September 5, 2017

QotD: Microaggressions

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Whenever I first heard the word “microaggression,” sometime in the last five years, I’m sure I was unaware how big “micro” could get. The accusation of a microaggression was about to become a pervasive feature of the Internet, and particularly social media. An offense most of us didn’t even know existed, suddenly we were all afraid of being accused of.

We used to call this “rudeness,” “slights” or “ignorant remarks.” Mostly, people ignored them. The elevation of microaggressions into a social phenomenon with a specific name and increasingly public redress marks a dramatic social change, and two sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, have a fascinating paper exploring what this shift looks like, and what it means. (Jonathan Haidt has provided a very useful CliffsNotes version.)

Western society, they argue, has shifted from an honor culture — in which slights are taken very seriously, and avenged by the one slighted — to a dignity culture, in which personal revenge is discouraged, and justice is outsourced to third parties, primarily the law. The law being a cumbersome beast, people in dignity cultures are encouraged to ignore slights, or negotiate them privately by talking with the offender, rather than seeking some more punitive sanction.

Microagressions mark a transition to a third sort of culture: a victim culture, in which people are once again encouraged to take notice of slights. This sounds a lot like honor culture, doesn’t it? Yes, with two important differences. The first is that while victimhood is shameful in an honor culture — and indeed, the purpose of taking vengeance is frequently to avoid this shame — victim status is actively sought in the new culture, because victimhood is a prerequisite for getting redress. The second is that victim culture encourages people to seek help from third parties, either authorities or the public, rather than seeking satisfaction themselves.

Megan McArdle, “How Grown-Ups Deal With ‘Microaggressions'”, Bloomberg View, 2015-09-11.

August 17, 2017

QotD: Can you describe romance novels as “pretty people behaving stupidly”?

Filed under: Books, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I’ve been learning about the romance genre recently. I have no intrinsic interest in it at all, but I have an intelligent friend who plows through romances the way I read SF, and we’ve been discussing the conventions and structural features of the genre. Along the way I’ve learned that romance fans use an acronym TSTL which expands to “Too Stupid To Live”, describing a class of bad romance in which the plot turns on one or both leads exhibiting less claim to sophont status than the average bowl of clam dip.

My wife and I have parts in an upcoming live-action roleplaying game set in early 16th-century Venice. As preparation, she suggested we watch a movie called Dangerous Beauty set in the period. I couldn’t stand more than about 20 minutes of it. “It’s just,” I commented later “pretty people behaving stupidly.”

On reflection, I’ve discovered that PPBS describes a great deal of both the fiction and nonfiction I can’t stand. It’s a more general category that includes not just TSTL, but celebrity gossip magazines, almost every “romantic comedy” ever made, and a large percentage of the top-rated TV shows (especially, of course, the soap operas).

Eric S. Raymond, “Pretty People Behaving Stupidly”, Armed and Dangerous, 2005-08-29.

August 10, 2017

Words & Numbers: Has Tipping Gone Out of Control?

Filed under: Business, Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 9 Aug 2017

In 1922, famed etiquette writer Emily Post advised her readers that 10% is the standard for tipping your waiter. Since then, “gratuity creep” has been so steady that tip jars are now ubiquitous and 25-30% is considered the rule in New York City. Uber once resisted this trend, but recently added a tipping feature to its app.

What is the economic rationale behind tipping? Does the usefulness of tipping diminish the more that a certain rate becomes an expectation? At a certain point, would it be better to do without the fuss involved and simply include that portion of a service-provider’s compensation in the wages paid by the employer?

Our valiant hosts, Antony Davies and James Harrigan explore these questions and more!

August 6, 2017

QotD: Confessions of a book-hoarder

Filed under: Books, Humour, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

Well, tomorrow I’d bring up stuff from the basement. So the next day I go downstairs to the utility room. The floor’s wet. The rug is sopping. I open the freezer, and discover that I’d locked the freezer door before closing it. The door had been open all night. Dead meat, droopy brats, sloshy ice cream — and water everywhere. The utility room was full of boxes from the storage room — we’d just had some shelves installed, and I’d moved out crates I’ve hauled around since my dorm room days. Books. Hundreds of books.

I felt the sides of the boxes to see if they’d wicked up the horrid slurry from the fridge — were they ruined? Would I have to throw out all these old, venerable friends? Everything I read and saved from 1976 to 1997 — were they lost to me forever?

They were dry.

You cannot imagine my disappointment.

This was the perfect opportunity to be rid of these mummified albatrosses forever. Friends, let’s be honest: Books are a curse. We’d all love to have a library with shelves stretching up to heaven, a ladder on rollers that lets you access the 17th level, where you keep the minor Polish poets and the monographs on eighth-century Chinese mandarins. But you end up with boxes of books in the basement, and you cannot part with them. Simply throwing them away feels sinful — hey, why not build a time machine and go back to Nazi-land and burn them, dude? You could sell them, but there’s something depressing about getting $7 for 70 pounds of paperbacks. It’s like auctioning your kid’s baby pictures on eBay and getting a high bid of a buck-fifty. The last time I divested my excess books I dumped them off on a Goodwill dock in the middle of the night, and I felt like someone pushing the family dog out of the car on a country road. The books will find a good home. I’m sure there’s a farmer around here they can live with.

James Lileks, Star Tribune, 2004-07-11.

July 17, 2017

QotD: Utopias

Filed under: Books, Britain, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

All efforts to describe permanent happiness […] have been failures. Utopias (incidentally the coined word Utopia doesn’t mean ‘a good place’, it means merely a ‘non-existent place’) have been common in literature of the past three or four hundred years but the ‘favourable’ ones are invariably unappetising, and usually lacking in vitality as well.

By far the best known modern Utopias are those of H.G. Wells. Wells’s vision of the future is almost fully expressed in two books written in the early Twenties, The Dream and Men Like Gods. Here you have a picture of the world as Wells would like to see it or thinks he would like to see it. It is a world whose keynotes are enlightened hedonism and scientific curiosity. All the evils and miseries we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear, overwork, superstition all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that that is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who actually wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia? On the contrary, not to live in a world like that, not to wake up in a hygenic garden suburb infested by naked schoolmarms, has actually become a conscious political motive. A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear that modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which it is within his power to create. A Catholic writer said recently that Utopias are now technically feasible and that in consequence how to avoid Utopia had become a serious problem. We cannot write this off as merely a silly remark. For one of the sources of the Fascist movement is the desire to avoid a too-rational and too-comfortable world.

All ‘favourable’ Utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness. News From Nowhere is a sort of goody-goody version of the Wellsian Utopia. Everyone is kindly and reasonable, all the upholstery comes from Liberty’s, but the impression left behind is of a sort of watery melancholy. But it is more impressive that Jonathan Swift, one of the greatest imaginative writers who have ever lived, is no more successful in constructing a ‘favourable’ Utopia than the others.

The earlier parts of Gulliver’s Travels are probably the most devastating attack on human society that has ever been written. Every word of them is relevant today; in places they contain quite detailed prophecies of the political horrors of our own time. Where Swift fails, however, is in trying to describe a race of beings whom he admires. In the last part, in contrast with disgusting Yahoos, we are shown the noble Houyhnhnms, intelligent horses who are free from human failings. Now these horses, for all their high character and unfailing common sense, are remarkably dreary creatures. Like the inhabitants of various other Utopias, they are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, ‘reasonable’ lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from ‘passion’, including physical love. They choose their mates on eugenic principles, avoid excesses of affection, and appear somewhat glad to die when their time comes. In the earlier parts of the book Swift has shown where man’s folly and scoundrelism lead him: but take away the folly and scoundrelism, and all you are left with, apparently, is a tepid sort of existence, hardly worth leading.

George Orwell (writing as “John Freeman”), “Can Socialists Be Happy?”, Tribune, 1943-12-20.

July 14, 2017

The Peltzman Effect

Filed under: Economics, Government, Health, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

The odd situation where increasing the safety of an activity by adding protective gear is offset by greater risk-taking by the participants:

In the 1960s, the Federal Government — in its infinite wisdom — thought that cars were too unsafe for the general public. In response, it passed automobile safety legislation, requiring that seat belts, padded dashboards, and other safety measures be put in every automobile.

Although well-intended, auto accidents actually increased after the legislation was passed and enforced. Why? As [Professor of Economics Steven E.] Lansburg explains, “the threat of being killed in an accident is a powerful incentive to drive carefully.”

In other words, the high price (certain death from an accident) of an activity (reckless driving) reduced the likelihood of that activity. The safety features reduced the price of reckless driving by making cars safer. For example, seatbelts reduced the likelihood of a driver being hurt if he drove recklessly and got into an accident. Because of this, drivers were more likely to drive recklessly.

The benefit of the policy was that it reduced the number of deaths per accident. The cost of the policy was that it increased the number of accidents, thus canceling the benefit. Or at least, that is the conclusion of University of Chicago’s Sam Peltzman, who found the two effects canceled each other.

His work has led to a theory called “The Peltzman Effect,” also known as risk compensation. Risk compensation says that safety requirements incentivize people to increase risky behavior in response to the lower price of that behavior.

Risk compensation can be applied to almost every behavior involving risk where a choice must be made. Economics tells us that individuals make choices at the margin. This means that the incentive in question may lead the individual to do a little more or a little less of something.


The fact that incentives reduce or increase behavior is an economic law: Landsburg posits that “the literature of economics contains tens of thousands of empirical studies verifying this proposition and not one that convincingly refutes it.” Incentives change the effectiveness of government policy and shape day-to-day life.

July 12, 2017

QotD: Modern myth-making

Filed under: History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… evidence of myth making is everywhere, and not just in the far past, when it’s easier to swallow just-so stories.

There seems to be this strange idea that we must tell stories of the world as we wish it to be and then it will automagically become so. And because no part of the world, and no time in History can compare to Western society in the current times (and very few can compare to the United States of America) the way to bring their stories into existence is to tell us how bad we are in comparison to everyone else.

The fact that this is a blatant lie doesn’t matter. They still do it.

They are convinced, if they can shame us with these imaginary superior cultures that we will somehow adopt the ways they want us to.

One egregious demonstration of this is the claim that other times and places were more tolerant of different sexual personas. This one makes me want to SCREAM because… well… define “more tolerant.”

Traditional societies often had niches for sexually different people, including but not limited to those who lived as the opposite sex. BUT when the ignorant parrots of the western world go on about this stuff, they usually know just enough about the other culture to project all sorts of happy thoughts upon it. The thing is that assuming the persona and lifestyle of the opposite sex was often not a choice, and not because the person “felt” one way or another. Certain social circumstances dictated a certain change. Like, in Romania (I think) a woman whose brothers have been killed was almost required to assume a male persona in order to support the family. Whether she wanted to or not. And I have a vague idea that in certain parts of India, a woman who cannot find a husband is allowed to “marry” another woman. Note there is no mention made of sexual desire for her own gender. It’s more a matter of fitting neatly into society.

Sarah A. Hoyt, “Inventing the Past — The Great Divorce”, According to Hoyt, 2015-09-23.

June 30, 2017

QotD: Rent-seeking

Filed under: Economics, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Calling someone a rent-seeker is sort of an economist’s way of telling them to die in a fire.

Scott Alexander, “Contra Caplan on Mental Illness”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-10-07.

June 29, 2017

QotD: The medical equivalent of security theatre

Filed under: Health, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The most common reason for admission to a psychiatric hospital is “person is a danger to themselves or others”. The average length of stay in a psychiatric hospital is about one week.

Some clever person might ask: “Hey, don’t most psychiatric medicines require more than a week to take effect?” Good question! The answer is “yes”. Antidepressants classically take four weeks. Lithium and antipsychotics are more complicated, but the textbooks will still tell you a couple of weeks in both cases. And yet people are constantly being brought to psychiatric hospitals for dangerousness, treated with medications for one week, and then sent off. What gives?

As far as I can tell, a lot of it is the medical equivalent of security theater.

Scott Alexander, “Reflections From The Halfway Point”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-06-29.

June 26, 2017

QotD: Psychiatric hospitals

Filed under: Health, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It’s interesting that psychiatric hospitals are used as a cliche for “a situation of total chaos” – I think I’ve already mentioned the time when the director of a psych hospital I worked at told us, apparently without conscious awareness or irony, that if Obamacare passed our hospital would have too many patients and “the place would turn into a madhouse”. There’s a similar idiom around “Bedlam”, which comes from London’s old Bethlehem psychiatric hospital.

In fact, psych hospitals are much more orderly than you would think. Maybe 80% of the patients are pretty ‘with it’ – depressed people, very anxious people, people with anger issues who aren’t angry at the moment, people coming off of heroin or something. The remaining 20% of people who are very psychotic mostly just stay in their rooms or pace back and forth talking to themselves and not bothering anyone else. The only people you really have to worry about most of the time are the manic ones and occasionally severe autistics, and even they’re usually okay.

For a place where two dozen not-very-stable people are locked up in a small area against their will, violence is impressively rare. The nurses have to deal with some of it, since they’re the front-line people who have to forcibly inject patients with medication, and they have gotten burned a couple of times. And we doctors are certainly trained to assess for it, defuse it, and if worst comes to worst hold our own until someone can get help.

Yet in the two years I’ve worked at Our Lady Of An Undisclosed Location, years when each doctor has talked to each of their patients at least once a day, usually alone in an office, usually telling them things they really don’t want to hear like “No, you can’t go home today” – during all that time, not one doctor has been attacked. Not so much as a slap or a poke.

I am constantly impressed with how deeply the civilizing instinct has penetrated. When I go out of the workroom and tell Bob, “I’m sorry, but you’re disturbing people, you’re going to have to stop banging on the window and shouting threats, let’s go back to your room,” then as long as I use a calm, quiet, and authoritative voice, that is what he does. With very few exceptions, there is nobody so mentally ill that calmness + authority + the implied threat of burly security guards won’t get them to grumble under their breath but generally comply with your requests, reasonable or otherwise.

Scott Alexander, “Reflections From The Halfway Point”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-06-29.

June 23, 2017

QotD: Philosophy

Filed under: History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I believe the most important moment in the foreseeable future of philosophy will come when we realize that mad old Nazi bastard Heidegger had it right when he said that we are thrown into the world and must cope, and that theory-building consists of rearranging our toolkit for coping. I believe the biggest blind spot in analytical philosophy is its refusal to grapple with Heidegger’s one big insight, but that evolutionary biology coupled with Peirce offers us a way to stop being blind. I believe that when the insights of what is now called “evolutionary psychology” are truly absorbed by philosophers, many of the supposedly intractable problems of philosophy will vanish.

Eric S. Raymond, “What Do You Believe That You Cannot Prove?”, Armed and Dangerous, 2005-01-06.

June 21, 2017

College Students ‘Think Freedom is Not a Big Deal’

Published on 20 Jun 2017

Sociologist Frank Fruedi and Reason’s Nick Gillespie discuss the decline of free speech on campus and his new book, What Happened to the University: a Sociological Exploration of its Infantilisation.
“For the first time, a growing number of young people actually think freedom isn’t a big deal,” says sociologist Frank Furedi, who’s an emeritus professor at the University of Kent and author of the new book, What Happened to the University: a sociological exploration of its infantilisation.

The university was once a place where students valued free speech and risk taking, but today “a very illiberal ethos has become institutionalized,” says Furedi. “In many respects, it’s easier to speak about controversial subjects outside the university…It’s a historic role reversal.”

Furedi sat down with Reason‘s Nick Gillespie to talk about the roots of this intellectual shift on campus — and how to fix it.

Edited by Mark McDaniel. Cameras by Jim Epstein and Kevin Alexander. Music by Bensound.

June 16, 2017

QotD: Cultural decline markers

Filed under: Education, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In response to my previous post noting that the Flynn effect turns out to be a mirage, at least two respondents have suggested that average IQ has actually been falling, and have pointed to the alleged dumbing-down of politics and popular culture in the last fifty years.

I think both those respondents and the psychometricians are correct. That is, it seems to me that during my lifetime I’ve seen evidence that average IQ has risen a little, but that other traits involved in the “smart or stupid” judgment have eroded.

On the one hand, I’ve previously described the emergence of geek culture, which I take among other things as evidence that there are more bright and imaginative individuals around than there were when I was a kid. Enough of us, now, to claim a substantial slice of turf in the cultural marketplace. This good news is reinforced for me be the explosive growth of the hacker community, which today is easily a hundred times the size it was in, say, 1975 — and far larger than I ever dreamed it would be then.

On the other hand, when I compare Americans today to the country of my childhood there are ways the present comes off rather badly. We are more obese, we have shorter attention spans, our divorce rate has skyrocketed. All these and other indicators tell me that we have (on average) lost a significant part of our capacity to exert self-discipline, defer gratification, and honor contracts when the going gets tough.

To sum up, we’re brighter than we used to be, but lazier. We have more capacity, but we use less of it. Physically and mentally we are self-indulgent, flabby, unwilling to wake up from the consumer-culture dream of entitlement. We pursue happiness by means ever more elaborate and frenetic, diminishing returns long since having set in. When reality hands us a wake-up call like 9/11, too many of us react with denial and fantasy.

This is, of course, not a new complaint. Juvenal, Horace, and Petronius Arbiter wrote much the same indictment of their popular culture at the height of the Roman Empire. They were smart enough to understand, nigh on two millennia ago, that this is what happens to elites who have it easy, who aren’t tested and winnowed by war and famine and plague and poverty.

But there are important differences. One is that while decadence used to be an exclusive problem of the upper crust, we are all aristocrats now. More importantly, where the Romans believed that decadence in individuals and societies was inevitable, we know (because we’ve kept records) that as individuals we are taller, stronger, healthier, longer-lived and more intelligent than our ancestors — that, in fact, we have reaped large gains merely within the last century.

We have more capacity, but we use less of it. And, really, is it any surprise? Our schools are abandoning truth for left-wing bullshit about multiculturalism and right-wing bullshit about “intelligent design”. Our politics has become a wasteland of rhetorical assassinations in which nobody but the fringe crazies believe even their own slogans any more. Our cultural environment has become inward-turned, obsessed with petty intramural squabbles, clogged with cant. Juvenal would find it all quite familiar.

Eric S. Raymond, “People Getting Brighter, Culture Getting Dimmer”, Armed and Dangerous, 2005-08-28.

June 3, 2017

QotD: Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual

Filed under: Health, Quotations — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Fascinating. This NYT article bears out a suspicion I’ve held for a long time about the plasticity of sexual orientation. The crude one-sentence summary is that, if you go by physiological arousal reactions, male bisexuality doesn’t exist, while female bisexuality is ubiquitous.

I’ve spent most of my social time for the last thirty years around science fiction fans, neopagans, and polyamorists — three overlapping groups of people not exactly noted for either sexual inhibitions or reluctance to explore sexual roles that don’t fit the neat typologies of the mainstream culture. And there are a couple of things it’s hard not to notice about them:

First, a huge majority of the women in these cultures are bisexual. To the point where I just assume any female I meet in these contexts is bi. This reality is only slightly obscured by the fact that many of these women describe themselves and are socially viewed by others as ‘straight’, even as they engage in sexual play with each other during group scenes with every evidence of enjoyment. In fact, in these cultures the operational definition of ‘straight female’ seems to be one who has recreational but not relational/romantic sex with other women.

Second, this pattern is absolutely not mirrored in their male peers. Even in these uninhibited subcultures, homoerotic behavior involving self-described ‘straight’ men is rare and surprising. Such homeoeroticism as does go on is almost all self-describedly gay men fucking other self-describedly gay men; bisexuality in men, while an accepted and un-tabooed orientation, is actually less common than gayness and not considered quite normal by anybody. The contrast with everybody’s matter-of-fact acceptance of female bisexual behavior is extreme.

It is also an observable fact that many women in these cultures change either their sexual orientation or their sexual presentation over time, but that this is seldom true of men. That is, a woman may move from being sexually involved mostly with other women to being mostly involved with men, and back, several times during her adolescent and adult lifetime; nobody considers this surprising and it doesn’t involve much of a change in either self-image or social identity. Not so for men in these cultures; they tend to start out as straight or gay and stay that way, and on the unusual occasions that this changes it tends to involve a significant break in both self-image and social identity.

Eric S. Raymond, “Gayness is hard, lesbianism soft”, Armed and Dangerous, 2005-07-06.

May 30, 2017

QotD: The uses of IQ

Filed under: Books, Health, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Suppose that the question at issue regards individuals: “Given two 11 year olds, one with an IQ of 110 and one with an IQ of 90, what can you tell us about the differences between those two children?” The answer must be phrased very tentatively. On many important topics, the answer must be, “We can tell you nothing with any confidence.” It is well worth a guidance counselor’s time to know what these individual scores are, but only in combination with a variety of other information about the child’s personality, talents, and background. The individual’s IQ score all by itself is a useful tool but a limited one.

Suppose instead that the question at issue is: “Given two sixth-grade classes, one for which the average IQ is 110 and the other for which it is 90, what can you tell us about the difference between those two classes and their average prospects for the future?” Now there is a great deal to be said, and it can be said with considerable confidence — not about any one person in either class but about average outcomes that are important to the school, educational policy in general, and society writ large. The data accumulated under the classical tradition are extremely rich in this regard, as will become evident in subsequent chapters.


We agree emphatically with Howard Gardner, however, that the concept of intelligence has taken on a much higher place in the pantheon of human virtues than it deserves. One of the most insidious but also widespread errors regarding IQ, especially among people who have high IQs, is the assumption that another person’s intelligence can be inferred from casual interactions. Many people conclude that if they see someone who is sensitive, humorous, and talks fluently, the person must surely have an above-average IQ.

This identification of IQ with attractive human qualities in general is unfortunate and wrong. Statistically, there is often a modest correlation with such qualities. But modest correlations are of little use in sizing up other individuals one by one. For example, a person can have a terrific sense of humor without giving you a clue about where he is within thirty points on the IQ scale. Or a plumber with a measured IQ of 100 — only an average IQ — can know a great deal about the functioning of plumbing systems. He may be able to diagnose problems, discuss them articulately, make shrewd decisions about how to fix them, and, while he is working, make some pithy remarks about the president’s recent speech.

At the same time, high intelligence has earmarks that correspond to a first approximation to the commonly understood meaning of smart. In our experience, people do not use smart to mean (necessarily) that a person is prudent or knowledgeable but rather to refer to qualities of mental quickness and complexity that do in fact show up in high test scores. To return to our examples: Many witty people do not have unusually high test scores, but someone who regularly tosses off impromptu complex puns probably does (which does not necessarily mean that such puns are very funny, we hasten to add). If the plumber runs into a problem he has never seen before and diagnoses its source through inferences from what he does know, he probably has an IQ of more than 100 after all. In this, language tends to reflect real differences: In everyday language, people who are called very smart tend to have high IQs.

All of this is another way of making a point so important that we will italicize it now and repeat elsewhere: Measures of intelligence have reliable statistical relationships with important social phenomena, but they are a limited tool for deciding what to make of any given individual. Repeat it we must, for one of the problems of writing about intelligence is how to remind readers often enough how little an IQ score tells about whether the human being next to you is someone whom you will admire or cherish. This thing we know as IQ is important but not a synonym for human excellence.

Charles Murray, “The Bell Curve Explained”, American Enterprise Institute, 2017-05-20.

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