turnout from an international perspective, actually some of the numbers are telling a quite different story. Dealing with the economic aspects of voting, we’re a bunch of selfish bastards compared to other countries:

“More direct comparisons with Hudson and Jones’s test of the ethical voter hypothesis are obtained in studies of economic voting, which estimate the relative weights placed on egotropic and sociotropic variables. Egotropic variables measure voter expectations regarding the effect of the government’s policies on the voter’s own income, employment status, and so on. Sociotropic variables measure voter expectations regarding the effect of the government’s policies on the economy at large, that is, on the welfare of all citizens. By linking voters’ support for the government to their answers to these sorts of questions, researchers have been able to estimate equivalents to θ in (14.4), where θ = 1 implies full weight on sociotropic variables, and θ = 0 implies full weight on the egotropic variables. Estimates of θ falling between 0.5 and 1.0 have been made for the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany.(20) Only Danish voters seem to conform largely to the egotropic economic man assumption in studies by Nannestad and Paldam (1996, 1997). They estimate a θ for Denmark of about 0.15.(21)”

When it comes to voting, just like in the case of lotteries it’s easy to argue the math but hard to argue the preferences. If you derive pleasure from voting, by all means vote. At least as long as the pleasure you derive from voting is relatively unrelated to the impact your vote will have on the election outcome.

September 3, 2011 Posted by | Books, Economics, politics | 2 Comments

Worth remembering over the next couple of weeks


September 1, 2011 Posted by | politics, Statistics | 1 Comment

A few notes on (meta)rationality

So, let’s say you think policy X is optimal and policy Y is not. Or perhaps religion X is true and religion Y is not. Or you know something about subject X and you think you’re right, even though other people disagree. Now, if you’re like most people, you haven’t taken a closer look at the data.

Not necessarily, mind you, the policy data or the data supporting or questioning the religious ideas. Most people use some form of this type of data in their arguments, perhaps not as much because they find the data convincing but rather because they think they need to justify their beliefs somehow, and if you say that ‘policy X will result in more poor people’, or some kind of stuff like that, odds are that added information makes your position look more convincing to the opponent than if you chose not to say it. But the ‘unemployment will go up 2,4 % if policy Y is implemented’ is not the kind of data I was thinking about here. I was thinking about the data on who thinks what. Background variables. Do people who think X have stuff in common which might explain why they think the way they do? It’s an important part of understanding the subject – if your age or gender affects your opinion on the subject matter, disregarding those factors when explaining why you think the way you do leads to a potentially huge omitted variables bias. In short, it can cause you to deceive yourself about which factors have been important in the formation and development of your views. You think that you think X because of A and B (‘unemployment will go up 2,4 %’); but really it’s more a mixture of A, B, C and D.

People make arguments constructed like this: I think/like/prefer X because Y, where Y is some variable that pertains somewhat to the validity of the arguments under evaluation. Like, say, unemployment. Maybe I think the other guy’s argument is faulty or incomplete. Perhaps A (‘taxes’) is more important to me than B (‘environmental safety measure Q’). On net, the amount of supporting arguments in favor of X is higher than the amount of arguments in favor of Y. Things like that.

Here are some other things you might say in an argument – I don’t think most people bring up stuff like this very often, and when they do it’s mostly the characteristics of the opponent in the argument that gets the attention. To bring up this kind of stuff in an argument can go from being considered irrelevant to the matter in question to being considered an unjustifiable attempt to smear the opponent. The funny thing is that variables and related inferences like the ones below sometimes have extremely high explanatory power when you want to estimate what individual A thinks about subject X. We know this stuff matters a lot, but people really like to pretend it doesn’t and it’s often considered cynical or perhaps downright rude to bring it up in conversation. Here are some of them. Of course no one of these will have 100 percent explanatory power either, so I urge you not to reject arguments like these out of hand because they only explain part of the variation in the data – think of them as variables you might decide to estimate in an econometric model while trying to explain, say, the distribution of the opinion variable Z:

‘I think X because my mother and father had an academic education.’ ‘My parents (priest/teacher/big brother) told me X and I’ve been taught by them not to question their authority.’ ‘Because I was born in country C instead of country D.’ (related – articles like this one is part of why I keep coming back to tvtropes even though I tell myself not to) ‘Because I was born in the year XXX instead of the year XXY.’ ‘Because I have a girlfriend and a child.’ ‘Because I’m XX years old instead of XY years old’ – or a more specific example: ‘Because I’m 55 and policy X will benefit me personally.’ ‘Most of my friends think X is better/true.’ ‘If I support policy X I will obtain a higher status among my peers, even though at a cursory glance it might look like policy X will hurt me personally.’ ‘Supporting (/cause) X makes me feel special and I like to feel special.’ ‘Because I’m (fe)male.’ ‘Because I like my job and have an optimistic frame of mind.’ ‘I spent a lot of time thinking about these things because I derive status from winning arguments because I think it makes me look smart. If the other guy is perceived to be right and win the argument I won’t look smart.’ ‘I haven’t really thought about this at all and I don’t know what to think, but I’m supposed to participate in arguments like these and provide an opinion so I’ll just say X because it’s the first thing that popped into my mind when they asked me. Also, most people I care about seem to support X.’ ‘I have to support Y because A supported X and I don’t like/trust A’s.’ ‘People with a high education and income tend to believe/support X so if I support/believe X my status will increase.’ ‘I heard argument X before I heard argument Y.’ ‘A supports Y. If I support X then A will become offended and an unpleasant situation might arise. I will therefore support Y.’

Part of why people don’t look at data like this is that it’s often impossible to come by in specific cases and it’s usually very difficult to quantify effects like these. There’s a lot of impact heterogeneity as well when it comes to the impact of specific variables on individuals and you easily risk committing the ecological fallacy without thinking about it if you try to include variables like these in your model of the opinion forming mechanism of your opponent in a debate. Maybe the inclusion of such variables do not really make matters more clear, perhaps the opposite, perhaps some of the included variables are irrelevant. Do I think X because the cute girl in the lab thinks X, because my parents disagrees, because my friends who introduced me to the subject all think X or because of the latest employment figures? Who knows? But we like to pretend that we do know, and that our motives are pure – only the employment figures matter. If somebody cedes the point that that stuff also matters, then even though there’s an effect it still isn’t something important that should merit our attention; quite the opposite, we ought to focus on the employment figures. An interesting thing is also that in some cases it’s very easy to come by the numbers, and even when it is this stuff tends to be ignored. For example, 90 % of all Egyptians are identified as Muslim, so if you grow up in Egypt, there’s a very high likelihood that you’ll be born and raised by people who think the Muslim religion is the ‘true one’ – whereas if you’re on the other hand born in the US there’s something like a less than 1 % chance that you’ll be born and raised by Muslim parents, and there’s a much, much higher chance that you’ll be born and raised by people who consider themselves christians. There’s a very high correlation between the religious views of children and that of their parents.

I tend to think that people who spend time thinking about this kind of stuff are usually not much harder to deceive than people who do not. We’re all rational when it suits us, but when that’s the case is most often not something we spend much time thinking consciously about. Most people pretend to be rational when you question their rationality by bringing up ‘the other stuff’; some are just better pretenders than others.

August 29, 2011 Posted by | disagreement, Philosophy, politics, rambling nonsense | Leave a comment

Politics matters

“It turns out that people place more emphasis on finding a mate who is a kindred spirit with regard to politics, religion and social activity than they do on finding someone of like physique or personality,” said John Alford, associate professor of political science at Rice University and the study’s lead author.

On a scale of 0 to 1, where 1 means perfectly matched, physical traits (body shape, weight and height) only score between 0.1 and 0.2 among spouse pairs. Personality traits, such as extroversion or impulsivity, are also weak and fall within the 0 to 0.2 range. By comparison, the score for political ideology is more than 0.6, higher than any of the other measured traits except frequency of church attendance, which was just over 0.7.

Link, via Razib Khan. He’s written a lot of good stuff lately, the main reasons why I’ve not linked to him more is that a) I feel bad about linking to so much of his stuff all the time, b) I’ve not exactly tried to hide the fact that I think you people should be reading his stuff already. He has two posts on trust up at his discover gnxp blog which you should go read right away if you don’t already have (The slow decline of trust over time, The End of Trust: Hawk & Dove, maybe some of you’ll find the gender difference post interesting as well, I didn’t consider the main finding at all surprising).

In my mental model, people should ideally choose a mate where the disagreements which exist between the partners can be more or less ignored on a daily basis. If they can’t, the partners are more likely to run into problems in the long run. Politics is difficult to ignore on a daily basis because people spend a lot of time discussing it (I tend to think that this and gossip makes up a large percentage of total daily verbal communication for the average individual); it’s part of many people’s every day lives in some way or another, so choosing a mate with very different views is probably quite costly on average. I don’t think all of this is just politics, it’s also that politics correlates with other stuff that really matters a lot in the long term; like views on child rearing and loyalty/trust-aspects (‘if (/s)he does not agree with me on X, I can’t really trust him/her’) – remember that a lot of politics is about signalling that you belong to the ‘good tribe’, and people (especially females) who belong to the good tribe and have invested some in belonging to that tribe will be much less likely to partner up with one of the ‘bad guys’.

Like Razib, I’ve been unable to find the paper online. If I do, I’ll post a link here later.

May 11, 2011 Posted by | politics, Psychology, Random stuff, Religion | Leave a comment


1. “Natural ability without education has more often attained to glory and virtue than education without natural ability.” (Cicero)

2. “In religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue, but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.” (Mark Twain)

3. “You’ll worry less about what people think about you when you realize how seldom they do.” (David Foster Wallace)

4. “Whenever I hear that someone is pragmatic (in a political context), odds are good that he/she is pretending not to have an ideology.” (Rich Berger, here)

5. “Homer: Why’d they build this ghost town so far away?
Lisa: Because they discovered gold right over there!
Homer: It’s because they’re stupid, that’s why. That’s why everybody does everything.” (The Simpsons – found here. Me: The big problem with that hypothesis is that a theory that explains everything explains nothing)

6. “Life is not fair and people are not equal.” (“Words to Live By: Hiroo Onoda”, Judit Kawaguchi)

7. “The years are too short, the days are too long.” (Joseph Heller)

8. “To my embarrassment I was born in bed with a lady.” (Wilson Mizner – if I’m asked that question, from now on I’ll answer: ‘Yes, I have been to bed with a woman.’ That’s how I prefer to lie. By omission.)

March 13, 2011 Posted by | politics, Quotes/aphorisms, Religion | 1 Comment

Sesquipedalian loquaciousness

I’ve just been rewatching a few episodes of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. If you don’t understand the headline, here’s the link.

I’ll probably mention the series again at a later point in time, even if I’m pretty sure I’ve done it here on this blog at least once before. If I was only allowed to recommend one tv-show out of all the shows out there, this one would be somewhere on the absolute top of that list. Some wonderful quotes from the series:

Sir Humphrey: To put is simply, Prime Minister, certain informal discussions took place involving a full and frank exchange of views, out of which there rose a series of proposals, which on examination proved to indicate certain promising lines of inquiry, which when pursued lead to the realization that the alternative courses of action might in fact, in certain circumstances, be susceptible of discreet modification, leading to a reappraisal of the original areas of difference, and pointing a way to encouraging possibilities of compromise, and cooperation, which, if bilaterally implemented with appropriate give and take on both sides, might, if the climate were right, have a reasonable possibility at the end of the day of leading, rightly or wrongly, to a mutually satisfactory resolution.
Jim Hacker (after a long pause): What the hell are you talking about?
Sir Humphrey: We did a deal.

Sir Humphrey’s speech above (from the episode Power to the People) took 46 seconds from start to finish. Here are two other memorable Humphrey-quotes from the series (the first one is from the episode Man Overboard, the second is from the episode The Ministerial Broadcast):

Sir Humphrey: It is characteristic of all committee discussions and decisions that every member has a vivid recollection of them, and that every member’s recollection of them differs violently from every other member’s recollection, consequently we accept the convention that the official decisions are those and only those which have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials; from which it emerges with an elegant inevitability that any decision which has been officially reached would have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials, and any decision which is not recorded in the minutes has not been officially reached, even if one or more members believe they can recollect it; so in this particular case, if the decision had been officially reached, it would have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials, and it isn’t so it wasn’t.

Sir Humphrey: You see, Party figures can be very unreliable, Prime Minister.
Jim Hacker: Evidently.
Sir Humphrey: May I suggest a compromise?
Jim Hacker: What?
Sir Humphrey: Well, it’s clear that the Committee has agreed that your new policy is really an excellent plan; but in view of the doubts being expressed, may I propose that I recall that after careful consideration, the considered view of the Committee was that, while they considered that the proposal met with broad approval in principle, that some of the principles were sufficiently fundamental in principle, and some of the considerations so complex and finely balanced in practice that in principle it was proposed that the sensible and prudent practice would be to submit the proposal for more detailed consideration, laying stress on the essential continuity of the new proposal with existing principles, the principal of the principal arguments which the proposal proposes and propounds for their approval … In principle.
Jim Hacker: What?
Sir Humphrey: Don’t refer to your Grand Design in your television broadcast on Friday.

November 13, 2009 Posted by | politics, Quotes/aphorisms, Random stuff | Leave a comment

Quotes of the day

An ignorant person is one who doesn’t know what you have just found out.

The more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that’s out always looks the best.

Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed through life trying to save.

everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.

Will Rogers

November 5, 2009 Posted by | politics, Quotes/aphorisms | Leave a comment

A few numbers

Some numbers from realclearpolitics:

“Congressional job approval”:
26.8 percent approve.
64.0 percent disapprove.

Let me just spell that one out for those of you with poor math skills: Almost 2 out of 3 Americans disapprove of the work their own elected representatives do.

“Direction of country”:
38.6 percent “right direction”.
53.8 percent: “wrong track”.

The president’s approval rating is still above 50 percent (52.5 vs 40.7). Within the last 9 months, the amount of people who disapprove of Obama has more than doubled – see the previous link.

September 27, 2009 Posted by | Obama, politics, USA | 1 Comment

History repeats itself…

I was just in a bad mood and decided to take a dive into the collection of cartoons I have stored on my computer. This one is from 2002.


March 3, 2009 Posted by | Cartoons, politics | Leave a comment

Quote of the day

The standard procedure for most members of Congress is to ignore everything public choice economists teach us about the incentives of bureaucrats, give the bureaucrats enormous power, and then complain when they use that power badly, fail to achieve their goals, create other problems, and transfer wealth to their political allies.

David Henderson

December 3, 2008 Posted by | politics, Quotes/aphorisms | Leave a comment

Americans aren’t too fond of their politicians

Congress was front and center in the national news last week and the American people were far from impressed. If they could vote to keep or replace the entire Congress, 59% of voters would like to throw them all out and start over again. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that just 17% would vote to keep the current legislators in office.

Today, just 23% have even a little confidence in the ability of Congress to deal with the nation’s economic problems and only 24% believe most Members of Congress understand legislation before they vote on it.

Only half (49%) believe that the current Congress is better than individuals selected at random from the phone book. Thirty-three percent (33%) believe a randomly selected group of Americans could do a better job and 19% are not sure (see crosstabs).

A separate survey found that just 11% of voters say Congress is doing a good or an excellent job.

Rasmussenreports has more, via Glenn Reynolds.

October 6, 2008 Posted by | politics, USA | Leave a comment


Just some random questions I have been asking myself. If you think you know the answer to one or more of them, please leave a comment.

a) What would in your view happen if a nuclear weapon would explode in a major American city, ie. New York or Washington, within the next 25 years?
b) How likely do you find such an event?
c) Would the retaliation be nuclear?

I would really like to know the answer to that last question. I have absolutely no idea. Also,

d) how big a deterrent is the nuclear retaliation threat to potential (the non-suicide of them) terrorists?

a) Which places are more likely to become involved in nuclear warfare during this time period than the US?
Tyler Cowen thinks Japan is the most likely target, and that Pakistan is second. It’s very popular to focus on the Middle East these days when discussing foreign policy, but there are a lot of other ‘interesting areas’ to consider when it comes to this discussion. I agree with Tyler that Pakistan is a likely candidate, but I disagree with his views on North Korea. North Korea, or rather Kim Jong-il, would – at least within a reasonable time span – only contemplate using a ‘bomb’ defensively, in case of an invasion, and if he was to use one it wouldn’t matter one bit if it hit ‘his fellow Korean countrymen’ or not, in my opinion it would most likely hit Seoul, just like thousands of artillery shells would. The idea that this guy would even have second thoughts about killing people from SK seems ludicrous to me, he has no problem killing his own ‘true countrymen’ in droves. In short, there’s no way to ‘liberate’ NK without SK being bombed back into the stone age, both the Koreans and the American military advisers know this, and that’s one of the main reasons (there are others too, of course) why NK hasn’t yet and never will be ‘liberated’ by outside forces. The North Koreans are poor, but their military expenses are big enough for them to have a lot of shit pointing in a very ugly direction. Also, as long as China implicitly backs Kim Jong-il, nothing much will happen up there except people starving and getting killed and all that usual stuff. On the other hand, there is an important reservation to this analysis, the ‘within a reasonable timespan’ part. A nuclear NK might in the long run turn into a serious threat, Kim Jong-il is a power-crazed Stalinist dictator after all, so the most likely scenario is that SK will eventually get the bomb thus establishing a new status quo equilibrium of mutual deterrence.

Which other places might be of interest here? I’m thinking Moscow or another big Russian city, it’s certainly not impossible that the ‘situation’ in Chechnya will cause something really ugly to happen again. Also, it might be easier for terrorists to get their hands on nuclear material in Russia than it would be a lot of other places.

3. Which new countries will have obtained nuclear weapons in 20 years? Here is one relevant analysis, it is a transcript from a conference on proliferation. As mentioned above, SK seems like a likely candidate. Japan is having this discussion too. Also, not only because of NK but also in light of China’s recent and massive mobilization efforts, I would also not find it unlikely that Taiwan might choose to go nuclear. Moving west, Iran is almost a safe bet. Egypt and the Saudis would probably not like them to be all alone with those nice weapons, so they will surely go in the same direction. Probably Turkey too, but this depends a lot on how all that EU stuff develops. Going to the Americas, if Venezuela goes nuclear so will Brazil, and probably Argentina too. I don’t know how likely this is, but it certainly can’t be dismissed out of hand, it’s not a year since Chavez by a slim margin didn’t manage to establish himself as a lifetime dictator. He’ll try again, next time he might be succesful, and two of his best friends (Iran and NK) are both going nuclear.

There are 9 nuclear powers today. The number will only go up, not down. How do we deal with this, how do we slow down this development as much as possible? Is a slowdown even possible? Is it unconditionally preferable?

Ok, those are tough questions, too tough to demand an answer for. The following is tough too, but it’s probably somewhat easier.

Now, this particular foreign policy subject strikes me as inarguably one of the most important of all areas of foreign policy. Yet nobody talks about it. When discussing foreign policy, people in the West talk a lot about terrorism, they talk about islam, they talk about Iraq and Afghanistan, they talk about Venezuela, Darfur and Zimbabwe, they talk about all kinds of stuff. But they almost never talk about nuclear proliferation. Why is this?

The last point is not a question, just a remark. I’ve mentioned it before, I’ll probably mention in again, non-state proliferators are a big and often overlooked threat here that needs to be dealt with somehow. As the transcript linked to above concludes:

James Russell of the Naval Postgraduate School discussed potential non-state proliferators of nuclear weapons and emphasized that the list of potential adversaries is far greater than just al Qaeda. Other non-state actors seeking nuclear weapons include industrial entities and trading groups, quasi-governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, warlords and militias, transnational criminal networks, and violent non-state actors motivated by anarchist, nationalist, secular left-wing, or religious causes. Globalization makes it more difficult for governments to track or the stop world flow of nuclear materials and information. Non-state actors play a critical role in the proliferation market by providing components and services generally prohibited by states. They also are flexible and adaptive and thwart attempts at regulation.

One important question Russell examined is if we are missing the ball by focusing on the Osama bin Laden-WMD connection? The millennial extremist waves seem to be on the decline. Religious nationalists are not really interested in weapons of mass destruction due to the difficulty of obtaining and using them, and in general they can get what they want using conventional weapons. By focusing on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the U.S. government may be missing other non-state actors that are just as dangerous.

The current thinking on proliferation to non-state actors is that it will be a direct transfer from states to non-state actors, either voluntarily or through unauthorized acquisition or theft from an existing site. Another possibility exists for indigenous production using dual-use components and either leaked or stolen materials. Proliferation in 2016 will be a buyers’ market for components, and non-state to non-state transfers will become more common. However, without a whole program nuclear weapons development components are useless.

The non-state proliferation problem is more significant than many people realize, and is about more than just violent non-state actors. The state-non-state divide is creating hybrid organizations that pose a more serious proliferation problem, especially on the supply side of the nuclear marketplace. The collapse of some states has turned them into criminal organizations, such as North Korea. The next problem that might emerge is non-state to non-state transfer of WMD materials, and it is not clear what can be done about it.

June 24, 2008 Posted by | nuclear proliferation, politics, Random stuff | 8 Comments

Quote of the day

“The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford, “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.”

Yudkowsky is writing about politics and democracy at the moment and I encourage all readers, if you can spare the time, to follow these posts closely. I quite think I’d rather you read his posts than mine these days, and I’m not sure dropping another three or four blogs to follow his posts is at all a bad trade-off.

I am finishing up on Douglas Adams now, and I remembered the bit above very well when I reread it. The quote is from Yudkowsky’s post Stop Voting for Nincompoops, and the rest of the post is very much quotable too. I will restrict myself to one more quote, from the conclusion:

If you vote for nincompoops, for whatever clever-sounding reason, don’t be surprised that out of 300 million people you get nincompoops in office.

The arguments are long, but the voting strategy they imply is simple: Stop trying to be clever, just don’t vote for nincompoops.


To boil it all down to an emotional argument that isn’t necessarily wrong:

Why drive out to your polling place and stand in line for half an hour or more – when your vote isn’t very likely to singlehandedly determine the Presidency – and then vote for someone you don’t even want?

January 3, 2008 Posted by | politics, Quotes/aphorisms, voting | Leave a comment