A collection of essays by Bill (website@ccjj.info) accompanied by feedback from his friends.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Book Report: The Big Short by Michael Lewis

This book provides an inside look at the mortgage meltdown, through the eyes of investors.

The mortgage meltdown is something of huge importance and relevance to our times, in that it is responsible for the current recession. It is also not very well understood at all by the lay public.

  • Many see the problem as "greed", whatever that means.
  • Leftists see the meltdown (which they didn't predict) as an inevitable consequence (like everything else they don't like in the world) of the Evils of Capitalism.
  • Democrats were quick to blame it on "deregulation". For awhile they were at a loss to say the removal of which regulation, in particular, was responsible. Eventually some of them said that the 1999 repeal of some provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act was to blame, and the rest of them echoed this sentiment without the foggiest idea of what Glass-Steagall actually was. I have yet to hear a coherent account of how Glass-Steagall would have prevented any bad mortgage loans from being made.
  • Predictably, Republicans countered the Democrats, blaming the meltdown on too much, rather than too little, government, somehow laying it at the feet of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government agencies set up to facilitate home loans.
Many people say they saw the meltdown coming, and most of them are full of baloney. In The Big Short, the author, Michael Lewis, focuses on the few investors who can credibly make this claim, those who not only saw the meltdown coming, but anticipated it well enough to profit from it.

Three groups are followed, a lone investor in Silicon Valley, a pair of rich hippies in Berkeley who liked making long-odds bets, and some very cynical New York investors who just smelled a rat in the mortgage market from the very beginning.

Michael Burry, the lone investor in Silicon Valley, was a smart fellow with Asperger's Syndrome. Asperger's Syndrome is just a formal way of saying someone is extremely geeky. Such people have great difficulty with interpersonal relationships, but are quite bright and often focus on very narrow areas of interest, becoming experts in their fields. Burry had gotten a medical degree but lost interest, particularly because he didn't like interacting with his patients. He became interested in finance and demonstrated a precocious talent for picking stocks. He eventually found himself running an investment fund worth many millions of dollars of other people's money, and his fund greatly outperformed the rest of the stock market.

At some point he became interested in mortgage bonds, and unlike most other investors, read the fine print. He really didn't like what he saw, some of these home loans being made were so bad that there was a fortune to be made betting against them. He figured out how to make such bets. Unfortunately, it was hard to predict exactly when the loans would go bad and the bets against them would pay off, and he didn't do a very good job of selling his strategy to his investors, most of whom lost faith in him and deserted him. In the end, he and those who stuck with him made a killing.

Jamie Mai and Charley Ledley were a pair of 30 years olds who started investing with $110,000 and a Charles Schwab account in 2003, working from a shed in the back of a friend's house in Berkeley, California. They had an interest in long-odds bets, and some of their early bets paid off, leaving them with many millions of dollars. At some point they became interested in credit default swaps, where, for a small sum of money, you can bet to win a large amount of money if a bond defaults. They decided to bet against mortgage bonds and the rest is history.

Steve Eisman was a New York investor whose bias about the world was that most other investors were crooks for phonies. When he started dealing with the mortgage market, it seemed to confirm his bias, and he ran with it. Unlike Burry, who sat secluded in his office in California reading the fine print of contracts, Eisman went out of his way to seek out all the people he felt were blowing it and confront them with his world view, to confirm whether he or the world was going insane.

The book follows these three characters as they travel through the investment world, and we see all the signs that the subprime mortgage bond market was insane, which looks so obvious in hindsight, while so few people actual paid attention to these signs at the time.

My own take on the mortgage meltdown, which I wrote nearly two years ago, is here. One thing that was really apparent to me before the meltdown was that no one I talked to who was buying real estate seemed to take seriously the idea that there was any possibility whatsoever that home values could sink. This shows up in The Big Short, when Steve Eisman encountered someone who worked for the rating agencies. Eisman had calculated that if real estate prices just stopped rising, there would be massive defaults. Eisman asked the rater if he had run calculations on the prospects for the bonds if real estate values were to decline. The rater replied that the software he used refused to take input predicting a decline in real estate values. But the book doesn't stress this as much as I do, in fact the book does not hold the home buyers accountable at all -- it is mostly focused on the relevant people on Wall Street.

I've heard a lot of talk about the rating agencies being "corrupt" (the media is obsessed with labeling financial activity as criminal or borderline so) in that the agencies were paid by the banks whose bonds they were rating, which undermined their objectivity, but one problem discussed in the book that I hadn't previously been hearing about was with the quality of the people at the rating agencies. The salaries to be had working for a rating agency paled in comparison with what one could make as an investment banker. As one investor put it, "If you couldn't get a job working at an investment bank, you could always go work for the rating agencies". On top of that, the lowest-ranking people in the rating agencies were the ones rating mortgage bonds. As a result, the investors who would put together deals of mortgage loans were much smarter than the people rating the resulting bonds, and learned to game the system and fool the rating agencies into giving the bonds much better ratings than they deserved.

One thing the book talks about is how, after the cataclysm, people on both ends of the deals gone bad wound up rich. The people who had shorted the bond market were obviously rich, and justly so, but the major players who lost their banks billions of dollars by betting on subprime loans wound up out of work, but sitting on tens of millions of dollars they made before losing their jobs in disgrace. I'm not sure what can be done to counter this -- if I were a bank, I would want to provide a disincentive for my employees to lose me billions of dollars, but I'm not sure how I could hold them accountable. The worst thing you can do to an employee who hasn't violated a contract or done anything illegal is fire them in disgrace. If you've been paying them tens of millions of dollars a year up to that time, they wind up unemployed, disgraced, and very rich. I can't think of a solution here. It's a big problem, because it seems plausible to me that an investor might see a 10% chance of a financial meltdown in a few years. If he bets against the meltdown, he has a 90% chance of making a large salary over those few years, and if he gets held accountable for the meltdown, he just takes a very luxurious vacation for a few years afterward. Furthermore, if you make bets alone against the system and you're wrong, everyone thinks you're a fool. If you make bets with everybody else and the whole system fails, you don't get held individually accountable, you were just one of many people wiped out by hard times.

The psychologies of the different characters were very different, in interesting ways. Michael Burry, with his Asperger's, was quite content to sit in his office, read the fine print, and calmly conclude that the world had gone insane and bet millions of dollars on that opinion without further ado. Steve Eisman, a more normal character, wasn't going to make huge bets that the world was going insane unless he met the people involved, publicly called them idiots to their faces, and confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were insane, or at least very stupid. It all makes for fascinating and dramatic reading.

There are some things that are not well explained by this book. For example, the worst mortgages sold were these adjustable-rate mortgages that started out with a small monthly payment being required for a couple of years, then would suddenly reset to much larger monthly payment that the homeowner had no hope of being able to pay. What was going through the heads of the homeowners who signed those mortgages? Did they know about the reset? Were they fooled? And if they were fooled, what were the mortgage originators thinking when they loaned people money that wouldn't possibly be repaid? As it was, these originators were able, for awhile, to fool the homeowners into signing the mortgages and fool the banks into buying the loans, but it must have gone through their heads that this was not a sustainable state of affairs. This isn't mentioned in the book, but I remember the CEO of Countrywide, one of the worst mortgage originators, saying, when confronted with the fact that he had generated a huge number of bad loans, "If these loans were so bad, why were the investors buying them?".

There was a lot of money lost on credit default swaps. A credit default swap is where you buy insurance in case a bond will default. This is fine, but all insurance is based on basically making a bet that something bad will happen -- if the bad thing happens, the insured "wins", and gets money to help him recover from his misfortune, and the insurer loses, paying that money. Well, a lot of people were buying credit default swaps on bonds they didn't own, so it wasn't really "insurance" any more, it was just a bet. A lot of money was obviously lost when homeowners couldn't pay back the money they borrowed, but there was a huge shadow market of credit default swaps, where banks lost a lot of money just betting that the home loans were good, multiplying those losses.

One issue that comes up a lot in the book is that Michael Burry was one of very few people who was actually reading the fine print of these contracts. This highlights one problem our society has -- many people are entering into agreements without reading the contracts, just signing long documents with the belief that since "everybody else is doing it too", so if the deal goes bad, no matter how stupid signing the contract was, the government will come to everyone's rescue. Signing a mortgage is an extremely important contract, probably second only to marriage contracts in importance as the most important contract one signs in one's whole life. If the contract is too long or too boring to read, one should hire a lawyer to at least make sure one understands what one is signing.

There is a push in the current administration to have regulation simplifying mortgage contracts, in such a way that, for instance, people will plainly see what the maximum mortgage payment they will be expected to make will be. In an ideal world, people would just refuse to sign contracts they don't understand and thus force the banks to write simple contracts in plain English, but apparently we don't live in such an ideal world so such regulation is probably a good idea.

One change that I think would be constructive is if the banking system changed the way it handled credit default swaps. I think if I were in the business of selling credit default swaps, I would want to make sure that for every swap I sold, the buyer of the swap actually owned the bond being insured -- so I would know that I was selling to people looking for insurance for what they perceived to be an unlikely event, not making bets against people who knew more than I did. I don't think any government action is necessary to bring this change about, just the sellers of credit default swaps need to wise up.

I think, and this is my own take, it's not stated in the book, that too many people in too many places in the investment system were assuming that, even if their own piece of the system were a weak link, the rest of the system was sound and would make up for that weak link. Thus, the loan originators figured that if the investors bought the loans, they must be good loans. The investors assumed that the ratings were sound, though they should have known better. Everyone assumed that the value of the house would always be at least as much as the outstanding value of the loan, so if the homeowner didn't pay, you could foreclose and get your money back.

A lot of reform has already happened, independent of the government. The bond market now realizes that the ratings are fallible. Everyone now realizes that real estate values can sink. Banks will not recklessly sell credit default swaps on mortgage loans like they used to.

In the afterword, Michael Lewis discusses a lot of conversations he had with politicians and government officials after he published the book. Most of them really hadn't figured out what on Earth had gone wrong, and were trying to get him to explain it to them. After a lot of such conversations, an official who actually was pretty knowledgeable called him and they had a conversation. At the end of the conversation, the official asked him "I understand you've discussed this with a lot of politicians and officials. Was anybody particularly insightful who I might call up and interview?". Lewis explained to him that none of those callers were explaining anything to him, they were all asking him to explain the situation to them. The official laughed, thanked him for his time, and ended the call.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

I went down to the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations a couple of times. I had read hostile reviews from the right-wing press, and the more mainstream press seemed to be saying that the demonstrators generally weren't sure what they wanted.

There were basically no demonstrators at the New York Stock Exchange. They were at Liberty Square, about 6 blocks away. I would estimate there were a couple of thousand of them. Many sleeping bags lay on the ground, so I guess a lot of the people had come a long way.

The demonstration didn't seem to have obtained appropriate permits, so they weren't allowed to use audio amplification. The speaker would yell a sentence, then people 30 feet away would repeat it, then people 30 feet further on would repeat it again. It didn't seem to me to be a good way to come up with nuanced insights into macroeconomic theory sufficient to get us out of the recession and bring the jobs back. The second time I went there they had a video screen where the speaker's words would be typed.

At least 85% of the demonstrators were under 25. Generally, the young people lacked concrete suggestions about specific policy changes, and the few ideas they had were half baked. I went around, generally asking people "What are you demonstrating for? What do you want?". Several people obviously were unprepared for anybody to ask them that and felt a bit put on the spot. People with signs, however, generally had a lot to say.

One kid had a sign saying "Jail guilty bankers". I asked him what laws he felt the bankers had broken. He said that Obama had said that no laws were broken by Wall Street in the mortgage meltdown, and the kid wasn't satisfied with that, he wanted an investigation. I remembered seeing some congressional hearings on TV a couple of years ago, I think investigations did occur. I told the kid I felt a lot of home buyers applying for homes had illegally exaggerated their incomes, pretending to be able to afford houses they couldn't, but that obviously wasn't what he was looking for. I excused myself and moved on.

I tried to seek out people who looked old enough to buy a beer without getting carded and talk to them. They tended to be hippies / radicals, and they tended to interpret the demonstration as being in support of whatever the individual hippie or radical in question wanted.

Of course, people would ask me who I was. I told them I was a computer programmer for Wall Street, that I voted for Obama and intended to vote for him again next year, and give him money. When I engaged with people, I generally took the point of view that the best course of action was to support the Democratic party.

During the 2 hours I was there, there was no friction between the cops and the demonstrators.

I did talk for a long time with one demonstrator, Robert, who was about 50 and had been there for most of the demonstration. He had been arrested while blocking the Brooklyn Bridge. He said the demonstrators had been walking toward the bridge, but the sidewalk crossing it was too narrow for the large crowd, and many of them spilled over onto the roadway. The police warned them that if they continued they would be arrested. Robert wanted to commit an act of civil disobedience and deliberately proceeded forward. The demonstrators reached the middle of the bridge before the police descended on them with nets and arrested several hundred of them. Robert said the first hundred all heard the warning that they would be arrested, but the several hundred following were too far back to know. He felt it was a setup, because when the police finally did arrest them they were ready with nets and vans to cart them away in.
Afterward I thought about it, and I'm not sure it was a setup. With a large crowd consisting of young people and old radical hippies gathering, demonstrating for an unclear purpose, it would have been prudent and appropriate for the cops to have arrest vans in the wings somewhere, and when the demonstrators started crossing the bridge roadway, the vans would have been called, but it would have taken time for them to reach the spot, by which time the demonstrators would have reached the center of the bridge.
Robert said the fine was $100, which he didn't consider to be anything unreasonable.

I talked to one guy who was promoting a "socialist constitution". He said the existing constitution was "based on slavery". I asked him if he wanted to overthrow the existing constitution. He said yes.

I didn't talk to any union people. It was largely random chance I didn't run into any, but I wasn't seeking them out. My own biggest misgiving about supporting the Democratic Party is that they are trying to make it easier to form unions.

They had a 2 page newspaper, "The Occupied Wall Street Journal" that I bought. Robert had told me that some politicians had been volunteering to talk at the demonstration and the organizers had rebuffed them. Unions, however, were welcome aboard, the newspaper contained endorsements from a bunch of them.

The term "99%" was bandied about a lot in the newspaper. Occupy Wall Street is claiming to represent 99% of the population.

I don't think "Occupy Wall Street" will amount to much. There isn't a clear consensus, agenda or party platform. It's mostly a bunch of kids who don't know anything, who are poorly organized and unrealistic. The older radicals aren't offering anything new, just leftist solutions that this society's been rejecting for a long time.

Monday, October 3, 2011

My High School

This is a description of the high school I went to in Australia, highlighting the differences between American and Australian education styles.

I went to FIS, an international school in Europe that was mostly American, and where the prevailing culture was American, through 10th grade, after which I went to Australia and finished up at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, one of the best (if not the best) high schools in Australia.

There were no girls at Melbourne Grammar. You wore a uniform (suit and tie), and called the teacher "sir".

The Australian school was mostly along British traditional lines. In Europe I had teachers who were mostly American and English, so I became familiar with the differences between the two styles.

One very big difference between the Australian teachers and American ones is that American teachers feel that a student's grade is a confidential matter, between teacher and student. Generally, in American schools, other students are shielded from a knowledge of how well a student is doing in all classes except gym, where everybody's performance is completely visible to their peers. As a result, American students typically put 10 times more effort into gym than they do into their academic subjects.

From what people who had been at the school a long time told me, Melbourne Grammar had made a cultural shift around 1950, +/- 10 years. Prior to that, the school had been ruled by jocks. I don't know how the school was run prior to that, and I had no friends from other schools, so I have no information about how other Australian schools were run.
Typically, when there were more students studying a subject than could fit into one class, there were naturally several classes taught. But the students were separated into classes by ability. So if there were three classes, there was the top set containing the brightest students, the middle set, and the bottom set, containing the slowest, and everybody knew which was which. On top of that, at the end of every term, a few students were switched between sets depending upon how well they had performed - talk about visibility of performance! I had been an honors student in math and science prior to arriving in Australia, but the school had seen Americans before, and generally they had struggled academically. So to be safe, they put me in bottom set everything. After one term, I was transferred two classes up to top set. It was immediately obvious to me that the top set students were treated with more respect by the faculty.
In American schools, it is really clear - studious students occupy the bottom rung of the social ladder, which is totally dominated by jocks. At Melbourne Grammar, it was a completely different story. Being a smart student carried with it a lot of prestige and recognition from the faculty and from the other students.

Another big difference was democracy. American schools tend to be very democratic. Any student who holds any office or authority got that way by being elected by the other students. At Melbourne Grammar that wasn't the case at all. The administration had the attitude that we were not adults, we were not ready to make these decisions for ourselves, and they would make the important decisions. There were some students who were "prefects", a word that doesn't exist in the American vocabulary. They were students appointed to authority by the administration. They wore different ties, different shirts, and presided over house meetings.

Your "house" corresponded to your dorm. About 20% of the students were boarders and their houses were the dorms they lived in. Everybody else had sort of a virtual house, where we would have weekly meetings. Intramural sports teams were all organized along house lines, each house had its own tie in the school uniform, and a student had a lifelong loyalty to his house. Any student could tell instantly what house any other student belonged to by looking at his tie. So having the prefects preside over house meetings was not an insignificant perk.

Being able to choose prefects gave the administration tremendous leverage over student society. The administration could choose students who they considered the most mature by adult values to be role models for other students. This is very different from American school, where students who would never have been very well liked by adults would often occupy the high rungs of the student social hierarchy.

In Australia, the grades went kindergarten, 1-6th grade, then I-VIth form, where VIth form corresponded to American 12th grade. Students in classes were totally segregated by age. Where in American high school you would often have students of radically different ages in the same class, in Australia there was no mixing of ages in anything but gym, and when there was mixing, older students had authority over the younger.

The school had it down to a science. Students progressed steadily through the years in maturity, and a VIth former was considered a nearly-finished product, very much at the top of the ladder.

One thing the school did to promote intellectualism among its students was the "VIth-form society". At the beginning of VIth form, a list was circulated to all of VIth form naming about 40 of the smartest students in the class, who were invited to attend VIth form society. The society consisted of a dinner every month, with wine, followed by a thought-provoking speaker, who would talk to the society and then have a question and answer session. It was a lot of fun.

The selection of students was not by any blind academic point system, it was a deliberate and arbitrary choice by the administration of which students they wanted to give recognition to, and being seen on that list was quite a distinction. Students who weren't invited were welcome to join, only a few did, and I remember one brilliant student who refused the invitation. I never understood what his problem was.

Grading of exams was done differently than in the US. In the US, 90% is usually an A, 80% is a B, 70% a C, and 60% a D. In Australia, 80% was an A, 70% was a B, 60% was a C, and 50% was D. This meant that an Australian exam would typically contain a lot more questions that really required major insight and imagination on the students part, since the teacher could afford to ask 10% questions that nobody could get and still have a lot of A's.

Teachers would re-normalize their grades. You would get a raw score, and then the teacher would look at the curve and adjust all the scores to fit a fairly standard curve. So if the students generally did pretty well on an exam and you got a raw 92%, the teacher might adjust it to 85% to reflect that it was really just a low A.
Mid-term grades were given as letters in the Greek alphabet instead of the Roman alphabet. I'm not sure what this achieved.

The school was flirting with co-education. It was highly, highly controversial with the parents. The alumni association (known as the "Old Boys") was extremely conservative and against the school changing in any way. But experimentation was starting.

I remember one thing that happened. We were studying Macbeth as part of our curriculum, and we had a filming of Roman Polanksy's Macbeth in our auditorium. They arranged to have some girls from Lauriston, a local girl's school, over to watch it with us. They reserved the front few rows for the girls, had all the boys sit down, then the bus bringing the girls arrived, and they filed in a sat down, and we all watched the movie. Then the girls got up and filed out. The boys all got up and were trying to get out of the auditorium, but the teachers were frantically blocking the doors trying to keep us in. After several minutes we finally did find a way out, to discover that the girls' bus had gotten a flat tire. So the girls wound up taking streetcars home, giving us a chance to actually talk to them. I think the faculty really didn't want that to happen, because they were afraid some unfortunate incident might happen and the whole flirtation with co-education would be pronounced a failure. The teachers, not have been brought up in a co-educational environment, were very nervous about the whole concept, even if they were for it.

My school in Europe had had an honors program where we went through 2 American math classes in one year - in 9th grade I covered geometry and algebra II in a single year, in a single class. This left me at a level where, having just finished half of 10th grade and moving forward a half year to Vth form by crossing the equator, I was just at the right level for the Australian curriculum.

Students in Australia tended to be segregated into technical students vs students in the humanities. If a student, like myself, choose to be a technical tracker, he took, in Vth and VIth form, a load of 2 math classes, physics, and chemistry, plus English, with one additional elective in Vth form. However, the pace of the math classes was much slower, so that we covered about as much material in a year in 2 math classes as we had covered in the same time in a single class in Europe, but in much more depth, where in Europe I had been complaining that the material was going by so fast we were often often on the verge of being reduced to memorizing equations we didn't really understand.

The government had a set of 3 hour exams given at the end of senior year, called Higher School Certificate, or HSC, exams. In most classes, 100% of your grade was determined by this exam. I took the American SAT's and achievement tests as well, but they were trivial compared with the Australian tests. There was no calculus in the American tests, and they were all multiple choice. The American questions were all very straightforward, while the Australian tests, particularly Pure Math and physics, had a lot of very difficult questions requiring major creativity to answer.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Question on 9/11

Ten years ago, less than two dozen angry barbarians killed about 3000 unsuspecting innocent Americans. What I find surprising about this is not that it happened, but that this sort of thing hasn't happened more often.

The Islamic world has a strong "victim of the West" narrative. It is deeply upsetting to them that they are not the dominant culture in the world, and they have fabricated a whole alternate reality that preaches that this is not due to any failings in their own culture, but rather a grave injustice inflicted upon them by the West though underhanded means. It is true that the West, through colonialism both subtle and outright, has been meddling in the Islamic countries, so the "victim" narrative is not entirely unjustified.

So, in 2001, a bunch of them got fired up and lashed back, killing as many Americans as they could. Surprise, surprise.

But what about all the other failing cultures in the world? There are many other societies in the world that live in crushing poverty. There must be a lot of rabble-rousers around eager to tell all these people that their problems aren't their own fault, someone else is to blame. And most of these societies have been manhandled by the West at one time or another, so it shouldn't be hard to construe a reasonably credible "victim of the West" narrative in any of those cases and sell it to the masses.

9/11 is not an isolated incident. There have been many other attempts to commit mass murder against the West, but to my knowledge, they have all been perpetrated by militant Islam. What about all the other losers of the world? Why aren't they participating in this game?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Massimo Pigliucci on Evo Psych

In the 24 pages of chapter 7 of his book "Making Sense of Evolution", Massimo Pigliucci lays out scientific objections he has with the fairly new (since 1975) field of Evolutionary Psychology. In his book "Nonsense on Stilts", there is a small section where he deals with evo psych, but it is basically just a shorter subset of what is discussed in that chapter.

Massimo has been quoted in a
Newsweek article as saying that evolutionary psychology is "not good science". I am assuming that it is in these two books where he makes his case for this. The Newsweek article was an appalling piece of journalism -- intellectually dishonest, and resorting to emotional cheap shots. Massimo's chapter, in comparison, is like a breath of fresh air -- he sticks to scientific arguments and refrains from getting personal.

I am not going to defend everything any evolutionary psychologist ever said. I have not read anything by Tooby and Cosmides, and the criticism I have read of evo psych seems to particularly single out their work. Having only heard the criticism, I don't think much of it, and the things they are quoted as saying fail to strike a chord with me like what I've read from other evo psychs such as David Buss or Steven Pinker.

Generally, I am very leery of things said by evolutionary psychologists that are not backed up with psychological experimentation. It is very easy to do a lot of armchair speculation and call it "evo psych", making up evolutionary stories that are based on things that have not been verified about our ancestral environment, and substituting modern social stereotypes for actual psychological data. But if someone carefully studies what is known about prehistoric life, comes up with theories based on that, and tests those theories with psychological experimentation, that should be taken pretty seriously.

We need to make a distinction here between two different concepts: "Evolutionary Psychology", and "Psychological Evolutionary Biology". In evolutionary psychology, we use knowledge about evolution to cast light on psychology. In psychological evolutionary biology, we use knowledge about psychology to cast light on evolutionary biology. As we shall see, Massimo is mostly debunking psychological evolutionary biology, not evolutionary psychology.

In his book, Massimo is constantly comparing evo psych with the study of the evolution of non-human organisms by evolutionary biologists. It should be noted that for evo psych to be useful to humanity, it has to be at least about as good as mainstream psychology. The study of evolutionary biology of non-human organisms is the wrong standard to which to compare it. If
both mainstream psychology and evo psych are less scientific than evolutionary biology of non-human species (as is almost certainly the case), that does not in any way establish that mankind would not benefit greatly from studying evo psych.

One objection Massimo makes is that while evolutionary biologists often study species which have many other species closely related to them, comparison and experimentation between these species being very illuminating,
homo sapiens has no close living relatives, the most recent common ancestor of ourselves and the great apes having lived some 6 million years ago. This is obviously totally irrelevant to the issue of any comparison between evo psych and mainstream psychology, since it is a problem both of them face.

Throughout his discussion, Massimo is really obsessed with distinguishing whether observed traits of species are adaptations or caused by other evolutionary forces, such as genetic drift. This is a very central issue to an evolutionary biologist, but it's not very interesting to a psychologist. A psychologist is primarily interested in whether a trait exists, not how it came into being. The difference between evolutionary psychology and psychological evolutionary biology is key here. If a species-wide genetic psychological trait is identified and verified to exist, that is progress, regardless of how the trait emerged.

Massimo says that evo psychs sometimes talk about high level, specific behavioral traits when the evidence may not be sufficient to support such conclusions. That may be true sometimes, but you can accuse any field of intellectual inquiry, including mainstream psychology, with excessive speculation beyond what the evidence would support. This may be a relevant objection to bring up with respect to specific conclusions, but it does not mean that evo psych cannot be done well.

Massimo goes into a lot of detail about the fact that humans are very difficult to study because ethical considerations preclude a lot of experimental methods routinely used on other species. Again, this is a problem shared by
both evo psych and mainstream psychology, and it says absolutely nothing about how one is better or worse than the other.

Massimo claims little is known about life during the Pleistocene. He says "little", not "nothing", so it's not clear how much he means by that. I maintain we know enough to make progress, and I deal with this issue in my piece
Manufacturing an Absence of Evidence.

Done right, evo psych has a lot to offer. Evolutionary psychologists have at their disposal every technique available to a mainstream psychologist, plus they have the evolutionary perspective, much as an anatomist is better off for being aware of the fact that the organisms being studied were being shaped by evolution, and that most of the structures being observed therefore contributed to survival and / or reproduction in some way. Demanding that psychologists ignore the theory of evolution makes about as much sense as demanding that anatomists ignore it as well.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book Report: Evil Genes by Barbara Oakley

I met Barbara Oakley when she gave a talk in New York about the book she wrote after this one, "Pathological Altruism". The talk was poorly received because she ran afoul of liberal orthodoxy, but I thought she made some good points and the audience was just being dense. "Pathological Altruism" was not available yet on kindle, but her other book, "Evil Genes", was.

In "Evil Genes", she focuses on the "successfully sinister", people who are profoundly lacking in morals who nonetheless not only stay out of jail, but excel in society. One case she talks about is her morally dysfunctional older sister, who shamelessly used and abused her family at every opportunity.

On the one hand, how objective can we expect anyone to be about their own sister? On the other hand, it makes for entertaining reading. I read Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works", a much more scientific piece, but found I remembered nothing about it. The author's liberal use of anecdotes to describe the dysfunctional people she focuses on bring the issues to life.

She discusses mental illness, especially borderline personality disorder and psychopathy, and how they lead to morally depraved behavior. She uses several examples of tyrants including Serbian president Milosevic, Chairman Mao, Adolf Hitler, and the CEO of Enron to illustrate her points.

At this point, science is at the level where many specific genes associated with mental illness have been located, and Oakley frequently mentions them. I wonder how long it will be before we will have located genes associated with certain types of intelligence, or with altruism? Also, we still have at least fragments of the bodies of many of the tyrants she discusses, it would be interesting to analyze their genomes and see if her analysis of their mental illnesses is very accurate.

Oakley says there are two types of people: those who have encountered the successfully sinister and those who haven't. I count myself in the first category -- I had a close friend a long time ago, who I thought was a wonderful person until I got up close, then she started acting really underhanded and making threats. I got as far away as I could as fast as I could, but she rose to become a successful CEO.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ideology and Science

Ideology and Science Don't Mix

In some Scientific American articles I've read over the years, I felt there was considerable liberal bias, but they published a particularly offensive article this month: In Defense of Wishful Thinking, where the writer admits that he lets his liberal ideological bias influence his scientific thinking, and he makes no apologies for it.

It's disgraceful that anyone saying such a thing should be allowed to publish in such a prestigious science magazine. I see any ideological bias in science as a very bad thing.

Ideological Bias in Global Warming Science

I have observed that many Libertarians are global warming skeptics, and I have heard liberals speculate about why this is. Some speculate that they have been bought off by the oil companies, and in fact I have heard my Republican brother say that he feels that most of the resistance from the American political right is due to the influence of the fossil fuels lobby.

I think the fossil fuels lobby is obviously doing its level best to oppose any action to fight global warming, but an important point is that Libertarians don't have to be bought. Their ideology, and their political faith, leads them to believe that anthropogenic global warming theory cannot be scientifically true.

Libertarian ideology holds that most of what our government does is unnecessary, that the level of taxation we suffer from is orders of magnitude more than necessary or desirable, but further, taxation and regulation are not only harmful and unnecessary, but morally wrong.

When posed with the question "What if severe taxation or government regulation really were, in some instance, necessary?", a Libertarian will answer "That is never the case.". And, when the questioner starts airing scenarios, the Libertarian will come up with explanations, in each case, how either A: "That would never happen." or B: "The situation could be dealt with without regulation.".

As I am not an extreme Libertarian, I see a lot of these explanations as rationalizations, and a lot of the Libertarian world is an industry for manufacturing such rationalizations.

But behind the rationalizations is a faith, a desire to believe certain things, a desire to reach certain conclusions. If someone gets swept up in the Libertarian movement, they eventually convince themselves that the principle that massive regulation is never a good thing is one of the central characteristics of the world, like the conservation of energy. They get an almost theistic belief that it is a fundamental quality that a creator endowed the universe with.

If global warming is really a threat, it is virtually impossible to think of a realistic solution to it that can be achieved without massive government intervention. Given the fervent faith of a hard core Libertarian, it just seems impossible to them that the creator would put us in such a situation. It's as unthinkable as agreeing we should eat our young. Given that the science is hard to follow and most of the scientists involved are liberals who tend to feel that regulation is a good thing in and of itself, it is easy for Libertarians to mistrust the scientists and reject the science.

It is a very bad thing when faith gets in the way of science.

Now, my liberal friends (which means nearly all of my friends) will think this is an illustration of why Libertarians are bad, and the moral of this story is we should not listen to Libertarians, but that is not my point. My point is that it is bad when people let their ideology blind them to the facts.

A Scenario Where Liberal Bias Could Be Harmful

Let's create a hypothetical situation where liberal faith might get in the way.

Scientists could do tests on people, like putting them in a MRI scanner and watching their brains while they see videos of suffering, and see how much they are repulsed or turned on, to determine whether they were empathetic, sadistic, or indifferent. And suppose, with such tests on people of all ages from babies to adults, scientists determined that a dominant gene, HYNC3, caused people to be severely sadistic. Only a small proportion of the American population carried it, but it was very common in the prison population.
While very few Americans carried HYNC3, a very poor country on our border, Pralaxia, had a population twice as large as that of the US where 75% of the population carried it. Pralaxia was in a shambles, a horrid, brutal society, and many people there were illegally immigrating to the US.
Conservatives would look at this state of affairs and say that we should go to great lengths to stop illegal immigration from Pralaxia. How would you expect liberals to respond?

I think liberals would deny the science, claiming that the MRI scans were not as meaningful as the scientists claimed them to be, that correlation does not establish causality, they would go on and on. Why would they manufacture all these objections? Because the whole state of affairs would violate several articles of liberal faith:
  • Genes are not a very important factor in determining human behavior.
  • Ethnic discrimination is always morally wrong. Nothing good ever comes of it. It is never justified.
  • We are a "Nation of Immigrants". It is always wrong for anyone descended from immigrants to say we should bar any other immigrant.
  • There is no such thing as a bad social / ethnic group, other than perhaps white American males.
Given that Pralaxia was much larger than the US, a failure to stop the immigration would quickly put us into a situation where 40% of our population was severely sadistic and probably reduce us to the same sorry state as Pralaxia. We are talking about the total destruction of our country. I think liberals would still deny the science, and resist measures to stem the tide every inch of the way.

Idealistic people are often likable and inspiring. But ideology should be extremely suspect among scientists.

What About a Real Situation????

A liberal might say "Well, that's just a hypothetical, fictitious situation. There are no real situations where liberal bias is causing harmful policy.".

I chose to give a hypothetical situation because I feel the liberal world, like the Libertarian world, is an industry of self-justifying rationalizations, and if I were to talk about any real liberal policy that I see as harmful, it would be ardently defended by liberals who have long ago generated rationalizations for it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Standardized Tests

College Tuition Costs and Standardized Tests

One of the biggest problems American society faces is that college tuition has become so high that many people just can't afford college, or if they go, they graduate massively in debt.

There are standardized tests, the SAT and ACT, that are widely used for entrance to college. Colleges put a lot of weight on these, because grades are non-standard and not very meaningful. A good grade could just mean that one had an easy teacher or dumb classmates. The presence of standardized testing for college admissions has been very beneficial, it allows outstanding students at unexceptional schools to get recognition.

We have a standardized tests for graduate school admissions, such as the GRE. However, the service that administers the GRE refuses to make their test scores available to private companies hiring college graduates. Given that grades are an unreliable indicator, this means that all the companies have to go by when considering applicants is the reputation of the school and the student's GPA.

What determines the reputation of a college? The quality of the undergraduate program has little to do with it. The quantity of research being done has a lot more, and it is common for professors at elite schools to neglect their teaching so they can focus on their research. The university administration doesn't get very upset about it, because it is the research and not the quality of instruction that determines the reputation of the school.

There is also a big problem of grade inflation. Many teachers give nearly all of their students good grades, because that discourages students from complaining about poor instruction quality. Rarely do administrators do anything about it.

There is only so much fame to go around. The average hiring manager can only have heard of a certain number of nationally famous schools. The vast majority of people are going to have to go to relatively unknown schools. And it would be nice if someone could go to a cheaper, less famous school, and still be recognized as an outstanding performer. Widely available, standardized tests taken at the end of one's college education would be a great way to achieve this.

Another benefit of widely available, standardized tests taken at the end of one's college education is that one could compare the test scores of students graduating from schools with the SAT scores they got while applying, and see which schools had the most beneficial impact on test scores.

One criticism of testing is that schools will "teach to the test". This certainly happens, but the solution to it is simple: construct an intelligently designed test such that the best strategy for achieving a high score is a mastery of the subject matter. I have heard, mostly from people who are against testing, that the "No Child Left Behind" tests are particularly bad. The solution is to improve the tests, not do away with them.

A big problem liberals have with standardized tests is that different social groups perform differently on them.
If these tests were mismeasuring talent due to unfair cultural bias, I would expect there to be groups who are high performing in society who perform poorly on the tests and groups that are low performing in society who are performing well on the tests. This is not the case -- generally, performance of groups on standardized test correlates very highly with the per capita intellectual performance of individuals in those groups in society, even before those tests existed. This is evidence that the tests are not unfairly biased. Given that society stands to benefit so much from the institution of more widespread standardized testing, I think the burden of proof should be on those who maintain that the tests are unfairly biased.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Book Wagging

I get into a lot of intellectual discussions, on facebook, at meetups. I see a discussion as a collaborative effort to shed light on reality or at least entertain each other. And some tactics are more constructive than others.

Reading books is a good activity, provided you're actually learning anything from them. Obviously, people who read a lot are in a position to contribute more positively to a debate.

If a discussion is going along and you're able to articulate ideas you've gathered from a book to illuminate the discussion, that's great. But there's another tactic which I call "book wagging".

Book wagging is when someone declares someone else in the conversation wrong, but refuses to explain why, claiming it's all in a book they've read. For one thing, it kills the conversation since it cannot now proceed until the "refuted" party goes and reads the book.

Cindy: I think we need to raise taxes.
Carol: That's been completely proven wrong, you need to read "Atlas Shrugged".
Carol now has the upper hand. She has established herself as better read than Cindy, and declared a victory in the debate. Bear in mind "Atlas Shrugged" is about 1000 pages long. The conversation is now dead until Cindy goes and reads all 1000 pages. If she finds that the book was not relevant to the case she was making, or that the arguments contained in it were not very persuasive, the discussion has been over for weeks, Carol is by then long gone and not accountable.

A couple of times people have wagged books at me during the discussion of topics near and dear to me, so much so that I dug up the book and read it, only to find that it had
no legitimate bearing on the topic being discussed.

If Carol really
had read "Atlas Shrugged" (not really for certain -- people often wag books they haven't actually read) and it really did contain insights that would shed some light on the discussion, Carol probably would have been able to articulate some of them. The fact that she declined to do this and just threw a book at Cindy is a sign that this wasn't the case.

Sometimes a topic is too complex to be dealt with in a certain medium, such as an informal verbal discussion or a facebook discussion, and then it is a valid time to say "I can't explain it to you here, but it's in this book". But much more frequently, books are wagged as a disingenuous tactic of the intellectually bankrupt.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Conservatives' Deaf Ear on Global Warming

Many liberals are having trouble understanding why it is conservatives are putting up so much resistance to the concept of global warming. A little history is in order.
Many people become environmentalists because they are technophobes. They hate technology, specifically because they don't understand it. You can't be a very constructive environmentalist unless you have a solid grasp of science. Most of what such people have to say is just plain stupid.
Other people become environmentalists because they are economic leftists. They claim to be concerned about the birds and trees, but really they just want any excuse they can find to give grief to corporations.
Global Warming isn't the first time we've been told that we would have to drastically overhaul our energy infrastructure. There was an oil shock in 1973 and after that we spent most of the 1970's hearing about how we were running out of oil. I remember reading, in the mid-70's, that the world would be out of oil by about 2005, and out of natural gas by about 1995. So for anyone old enough to remember those times, the current alarm about AGW doesn't sound all that new.
Another voice related to the environmental movement is the alternative energy movement. This group has been, ever since the early '70's, promoting severely immature technologies without any regard for whether they were economically feasible.
According to energy prices quoted by Scientific American in 2009, the cost of switching our entire electrical energy production to silicon solar cells would have been, at that time, more money, per year, than all personal federal income taxes combined. Alternative energy enthusiasts talk as if this isn't even a concern.
The alternative energy enthusiasts were promoting solar back in the 1970's, when it was nowhere NEAR as cost-effective as it was by 2009. I remember a professor of mine in college had a political cartoon on his door saying that the only reason that solar energy was deemed economically infeasible in 1979 was because of a conspiracy of the big oil companies.
The consequence of all this is that industrialists have been subjected, for at least as long as anyone below retirement age has been working, to a steady stream of mixed hostility, stupidity, and gratuitous alarmism coming from the environmental and alternative energy movements. It is thus natural for them to perceive these groups to be not only enemies, but also profoundly lacking in scientific and economic competence.
AGW denialism in this country is an unfolding disaster, and something must be done about it, but an understanding of the problem is not complete without an awareness of how the political left bears a great deal of the responsibility for their current credibility problem with the American right.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Book Report: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human

This book is about the human use of fire during prehistory, and how it shaped us.

My own speculation (as opposed to what is actually in the book) is in brown italics.

Modern Raw Food Faddists

Some modern people choose to attempt a raw food diet, believing that this is how prehistoric people ate, and since we are thus theoretically evolved for it, a raw diet is more "natural" and will lead to greater health.
It should be noted that modern people attempting such a diet have a number of advantages over a prehistoric raw foodist. They have access to very sharp steel knives, blenders, and cuisinarts suitable for preparing food and breaking it down. They have access to supermarkets full of processed, easy to digest food. Furthermore, many people claiming to live on a "raw diet" actually heat some of their food slightly (to about 120 degrees Fahrenheit) which helps break it down a bit.
Nonetheless, people on raw diets observe the following effects
  • They have trouble maintaining body weight. In our times, this is often seen as a good thing, but in prehistory, it would have been quite a bad thing. It would have been an especially bad thing for a pregnant woman.
  • There is a drastic reduction in fertility:
    • Half the women quit menstruating, becoming temporarily sterile. It is probable that those who manage to keep menstruating are experiencing a substantial drop in fertility.
    • Men become less virile.
    • Some raw foodists see this drop in fertility as a good thing, feeling that menstruation and ejaculation are ways the body gets rid of "toxins". Less frequent menstruation and ejaculation are thus evidence of less "toxins" in the diet. Look at the bright side of this: Such people are voluntarily removing themselves from the gene pool!
All modern primitive peoples had fire when discovered. I had heard that Tasmanian aborigines didn't have fire, but investigation showed they did, they just didn't know how to start it. If a tribe lost their fire, they borrowed some from a neighboring tribe.
The conclusion from all this is that a prehistoric homo sapiens tribe that lost its fire and couldn't reacquire it would be unable to maintain their fertility very well, would be unable to maintain their health well enough for the physically active prehistoric lifestyle, and would be unable to hold their own in warfare with neighboring tribes. Such a tribe would be doomed.

How Long Have We Been Cooking?

There are a few very ancient fire pits that look like humans started them, but these are extremely few and far between -- hearths are generally nowhere near as well-preserved as fossilized bones.
We do know a lot about the physiology of prehistoric people, however. Notable are three big changes in physiology between apes and homo sapiens:
  • Our guts are smaller.
  • Our jaws are considerably smaller. It should be noted that non-human primates often spend hours each day chewing their food.
  • We don't have opposable toes. We can't climb trees anywhere near as well as our ape cousins. Apes usually sleep in trees. Sleeping on the ground in a jungle or forest is quite dangerous, as you are an easy target for predators. If we had fire, we could keep predators at a safe distance.
These changes were already substantial by the time homo erectus emerged -- about one and a half million years ago. So we would have had to be cooking our fire for a long time before that in order for these drastic changes in physiology to have had time to evolve.

How Did We Tame Fire?

I've wondered a lot about this. This was the main thing I wanted to learn from this book, and the author doesn't gives it as much attention as I would have liked.

Taming fire is difficult. You have to figure out that wood and leaves burn and that rocks, dirt and water don't. You have to figure out that dead wood and leaves burn better than green wood and leaves. You have to figure out that if you hold a branch that is burning at the end with the end pointing down, the fire spreads to the rest of the branch, while if you hold it upright, it doesn't. And you have to not start a forest or bush fire or inflict life-threatening burns on yourself while you figure all this out.
  • One theory is that a fire might be caused by a lightning strike, and then people would get the fire from that. This just doesn't fly. A human would be lucky to see a single fire from a lightning strike in their lifetime. You couldn't learn how to tame fire well enough to keep it going from that one encounter in your life.
  • Another theory is that people might get fire from a forest or bush fire. Again, this just doesn't seem workable. This is a rare occasion, and an emergency to boot. If you encounter a forest or bush fire, you are unlikely to survive if your response is anything other than to run at full speed in the opposite direction.
Clearly, to tame fire, we would have had to have regular, non life-threatening access to it over a long period of time. The author's answer is quite convincing: There is a type of rock that is a mixture of iron and sulfur known as pyrite, or "fool's gold". It is not extremely rare, and could be quite in abundance in some places. Banging such rocks together produces really good sparks. This could have been quite entertaining, and if done enough, could lead, over a long time, to learning how to tame fire. Eventually we would learn that food, especially meat, tastes better and is easier to digest if cooked. (When I was in the Boy Scouts, we were taught that one legitimate way to cook a steak was "caveman style", where you just throw it on the burning coals. I never actually tried this myself, though).

How Did Fire Affect Us?

Digesting raw food takes a lot of energy. Cooking food makes digesting easier frees up a lot of energy for other uses, such as larger brains.
Cooking could also help drive the evolution of larger brains. Keeping a fire going and not being injured by it is not easy, especially for a hominid with brains much smaller than ours. It was high tech for the time. Hominids with larger brains would have been more able to pull it off. As has been said, as we evolved more dependency upon fire, losing it would have been a major threat to a tribe's survival.
The author talks about human pair bonding being primarily oriented toward division of labor. A hunter could go out and cover a much larger radius if he could be confident a cooked meal was waiting for him when he got home.
He argues that a human man-wife team was more oriented toward division of labor and having one party be able to stay at the camp and cook while the other hunted, than reproduction. He cites, as evidence, a modern primitive tribe (one tribe) where the wives sleep around with their husbands' knowledge. The husbands don't like this, but put up with it. I really had trouble buying this, and I think it is more easily explained by bad anthropology by whoever studied that one tribe than anything else. He also didn't elaborate on how willing these husbands who had been blatantly cheated on were to make sacrifices for the well-being of the children of such unions.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Price on Human Life

Many people feel the price on human life should be infinite. I will examine two statements:

"No one should EVER die because they can't afford medical care" -- a meme that was traveling around facebook around the time Obamacare went through.

"Car companies should NEVER compromise safety to save money" -- I hear this one a lot.

"No one should EVER die because they can't afford medical care"

Many people feel this is the case.

About half the people in the US die in hospitals. That's about a million people a year.

The vast majority of people who die in hospitals could be kept for a few more hours, sometimes weeks, sometimes months, of agonizing pain if, say, we were willing to spend $10 million on each of them. People who die of heart problems could be kept alive, with enough money, for a long time if they were put on the sort of heart / lung machines that are used on people who receive heart transplants. People whose digestive systems are ruined could easily be fed intravenously. Stroke victims whose brains are basically ruined and not sending correct signals to the body could be kept alive by sedating their brains, connecting electrodes to their spinal cord and sending the right signals to keep the body alive.

About a million Americans die in hospitals a year. A million times 10 million is 10 trillion dollars. US GDP is about $15 trillion dollars. Would that be worth it? Basically, the money is just not there.

One problem with the US health care system is that most people have insurance, and they want their insurance to pay ANY PRICE for medical care. A basic principal is you have to be willing to walk away from the deal if the price is too high. If you're not willing to do that, which is usually the case with people who have insurance with a fixed co-pay, medical prices rise and rise and rise, much faster than inflation. It's one of the biggest problems our economy faces.
It should be noted that the price of cosmetic surgery, which most insurance doesn't pay for, has not been even keeping up with inflation. When people are spending their own money, unlike when they have "spare no expense" health insurance, they shop around and get better deals.

"Car companies should NEVER compromise safety to save money"

People often seem to feel that if a car company makes such compromises, criminal charges should be pressed against them.

Let's imagine what a car and roads that make no compromises for safety would be like.

It would have to, I suppose, be able to keep its passengers safe in a head-on collision with an 18 wheel semi. So it would have to be MASSIVELY armored, at least as heavy as an M-1 Abrams tank. Mileage for tanks is usually measured in gallons per mile. So say it gets half a mile per gallon.
It would cost something like a half a million dollars, more than a typical house. To buy one, you would need to take out a 30 year loan. Since it's going to take so long to buy one, and there's no way the average American can afford to buy another one during that 30 years, it has to be well-built enough to last at least 30 years. Add another $200,000 for that increase in quality. Maybe you'll need to take out a 40 / 50 year loan, so it has to last 40 / 50 years. Add another $100,000 for that further increase in quality. So that's $800,000 for a car.

For safety, speed limits should be MUCH slower, about 20 miles an hour, in case you run into a building or a mountain or make a head-on collision with another tank like yours, and to make sure you don't accidentally drive over a cliff. If you live 30 miles from work, nowadays, traveling at 60 mph, you will spend an hour a day commuting. Let's assume you never travel except for work. Obviously, you'll travel more that that, but let's make that optimistic assumption.
If you now travel at 20 mph, it will now take you 3 hours every day to commute. During a career starting at 22 years old and ending at retirement at 67 years old, you commute over 11,000 days in your life. Times 2 hours of lost time per day, that's 22,000 hours. One year is 8766 hours, or about 5844 waking hours per year. So that's about 3 years of your waking life wasted by commuting at 20 mph. It's pretty doubtful whether all these safety-improving measures will increase your life expectancy by that much.

And all that traveling at 2 gallons per mile, with gasoline at AT LEAST $2.50 a gallon, for 22,000 working days times 60 miles, is 60 * 250 * 2.5 is over $37,000 a year spent on gasoline, just for commuting. And if everybody was driving these gas-guzzling cars, it would drive the price of oil up astronomically. Actually, the US would basically be consuming more gasoline than current world production.
And the increase in global warming could cause catastrophic climate change sooner, with huge crop failures, thus massive death by starvation.
One could live closer to work. Since that means you would have less choice of jobs, you would have to work at a crummier job for lower pay. Good luck paying for that $800,000 car and huge amount of money worth of gas.

Let's face it, the price on human life is finite.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The King

This really happened to me. I don't think I ever told anyone about it.

It was early spring, 2002.
I was living in Silicon Valley, had been unemployed for 5 or 6 months, my social life was abysmal, and, desperate to improve my mood, took a trip up to Lake Tahoe, 4 hours away, to go snowboarding.

After the snowboarding, I went down to Reno, Nevada, close by. I'd heard you could shoot a machine gun at gunnery ranges in Nevada. I looked one up, went there, and it was true. I fired an Uzi at a paper target with a human form on it. This being 6 months after 9/11, you could get targets with cartoon pictures of Osama Bin Laden on them, but for some reason I didn't.

Normally, when you go shooting pistols at a range, if you're shooting a .22, you can shoot all day and it hardly costs anything. If you're shooting a .45, it adds up, you can go through 30-40 bucks worth of ammo in a half hour. Shooting a fully automatic weapon, it turns out, is really expensive, you can go through $100 worth of ammunition in a few seconds.

It was a long, boring drive home by myself. I was pulling out of a gas station, and saw a hitchhiker on the on-ramp. I could really use the company, so I pulled over. I hadn't taken a very good look at him.

When he stepped in, he was wearing a lot of denim, looking like sort of a country-boy, long haired, heavy-metal type. We introduced ourselves and discussed our destinations. As I pulled onto the freeway, I noticed he smelled, well, pretty bad.

He asked what I do. When he learned I was a computer programmer, he became animated and said he used to work with computers in Washington DC. He mentioned a bunch of acronyms, I think they related to one of the old brands of computers that hardly anyone uses anymore, Honeywell, or someone like that. We really couldn't talk shop.

He had been working for a traveling carnival. He said he was "The King" there, in charge of the whole crew responsible for assembling and disassembling the rides.

He had left his job as the foreman, and was hitchhiking his way back to the Bay Area, where he had a job as a garbage collector lined up. There was obviously a missing piece of information here -- why would someone abandon a job as "The King" to go be a garbage collector? He said "I couldn't take it any more. I had the power of life and death." and would get all silent and spooky.

The crew had been mostly drug addicts, it sounded like hard drugs, and the top management of the carnival had no idea about it. "The King" had taken it upon himself, among his responsibilities, to cover up for people who, for example, were incapacitated because they had taken sub-standard drugs. He said the management were totally clean-cut, non-drug people. If they were to learn about all the drugs, they would replace the whole crew. He felt, as "King", he was protector of the crew, and it was among his responsibilities to keep management in the dark.

We talked some more about other things, talked about me for awhile, we bonded a bit.

He started talking about a problem they had. One of the crew was a pedophile. "The King" had reliable evidence, from 3 sources, that this guy was molesting kids at the carnival. It was clear that if the child molester were reported to the authorities, he would fink out everybody about the drugs and they would all get fired.

He took his job as "King" seriously, and he felt one of his responsibilities was to protect the public, to keep the carnival a safe place for people, including children, to come. He kept stressing that he had reliable information from 3 sources that this guy was a molester.

Eventually it came out that he'd hired organized crime to off the pedophile. The mob had then chopped up the body and disposed of the pieces it in 14 dumpsters. The "King" totally couldn't live with it. Completely freaked out, he left the carnival to hitchhike across the country back to the town he'd grown up in to be a garbage collector.

Maybe he was just telling me a story. Maybe he'd never been "King", maybe this was all made up. But I totally believed the whole thing.

I dropped him off at the place he wanted me to, he told me he could get back home from there on his own. He bade each other a cheerful goodbye and he showed me a tattoo on his chest before he closed the door.

Should I have turned him in? It would have been easy -- I knew exactly where he was going, and his first name.
If his story was true, he was sorry as hell. He was completely torn up about it (and was probably going to spill his guts about it to more people). He wasn't a dumb guy, but it was really stupid to tell me, someone who didn't owe him squat, about it. That shows how much agony his conscience was putting him through.
I don't believe in punishing people who are already sorry. He was never going to do anything like that again. From the looks of it, he was making sure he was never going to be in a position to do anything like that again. I let it go. I wasn't going to take it on myself to pass judgment. I'm sure the child molester's ghost is damning me to hell for that decision, but that's his problem.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Manufacturing an Absence of Evidence

When discussing an issue with someone, one does, of course, have to keep in mind what the other person believes. But it is at least as important to keep in mind what they want to believe. Most of us have reluctantly accepted bitter truths, but secretly we're harboring hopes that these bitter truths are inaccurate.
And then there are a few intrepid individuals who will throw reason to the wind and embrace what they want to believe in spite of overwhelming evidence.

Many want to believe AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) is a hoax. It would be very nice if they are right -- curbing our CO2 emissions, if it is ever done, will result in a drop in the standard of living in every nation in the world. Only a few people see AGW as a good thing: Luddites, technophobes, and starry-eyed alternative energy proponents who haven't done their economics homework. To everybody else, it's bad news.
Some are spearheading a very formidable resistance to doing anything about it, well-funded by the fossil fuels lobby. The evidence for AGW is pretty strong: CO2 levels have been rising significantly (everybody agrees on that), the arctic ice cap is thinner than it used to be, and the most recent decade has been the hottest on record.
The counter-evidence the AGW denialists cite is they point at every snowstorm that occurs as evidence of cooling. This is idiotic and easily deflected: there has been at most 1 degree Fahrenheit of warming so far, and nobody with an IQ over 70 believes that 1 degree of warming will mean there will be no more snowstorms.
Then they get more creative. "Most of the recorded temperature data from the 20th century is flawed!" they say. Their solution for this: "We have to start all over. Ignore the data from the 20th century, start again from scratch, and collect data for at least several decades if not another century.".
Unfortunately, before enough warming (How much? 5 degrees?) occurs to convince these "skeptics", warming will cause the thawing of permafrost and the massive release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere potentially causing a catastrophic, irreversible, runaway warming effect.
They also say "Climate models are really complex -- those climate scientists don't really know what they're talking about!". Again, the solution is "Let's wait until it's too late.".
Note the pattern here: they aren't really producing evidence, they're trying to dismiss the overwhelming evidence that is there. That's what I call "manufacturing an absence of evidence".

Liberals are not without guilt here, too. During the '70's and '80's, they were dead against the notion that ANY human behavioral trait, including (and especially), intelligence, was influenced by normal variation in the human genome. (Except for homosexuality, they said. That one, they knew for sure, they said, was 100% determined at birth!). The evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin wrote a whole book, Not in Our Genes, (which I have not read) denying the influence of normal genetics on human behavior, in 1984.
People who did twin studies were vilified as Nazi eugenicists, it was really hard to make any progress for awhile. Eventually, some brave souls put up with all the ad-hominem attacks and did the twin studies, and the evidence came back that nature was a far stronger influence on the human mind than any well-understood factor in nurture. Scientific American did an article on the topic in the '90's. Title: "Eugenics Revisited", satisfying Godwin's law. You know that a debate is getting heated when Scientific American sinks to the same level as Creationists who claim that belief in evolution leads to genocide!
The nature denialists put up a good fight: "Identical twins have an identical experience in the womb!" was one claim. But the observed dissimilarities between fraternal twins refuted that. "Identical twins adopted at birth are both placed by the same adoption agency, so they wind up in similar homes!". Studies were done that tracked the standard of living of the respective homes. Sorry, in spite of these attempts to manufacture an absence of evidence, the verdict was still overwhelmingly nature. The real smoking gun was that unrelated people adopted into the same family aren't much more similar than if they had been raised in different families. Identical twins separated at birth taking IQ tests separately have scores nearly as similar to each other's as one person taking two tests on different days.
In spite of the liberal attempts to manufacture an absence of evidence, the notion that we enter this world as a "blank slate" is dead to any reasonable person.
See my other blog entry which reviewed the book
The Genius in All of Us. The author, David Shenk, was trying, even in 2010, to resurrect the "blank slate". He even admitted, in his book, that "The blank slate is dead.", and then spent every other sentence in the book trying to bring it back to life. In his desperate quest to manufacture an absence of evidence, he even tried to pooh-pooh the whole concept of statistical evidence!

Another area is the lives of primitive humans. A few hundred years ago, primitive people were seen as depraved, brutal "savages" to be either religiously converted or enslaved by their more enlightened brothers.
The political left condemned this exploitation, interference and victimization, and rightly so. But they went too far. Marx had the belief, based on no evidence at all, that during prehistory, humans lived in an idyllic, egalitarian, altruistic society, and it was only the modern class-oriented, market-driven society that had brought man down to a lower, more selfish, state.
In the early 20th century, left-leaning anthropologists like Margaret Mead were so beholden to this vision that they painted the lives of primitives they observed as sexually liberated and wonderful. Later anthropologists observing the same culture found that just the opposite was true.
But as the 20th century wore on, more people spent time with primitives, and it became more and more evident that preliterates were brutal, selfish, and even worse, quite gender-stereotypical, to put it mildly.
The liberals have huge problems with this: they hate social stereotypes, including gender stereotypes, however true, with a passion. Given that the evidence is overwhelming, their strategy is, again, to manufacture an absence of evidence. "Those tribes don't count because they don't live on the African savanna!", they say. "All modern primitives are uncharacteristic of prehistoric life because they've all been influenced by modern civilization at this point.", they say. Some go so far as to say "We know nothing about the lives of pre-historic people!".
That's ridiculous. We know a lot of things for certain about prehistoric people:

  • They didn't have access to refined sugar.
  • They didn't have access to hard liquor. Alcohol available to them, if any, was extremely weak, and probably tasted terrible.
  • Life expectancy was a lot shorter than it is now.
  • Because human babies are so helpless and burdensome, and life expectancy was short enough that the presence of grandparents couldn't be relied upon, if a female wanted to pass on her genes, she was going to be much more able to do it if she had someone committed to helping her raise the kid.
  • A female knew for certain that any baby that emerged from her body was her own child. Infidelity by her husband, or his taking multiple wives, had no possibility of undermining that.
  • If a male wanted to pass on his genes, he had to avoid being cuckolded. Potential infidelity by his wife was a very serious threat to his passing on his genes.
  • Males were, on average, bigger and stronger than females.
  • A male had the physical potential to create a lot more offspring than a female could.
  • Due to our digestive system being less ample than that of apes (smaller abdomen, smaller and less strong mouth for chewing), and due to what we know from observing modern people who attempt raw diets, a tribe was dependent upon cooking to be healthy and fertile enough to maintain their numbers. If a tribe lost their fire and didn't know how to restart it, they would probably dwindle out within several generations.
  • Humans without tools or fire were easy prey for predators, due to their not being able to run very fast, and their lack of claws or formidable mouth and teeth.
  • A small tribe that didn't swap mates with other tribes over many generations was subject to severe health problems due to inbreeding.
  • The children of incest were most often unhealthy.
  • In the tropics, resistance to disease was more important than it was for those from colder climates.
  • Sunburn was a more serious problem in the tropics.
  • People wanted the best for their children.
  • Healthy people had more children.
  • If a war occurred between tribes, the tribe that was healthier, more numerous, and whose individuals were smarter and physically stronger was more likely to win.
  • The average person was smaller than the average person is today.
And those are just some of the things we know for certain, it only took me about a half hour to cough those up. If we allow information we have gleaned from observations of modern primitive people, we know a lot more than that.
It should also be noted that liberals were completely comfortable with talking about observations about modern primitive peoples in the days of Margaret Mead when they still thought that such evidence was in their favor. It was only after they learned that the evidence was overwhelmingly against them that they started trying to declare it inadmissible.

One sure sign that you are dealing with someone who is manufacturing an absence of evidence is, when they claim we "can't know" something, if you suggest an experiment that would shed light on the subject, they get angry.

There is a basic drive in human nature to believe what we want to believe. When we hear evidence to believe something we don't like, we try to find evidence to support our position. Failing that, the next step is to try to find excuses to dismiss the evidence we don't like. To be an honest intellectual, one must resist this temptation.