Friday, October 31, 2014

Grammar Libertarian 

I've just finished reading Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. I highly recommend it if you think it's something you might be interested in.

Pinker brings his expertise in writing, linguistics, cognitive science, and his overall good sense to bear on the topic. Generally, he recommends using the "classic style", as suggested by Thomas and Turner in Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. The guiding metaphor is "seeing the world". It treats the reader as an intelligent peer whose focus is directed towards something that the writer has noticed.

Classic writing, with its assumption of equality between writer and reader, makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.

There are several examples of good and bad styles. Additionally, he uses his professional knowledge to give great insights about the "curse of knowledge" (where the writer isn't aware of what the reader may not know) and about limiting the cognitive demands on the reader to handle complex sentences.

Being a "style guide", much of the book is taken up with many issues of usage. Pinker usually comes down on the side of accepting usage that many grammar sheriffs complain about (many are mistakes, overgeneralized rules of thumb, obsolete, etc.). He also agrees with me that the American punctuation rule of placing the comma or other punctuation mark that comes at the end of a phrase before the closing quotation mark, even if the punctuation mark is not part of what was intended to be quoted, is silly. Maybe it looks good to printers, but it seems illogical to many of us. I've flouted this convention a few times already in this post.

And, even though the subject can be dry, the book is still pretty fun to read. If you like sentences like this:

Even the sticklers can't agree on how to stickle.

...then you'll probably enjoy the book.

I confess, though, that I used to be a grammar sheriff. I had a store of knowledge about English that I was proud of, and I wasn't shy about telling people when they were wrong. I learned these things in school. They were confirmed by the practice tests for the Test of Standard Written English that was part of the SAT when I took it.

When I was a kid, whenever I played a game, I had to know the rules. If I was going to play baseball, I was going to know all about the infield fly rule and uncaught third strike. If I was going to be a reader, and a sometime writer, I wanted to know the rules of English usage. So, I learned the rules of the game. I knew when to use "like" and when to use "as". I knew what "anxious" means (worried), and what many fools think it also means (eager).

But, writing isn't that kind of a game. It's not about scoring points; it's about communicating facts and ideas. If you succeed, without annoying the reader, you did it right. There are many conventions to be aware of that help with this, but language usage evolves and effective communication evolves with it and varies based on the formality of the piece and the composition of the target audience.

Over the years, I've become much more tolerant of usages that I was taught were wrong. Perhaps it's been because of the examples set by people like Pinker and Eugene Volokh (who are both smarter than I am).

If it's good enough for them, then it should be good enough for me.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Just Babies 

I recently finished reading Just Babies (The Origins of Good and Evil) by Paul Bloom.

The title is a play on the word "Just" as in "merely" but also as in "having a sense of fairness".

The book was very enjoyable and enlightening. Much of the early section is, indeed, about babies and fascinating, well-designed, experiments that get at what moral qualities are innate (or perhaps the capacities for very early development of them are innate).

But, there are many more sections dealing with areas of morality such as empathy and compassion, fairness, status, and punishment, "Others," bodies, families, religion, custom, and reason.

There's a lot that I liked about this book. One is that the style is clear and smart, but always easy for the nonprofessional to absorb and enjoy. The different points are presented in bite-sized chunks, so I think you could read any five pages in it and walk away smarter. Another, is the eminent reasonableness of Bloom's approach to the results that he reports. He's consistently skeptical of whether the result tells the whole story or captures a causal relationship. He reminds us to maintain perspective and to remember that surprising results get published, but the bulk of what's relevant may lie in unsurprising common sense notions about how reason is involved in our moral behavior.

If I had to complain about anything it's that he presents plausible theories, that he eventually dismisses as incorrect or at least incomplete, so fairly that I'm afraid that I might remember them as if they are true (or the best theories available).

I hope I'm within the bounds of fair use to quote the final paragraph, which I think lays out the major points that the entire book does a fine job of arguing for:

It turns out instead that the right theory of our moral lives has two parts. It starts with what we are born with, and this is surprisingly rich: babies are moral animals, equipped by evolution with empathy and compassion, the capacity to judge the actions of others, and even some rudimentary understanding of justice and fairness. But we are more than just babies. A critical part of our morality--so much of what makes us human--emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why Not Capitalism? 

It's not often that you can read a great political philosophy book that supports its main argument by referring to the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse television show.

But, Why Not Capitalism? by Jason Brennan is such a book.

The book is a moral defense of capitalism. Ayn Rand is famous for offering her moral defense of capitalism as well, but her nontraditional style and idiosyncratic use of terms like selfishness and altruism made her work easy for many philosophers, and psuedo-intellectuals, to dismiss. Brennan's work is not as easily dismissed.

Why Not Capitalism? is an explicit response to G. A. Cohen's Why Not Socialism?

Cohen's book uses the example of a camping trip of friends who share their property in a socialist manner and contrasts this wonderful experience with how awful it would be if people began acting like capitalists and demanded special rewards for the use of their property and talents. He argues that this shows that, whether or not Socialism is feasible on a grander scale, it's certainly more desirable, and morally superior. Many people, even those who prefer Capitalism for prudential, realistic, reasons agree with this and believe that we're stuck with Capitalism because we're just not good enough for Socialism.

My first reaction, upon hearing Cohen's argument was to dismiss it as irrelevant because of the Knowledge Problem (or Socialist Calculation Problem). The information required to allocate resources well in a large society is not concentrated, but is dispersed and inexplicit. Market prices help to coordinate productive activity without the need for the information to ever be localized. So, it just seemed to me to be a mistake to talk about scaling up the sharing among friends to the organization of a large society.

Hayek himself wrote:

Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within the different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e. of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once.

But Brennan isn't content to quibble about the feasibility of large-scale Socialism. He understands that Cohen is making a point about whether morally ideal people should prefer Socialism or Capitalism, and that the feasibility question is separate.

Brennan recognizes that Cohen has pulled a fast one and has compared an idealized (among morally perfect members) version of Socialism with a "realistic" version of Capitalism (among morally imperfect members). Brennan offers a parody of Cohen's metaphor by using Disney's Mickey Mouse Clubhouse television show world as his idealized version of Capitalism, and then contrasts it with "realistic" Socialism, with collective ownership, where the characters act as real socialists have:

a. Donald decides to forcibly nationalize and control all of the farmland, murdering millions in the process, and causing a massive famine that murders tens of millions more. He uses terror tactics to assert his control....
b. Things don't go as well as Donald planned, and the other villagers begin to resist. Goofy stifles dissent by creating gulags in the coldest reaches of Disney World. Anyone he deems an enemy is sent to the gulag to be tortured and worked to death...
c. Mickey Mouse stifles free speech, crushes all political opposition, and installs himself for life as the Premier. He becomes increasingly paranoid. At one point, to assert his control, he murders nearly all members of the governing party...
d. Minnie Mouse creates five-year economic plans for the entire village economy. In some areas she decides to depopulate the cities and move everyone into agricultural communes. In other areas she forces [them] to work in factories. She causes massive economic stagnation, shortages, and breadlines...

It's easy to see how one can use this kind of apples to oranges comparison to get the result he desires.

But, Brennan goes further. He goes on to show that even with apples to apples comparisons of Idealized Socialism to Idealized Capitalism, (and also when comparing realistic Socialism to realistic Capitalism) Capitalism has many virtues that make it preferable.

And, to top it all off, even if many people would actually prefer to live under a socialist regime, they could do it within a capitalist society (so long as all of the members are there voluntarily), but Socialism does not permit a similar option for those who prefer Capitalism.

That's Why Capitalism!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Is Average Over? 

I've recently finished reading Average Is Over by Tyler Cowen, and really enjoyed it.

I don't necessarily agree with the main conclusion, but there were a lot of interesting ideas presented along the way.

I suspect that Cowen is trying to take advantage of the fashionable concern about income (and wealth) inequality (I'm not very concerned about that, in itself). His thesis, which is pretty common, is that advancing capabilities of computer intelligence will further segment the economy between the owners and knowledge workers who can direct the machines, and the rest of the population who will be stuck providing low-paying services that aren't easily automated.

I think he's definitely right that the labor market is going to change (that's always a safe prediction), but I'm not as confident about what the distribution will look like. Since the machines will help generate tremendous wealth in goods and information, there might be a lot of demand for creative, high-paying (or at least ranging across a wide spectrum), services that people will either do better than machines, or just be preferred by customers (and Cowen does mention the importance of human coaches, for example). I don't know what these jobs will be, but I suspect people will figure out what others want and how they can make a living providing it.

I also have some quibbles with Cowen's predictions about science, suggesting that there will be fewer big advances and few paradigm-shifting individual discoveries, and more specialized progress among research teams with machines; such that no individuals can grasp more than a small part of their fields. I think science is more about generating better and better explanations, and I don't see a limit to what humans can grasp (at the level of good explanations rather than trivial factual details); but maybe seeing our limitations is one of my limitations...

But, whether or not "Average is over," it's still fascinating going along for the ride through speculation across multiple topics with a brilliant mind.

One insight that I really appreciated was the idea that the people who will really prosper will be those who best complement intelligent machines. Cowen's interesting analogy was with freestyle chess, where human and computer teams compete and play at a much higher level than just humans or just machines could do on their own.

If this kind of smart speculation appeals to you, you should definitely read this book.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Information and Ignorance 

I agree with Ronald Bailey in this article, in which he argues for allowing genetic testing of embryos which some bioethicists want to ban because they fear that the parents will make poor decisions with that information and they think that the children should have an "'open future' unburdened by the knowledge of their genetic predispositions for adult onset illnesses."

This idea of an "open future" seems laughable to me. It made me think of an ostrich being stalked by hyenas. Does it have a more "open future" if it sticks its head in the ground and remains oblivious to the impending attack, or if it knows that an attack might come and has the opportunity try to deal with it to the best of its ability?

I understand that many people think that "Ignorance is bliss" and that we're all better off not knowing some things, but I (and others) often disagree, and I don't want some people forcing their knowledge preferences on others. I think this tendency to prefer ignorance comes from an irrational attempt to justify, and romanticize, traditional ways of dealing with the world that occurred before modern information was available.

This line of thought led me to think of other related issues of information and its control.

People may prefer to remain unaware of "spoilers" before they've seen a work, because they want to experience it for the first time the way the creator intended, and social pressure and conventions can help them remain ignorant in this way, but I don't think they have a coercively-enforcable right to prevent others from revealing things that they might not want to know. They don't own that information and don't have a right to control it.

If I don't think somebody has a right to prevent me from knowing test results (as long as I'm paying for the tests, and there are others who are willing to perform and help interpret the results for me), do I have a right to prevent other people from knowing things about me? What information is mine to control, and what isn't?

Do people have a right to control "private" information about themselves?

I think it depends. If the information was illegally obtained, overriding reasonable attempts to keep it private, then they probably do. If they allowed the information to get out by being unreasonably lax about controlling it, then they probably don't.

Should Google be able to publish personal details from my Gmail messages? Should it be able to sell information electronically gleened from them to third parties? What about aggregated information? Should the NSA be able to read them (without a warrant)? My intuition is that the case against the government violating my privacy is stronger, because they have the power to cause me more harm with it, and so privacy protections against them should be stronger.

I think this decision was decided wrongly. Apparently the European Union Court of Justice thinks people have a right for things about them to be "forgotten" and thus place a huge burden on Google (and other search engines, I suppose) to comply with requests to remove links to things people don't want to be easily discoverable.

The line is fuzzy and we'll have to evolve standards for where the default boundaries are (although people should be able to explicitly grant more rights over information to others; but not just by clicking "I agree" to a long legalistic notice). As computer systems, and the methods of aggregating information, change so too will reasonable conventions about what we can expect to remain private by default.

It would be nice if there were a simple rule that we could always apply and be sure about what information is ours to control, but I don't think we'll ever have such a rule (we might have laws that try to do it, but they'll be bad ones).

The world changes and I think the right way to live in it changes, too.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Letting Go of God 

I just watched Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God" DVD from Netflix and liked it quite a bit. It's very funny and thoughtful.

Her experience is very different from mine (I've always been skeptical and resistant to arguments from authority and popularity), but I suspect that hers is one that lots of others can relate to.

If it seems like the kind of thing you might enjoy, I recommend that you check it out.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why We Get Fat 

After being unhappy with how I looked in some vacation pictures last year, I decided to try to lose back the extra weight I've gained over the past few years. I've been able to lose back most of my goal, but still have a bit to go.

But, there's so much contradictory information about weight-loss and diet out there that I wanted to find out a bit more about what theories the best evidence supports in this area.

So, I recently read Gary Taubes' Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It.

This isn't so much a diet book, as it is an explanation and history and survey of theories about what causes (heredity, calories in/calories out, fatty foods, lack of excercise, carbohydrates, etc.) people to get fat, and related health problems

Spoiler Alert: It's carbohydrates.

Heredity definitely plays a role, and exercise is valuable for other reasons, but it seems like carbohydrate ingestion dominates factors that one can control.

Taubes is very much driven by the evidence and I found the book easy to read and very persuasive. Again, it's not primarily a book filled with menu suggestions (although there's a bit of that in the Afterword); it's mostly an argument for eating few carbs. Low-carb diet details and suggestions can be found lots of other places.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Do You Have The Right To A Private Conversation? 

I just watched this Reason.TV video of Ladar Levison (founder of Lavabit, the successful secure email provider he chose to shut down rather than comply with the FBI's efforts to compromise the privacy of his users).

It was inspiring, and I'm very happy that there are people like him around, helping us to maintain a shred of privacy.

I'm also intrigued by the Darkmail Technical Alliance he's promoting, along with the principals from Silent Circle (which also shut down their secure email service rather than compromise privacy).

Secure electronic mail that's easy enough for non-technical people to use will be challenging to develop and it could be even more challenging to achieve widespread adoption.

I wish them luck.

My answer to the title of this post is "YES!", I think we do have the right to a private conversation, and I hope we'll all be able to exercise that right without having to take heroic measures in order to do so.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The State of the Union 2014 

I watched the President's State of the Union address last night and was happy to see that it was boring, without many grand program proposals. That's the best I could have hoped for from him.

Here's a pretty good video from the Cato Institute responding to some of the key comments and proposals in much the same way I did in my head.