May 2003

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Saturday, May 31, 2003

Voting 

Is voting reasonable?

I think that the correct answer is: it depends.

If the reason you’re voting is to affect the outcome of the current election, then it seems pretty unreasonable to me. As the number of voters grows, the probability of your individual vote swaying the election approaches zero. As the article I refer to later says:

Since the chance of one's own vote proving decisive is less by several orders of magnitude than the likelihood of being maimed in an auto accident while on the way to the polls, it would seem that a truly rational person will instead devote the half hour in question to reading a good book, drinking whiskey sours, or pursuing some other end that yields a perceptible positive return.

But is there another, rational, reason to vote?

Yes, I think so. In 1992, I read an article by Loren Lomasky in Reason Magazine that still affects my thinking on this issue.

In it, Lomasky argues that rational people vote for expressive reasons rather than the instrumental reason of deciding the outcome of the election. He gives the analogies of cheering at a football game or giving a "Get Well Quick!" card to a sick friend. We don't do these things because we expect to change the outcome (or, more precisely, that the probability of changing the outcome multiplied by the value to us of that change exceeds the cost of the action). We do them because we want to express our support. We want other people to know what we support, and to just feel good about doing something that expresses that support. If you value the returns from this expression more than the expected costs to you, then it makes sense for you to do it.

So, suppose that you favor libertarian policies, but would prefer that a Republican candidate win vs. the Democrat candidate. This election has a Libertarian candidate as well. What should you do? It seems to me that the reasonable thing to do depends on what you're trying to accomplish.

If you're trying to sway the election, you should forget about it and go read a good book or something.

But, if you're voting for expressive reasons, then I think you should vote for the candidate who best represents your preferences. And that candidate is the Libertarian. I think you should do this even if you don't really want this particular candidate to win (let's say his approach to how to transition to libertarianism is different from yours). You should want people who analyze the results of the election to get the right message from your vote. You should want them to know that there was one more voter who favors libertarian policies, and hopefully they'll modify their behavior to try to accomodate libertarians a bit more. But if you vote for the Republican, you'll be sending the wrong message (or at least an ambiguous one).

So, if you want to send a libertarian message you should vote Libertarian. If you want to send a Republican message, you should vote Republican.

If you want to send a Democrat or Green message, you shouldn't bother voting. Your vote won't affect the outcome.


Friday, May 30, 2003

Do It For The Children!!! 

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: "Gil, what can I do to help secure the future of reasonableness?"

I'm glad you asked.

I think that the best way to ensure that most people are reasonable in the future is to raise reasonable children. Despite what you may have heard, children start off incredibly reasonable. They have to be. They must learn thousands of things without much help. They have to form theories, and then criticize them successfully so that they can improve them and eventually discover solutions that work. This requires developing rationality.

So, if kids are so reasonable, then why do some of them grow up to be so unreasonable?

Because of their parents (and teachers and others; but mostly because of their parents). Often with the best of intentions, parents systematically inhibit their children's ability to reason about different things and cause them to develop entrenched irrationalities.

Before we became enlightened, people in power used to think various other groups of people were inferior and needed to be coerced in order to be happy, or to at least to become cooperative. They thought this about the poor, they thought this about blacks, they thought this about women, and many of us still think this about children. It's The Final Prejudice.

If you're a parent, or if you plan to become a parent, or if you're just interested in how adults should treat children, then I urge you to become familar with the information at this site. I know it will seem radical. I know that it will contradict things that Everybody Knows. But, please try to suspend your doubts until after you become familiar with the theory.

If we want to raise children who will value liberty, responsibility, and reason then we should raise them to be free, responsible, and used to resolving conflicts with good natured, creative efforts to find common preferences rather than resorting to coercion.

Taking Children Seriously (TCS) just might save the world. And even if it doesn't, it's still the decent and reasonable way to treat people.

Do It For The Children!


Thursday, May 29, 2003

Odd Joke  

I've always liked this joke:

Man #1: You look familiar. Did we meet at a convention in Chicago last year?
Man #2: No, I've never been to Chicago.
Man #1: Neither have I. It must have been two other guys.

I think it might be because it doesn't follow the standard joke-pattern. It's not just the last line that is absurd on its own. It makes you jump to a higher-level and think about how absurd the entire conversation is; that nobody would actually have said the first line.

It's cool.


Humor  

What makes things funny?

It seems like such a simple question that it must have a simple answer. But, I don’t think that there is one simple answer. I’ve always been considered funny. I’ve been good at coming up with a funny quip, telling jokes, predicting the punch lines of new jokes. I have a good internal sense of what I find funny, and what others will find funny; but I’ve never been satisfied with any explicit theory about what makes things funny.

Here are some tentative thoughts.

First of all, I’d like to distinguish between things that are funny and reasons we laugh. I think we laugh for other reasons in addition to finding things funny. We often laugh to communicate things to people; that we share values, that we’re not threatening (or that we are), etc. I’m sure there are lots of evolutionary sociological reasons that explain laughter. I’m not very interested in these.

But, what makes something funny?

The only thing that I can say that all funny things have in common is that they “tickle” our minds in an interesting way that pleases us.

I’ve heard it said that all humor is happiness at the misfortune of others. That’s not quite true, but it does seem to be the case that a lot of humor removes the dignity of somebody. Sometimes we're being cruel to some group that's out of favor in our local culture; but this might be more about the social aspect, like laughing, than about the pure humor. Also, we seem to like bursting the bubble of people who have a level of undeserved dignity, or superiority. That’s why bosses, teachers, politicians, priests, prudes, etc. are often the target of jokes. We are amused when they are shown to have human frailty and there’s nothing they can do to us about it. Also, slapstick seems to involve a quick transition from a noble, thinking, human to a lump of matter subjected to uncaring natural forces. We're also amused by things that violate taboos because it’s fun to bring down those who think that some things should be off-limits to jokes. We don’t feel really threatened because humor keeps us safe from serious social attack; we were only joking, we’re not serious, etc. But being able to play with forbidden ideas is serious, and we like it.

But not all humor is like that. Some humor is just a clever turn of phrase, or double meaning, or surprise, or outrageous idea. While you might be able to find some imagined person whose dignity was diminished by the joke, I don’t think that’s what makes it funny.

I think we like to have our minds stimulated in interesting ways. We like to have to make or recognize a clever association. We like to be surprised; to have to switch contexts to see things in a new way. I think this is partially because this “cleverness” triggers a positive response. We like cleverness. We solved problems as children by changing our perspective, making new associations, etc. And we drew squeals of joy and other indications of approval from our mothers and other adults when we performed these feats. It makes sense that they would stay pleasing to us.

By the way, I realize that most funny things comprise both elements: context switch AND dignity reduction. I just wanted to make it clear that the dignity reduction wasn't an essential part of all humor.

Anyway, these are my tentative thoughts. Criticisms are welcome.

Especially funny ones.

UPDATE 3: The book described in this post, now represents my best theory of humor.

UPDATE 2: This post is relevant.

UPDATE 1: I just heard that it's Bob Hope's 100th birthday today. Seems appropriate. Happy Birthday, Bob!


Wednesday, May 28, 2003

This Is It  

Anybody who has been following the news lately is aware that there was a major event last week. I'm sure you've all been wondering how I've managed to avoid writing about it. Well, I'm finally going to address this momentous event.

Of course, I'm talking about Poodle Hat.

Poodle Hat is "Weird Al" Yankovic's latest album. It has been nearly four years since his prior album, Running With Scissors was released.

I've been enjoying Al's brilliance ever since he first appeared on the Dr. Demento radio show in 1980. Many have tried to imitate him, but none have come close.

I liked all of the songs on Poodle Hat. The only one that I don't really have to hear anymore is "Bob", a song in the incomprehensible Dylan style consisting entirely of palindromes.

One bit of controversy...Eminem refused to give Al permission to do a video of "Couch Potato" (Al's parody of Eminem's "Lose Yourself"); proving that Eminem is more cowardly than Michael Jackson, who gave Al permission to do two of his most memorable videos, "Eat It" and "Fat".

If you don't appreciate Weird Al, there's something wrong with you and you should have it checked out.

So, go out and buy the album. Don't download tracks off the Internet, though. That would be wrong.


Protecting (or not) Innocent Third Parties  

Eugene blogged about how even (most) libertarians don't say that laws shouldn't restrict people from engaging in activities that might (and will in the aggregate) impose costs on innocent third parties because these activities don't harm anyone. Eugene argues that these activities do harm people. In most of these cases, he agrees with the hardcore libertarians who say that the liberty of the people engaged in behaviors that endanger others is worth preserving. But he denies that that's because their behavior does no harm. It's worth preserving because, on balance, it's better and sometimes we have to weigh these things.

I think he's right. I'm probably more libertarian (i.e. more skeptical about the ethical and practical merits of governmental interventions) than Eugene is, but even I think that a simple application of the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP; basically that nobody has the right to initiate force against other people) to all cases is wrong. Sometimes we should take actions that will initate force against people who have not directly harmed anyone. Sometimes reckless people impose uacceptable risk on innocent third parties and should be stopped before they actually harm them. I suspect we'd all draw the line somewhere (blindfolded-spinning-nuclear-weapons-juggling, anyone?).

On the other side of the coin, sometimes we must harm innocent third parties when there is no practical alternative. An example of this is waging war against an enemy who has used human shields to protect his military targets.

It sucks. It would be nice if life were simple and a trivial rule always yielded the best results. But we don't live in a world like that. We live in this one, and sometimes it gets messy. This is not a reason to ignore the issue of coercion, or invite abuse. It does make sense to give tremendous weight to the value of liberty and innocent human life. But not infinite weight.

I think the NAP is a great general guideline. I think it encapsulates a lot of knowledge and wisdom about people and force. But it is not an immutable law of nature. It is not encoded into our DNA. There are cases when it's unreasonable; and libertarians need a good theory to address how institutions should identify and handle these cases (incuding how errors can be corrected).

While looking for a good link for the NAP, I came across this article by J. Neil Schulman that I think is excellent.


Fame 

Eugene Volokh has added me to his blogroll. Wow!

This is the kind of spontaneous publicity I need! My name in print! That really makes somebody! Things are going to start happening to me now.

A gold star goes to whomever correctly identifies that quote first in the comments (No fair using a search engine!).


Monday, May 26, 2003

Heh  

Tonight I asked my son if he wanted to see the new Jim Carrey movie called "Bruce Almighty". He immediately responded:

Alllllllmighty, then!

I see from Google that he's not the first to think of this (as I suspected), but he did think of it instantly and independently.

Anyway, I laughed.


Sunday, May 25, 2003

Happiness 

Are ethical hedonists right? Is happiness the only important thing about life; the thing we should be exclusively interested in maximizing?

Robert Nozick presented an interesting thought-experiment in The Examined Life (and also discussed this in Anarchy, State, and Utopia):

Imagine a machine that could give you any experience (or sequence of experiences) you might desire. When connected to this experience machine, you can have the experience of writing a great poem or bringing about world peace or loving someone and being loved in return. You can experience the felt pleasures of these things, how they feel "from the inside." You can program your experiences for tomorrow, or this week, or this year, or even for the rest of your life. If your imagination is impoverished, you can use the library of suggestions extracted from biographies and enhanced by novelists and psychologists. You can live your fondest dreams "from the inside."

Would you choose to do this for the rest of your life? If not, why not? (Other people also have the same option of using these machines which, let us suppose, are provided by friendly and trustworthy beings from another galaxy, so you need not refuse connecting in order to help others.) The question is not whether to try the machine temporarily, but whether to enter it for the rest of your life. Upon entering, you will not remember having done this; so no pleasures will get ruined by realizing that they are machine-produced. Uncertainty too might be programmed by using the machine's optional random device (upon which various preselected alternatives can depend).

Would you connect for the rest of your life?

Please ignore any issues you may have about whether such a machine is possible (assume that it is). The point is to test whether you really believe that all that matters, ultimately, is your internal feeling of happiness.

I think most people would not permanently connect to such a machine, and they'd be correct to make that choice. Happiness is good because it is a signal that things are going well; that our values are being furthered. But, what's important are the things, not the signal. Focusing exclusively on happiness is like focusing on the symptom rather than the disease.

For most of us, our values involve real things in the real world. This connection with reality is very important to us; it gives our lives meaning. Responding to a simulation, while useful for providing fun and knowledge, is not what we most want.

I think Nozick sums up very well:

We want experiences, fitting ones, of profound connection with others, of deep understanding of natural phenomena, of love, of being profoundly moved by music or tragedy, or doing something new and innovative, experiences very different from the bounce and rosiness of happy moments. What we want, in short, is a life and a self that happiness is a fitting response to—and then to give it that response.

Friday, May 23, 2003

Reasonableness 

Ok, so I claim to strive to be reasonable. What do I mean by reasonable?

To me, being reasonable means having a commitment to using reason to determine what makes sense, what's appropriate, what's true, and what's good; and then acting in accordance with those judgments. The uniquely human abilities to understand the world, to create knowledge, to teach and learn from others seem so precious to me that it strikes me as clear that these are things to value and pursue.

Being reasonable requires being rational. This entails accepting fallibility; that none of our knowledge is certain, and is all subject to criticism. We don't know things because the beliefs are justified in the sense of being provably true, but we should hold those theories that are the best (meaning they conform with the facts as we can observe them, have great explanatory power without unhelpful complexity, have survived the severest criticism, etc.) that we know of. We should prefer the truth to comfortable fantasies. This doesn't mean that fantasies can't be valuable; they can. But we shouldn't confuse them with reality.

Being reasonable requires perspective. We should consider which factors are more important, and which are less important before we take actions. Perspective is easy to lose after spending time focusing on some aspect of a situation, or when strong emotions are involved, so we should be careful to re-evaluate how important things are as we proceed. We often need to trade-off some things in order to get others and shouldn't let the unattainable perfection prevent us from pursuing the attainable good.

Being reasonable requires a healthy skepticism. We shouldn't accept things as true just because they are common knowledge. Memes don't become successful by being true and good for people; they become successful by being effective at propagating themselves. This success can happen many ways, but some of them are by exploiting mental laziness and irrationality. So, we can improve the meme pool by trying not to be mentally passive hosts and transmitters of bad ideas, but subject theories to the tests of rationality discussed above, and accept and transmit only the best theories we know of.

Being reasonable requires a good attitude towards change. Many people are overly pessimistic with respect to change. Change carries risks, but also opportunities. All progress requires change. We can try to resist it at every turn and suffer the consequences; or we can embrace it and deal with it rationally. For an amusing treatment of how to deal with change personally, see the book promoted here. For an excellent treatment of the larger societal issues related to how we deal with change, see the book promoted here.

Relationships are very important in life. Being reasonable socially entails being flexible, kind, humorous, generous (but not self-sacrificial) because acting this way makes life more pleasant, helps people reap the synergistic benefits of cooperation, overcoming initial differences in plans and expectations. We often gain by being open to pursuing a common preference rather than by stubbornly standing on our rights.

There's a lot more to being reasonable than I've sketched here, but it's a start.


Thursday, May 22, 2003

Elementary School Teachers and Mathematics  

This isn't an original observation, but the previous post reminded me how annoying it is that elementary school teachers are among the worst candidates to introduce children to math.

There are exceptions, but by and large the people who are drawn to the career of teaching elementary school are people who are not mathematically inclined. They often don't like math, don't understand math, and have chosen a career that doesn't require them to. So these people can't help but give children the impression that math is excruciating, and incomprehensible.

Ugh!


Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Always Solving Problems 

The Toilet Paper Question post below, and this page about traffic that it reminded a reader of, got me to think about something I've been wondering about.

Why is it that some people always seem to be trying to figure out the best way to do things while others don't?

It seems to me that making sense of the world and what we're doing is what we did as children all the time. So, I'd think the natural thing to do is to analyze what we do and try to understand its nature and how we can optimize our activity (whatever it is, and whatever we're trying to optimize for). So I don't think we need to explain why some people (like me) do this, but why other people don't.

I remember an incident that happened to me when I was in the 3rd Grade. I was thinking about how the diagonal path across a square was shorter than going around the corner. I asked my teacher how much longer the diagonal of a square was than the side (I hadn't heard of Pythagoras yet). She was annoyed by the question because I was supposed to be working on some worksheet (which I'd finished). Her first answer amazed me:

Teacher: I don't know...twice as long?
Me: No, it's shorter than that.

Teacher: Oh right. It's one and a half times as long.
Me: No, it's shorter than that too (I'd done a quick measurement with a ruler before asking)

Teacher: [Angry] Go back to your desk. You should be working on [whatever I'd finished].

I went back to my desk, confused. I knew that I didn't learn much in school, but I thought that teachers were supposed to know a lot of things and should at least be able to help you figure out what they don't know. But this teacher (who, as I recall, was better than most) not only didn't help me learn, but actively discouraged me from learning.

I can only imagine how many kids who were less stubborn than I was would come away from that experience learning that spontaneous curiosity is bad and gets you into trouble. And whenever you think of a question that you don't absolutely need to answer right away, ignore it.

Sad.

By the way, neither of my parents knew the answer either, but I got it from my uncle (an engineer) a month later. I got to learn about exponentiation and square roots, too. Cool


I've Been Outed 

I created this blog a few days ago without being sure whether or not I wanted to announce its existence to anybody; I wasn't sure I'd post enough quantity or quality to make it interesting to others, and I hadn't settled on the look I wanted, either. I also thought I'd keep it anonymous, at least initially; I thought I'd at least try to maintain the privacy of myself and people I might write about. But those options are gone now. Somebody at The World (I'm guessing Sarah) has discovered this blog and identified me as the author in this post. I guess that she just assumed that because I put a page on the World Wide Web, I wanted other people to read it. Sheesh!

Damn You Sarah Fitz-Claridge!

Well, it's probably for the best. Now, I'll have to change the entry describing myself, and push myself to post more frequently.

But, if you don't like anything you find here, then you should
Blame Sarah!

Sunday, May 18, 2003

The Toilet Paper Question 

You're using a reasonably well-maintained public restroom and there are two rolls of toilet paper available for use, with differing amounts of paper left on each roll. Which one should you use: the roll with more paper, or the roll with less paper?

Of course, if you're a selfish bastard then it doesn't matter as long as there's enough for you. But, is there any good reason that a decent person with concern for his fellow restroom user should choose one roll over the other? The answer is yes, and it's pretty obvious if you think about it. Unfortunately, it seems that very few people have thought about it.

You should choose the roll with less paper on it.

Why? Because, that way one of the rolls will empty faster and be available for replacement with a full roll when the maintenance person next checks. That will make it less likely that some unfortunate soul will be stranded with two empty rolls.

The world would be more pleasant if everyone followed this simple rule, but it's clear that they don't because I often see two rolls with roughly the same low amount of paper left. This is one of many cases where a misguided egalitarian tendency ("I think I'll use the roll with more paper because then they'll be more equal...") leads to unintended bad consequences.

UPDATE: An anonymous reader entered this comment:
A valid point, from an altruistic perspective. However, call me a "selfish bastard," but I always choose the roll with more paper. Why? More paper means fewer people have used it before, which in turn means that there is a lower probability that someone has contaminated the roll. So from a strictly personal standpoint, it may make more sense to use the full roll for hygienic reasons.
This is my response:
This is invalid. Only a brand new roll will be more hygienic (if the maintenance person who installed it is cleaner than the average user). But, after that they're equal. The inward-facing side of the paper is still as clean as the machine that rolled it. And only one circumference (plus a little) of a non-new roll may have been touched by others regardless of how much paper is left. I guess the edge may have been handled a bit more, but I suspect this difference is negligible. In fact, the smaller surface area of the roll with less paper probably more than compensates for any extra handling. So, be nice. OK? I don't think there's a real cost in this case.


UPDATE 2: Here is a nice design that implements my solution.

Friday, May 16, 2003

Who is this "Reasonable Man"? 

Hi. My name is Gil Milbauer. I'm a guy who strives to be reasonable (opinions vary as to how successful I have been). This quest has, thusfar, led me to be politically libertarian, epistemologically critical rationalist (Popperian), theologically atheist, parentally respectful, and temperamentally INTJ. I'm also told that I have a pretty good sense of humor. I have a lot of opinions, but I'm not sure how frequently I'll manage to post them here. We'll see.