quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

It alienates you from all sides.
There is a cost to listening to both sides of an issue: it makes each side think you’re a flaming idiot for not seeing that the other is wrong on its face. Whichever one you ultimately conclude has the stronger point will be less likely to accept you.

On top of that, it identifies you a risk factor. When you’re emotionally dedicated to a cause, you’re in. You’re one of them. You can be trusted. The same can’t be said when everyone knows you are perpetually one random factoid or rogue discovery from flipping sides.

No, really. It makes you look gross.
Double-checking claims about how many people of color are killed by white cops or how much women get paid relative to men jeopardizes your reputation as a compassionate human being.

If you uncover that a politician voted against a multi-billion-dollar hurricane relief bill because a) he thought billions were going toward things that weren’t relief and/or to agencies that have misspent or hoarded previous funds, and b) senators aren’t allowed to vote for/against individual elements of a bill, only the whole thing, you’re hosed. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with that politician and feel it’s totally appropriate for a relief bill to include funds for preparing against the next disaster. It doesn’t matter if you point out that he’s stuck in the no-win situation of either acting like an ass or voting in favor of what he and his constituents feel is corruption. The nuance is wasted. You’re already a shill for him, or a sycophant, or an apologist. Or you’re an idiot for believing those were his real reasons for voting no.

Approaching divisive issues rationally is not the optimal approach to affecting change.
It’s more sensible to strike a balance between learning about an issue and being an effective leader. As I pointed out in the opening paragraphs, you sabotage people’s trust in you if you thoroughly investigate the problem from every angle before committing to a course of action. The price you pay for making sure you know exactly what to do is that you may then find you’ve rendered yourself unable to garner enough support to do it.

It’s (possibly) selfish.
If your end goal is not to affect change but rather to maximize your self-edification, open-mindedness and critical thinking are wonderful tools…at helping you be selfish. An end goal of just making sure you know as many things as possible, and that all of them are true, doesn’t help anyone but you.

It doesn’t tell you who’s right. It only tells you who it’s most logical to believe.
Critical thinking isn’t a perfect approach to settling the truth of a matter. Research is. The only truly reliable way to tell who holds the more accurate stance on a controversial issue is to already know the answer yourself and check their conclusions against it. Of course, this is pretty much always going to be somewhere between impractical and impossible, so we fall back on critical thinking as a second-best-but-actually-workable approach. Always remember that it’s a fallback plan.

Critical thinking isn’t necessarily open-minded.
Meet Gene. Gene has a high school diploma but never went to college. Gene has worked for five years as a flower arranger at a shop in a small city in Vermont. Gene has some great ideas on how the U.S. should handle Middle East relations. Would you like to hear them?

Of course not! As far as you can tell, Gene has no expertise on the subject. There is no rational reason to expect to hear something insightful. The principles of open-mindedness say, “Yes, listen,” but rational thinking says to consider your source and advises you not to bother.

Eventually, you still have to pick a side.
Although it does require you to be forever receptive to the possibility that you'll need to revise your beliefs, being open-minded doesn’t absolve you from forming opinions or from becoming convinced that one viewpoint has distinctly more merit than the rest. Neither open-mindedness nor critical thinking encourage you to remain undecided forever, irrespective of what new truths subsequently come to light. In fact, if you’re going to do that, critical thinking actually becomes useless.

“Decide for yourself” is a rhetorical trick.
It’s counterintuitive, but if someone presents you with both sides of an argument (hers and an opposing one), then plays to your sense of critical thinking and asks you to decide for yourself which one to believe, you’re more likely to be getting shammed than if she simply argued her own position straight up. Like a bush league southpaw who can only throw strikes if he stays down in the minors, a common rhetorical trick among people who have weak arguments (and know it) is to throw their pitches at folks who aren’t experts in the field. They pretend like they’re honestly exposing themselves to critical analysis, but it’s a smokescreen. It makes their arguments weaker, not stronger, and if they’re trying to convince you via that method, it’s because something about you gave them the impression you’ve got a lousy batting average.

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Thinking ethical stances through to their logical generalizations leads to some weird places.

Last Thanksgiving, in a fit of nostalgia, the party’s hosts put up a YouTube video of some horrible educational claymation film from their childhood in the 70s. One viewer repeatedly chided the film for fat shaming in portraying a girl with an insatiable candy appetite as a giant, disgusting monster.

That got me thinking: how would a teacher educate children about the benefits of a healthy diet without painting people who don’t follow one in a negative light? Is it even possible to teach kids that “doing X (eating healthy, exercising, brushing your teeth, etc.) will improve your quality of life” without inherently, simultaneously teaching them that people who don’t do X are inferior in some fashion? It seems challenging at best. Children are awfully tribal. Plus, there’s the challenge of believing “doing this will make me better than if I don’t” while not believing “doing this will make me better than other people who don’t”.

Part of the problem is that a lesson like “exercise is good for you” is a value judgement. It is, strictly speaking, subjective, and to teach in that manner is a mild form of indoctrination, not education. To be objective, you must instead explain exercise’s benefits in neutral terms — starting with not calling them “benefits”. You must teach that exercise will improve strength and endurance, lead to more restful sleep, aid concentration, and increase resistance to disease, then allow the students to decide for themselves whether they want to attain those things.

Frankly, if you keep with this line of reasoning, it would be improper to call smoking “bad” or “harmful”. To be equitable, you must explain the symptoms of emphysema and lung cancer in unbiased, objective fashion (and don’t call them “maladies”, “afflictions”, or “diseases” — they are “conditions”), then leave the fourteen-year-olds to do their own risk/benefit analysis regarding whether to light up. Otherwise, you’re merely stamping them into the mold of your personal worldview.

Okay. That last paragraph was just a tad hyperbolic, but I think the core line of reasoning stands. I never expected I could start with “don’t belittle people whose bodies don’t fit the idealized norm” and arrive at “to call cancer ‘bad’ is to blindly adhere to a personal worldview”. And now that perplexes me, because while I agree with the sentiment in the first half, I also see the wisdom in not leaving important issues entirely for schoolkids to decide on their own when it’s been psychologically shown that they’re still more than a decade from being able to make sound long-term decisions.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

Andy Norman, a philosophy professer at Carnegie Mellon University, led a team to create a game called Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher to teach critical thinking skills. It's a serious yet fun exercise in learning how to spot weak arguments and challenge shaky claims.

Yet, demanding that a person follow your personally-approved-of restrictions on what can be said, and why, before you'll bother listening is also a common silencing tactic, and it's particularly effective when employed by the entire status quo. You can tack on all sorts of arbitrary restrictions and make it sound like you're formalizing the discussion when your true goal is to stop people with different world views than yours from airing their points.

Jester: How many responsible, mature adults does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Responsible Mature Adult: This is not a constructive conversation. (leaves room)

If you wanted to have a rational, constructive discussion on gun control, for instance, you might keep things civil by excluding anyone who owns one, since they're obviously going to give predictable, tired anti-control arguments. And you'd exclude anyone who's been robbed at gunpoint since they're obviously going to be emotionally biased and make judgements based on personal preference rather than the Greater Good. You'd certainly exclude anyone who uses poor terminology. Anyone who calls a magazine a "clip" clearly doesn't understand the topic well enough to be worth listening to, and as for people who use the very word "gun" instead of "firearm", well…. "Gun" is both ambiguous (a pistol is a gun, but so are a Howitzer and a cannon on a pirate ship) and laden with negative emotional overtones. If a person says she desires a constructive, rational, intelligent discussion, but then uses poorly-defined, emotionally distracting words, she's either woefully unprepared to deliver on her promise or she's lying as to her true intent. Either way, she doesn't belong in that talk, now, does she?

Critical thinking isn't for determining who's right. It's for determining who has a valid argument. It's great for answering, "Who should I listen to?", but that's not equivalent to "Who knows the truth?" It's only a good approximation. There is always the Fallacy Fallacy to consider. Using a poor argument doesn't make you wrong, just unconvincing.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

Since they became commonplace, free-to-play games have been criticized as unethical, greedy, manipulative, pathologically damaging…you name it. (And the more famous ones are.) It’s something that I’ve been dwelling on for months, given that for the last year and a half, my job has had me making exactly the sort of game that hits all the low notes: free to play initially, with the ability to pay real money to hasten progress or buy performance-enhancing items. If I didn’t quit my job over it, it’s mainly because I don’t know where else I’d apply and don’t think I could make a living wage as an independent.

But as kneejerk distasteful as I find several aspects of what I’ve been doing, nearly every time I focused on a specific marketing or monetization choice, I saw common sense behind it. Take this example: giving the player one or two free uses of an upgraded game feature that normally costs extra. It’s nothing more than an unscrupulous way to get players hooked, right? It’s like drug dealers do: “the first hit’s free”. Well, maybe, but it’s also unreasonable to expect a potential customer to buy anything from you when they don’t know what it is or what it will do. And the best way to teach that to the customer is to let him try the thing out. It’s certainly better than simply throwing it into your game’s store screen with a brief text description like “This totem pole produces an extra 2 Jujubees a minute” or whatever. If that’s unethical, what about test drives? Demo versions? 30-second song snippets on a music site? Samples at the cheese counter? How skeezy must all those be?

When it comes to making sure your game will make money, the conventional wisdom is that you are, at best, unsavory if you incorporate elements into it that have made other games profitable or that you know from personal testing will increase your own revenue. You are told to go by your internal sense of ethics and your personal expertise as a professional, and not place too much faith the objective measure of what customers pay the most money for because that measurement is so easily manipulated. The methods of hijacking human psychology are familiar, proven, and more widely understood by companies like Zynga every day. Companies are criticized soundly for retaining game elements that they know are used heavily rather than accommodate vocal minorities that call for their removal.

Yet when it comes to designing what players can do within the game rather than what they can buy about it, we find a parallel situation with opposite advice attached. Here, playtesting and player observation are king. The designer who produces a mechanic or a control scheme or a tutorial level purely from intuition invariably creates a bad game. What you think players will want or do is invariably less accurate than what they say they want or will do, which in turn is notoriously far off the mark of what they actually want and do.

Got that? When you’re designing a game, it’s smartest by far to base your decisions primarily off what players do, and less so on what they say they want or what you think is best. But when you’re selling your game, following that exact plan — basing your decisions primarily off what players do pay for, and less so on what they say they want or what you think is best — makes you evil Evil EVIL!

I’m not sure why this is. Possibly it’s because human purchasing behavior is more susceptible to influence than play behavior is. At least, that might be a common first-order explanation. But consider:

  • The designer of Canabalt made the deliberate decision to allow the player to jump not only while his feet are on solid ground but also for a fraction of a second after running off the ledge of a building, when he’s technically in empty air and has already fallen a tiny amount. He did this as a result of so many test players mistiming their jumps and getting frustrated at the game for being oversensitive and unforgiving.
  • SounDodger and other “bullet hell” games have a convention where only the center point of your ship is vulnerable to collision, which leads to the satisfying feeling that you’re dodging death by the skin of your teeth as you sneak past enemies by mere pixels. (Actually, they’re so close that they’re overlapping you. It’s more like you’re clipping through them than sneaking by, but it still feels like skill.)
  • City of Heroes and at least a few installments of the Civilization series had custom random number generators to avoid outcomes that were mathematically valid but felt unintuitive or unfair to people, such as attempting something with a 75% success chance and failing twice in a row.

The common thread behind all these kludges is that players find games much more enjoyable when they blame themselves, not the game, for failing or losing or dying. Tweaks like the above are all accommodations to avoid the player feeling like the game is buggy, or arbitrary, or unpredictable, or too hard.

They’re also all psychological tricks.

So maybe designing games to be the most fun actually is precisely as unethical as selling them to make the most money. Maybe they’re both laudable. Maybe they’re both reprehensible. They certainly both can be more concerned with being believable than with being honest.

I don’t know. I just don’t. Every time I approach the issue rationally I get results that don’t match how I want to feel about it, and that’s a problem for someone like me who doesn’t want to believe things by fiat. I’m not sure how to evaluate this rationally. I can’t go by other people’s opinions because all possible opinions on the matter exist, and in effectively infinite (and therefore equal) numbers. If, ultimately, it comes down to me needing to decide for myself whether I’m ethical (as, you know, “one of those things no one else can do for you”), well, what’s to stop me from affirming myself the Dalai Lama from the get-go?

work ethic

Jun. 22nd, 2013 01:26 am
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On June 3rd, Zynga laid off 520 employees. (Coincidentally, that same day, LinkedIn sent me an automated email that Zynga was looking for a senior game designer in my city, though that posting has since been removed.)

Ramin Shokrizade — someone who’s built a small name for himself over the last decade studying monetization plans and virtual economies in multiplayer games — did not mince words in responding to the news on Gamasutra. It is his conclusion:

  • That the huge influx of investor and stockholder money Zynga got by going public was not new money, but rather came mostly from investors and stockholders shifting their existing money away from other companies.
  • That this loss of funding resulted in a loss of jobs at those other companies.
  • That while Zynga did create new job positions using this investor influx, the company created fewer new jobs than the rest of the industry lost because it assigned them unusually high salaries to tempt talent away from competitors. Thus there was still a net positive number of layoffs.
  • That employees who left existing jobs to take higher-paying positions at Zynga were fully complicit in causing those layoffs to their peers in the industry, and furthermore cannot credibly plead ignorance of that fact due to this being an issue of trivial observation and simple arithmetic.
  • That, therefore, these 520 fresh ex-Zynga employees do not (and should not) have a reasonable expectation of compassion for losing their jobs.

Additionally, he claims:

  • That Zynga’s market success was not due to making products that were legitimately desirable and superior to their competitors’, but by making psychologically manipulative products targeted at adults with poor impulse control and at children, and by preemptively buying out potential competing studios and talent.
  • That even ignoring the layoff issue above, people who work for a coercive, unethical company such as Zynga, Monsanto, Philip Morris, or the financial agencies that caused the Great Recession create far more overall harm to the public than they personally gain.
  • That anyone who took a job with Zynga made a voluntary choice that was so selfish, it flat-out cannot be justified, not even by outstanding circumstances such as being unemployed and needing to support a family.

Call it selective hearing, but this point of view hits close to home. I don’t work for Zynga, but for the past year I’ve been leading a project to make precisely the sort of game Shokrizade rails against. The ethicality of that has been bothering me for a while. It ramped up a step a couple of weeks ago when we got a new producer who, although far more technically and professionally competent than the previous one, is laser-focused on making the game more profitable.

On the one hand, someone has to do that. It’s a retail product, after all. Turning a profit is the point, and there is nothing inherently wrong with making an honest and experienced attempt at predicting whether what you make will sell for more than it cost you to create. And if it looks like it won’t — if, say, almost no one is buying a certain item, is advertising it better a steaming pile of scummy marketing deception, or is it correcting the fact that you hadn’t made that thing’s benefits clear in the first place?

On the other, my kneejerk reaction to it is that it’s scummy as hell.

I don’t know how much of that might be fatigue from being on a project that’s already run for longer than double its original six-month plan (and will hit about triple before it’s done). I don’t know how much is upbringing. I don’t know how much is legitimate conscience. I don’t trust how it all feels unpleasant from a distance but that I can see legitimate reasons for every single part of it when I think about it in isolation.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (politics)

On March 15, astronaut Chris Hadfield answered some school kids’ questions about his job. One child asked for advice for aspiring astronauts. Commander Hadfield listed three key points that apply equally to all ambitions:

  1. Education, which means not just schooling but being curious and constantly wanting to learn new things.
  2. Physical health. Think about what you eat, and exercise.
  3. Decision-making. Practice making good choices by starting early and doing it often. You’ll start bad but get better.

That last item struck Shaterri as odd, but it’s one I’ve encountered before. In the wake of the Occupy movement, I’ve noticed more stress on the idea that every single dollar you spend on anything tells the company providing that product or service that whatever they do to make it is OK by you, so please keep doing it.

Then there’s the more extreme take I ran into a couple of weeks ago. Let’s say you like strawberries. Is there anything wrong with eating them? Not really, at least not inasmuch as that action isn’t wanton and it isn’t out of synch with the goal.

But is there anything wrong with liking strawberries in the first place? If you never voluntarily chose to like them, then — at least according to this point of view — kind of. The idea is that it’s undesirable to allow anything other than your own will and conscious mind to determine anything about you. If you are biologically predisposed to enjoy the taste of strawberries, well, fine. Some people start out that way. But if you surrender to it and consider that “just the way you are”, you make yourself a victim of chance. Better to realize that you can alter all your tastes (for example, deliberately developing a taste for beer or coffee, or nurturing an aversion to cigarettes) and make a conscious, deliberate choice to allow yourself to continue enjoying strawberries rather than unthinkingly obey your biochemistry. The result is the same but the method is more responsible (and, for the long run, more flexible).

I did point out that this view got silly at the edge cases. Sure, it’s technically possible to change the fact that you’re 6'1" or right-handed (or…male?), but for the vast majority of such people, remaining that way is a trivial decision given the cost, risk, effort, and unintended consequences that come with changing, so how estimable is it, really, to stay that way on purpose? Is that really a “choice”? And he couldn’t explain why he thought that never choosing was bad, but it was okay to choose so long ago that you don’t remember choosing. And then he had to leave.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

This study continues.

Courses & Topics:

  1. Get out of debt and stay out of debt. Children need to be taught how to manage their money and what they should expect to pay for various things like food, lodging, transportation, clothing, and supplies for work or home. They need to understand how debt reduces their mobility and makes it harder to build a reliable safety net so they can deal with unemployment, illness, family trauma, and other setbacks that life will throw at them. They need to understand what they'll earn for various kinds of work and how much of that money they'll get to spend vs. lose to taxes and social insurance payments.
  2. Learn how to fill out a fairly complex Form 1040. This teaches them a lot of practical math as well as giving them an understanding of how income is earned, how our society treats various forms of income (and why), and how much money we send to the federal government. This should be supplemented with a study of how much money local, state, and federal governments spend, and on what.
  3. How to write and read a great résumé. How to prepare for and conduct a job interview. How to present oneself effectively to others, and what to look for when observing another person. This gives not only a basic grounding in good communication (both written and verbal) but also some basic psychology.
  4. A class I'd call “Civics”: how to read a voter's pamphlet, research the candidates and issues on the ballot, and form an opinion on whom to vote for. Also cover the voter registration process and how and where to vote on election day. If possible, generate a good debate between people who support issues and candidates on multiple sides of a ballot.
  5. A class I'd call “Practical Science”. It would start with a series of exercises designed to teach the scientific method. It would then progress through an analysis, rooted in that method, of socially important topics like nuclear power/weapons, evolution and natural history, climate science, biology, ecology, and computing systems.
  6. A course on “The Body”, which would talk about diet and how to cook nutritious and healthy meals, how to exercise and set up a workout plan, and how to engage with the healthcare system — annual checkups, dental visits, eye care, dermatology, gynecology, and mental health.
  7. A course I'd call “The Mind”, which would focus on conflict resolution; lie detection; negotiation; identifying and stopping abuse, addiction, and dependency; coping with flight/fight responses; and teaching yourself self-control and delaying gratification.
  8. Finally, this would all be wrapped in some kind of cohesive structure designed to give these kids the most important skill they can learn before they become adults: flexibility. Kids need to learn how to change jobs, relocate, change political opinions, deal with windfalls and setbacks, and cope with changes in relationships, in their health, and in their country & government. For the next 50 years, these kids are going to be living in the most chaotic times the human race has seen since the fall of the Roman Empire. They need to get as much help as we can give them on how to live in such a world without going mad or giving up hope.

Required Reading:

  • The Declaration of Independence. The Constitution. The Bill of Rights. The Gettysburg Address. Eisenhower's Farewell Address. Kennedy's Inaugural Address.
  • Some parts of the Bible (Old & New Testament). Some parts of the Koran. Some meaningful Buddhist and Hindu texts.
  • A Tale of Two Cities. Snow Crash.
  • “The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima And Nagasaki”.
  • The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Fire In the Valley: The Making of The Personal Computer.
  • Leaves of Grass. Hamlet.

There's nothing they shouldn't read.

Other Skills:

They should adopt a topic they are passionate about on Wikipedia and contribute to that topic in proper editor form.

They should pick a topic (other than entertainment) from current events and learn not just how to investigate that topic through news, blogs, and social media, but also to follow it over time, charting its changes and what it connects with and influences.

They should research investment strategies, devise one for investing $100 in the stock market, and do it. They should compare their results regularly with their peers.

They should learn how to play poker and craps, and understand the math that makes one a game of skill and one a game of chance.

They should learn to play a musical instrument.

They should learn how to take good photographs with their cell phone cameras.

They should learn how to assemble a computer from a box of components, install an operating system, patch it for security, install applications, and browse the internet with a client that did not come with the operating system.

They should learn how to change the oil in a car or truck and how to drive a manual transmission.

They should learn how to call 911 and what to be ready to communicate during that call.

They should learn CPR as well as how to treat a deep cut, a bad burn, an insect bite or sting, a broken bone, and a sudden gastrointestinal illness.

They should learn how to use a compass to navigate between fixed points, and how to return directly to their starting point without retracing their steps.

They should learn how to swim.

They should be exposed to routine government processes like crossing a border with a passport, going through airport security, being stopped by a police officer for a moving violation, and appearing in small claims court.

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Kant argues that the thesis that everything is only determined only holds for the phenomenal world, or the world as it is experienced for us, where our minds apply the category of causality to the manifold of sensation.
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It's all the asterisks.

1. Do not intentionally hurt anyone who doesn't deserve it*. That's unethical.

2. Make a good faith effort* to ensure you are unlikely* to accidentally hurt anyone who doesn't deserve it*.

3. If you do accidentally hurt someone who doesn't deserve it*, make satisfactory* reparations.

* You define this all by yourself, using any manner you wish.

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Someone I know has put forth the claim that the best way to achieve the most prosperous society — the one with the greatest total quality of life across all people — is for each individual person to give highest priority to his own well-being. One of his personal philosophical heroines called this concept “rational self-interest”. She promoted it because she thought all behavior ought to have a wholly rational basis and she could not find such a basis in putting others' well-being first. (At least, that’s what Wikipedia says.) My acquaintance says he has an even better reason to stand behind this claim: it’s been proven by famous mathematician John Nash. In fact, there's even had a name for it: a “Nash equilibrium”.

I have a couple of problems with this. For one, he’s wrong about the term. A Nash equilibrium is when no one can get a better outcome for himself by being the only person who does something different. It may or may not be the best possible overall outcome — and if it’s not, reaching a better one will take at least two people mutually agreeing to change their actions together. So Nash equilibria are actually obstacles on the road to the true global maximum. They’re pitfalls for human psychology to fall into. People are naturally averse to giving up an acceptable, already-achieved result in exchange for a better potential outcome that requires even more effort.

Number two: focusing exclusively on maximizing the total combined well-being of society doesn’t consider how bad each individual life is. If one person’s livelihood can be cut to a tenth to double that of twenty others of similar standing, the math of pure practicality says to do it. Take this to the extreme and you get the parable of Omelas.


Jan. 8th, 2012 05:25 pm
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In 1998, Sierra Studios released a game called Caesar III. The object of the game was to build a series of Roman cities from scratch. Citizens in your city automatically increased in social status as you furnished their neighborhoods with more and better goods, education, temples, and entertainment. If you taxed them too much, took too long to provide a service they demanded, or developed some neighborhoods significantly further than others, they’d riot and set buildings on fire. I never had rioters when I played because I avoided those situations. I built the socio-economic status of my cities evenly out of a naïve sense of fairness. In cases where I suddenly needed significant additional housing, I built it on the outskirts and separated it from the general populace with gates so the citizens couldn’t walk downtown and see how well everyone else lived. (This worked, by the way. Each citizen was only aware of the buildings that he wandered randomly past. If you didn’t allow poor people into the rich district, they’d never know there was one.)

The inherent shortcoming of any simulation game is that it’s only realistic if it’s based on an accurate model. Is this model accurate? Is knowing that others are more well-off than you a natural motivator for unrest?

In 2003, two scientists at a primate research center investigated whether seemingly instinctive aversions to unfairness existed in creatures other than humans. They trained pairs of same-sex capuchin monkeys — sometimes two males, sometimes two females — to exchange tokens for food. Sometimes both monkeys got cucumbers, which are edible but not fantastic. Other times, one monkey got a cucumber but the other got a grape, which they love. Both monkeys always saw what food the other got. Male monkey pairs happily ate whatever food they got, but with the females, when one got a grape, the one who only got cucumber sometimes refused to eat it or refused to exchange tokens in later trials.

The scientists then did more experiments with the female monkeys. First, they repeated the first two test cases, to check for reproducibility. Second, they tested having one monkey exchange a token for a cucumber while simply giving the other monkey a grape for not doing anything. Third, they tested having an unpaired monkey trade a token for a cucumber while they set a grape in the empty cage next to her.

The results?

When one monkey saw another get better food for performing the same task, she initially rebelled about a quarter of the time. That rose to more than half the time by the experiment’s end. Two-thirds of her rebellions were a refusal to eat what she got.

When one monkey saw another get better food for doing nothing, she rebelled 60% of the time at first and 80% of the time near the end, equally split between not eating her cucumber and not doing a future trade.

When one monkey saw that a better reward than hers existed (but that no one got it), she rebelled about 60% of the time at first, dropping to half the time by the conclusion. Again, rebellion was evenly split between not eating and not trading.

In the control case, where both monkeys have to do equal work for equal ho-hum cucumbers, they still rebel about 5% of the time because, well, they’re monkeys and they don’t always feel like playing silly experimental games — but when they do rebel, it’s almost never by refusing to trade later.

I’ve quoted Anatole France before: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Something’s been bugging me about the last clause. The law doesn’t forbid stealing bread. It forbids stealing. The poor may be more likely than the rich to steal bread, but are they more likely to steal in general? Even if you discount mental disorders like kleptomania, theft occurs at all social levels. If poverty alone encouraged theft, that wouldn’t be the case.

So here’s what I think: people don’t steal when they don’t have enough. People steal when they have less than they think they deserve.

And that’s a big problem since so many times in life, you can do everything in the most likely successful way and still not succeed.

Case in point. Let’s say you’ve just been laid off. On your first week of unemployment, you apply to ten jobs. On your second week, you apply to two, then something serious and unexpected happens that occupies all your time — your car breaks down, your grandfather dies, something like that. The rules for unemployment benefits say you only deserve them if you apply to at least three jobs that week. Now, you could argue that the spirit of the rule is to deny benefits to people who aren’t earnestly trying to find work, and that you are not such a person. You could also argue that, had you known this was going to happen, you could have delayed one of the first week’s applications and made nine and three rather than ten and two, thus meeting the letter of the law with the same effort. And I would personally be inclined to side with you either way — sometimes, you think you deserve more because you do. Regardless, by the letter of the law, if you claim unemployment benefits for both weeks, you are guilty of fraud.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (politics)

“Minazuki” is the Japanese name for the month of June. It’s also the name of a traditional Japanese confection made and eaten on the 30th of June to celebrate making it halfway through the year and bring luck for the second half. It’s cut into triangles and glazed to resemble the large chunks of ice that are pulled from underground storage that day for the Emperor — the only person allowed to have ice in the summer back then. Common folk can’t have real ice, so they make a candy that resembles ice and enjoy that instead.

Dan Gilbert is a psychologist with a theory that people have a natural, reliable, and mostly unconscious ability to manufacture a sense of satisfaction with, and a positive attitude toward, whatever life circumstances they find themselves in. Thus all humans attain unintuitively similar levels of happiness despite even drastic differences in fortune or social status.

Given that discovery, what’s the real reason it’s wrong to oppress people or abuse power? There are rights, sure. But to the best of my knowledge — and I am glossing over centuries of deep philosophical thought here — rights are axioms. Saying “it violates their rights” is scarcely better than “it’s just wrong”. What other reasons are there? Retribution? The fact that that person and/or his allies can physically resist you or exact revenge after the fact? Sure, that’s quite a practical reason. But the oppressed don’t always have that power. (In fact, they rarely do, which is how they ended up oppressed.) It’s cruel? Well, besides being as academic as “it violates their rights”, this needs to contend with Prof. Gilbert’s “they’ll get over it” theory. The peasants are perfectly capable of fabricating surrogate ice, and they’ll like it just as much. Go ahead and take the real stuff.

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Trying to read http://neuroself.com/2011/05/12/1-philosophy-of-science/ . Skull struggling not to implode in self-defense. This stuff is far less accessible than Action Philosophers.


May. 25th, 2011 12:19 am
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You may have heard the news about a couple keeping their newborn baby’s gender a secret to all but immediate family members. Several of my friends have Tweeted (or the equivalent) about it, entirely in a positive light. Yesterday, my brother-in-law waxed eloquent about it on Facebook. He and his friends were universally disparaging and mostly hostile toward this, to paraphrase, "wacko left-wing bullshit".

I shouldn’t be too surprised. He and my sister are quite conservative. They were against sending their own daughters to school to be forcibly subjected to Obama’s potential socialist indoctrination speech back in September 2009. They think the only people who object to TSA body scans & patdowns are selfish assholes who’d rather see hundreds of innocent people die to terrorist bombs if it means they get through security thirty seconds faster themselves. But I want to know if there’s an actual reason they think this child-raising plan won’t work besides “It’s obvious why not. What’s wrong with you?”, so I decided to risk getting banned from yet another internet forum and ask.

I haven’t gotten a direct response yet. The coherent replies in the thread revolve around the idea that The Goal (protect the child’s gender identity development from harmful societal pressure) can be achieved without The Plan (hide the child’s gender from other people); that The Goal cannot be achieved with The Plan because The Plan cannot be sustained long enough to matter; that The Plan is, in fact, counterproductive to The Goal because it will attract more focus than normal to the child’s gender; and that The Plan has the significant drawback of pissing everyone off. Basically, it’s all downside and no upside. Other, less-useful posts thought the parents were trying to hide the kid’s gender from itself or criticized the parents’ entire nigh-disciplineless child-rearing approach.

We’ll see if anything good comes out of it. The best outcome I can reasonably expect is to be told I can’t possibly understand since I don’t have kids.

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A few days ago, Bill Gates—who is big on international philanthropy these days—tweeted about a ONE Campaign notice that the U.S. fiscal year 2011 budget that had just passed "preserves nearly all key funding for programs fighting poverty in the developing world," to the tune of over $10 billion.

Now, saving lives is good, right? It seems like it should be a good sort of thing in general. So why do I get the heebie-jeebies reading the comments to that article? Is it all the "praise God"s and the conspicuous smugness that their personal interpretation of their religion trumps the laws of the very country aiding them most? Is it the lingering notion that these people feel lives are so much more important than money that it doesn't matter whose money it is or how much is involved?

I see nothing wrong with charity—at least, nothing beyond the general caveat of avoiding getting the recipient dependent on it—but I don't think charity describes what happened here. The ONE Campaign's stated goal is saving lives in extremely poor developing countries, primarily by fighting disease and hunger. Its own website expressly states it is not a charity organization that accepts voluntary donations from private invidivuals and uses them to send goods, services, and wealth where needed. According to the campaign's own words, it works by pressuring the leaders of powerful countries into increasing the generosity of their foreign aid programs. That's the opposite of charity, because now we're talking tax money, which citizens in the powerful countries cannot legally refuse to pay.

But it's all for The Greater Good, right? That $300 I just worked all week to earn can buy me an X-box, but think how many lives it could save! Trust us. We're religious, and not from your greedy country. We know what's best for Humanity, and we're going to do it whether you like it or not. And what's best is that not a single one of these fifty people in Village X starves to death this year, even if it means no Call of Duty 4 for you.

The sticking point is that I have no idea if they're right on a species scale. This all gets way the hell over my head into the realms of philosophy and game theory. I'm led to believe altruism and reciprocity benefit society as a whole, and may even be the reason we survived the infant years of our species. Forced wealth redistribution may very well be better for everyone, in general, even though it means breaking laws (or at least going directly against their intent, like taking money from a New York City auto mechanic to buy anti-AIDS drugs for Rwanda instead of clean up pollution from the Hudson River). On the other hand, generous welfare policies might overstimulate the altruism centers of our primitive brains in exactly the same way as modern salty-fatty processed foods wreck our eating habits.

Or maybe I'm making too big a deal over something reportedly "0.73% of our budget".

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (politics)

Some months ago I surveyed several friends on basic politics and political education:

Here is a hypothetical scenario for your consideration. Imagine, say, that you have a neice going to college next year, or you get recruited into the local high school's PTA, or some other situation arises where you find yourself with the power to determine how a class of young U.S. high school or undergraduate citizens is educated about politics, economics, and civic responsibility. What essentials, what fundamentals, do you feel would be a bare minimum for such a course so its students got a firm foundation and a reliable head start toward competence and self-sufficiency?

What topics would you make sure the class covered? What terms would you make sure were included? What concepts?

What material would you have them read? What books? What famous documents? Is there any material you'd caution against?

What people would you have them study?

What would you teach about the structure of government? How much would you stress federal vs. state vs. county vs. city?

How would you encourage the kids to stay abreast of current events? What sources of information would you recommend for common news coverage? What resources would you suggest for followup investigation?

How would you encourage the students to use what they learned?

What would you do that I haven't covered here?

About half the people I surveyed answered. Here's roughly what they said.

Person #1

Recommend everyone read some Noam Chomsky and watch the "Speaking Freely" series on Netflix. Also good are The Problem with the Media by Robert McChesney and the BBC series "The Power of Nightmares". Unfortunately, this amount of left-biased material cannot get past any school board without counterbalancing conservative material. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Ann Coulter are all unacceptable choices for this since too much of what they say is fabricated. More serious convervative or neoconservative philosophers, like Leo Strauss, might work.

Person #2

Terms & Concepts

  • The difference behind the philosophies of being conservative (self reliant) and Liberal (having the state solve people's problems)
  • The difference between Miltonian and Keynesian economics, and how that builds the different approaches our elected officials take.
  • Recognizing media bias. Conservatives in the country outnumber liberals 2 to 1, yet liberal journalists outnumber conservative journalists 4 to 1. This affects how we get our news. Logical fallacies are handy here too, but that's an entire course in itself.
  • Which Republicans are actually progressives. Too many kids get caught up in the team sport aspect of politics and don't get that Bush was a liberal and that true conservatism in a president is pretty rare.


  • Freakonomics
  • The 5,000 Year Leap
  • Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning
  • Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind (a marketing book)
  • Manufacturing Consent


  • www.drudgereport.com
  • hotair.com

Person #3

General Goals

  • Understand the relationship of axioms, observations, goals, logic, and conclusions
  • Exposure to the practical consequences of historically significant political and economic philosophies.
  • Immunization against propaganda.
  • Understand that "right" and "wrong" are relevant to philosophy and economics.
  • Understand that correctness is evaluated by real-world results.


The Law by Frédéric Bastiat and Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt cover the fully rational side of things. But humans aren't rational, so temper with something like P. J. O'Rourke essays from Parliament of Whores and Eat the Rich. Counterpointing abstract and concrete approaches like this also helps instill healthy skepticism of philosophers, economists, and politicians.

Key Concepts

  • What are the facts?
  • How do you know?
  • What non-factual arguments are being offered?
  • Who benefits from each possible course of action?
  • How can each course of action be exploited or worked around later?
  • What are the side effects?
  • Is there a simpler way to achieve the same result?
  • If you're trying to encourage an action, is the action good in itself or merely associated with people you like?
  • If you're trying to prevent an action, is the action bad in itself or merely associated with people you don't like?
  • Would you really force someone, at gunpoint, to do what you want in this situation?


Anything. Stay current from several sources. Avail yourself of everything at first, regardless of its reputation. Form your own opinion regarding what to trust.

Person #4

Terms & Concepts

  • Government (literally guberno (to steer/control) + mens (the mind)
  • Law
  • Property
  • Sovereignty as the base of authority behind all laws, sovereign people vs. sovereign ruler
  • Natural rights theory vs Social Contract rights theory, i.e. rights granted by an authority vs having all rights so long as they do not interfere with others.
  • Fiat currency (debt) vs hard currency (based on commodities or other hard limits).
  • Free market economies vs. central planning.
  • Principles, and why they matter more than short-term gain.

Books & Other Media

  • The US Constitution and the arguments that lead to it, including all Federalist Papers.
  • On the Horns of the Beast: The Federal Reserve and the New World Order by Bill Still
  • Free to Choose: A Personal Statement by Milton & Rose D. Friedman
  • Liberty Defined: 50 Essential Issues That Affect Our Freedom by Ron Paul
  • The Century of the Self, directed & produced by Adam Curtis
  • The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek


Every single bit of information one can digest. Be your own editor so you serve your own agenda, not someone else's.


Feb. 9th, 2011 01:50 am
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One of the worst mistakes I ever made was saying, "White people have no culture" to a Québécois. I mean, really, what was I thinking? We're talking about a group whose provincial motto is "We remember"; a group so attached to specific facets of their national heritage that they're mocked by the rest of their country. I wasn't serious, of course, but that's irrelevant. The very concept is hopelessly, insultingly USA-centric. "Hi! I'm going to spew a thoughtless quip that's only true if you ignore Europe. Aren't I clever?"

It's not the first time I got in trouble over the word. Back in college, in a conversation above my academic caste, I interjected some schmaltzy line about how important it is to experience other cultures. I got raked over the coals for that one. The assemblage turned to me and tasked me with defining "culture". I couldn't, of course. They knew that. The word is ambiguous to the point of meaninglessness. I had said precisely nothing in an effort to sound worldly, and they called me on it. They even trotted out that Hitler quote, "When I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my gun," although it's not his quote in particular (Also, in hindsight, I'm not sure how pointing out similarities to Nazi ideology was supposed to strengthen their position, but that oddity didn't strike me at the time.)

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Then, finally, what we need to stress in teaching composition is not creative writing, but good writing. I do not believe in creative writing. I think more harm has been done in the name of creative writing the past generation than in any other way in our culture. It has encouraged anarchy of mind and anarchy in composition. I very early realized when I was a student that these were courses to stay away from. I recognized the students who had potentiality as good writers were very quickly spoiled by such courses. Man cannot think creatively. Creativity is an attribute of God. God, alone, is Creator. God, alone, can bring something out of nothing. Man's thinking is not intended to be creative, but intelligent.
-R.J. Rushdoony
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Paraphrased from the discussion here:

"Wow. It turns out government-mandated healthcare isn't so unconstitutional after all."

"How do you mean?"

"It's already been done. By some of the Founding Fathers, even. Back when the country was about twenty years old, the economy was taking a big hit. The U.S. relied heavily on international trade, but sailors were getting sick and injured in great numbers and couldn't afford treatment. So the federal government passed a law that required any U.S. ship arriving from a foreign port to pay 20¢ per sailor per month or face a $100 fine. That fee paid to build and run Marine Hospitals that treated sailors from those ships for free."

"You're kidding."


"Really? The Founding Fathers?"

"Some of them. John Adams was President and signed it, and Jefferson was also in favor. Both those guys had a pretty good idea what the Constitution intended and what it didn't."

"That's interesting! Still, that act isn't like Obama's health care plan at all."

"Oh. Really."

"Yeah. For one, Obamacare forces private citizens to pay into a service directly. The federal government can't do that. That older act charged companies, which is okay."

"That's only a technicality. The Disabled Seamen act expressly allowed and suggested that ship owners could cover the expense by taking the fee directly from their sailors' pay. It might follow the letter of your alleged the-government-can't-make-citizens-buy-things rule, but both acts violate the spirit and both have the same net result: private citizens pay the cost."

"Well, what about the fact that Obamacare hits everyone? There's no way out of the fine or forced purchase except having no income (or belonging to some minority ethnic groups). This Seamen Act applied to one specific job: international sailors. That's it. If they didn't like being forced to buy insurance, they could do something else."

"There are two problems with that. First, it's not reasonable to expect someone to leave behind a lifetime of experience and training and switch careers cold turkey. You're handwaving away the fact that these sailors actually had very little choice whether to pay, much like with Obamacare. Second, it can't be okay to charge one job but wrong to charge all of them. Think about it. If 'one' is okay but 'all' is wrong, you have to flip from 'okay' to 'wrong' somewhere along the way. Where is that? Is it between one job and two? Four and five? Ninety-seven and ninety-eight? Is it acceptable to force sailors and sous chefs to pay for health insurance but unconstitutional to force sailors and sous chefs and crossing guards? All possible answers are equally silly and unjustifiable. So either it's okay, period, or it's wrong, period. And the Founding Fathers did it, which rules out 'wrong'. Only 'okay' is left."

"But the Seamen Act fees went into a government-run program, not to private companies!"

"Absolutely correct. I have to give you that one. You're actually right. But how does this addresses the idea of whether it's okay for the federal government to force citizens to buy a service?
"You know, some of comments I see here are the result of people pretending to understand constitutional issues. While I may not be the biggest fan of our current SCOTUS, they are extremely bright people who are able to understand what was what. If arguments such as yours form the basis of a constitutional challenge, I fear you are not going to like the result.
"Here’s the good news – there are some very valid Constitutional challenges to be lodged against Obamacare- many of which have a very decent chance of succeeding, particularly with this court. The problem is you, with all due respect, are hitting none of them.
"If you took a few moments to read through these comments, you will find some where the commenter disagrees with my perspective on the law discussed in this piece and provide[s] compelling arguments to support their disagreement. Read some of them so you better understand the real issues."
[bold text not paraphrased -Q]

Things understandably get a bit testy after that. There are conflicting assertions about whether international sailors were Merchant Marines at the time, and thus military personnel rather than private citizens. There were jibes that people got their entire legal theory from Wikipedia. There were admonishments that people were not bothering to look up basic facts with five-minute Wikipedia or Google searches before attempting to contribute. There was an "all your counterpoints were addressed in the Federalist Papers two hundred twenty years ago"; that one was funny. After that it gets into various nitty-gritty squabbles over the stark differences in Jefferson's and Adams's philosophies and actions.


1. Bill says he's thirsty. Sara gives him a Coke. Bill says he doesn't like Coke. Sara takes her Coke back.

Q: What five classic errors did Sara commit?

That's pretty much how my brain felt when I came up from the original thread for air. I'm reluctant to dive back in.

Game designer Soren Johnson once tweeted, "I love history because it is like a fractal - whatever you want to know about, you can always zoom in for more detail." That's what I had here. The depth was endless. Endless and the nigh opposite of helpful. I suppose that sort of thing is appealing to people like Mr. Johnson and the Founding Fathers, who are magical aliens with giant, perfect space brains ["No we aren't." -J. Madison]. I suppose it's appealing to people with "powerful, flexible minds" (as someone I know put it), people who prefer a world where whether you're correct depends less on whether you're actually correct than it does on whether you can imagine yourself correct (and then convince people). Me? I prefer true things to be true and false things to be false. I don't understand how believing that, say, that chair over there really is red, or the Foo Act of 19XX really is or is not legal, logically forces me to believe free will does not exist. I detest the idea that I can pick any stance I want on any issue I want and be right if I connect the right dots. That's doublethink. That's Bizarro world. I don't want to live there.

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PepsiCo is developing a drinkable fruit puree snack. They say they want to develop healthy snacks as well as cola and potato chips. They say they "played with the mix of juice and puree to achieve the desired thickness without adding gums or starches. Ingredients include apple puree, filtered water, banana puree concentrate and three other kinds of fruit concentrate."

But "Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, said that the fruit concentrates are simply sugar. 'They start out with real food, so let's give them credit for applesauce and mashed-up bananas,' but 'the rest of it is sugar,' she said. 'Kids would be better off eating an apple or a banana.'"

High school English teacher Risha Mullins single-handedly reinvigorated interest in reading by introducing Young Adult literature to the optional curriculum. The reading club Ms. Mullins started hit critical mass and topped 130 members, including many not in her classes. Unacceptably, chronically low test scores rose significantly. Prior to this change, students were "being forced to read [classics] they couldn’t and learning to hate reading because of it."

Martin Cothran, who teaches and writes textbooks on logic, rhetoric, and Latin, calls foul in a few posts of his own. Trying new things to get kids to read more is great and should be done, but this was a college preparatory class. To Cothran, the only material acceptable in a college preparatory class is the very material the kids will encounter in college. YA literature is unproven; classics are proven timeless. Classics are, almost by definition, more accessible than other works, not less, because the issues they address are more fundamental and more universal. If a student cannot be encouraged to read classic literature, the fault lies with the teacher attempting the encouragement. Cothran knows good teachers can and do succeed at this because he himself did it for years. If a student finds the work too challenging, that student does not belong in a college prep class. It may be too challenging because he received substandard education in prior years, or it may be because he simply is not capable of that level of work in that academic field, but either way, altering coursework to accommodate him is inappropriate.

I get a lot of friction from friends for too often dropping into a "the best way is the only good way" mindset. Understandably, I find it interesting to see how other people handle these "Hey, it's better than nothing" situations. Sure, it is, but is it enough better to matter?