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Narrative art–film, TV, books, etc.–is a useful tool for analyzing ethical questions.  When watching stories unfold, we see characters make decisions, we evaluate their choices, and we assign value to characters based on our feelings about their behavior.  The stories’ authors (writers, director, actors, etc.) are somewhat able to manipulate our judgments through artistic choice: what information and perspective do they provided to the audience? what music is playing a character acts? which characters have nefarious-looking facial hair? but ultimately we own our evaluations, and they define us, and help us to grow as people.

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Amidst a poker game last night, I posited the following:

Every poker player has worse than average luck.

Call it the anti-Lake Wobegon Effect (aLWE).

This claim, at first glance, is entirely absurd.  Treating poker as a zero-sum game, one player’s good luck must be offset by another player’s bad luck, such that not all players can possibly have below average luck.  We learn this in kindergarten, and then again in advanced college mathematics.  So why am I trying to argue something that is patently absurd?  Below I will argue both why it is wise to believe aLWE, and also reasons why it may be true.

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Imagine a simulation in which a large of number of actors, defined by a large range of properties, acquire utility based on a set of complicated rules that are applied to their properties and to other actors’ properties.  For instance, a particular actor might accrue utility if it shares three specific properties with a large number of other actors.  A different actor might accrue utility only if other actors share two of those properties but do not share the third.  Actors are able to modify their own properties based on certain constraints, but there is a utility to cost to these modifications.  Further, actors have limited information about other actors’ properties (for instance maybe they are only aware of actors that share a particular property with them, or they only have out-dated information about most actors) and also about the rules that define the simulation (their utility function is not exactly what they think it is).

You could plot a very simple version of this simulation on a grid, with each axis representing a property and dots representing each actor, or imagine a more complicated version in n-dimensional space.  Presumably, the simulation would play out by actors moving from their starting position and arranging themselves in better locations, eventually finding local maxima and remaining there, or at least creating fairly stable sub-optimal equilibria.

Now suppose you modify the simulation such that actors are suddenly able to access all of the information across the entire simulation.  Both rules and all other actors’ properties become immediately accessible to every actor.

With this change to the simulation, presumably two things would happen: drastic reorientation of actors, and vastly higher total utility.

If you haven’t yet guessed, the simulation is meant to describe humanity; the modification to the simulation is the advent on the internet and real-time communications networks; properties are physical location and things like political orientation, job skills, and membership in organizations, etc.  The point of the exercise is to try to illustrate just how significant this technological development is.  Humans have built our social framework premised on communication being expensive, and the entire framework now can be rearranged to exploit the fact that communication is essentially free.

In other words: this internet thing is going to be huge.  We’re only just starting to figure it out.

  • Tea Party voters’ embrace of Rick Santorum largely perplexes me.  I feel completely baffled as to how these individuals think, and don’t know how to learn.  Will Charles Murray’s book help on this front?
  • This post from the Cato Institute and this and this from Ezra Klein have me thinking that the difference between right and left on fiscal policy is much smaller than I’d thought.  Is it just me, or are these gaps remarkably small?


Eli Pariser has written a book and done a TED talk on the subject of filter bubbles, which he describes as a tendency of websites like Facebook and Google to skew the information presented to individual users in favor of their previous behaviors, insulating them from ideas that run contrary to their established thinking.  As a contrarian, I’m quite sympathetic to Pariser’s criticism of filter bubbles–I want people to see more contrary viewpoints–but, also as a contrarian, I disagree with Pariser on the party responsible for filter bubbles: he blames algorithms, whereas I would blame people.

Pariser first became aware of filter bubbles when he realized he was no longer seeing his conservative friends’ posts and links in his Facebook feed.  He determined that this happened because he wasn’t engaging with conservative posts and links (by commenting on the posts or clicking on the links), leading Facebook’s algorithms to remove them on the basis that he wasn’t interested in them.  The problem, as Pariser sees it, is that Facebook’s algorithm removed content that he wanted to see.  The problem, as I see it, is that Pariser wasn’t actually engaging with the content he claims he wanted to see.  Facebook removed his conservative friends’ posts because it deemed, correctly, that he was ignoring them.

The internet represents a specific instance of the problem of filter bubbles, but it’s only a small slice of the pie.  In free societies, individuals define their media consumption.  We choose which books, periodicals and web-sites to read, which television shows and films we watch, who our friends are, where we live, what our hobbies are.  These freedoms present us with opportunities either to create filter bubbles by surrounding ourselves with like-minded individuals and agreeable ideas, or to actively seek out differing views, in order to challenge ourselves.  The first option is easier on us.  The second, I believe, is more rewarding, but also requires a certain amount of effort.

Here are some of the options that are available to Pariser upon realizing that his media consumption was tilted further to the left than he would like:

  • Criticize Facebook and Google
  • Search for a conservative blog or magazine to read
  • Follow conservative thinkers on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+
  • Write a note on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ explaining that you’re interested in understanding for conservative viewpoints and asking your friends for suggestions
  • Find the conservative friends that have been hidden from your Facebook news feed and start engaging with them

The first will get you a TED talk (and sell books).  The other four are technology-driven means of achieving the end that Pariser is aiming for–more balanced media consumption.

The internet can be a facilitator of the challenging task of seeking out differing viewpoints and confronting them.  It can also facilitate encapsulating ourselves in thought bubbles.  Ultimately, the control lies in our own decisions of which media to consume, not in the algorithms designed to help us.

I’m puzzled by this chart from the Brookings Institution‘s Hamilton Project, which attempts to predict how long it will take the United States to return to pre-recession level employment.  The chart plots three scenarios: a pessimistic option, in which employment grows at 208,000 jobs per month, as it did in 2005; an optimistic option, in which employment grows at 472,000 jobs per month, as it did in the best month in the 200s; and a middle option, in which employment grows at 321,000 jobs, as it did in 1994.  The takeaway from the graph, presumably, is that it will take a very long time to return to full employment.  The problem with the graph, is that its assumptions are entirely arbitrary, to the point that its predictions are largely meaningless.

The function of science, or social science is to use observed data to create theories that make predictions.  In this case, Hamilton is observing the period 1990-2008, a period of time that neither included nor followed a large recession, then theorizing that 2012-2025, a period of time that does follow a large recession, will behave like 1990-2008.  Hamilton is essentially saying that because job growth never exceeded 472,000 jobs per month when unemployment was low, it cannot possibly exceed 472,000 jobs per month when unemployment is high.  It’s just bad science, and it’s exactly the same bad science that failed to predict the recession in the first place.  Any scenario planning based on historical data leading up to 2008 would have deemed it impossible that employment would fall by 12 million from 2008 to 2010.  Why then, does Hamilton continue to use a forecasting method when that method’s limitations have been so clearly exposed?

Reading Noah Millman’s somewhat hair-brained scheme to try to oust President Obama, I found myself asking an unexpected question: Why would a conservative want to oust Obama?

I’ve felt for some time that Obama’s re-election is basically a lock, which makes the above question largely moot, but I realized that for all my time spent reading conservative commentators, I really haven’t seen a coherent conservative critique of Obama’s policy, or an explanation of why electing a Republican in 2012 would better serve conservative principles.  Conor Friedersdorf has criticized Obama’s security state apparatus along libertarian lines, quite validly in my opinion, but he hasn’t made much of a case that any Republican candidate would be better on civil liberties besides Ron Paul and Gary Johnson.

I understand the basic logic here, that the Republican party tends to support more conservative policies that the democratic party and that thus, voting for a Republican–any Republican–would advance conservative causes.  But my sense is that:

  1. Contrary to the shrill cries of right-wing media, Obama’s policies really have been quite conservative, especially since the Republican party captured the house.
  2. The republican party is likely to retain the house and to capture the senate.
  3. The Bush presidency was pretty destructive both to the country and to conservativism, especially during periods when the Republican party also controlled the house and senate.
  4. The Republican field is extremely weak, to the extent that the potential nominee could easily be as bad or worse than Bush.

Given these factors, I actually expected thinking conservatives like Millman to simply write off 2012 presidential elections.  Unless there’s a coherent conservative critique of the Obama Administration that I’m not aware of, why fight for the Romney-Perry-Gingrich smorgasbord when the guy in office is doing a pretty solid job?

Update: I may have misread Millman’s post as supporting his hair-brained scheme, as opposed to merely proposing it.  He says he’s likely to back Obama.

I think that this story is much more important than this story.

I say these statistics are much more important than these statistics.

2009 U.S. Deaths by Cause:

By my math, I’ve already spent far too much time discussing the death penalty.  Feel free to call me a psychopath.

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