Model, Physics, Science

Understanding Radiation via Antennas

It can be hard to grasp that radio waves, deadly radiation, and the light we can see are all the same thing. How can electromagnetic (EM) radiation – photons – sometimes penetrate walls and sometimes not? How can some forms of EM radiation be perfectly safe and others damage our DNA? How can radio waves travel so much further than gamma rays in air, but no further through concrete?

It all comes down to wavelength. But before we get into that, we should at least take a glance at what EM radiation really is.

Electromagnetic radiation takes the form of two orthogonal waves. In one direction, you have an oscillating magnetic field. In the other, an oscillating electric field. Both of these fields are orthogonal to the direction of travel.

These oscillations take a certain amount of time to complete, a time which is calculated by observing the peak value of one of the fields and then measuring how long it takes for the field to return to that value. Luckily, we only need to do this once, because the time an oscillation takes (called the period) will stay the same unless acted on by something external. You can invert the period to get the frequency – the number of times oscillations occur in a second. Frequency uses the unit Hertz, which are just inverted seconds. If something has the frequency 60Hz, it happens 60 times per seconds.

EM radiation has another nifty property: it always travels at the same speed, a speed commonly called “the speed of light” [1] (even when applied to EM radiation that isn’t light). When you know the speed of an oscillating wave and the amount of time it takes for the wave to oscillate, you can calculate the wavelength. Scientists like to do this because the wavelength gives us a lot of information about how radiation will interact with world. It is common practice to represent wavelength with the Greek letter Lambda (λ).

lambda class shuttle from star wars
Not that type of lambda. Image Credit: Marshal Banana on Flickr

Put in a more mathy way: if you have an event that occurs with frequency f to something travelling at velocity v, the event will have a spatial periodicity λ (our trusty wavelength) equal to v / f. For example, if you have a sound that oscillates 34Hz (this frequency is equivalent to the lowest C♯ on a standard piano) travelling at 340m/s (the speed of sound in air), it will have a wavelength of (340 m/s)/(34 s-1) = 10m. I’m using sound here so we can use reasonably sized numbers, but the results are equally applicable to light or other forms of EM radiation.

Wavelength and frequency are inversely related to each other. The higher the frequency of something, the smaller its wavelength. The longer the wavelength, the lower the frequency. I’m used to people describing EM radiation in terms of frequency when they’re talking about energy (the quicker something is vibrating, the more energy it has) and wavelength when talking about what it will interact with (the subject of the rest of this post).

With all that background out of the way, we can actually “look” at electromagnetic radiation and understand what we’re seeing.

animated gif showing oscillating magnetic and electric fields orthogonal to direction of travel
Here wavelength is labeled with “λ”, the electric field is red and labelled with “E” and the magnetic field is blue and labelled with “B”. “B” is the standard symbol for magnetic fields, for reasons I have never understood. Image Credit: Lookang on Wikimedia Commons.

Wavelength is very important. You know those big TV antennas houses used to have?

picture of house with old fashioned aerial antenna
Image Credit: B137 on Wikimedia Commons

Turns out that they’re about the same size as the wavelength of television signals. The antenna on a car? About the same size as the radio waves it picks up. Those big radio telescopes in the desert? Same size as the extrasolar radio waves they hope to pick up.

image of the VLA radio telescopes
Fun fact: these dishes together make up a very large radio telescope, unimaginatively called the “Very Large Array”. Image Credit: Hajor on Wikimedia Commons

Even things we don’t normally think of as antennas can act like them. The rod and cone cells in your eyes act as antennas for the light of this very blog post [2]. Chains of protein or water molecules act as antennas for microwave radiation, often with delicious results. The bases in your DNA act as antennas for UV light, often with disastrous results.

These are just a few examples, not an exhaustive list. For something to be able to interact with EM radiation, you just need an appropriately sized system of electrons (or electrical system; the two terms imply each other). You get this system of electrons more or less for free with metal. In a metal, all of the electrons are delocalized, making the whole length of a metal object one big electrical system. This is why the antennas in our phones or on our houses are made of metal. It isn’t just metal that can have this property though. Organic substances can have appropriately sized systems of delocalized electrons via double bonding [3].

EM radiation can’t really interact with things that aren’t the same size as its wavelength. Interaction with EM radiation takes the form of the electric or magnetic field of a photon altering the electric or magnetic field of the substance being interacted with. This happens much more readily when the fields are approximately similar sizes. When fields are the same size, you get an opportunity for resonance, which dramatically decreases the loss in the interaction. Losses for dissimilar sized electric fields are so high that you can assume (as a first approximation) that they don’t really interact.

In practical terms, this means that a long metal rod might heat up if exposed to a lot of radio waves (wavelengths for radio waves vary from 1mm to 100km; many are a few metres long due to the ease of making antennas in that size) because it has a single electrical system that is the right size to absorb energy from the radio waves. A similarly sized person will not heat up, because there is no single part of them that is a unified electrical system the same size as the radio waves.

Microwaves (wavelengths appropriately micron-sized) might heat up your food, but they won’t damage your DNA (nanometres in width). They’re much larger than individual DNA molecules. Microwaves are no more capable of interacting with your DNA than a giant would be of picking up a single grain of rice. Microwaves can hurt cells or tissues, but they’re incapable of hurting your DNA and leaving the rest of the cell intact. They’re just too big. Because of this, there is no cancer risk from microwave exposure (whatever paranoid hippies might say).

Gamma rays do present a cancer risk. They have a wavelength (about 10 picometres) that is similar in size to electrons. This means that they can be absorbed by the electrons in your DNA, which kick these electrons out of their homes, leading to chemical reactions that change your DNA and can ultimately lead to cancer.

Wavelength explains how gamma rays can penetrate concrete (they’re actually so small that they miss most of the mass of concrete and only occasionally hit electrons and stop) and how radio waves penetrate concrete (they’re so large that you need a large amount of concrete before they’re able to interact with it and be stopped [4]). Gamma rays are stopped by the air because air contains electrons (albeit sparsely) that they can hit and be stopped by. Radio waves are much too large for this to be a possibility.

When you’re worried about a certain type of EM radiation causing cancer, all you have to do is look at its wavelength. Any wavelength smaller than that of ultraviolet light (about 400nm) is small enough to interact with DNA in a meaningful way. Anything large is unable to really interact with DNA and is therefore safe.

Epistemic Status: Model. Looking at everything as antenna will help you understand why EM radiation interacts with the physical world the way it does, but there is a lot of hidden complexity here. For example, eyes are far from directly analogous to antennas in their mechanism of action, even if they are sized appropriately to be antennas for light. It’s also true that at the extreme ends of photon energy, interactions are based more on energy than on size. I’ve omitted this in order to write something that isn’t entirely caveats, but be aware that it occurs.

Footnotes:

[1] You may have heard that the speed of light changes in different substances. Tables will tell you that the speed of light in water is only about ¾ of the speed of light in air or vacuum and that the speed of light in glass is even slower still. This isn’t technically true. The speed of light is (as far as we know) cosmically invariant – light travels the same speed everywhere in the galaxy. That said, the amount of time light takes to travel between two points can vary based on how many collisions and redirections it is likely to get into between two points. It’s the difference between how long it takes for a pinball to make its way across a pinball table when it hits nothing and how long it takes when it hits every single bumper and obstacle. ^

[2] This is a first approximation of what is going on. Eyes can be modelled as antennas for the right wavelength of EM radiation, but this ignores a whole lot of chemistry and biophysics. ^

[3] The smaller the wavelength, the easier it is to find an appropriately sized system of electrons. When your wavelength is the size of a double bond (0.133nm), you’ll be able to interact with anything that has a double bond. Even smaller wavelengths have even more options for interactions – a wavelength that is well sized for an electron will interact with anything that has an electron (approximately everything). ^

[4] This interaction is actually governed by quantum mechanical tunneling. Whenever a form of EM radiation “tries” to cross a barrier larger than its wavelength, it will be attenuated by the barrier. The equation that describes the probability distribution of a particle (the photons that make up EM radiation are both waves and particles, so we can use particle equations for them) is approximately  (I say approximately because I’ve simplified all the constants into a single term, k), which becomes  (here I’m using k1 to imply that the constant will be different), the equation for exponential decay, when the energy (to a first approximation, length) of the substance is higher than the energy (read size of wavelength) of the light.

This equation shows that there can be some probability – occasionally even a high probability – of the particle existing on the other side of a barrier.  All you need for a particle to traverse a barrier is an appropriately small barrier. ^

Economics, Model, Politics, Quick Fix

On Low-Income Voters and Self-Interest

Neil McDonald’s new column points out that Trump’s low-income supporters voted against their own economic self-interest. This presents a fine opportunity for Mr. McDonald to lecture those voters about how bad Trump’s policies will be for them, as if they couldn’t have figured it out themselves.

I say: some of Trump’s supporters voted against their own self-interest? So what? Hillary Clinton’s well-off supporters, from Sam Altman, to many of my friends in the Bay Area did as well.

Back in Canada, I have even more examples of people who voted against their self-interest. They include myself, Mr. McDonald (in all likelihood), a bevy of well off technologists and programmers, and a bunch of highly educated students who expect to start high-paying jobs before the next election.

Just like Trump’s lower-income voters, we knew what we were getting into. We understood that we were voting for higher taxes for people like us. We voted for higher taxes because we like the things taxes buy – infrastructure, social services, and science funding, to name a few.

I have no doubt Mr. McDonald would understand this. But when it comes to low-income voters putting their aspirations for their country above their self-interest, he’s flabbergasted.

Americans are raised to believe that anything is possible in America if you are pure of heart and willing to work hard, which is nonsense, and that anyone can become president, which is even more foolish, and that free markets always make the right decision, which is nuts.

They are told that rugged individualism is the American way, which it isn’t, and that government is never the solution, which it sometimes most definitely is.

Mr. McDonald forgot to wonder if the people voting for Trump might desperately want these things to be true. What if the people he’s talking about really wanted everything he listed to be true and saw voting for Trump as their best chance to make them reality? What if they understood what they might lose and chose to vote anyway? Why should he believe they’re less likely to evaluate the consequence of a vote than he is? If any of these are true, are these voters still sheep led astray by right-wing politicians? Or are the politicians just responding to a real demand from their constituents?

These are the sorts of questions I’d like to see journalists who want to write about people – especially low-income people – voting against their economic self-interest grapple with.

It’s certainly unlikely that Mr. Trump will be able to deliver everything his supporters hope he will or everything he’s promised. That makes him a liar, or more charitably, overambitious. It doesn’t make his followers worthy of scorn for the simple act of voting for the type of society they wanted.

I would like to note that I view many of Trump’s policies as wrong-headed and profoundly lacking in compassion. I have no objections to someone scorning Trump voters because those voters seem to prefer fear to compassion and division to equity. I simply object to the hypocrisy of journalists mocking low-income Republicans for the same actions for which they lionize well-off Democrats (replace with Conservatives and Liberals if you’re in Canada and it still holds).

Why should people vote for their economic self-interest anyway? Sure, studies show that money totally can buy happiness, but it’s not the only thing that can. You can also become happy by living in a place that embodies your values. What left-wing think pieces criticizing the poor for voting against their interests miss is that this is true no matter how much money you make.

Here’s one theory of political consensus: if everyone votes for the policies that will be most to their own economic benefit, we’ll end up with compromise policies that tend to economically benefit everyone reasonably well. Here’s a different take: if everyone votes for the type of country they want to live in, we’ll end up with a country that fits everyone’s preferences reasonably well.

If you look at the exit poll data, it looks like people are pursuing a mix of these two strategies. Hillary Clinton won among people making less than $50,000 per year and Donald Trump won among people making more. While this may look like people are mainly voting in their economic interest, all of these margins were remarkably thin and notably much smaller than they were in the last election cycle. This could be indicative of more and more people voting aspirationally, rather than economically.

One interesting tidbit for Mr. McDonald though – if you look at the exit poll data, it turns out low income voters are the ones least likely to vote against their own self-interest.

Economics, Model

International Trade Explained with Jellybeans

Imagine that you’re a young teenager who really loves red jellybeans. You love them so much that you unabashedly call them your favourite food. It’s only the red ones though – you find all other jellybeans disgusting. For the purposes of this extended metaphor, you will have a sister. Like you, she loves one colour of jellybeans, but unlike you she only loves the green ones.

Image Credit: Larry Jacobsen on Flickr

Your parents are stingy. They long ago realized that they could save a lot of money by paying you for your chores in jellybeans, instead of with an allowance. To prop up this system, they’ve forbidden both you and your sister from buying jellybeans in any store. Both of you can only get jellybeans from your parents. You each get a few jellybeans of your preferred colour each time you complete a chore.

You keep a small horde of jellybeans in a jar in your room. Chores are irregular and you don’t want to risk having a jellybean craving but no way to get jellybeans. It’s pretty inconvenient that you and your sister like different flavours of jellybeans. If this wasn’t the case, you could use jellybeans as a sort of currency, trading them back and forth for various small things. For example, if only you liked the same jellybeans, she could give you jellybeans in exchange for using your new Nintendo Switch for a bit, while you could give her jellybeans to help you sneak out at night. You do this sometimes already, but only when you both want something of the other at the same time.

One day your sister takes the bus to a friend’s house. On the way, she happens to sit next to an economics professor. She complains to the professor about her plight and the professor offers a solution. Your sister comes home that night with a large grin splitting her face.

The scheme she proposes to you is simple. When you don’t have two things to trade at the same time, you’ll use jellybeans as your currency. If you agree to accept her jellybeans as payment, she’ll accept yours. You’ll both have the understanding that someday your sibling will trade those jellybeans back to you for some other thing. As the first trade, she offers you fifteen of her green jellybeans for one hour on your Nintendo Switch.

You think about it for a few minutes. It’s true that the fifteen green jellybeans are worthless to you. But they aren’t worthless to your sister and she will probably eventually want them back. As long as you trust that she’ll be around in the future and will still want green jellybeans, you may as well accept the trade. You’ve now realized that green jellybeans are useful to you even though you can’t eat them to feed your jellybean cravings.

You and your sister successfully trade like this for a few weeks. There are some wild fluctuations in your horde of jellybeans – some days it’s mostly red, other days it’s almost entirely green – but over the long run it tends towards red and you get to enjoy all of the benefits of trading with your sister. You’ve successfully snuck out to see your friends three times, while she’s made it halfway through the new Zelda game. It’s at this point where she comes to you with a discovery.

She’s invented a chemical that she can mix with a jellybean to double its size. She can’t make very much of it, only enough to make thirty new jellybeans a day. She makes a deal with you: she’ll use the chemical on your jellybeans in the proportion that they appear in her stash, but she’ll still own them afterwards and they’ll be worth twice as much in future trades.

Slowly the trading relationship changes. Your sister does fewer favours for you – although she doesn’t stop completely. Meanwhile, an increasing amount of your wealth of jellybeans end up with her, despite her playing your Switch very often. You don’t mind this arrangement, because you end up with many more jellybeans than you would have without her. Your sister doesn’t mind either, because it’s made playing the Switch much more accessible to her. That said, there are some negatives for her as well. She’s gotten noticeably weaker without the exercise from chores.

Eventually your parents catch on to this and confiscate your sister’s chemistry set. Furthermore, they punish her by cutting her jellybean allotment in half. Now, she’ll make half of what you do for the same chores. Worried about the effect of video games on her, they also limit the total screen time either of you is allowed (they ignore you whining that this is totally unfair) and demand that you each do one chore per day.

You still trade after this, although now things swing in the other direction. Your sister has to scrimp and save to afford time on the Switch, whereas you have an easier time hiring her as a lookout.

A few weeks later, your parents go on vacation. While they’re gone, they want you both to record the chores you do. When they get back, they’ll question you separately about the honesty of the chore log. If you both agree that it’s true (and they can see the chores actually got done), they’ll give you jellybeans for all the chores recorded on it.

They also switch up the compensation a bit. You’ve been spending more time inside these days, now that you’re lending the Switch to your sister less often, while your sister has gotten strong from all the yard-work she’s been doing. Your parents don’t really approve of this, so they’re changing the rewards that chores give.

Under the new rules, your sister still makes generally less than you, but it isn’t evenly distributed; she makes almost as much as you for chores inside of the house and much less than you for chores outside it. This is crappy for you, because now you’re the weak one. Your sister can do chores outside in half the time it would take you.

You and your sister immediately hatch a plan to do each other’s chores and later divide the spoils evenly. Your parents are too clever for this though. They tell you they’ll be watching your jellybean transactions for the next little bit. If you two split the difference and lie, they’ll know and they’ll ground both of you for a week. You’re both dejected, doomed to doing chores you aren’t good at. In a last-ditch effort to find something more palatable, your sister emails her economist friend from earlier.

She comes back a few hours later, contemplative. The economist offered a solution, but it seems odd.

The economist recommended that you lie about the chores; your sister will do all of the ones outside and you’ll do all of the ones inside. To get around your parent’s crude attempt at lie detection, you’ll do something simple. You won’t split the difference; you’ll accept payment in full for the chores you claimed to do and get to spend it as if it were yours.

Even though this seems unfair, it leaves both you and your sister better off overall. By focusing on the chores you’re both quickest at, you can maximize the number of jellybeans you earn for each unit of time you spend working. You both agree to this plan.

When they get back, your parents are suspicious of your sister’s muscles and the deep impression you’ve worn in the couch. They monitor your transactions for quite some time. But they never find any evidence that you averaged your take with your sister and eventually they give up and leave you alone.

In the fall, your sister plans to leave for the annual mother-daughter fishing trip your extended family does. The trip lasts two whole weeks. In the weeks leading up to the trip, you begin to panic. While your sister is gone, you won’t be able to get any of your jellybeans from her. Combine this with your worry that you will have fewer chances to earn jellybeans for chores with only one parent home and you start to have a problem. What if you run out of jellybeans because a bunch of the red ones are hoarded by your sister?

To counter this, you stop accepting your sister’s green jellybeans in trade for favours and only trade green jellybeans back to her when you need something done. Eventually you run out of green jellybeans. Now you can’t get her to do anything. You won’t risk your red jellybeans so close to her trip.

Unfortunately, you don’t get all of your jellybeans back this way. Your sister begins to hoard them, knowing that they’re the only thing she can use to really get you to do anything for her. Despite you trying to get all your jellybeans back, you’ve made her hold onto them even tighter.

She’s pretty annoyed with all of this, because she wants to trade with you like before. In desperation, she emails her economist friend. Once again, the economist comes through for you. Your sister offers you a deal. She currently has 100 red jellybeans. At the end of every day, you can convert up to twenty green jellybeans for red ones at a rate of one to one. Normally you wouldn’t bother with this (and sometimes one of you lacks the means to), but she’ll give you this option for the next week so that you can accept her jellybeans with confidence.

This works quite well. Your mutually beneficial trades resume. When your sister leaves for her fishing expedition, she only has ten of your jellybeans left. You’re not going to run out in her absence.


Everything that was observed between the two siblings trading with jellybeans can be observed (in one form or another) between countries trading.

For this metaphor to work, the medium of exchange (jellybeans of different colours) had to be something that was so similar as to be essentially the same thing while being treated as vastly different by the participants. This is how people in different countries treat each other’s money.

As a Canadian, I need Canadian Dollars to pay my expenses. If I walk into a grocery store or get on a bus and try to pay with Swiss Francs or Japanese Yen, I will be refused service. Because I want to eat and take the bus, if I were sell goods or services outside of Canada, I would only accept as payment:

  1. Canadian Dollars
  2. Something else I know is trivially convertible to Canadian Dollars at a stable rate

People in other countries are in the same boat as me. Even if there’s something they want to sell me, they can’t unless I can provide them something that holds stable value for them. Canadian Dollars are only valuable to them insofar as they can use them to buy things they want in Canada or, if they don’t want anything in Canada, trade them for something they want with someone who wants something in Canada.

You can’t get something for nothing. For someone to send me goods (that aren’t simply a gift) from outside of Canada, they must want something in Canada or know about someone who does. This is the principle that allowed you to trade with your sibling. Her jellybeans weren’t inherently useful to you, but they were stably convertible into things that were, which made it reasonable for you to accept them as payment.

The ease of currency conversion often hides this from us. To see it, you need to look at exchange rates. Exchange rates are nothing more than a measure of the relative demand for goods and services produced by countries and debts denominated in their currencies.

When America was in financial crisis and Canada was raking in huge oil profits, people wanted Canadian Dollars just as much as they wanted American Dollars. Now that America has recovered, people would prefer to have American Dollars (USD) and so the Canadian Dollar is only worth about $0.75 US. Had either you or your sister been able to offer much more valuable services, you might have seen an exchange rate other than 1:1, with it favouring whoever offered the better stuff.

If I’m right about this, we’d expect to see countries import as much as they export. Trade deficits shouldn’t exist. As Donald Trump might be happy to remind you, trade deficits do indeed exist. What’s going on? How is this possible?

Trade deficits can occur when trade is financed via debt. A country might borrow money denominated in another currency (which has a more stable value than its own) and use that borrowed money to purchase things. This is essentially a country promising that it will have exports of value to the lender at some point in the future. This is how developing nations can have trade deficits, but it isn’t generally how developed nations pull them off.

We can view America (and other developed nations with a trade deficit) as similar to your sister when she had the tools to create more jellybeans out of otherwise worthless chemicals. She was definitely doing less things of direct value for you than you were for her (e.g. she was standing lookout for you much less often than she was borrowing video games from you), but she was able to do this sustainably because she had a way of making the jellybeans to pay for it.

Developed nations can have a trade deficit in a sustainable way because other countries will give them raw materials or physical goods simply for the privilege of holding debt denominated in their currency or being able to buy property within their borders. The sophisticated financial systems of developed countries allow them to reliably and safely (most of the time) create money for anyone willing to invest. How do you get money to invest if you don’t live there? You trade for it!

Developed countries are still providing goods and services to their trade partners, even if they aren’t tangible or recorded on balance sheets as exports. Sometimes this does mean that trade is funded by loans, but crucially, the debt is generally denominated in the currency of the debtor country. This makes repayment much, much easier.

Countries have many more options for repaying debts denominated in their own currencies. Japan can safely have a government debt of several times its GDP because the debt is denominated in Yen. Japan controls the means to print more Yen, so is able to pay its debt just by printing more money. There are obviously problems with just printing money (i.e. inflation), but these apply less to Japan because of its overall economic situation (i.e. deflation). On the other hand, Greece’s debt burden was so bad specifically because it can’t print the Euros its debt is denominated in itself. It needs to produce things other countries want in order to raise the cash it needs to pay down its debt.

There are certainly ways that funding trade via financial products can go sour. If the financial system that provides for the trade deficit relies on high consumer debt, then a financial shock could make it all come crashing down and deprive a country of the exports they’re used to receiving. But when trade deficits are based on the security and sophistication of a nation’s financial institutions (or the value of its real estate, or something else that is relatively stable), that nation stands to benefit enormously. It can receive tangible goods just by letting other countries invest or loan with its currency.

Seen this way, Canada’s trade deficit with China (as an example) is caused because many Chinese people have been willing to ship us manufactured goods in exchange for the ability to invest in our companies, buy real estate in Toronto and Vancouver, and make loans to us.

There are trade-offs here. On one hand, foreign investment in housing has probably made living in Toronto and Vancouver less affordable. On the other hand, it has made electronics and manufactured goods available at lower prices than they would otherwise be. Whether this is good or bad for you personally depends on where you live and how often you buy manufactured goods.

There are also trade-offs around employment here. It’s not a simple matter of trade with developing nations costing us manufacturing jobs. It probably has! But I’d like to point out if trade has cost us jobs in manufacturing, it has certainly created jobs in construction and in finance. Houses aren’t built without workers and investments can’t be made without investment assistants and portfolio managers. These may not be manufacturing jobs, but they’re still jobs.

This shades into the next example from the jellybean world. When you and your sister could both work jobs at very different rates of compensation, you weren’t made worse off by letting you sister do half of the chores. You weren’t really in competition with you sister. Despite much of the rhetoric about trade being a competition, trade with another country isn’t a competition with that country.

When split up between two countries that are trading, jobs don’t get done based on who had the competitive advantage. Since trade cannot happen unless both parties benefit (remember, if no one outside Canada wants anything Canada produces, I will be unable to buy anything outside of Canada with Canadian dollars) the fact that trade is happening at all means that each country has something the other wants. Given this, what gets traded will be determined by the relative advantages industries in each country have over the industries within that country. This is the comparative advantage theory of trade.

China has the advantage of relatively cheap labour but has the disadvantage of relatively high corruption. When you compare China with Canada, China’s manufacturing sector is advantaged over their financial sector, so they will tend send Canada manufactured goods in exchange for Canadian financial instruments.

Even when your sister was making less than you for every chore, you and her were still able to trade for mutual benefit. You got to do only the chores you found easiest while still gaining enough jellybeans to trade for things you wanted from your sister. People (and countries) don’t act blindly to maximize the amount of money they make. They have other desires as well. You would have only been in competition with your sister if you wanted to blindly maximize your total haul, without a thought for how much leisure it would cost you.

Competition would also come up if your parents were looking to minimize the amount they paid for chores. In this case, your sister would have had a competitive advantage. But this isn’t a competition within your trading relationship with you sister! Here you would be competing for the business of some third party (your parents).

You are never competing with your trade partners within the context of the trading relationship. It would be impossible for the whole American economy to move to China (no matter how often Donald Trump claims it is happening) because if this happened China would refuse to sell America anything and America would again require indigenous industries. If industries get outsourced and aren’t replaced by something else that adds value, you’ll see them pop right back up in their original country. Outsourcing is only cheaper when you have things of value to buy the outsourced products with.

You can be competing with your trade partners for third party business, but the answer here isn’t to raise tariffs and abandon trade. Instead, you can reap the benefits of an integrated supply chain and the overall lower costs you see when countries focus on their comparative advantages. For example, Apple has become one of the largest companies in the world by marrying American business expertise, stability, and engineering know-how with Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturing, which allows them to compete with Samsung, a Korean company (which also makes use of Taiwanese/Chinese manufacturing).

Apple products would be more expensive if manufactured solely in the United States. They wouldn’t be a global luxury brand if they were designed and marketed from China. Apple wouldn’t be a global behemoth without trade. When the CEOs of companies stand up for international trade, they’re doing so because they understand this.

It is possible for a country to be in a state such that basically no one wants to trade with them, often because they produce very little of value to anyone else. Take North Korea as an example here. They’re able to trade some coal to China (in exchange for manufactured goods) and managed to make a one-off trade with Pakistan (swapping missiles for atomic bomb designs and materials), but by and large the rest of the world doesn’t want to trade with them. Since the government is pursuing a policy of juche (“self-reliance”), North Korea isn’t much bothered by this.

Unfortunately, lack of trade doesn’t always happen by choice. Venezuela spent more than a decade squandering oil wealth on everything but productive infrastructure. When oil prices were high this was fine. Venezuelans could trade oil to other countries and in return they received all of the food, medicine, and manufactured goods they could want. This worked while global oil demand outstripped supply. Now that demand for oil has considerably lessened, Venezuela is facing serious difficulties importing necessities.

Because there’s little of value in Venezuela, no one wants to hold on to the Venezuelan currency (the Bolivar). Currently about all its good for is buying sub-par oil. This would suggest that Venezuela should be unable to important much of anything and indeed that’s what we’re observing.

In the jellybean world, we saw something similar. When your sister was about to leave on her trip, you didn’t want to trade with her, because her currency would soon be worthless. She was able to convince you to trade by using her reserves of your jellybeans.

Venezuela is currently able import goods via a similar mechanism. During the oil boom, the government of Venezuela was able to amass a significant number of American Dollars. It is now using this stockpile to pay for imports. Venezuela actually has three official exchange rates. If you are importing key goods, the government will turn your Bolivars into USD at a very preferential rate, 10 Bolivars for 1 USD. If you’re importing less critical goods, you’ll get fewer dollars per Bolivar. If you’re just a private citizen, the government will give you a much worse deal, something like 190 Bolivars to the dollar. It will also limit the amount you can exchange at any one time.

At the time of writing, the unofficial exchange rate was 3014 Bolivars per USD. You can make a lot of money if you bring USD into Venezuela, convert it to Bolivars on the black market, then use the government to convert it back to USD. The only loser here is the Venezuelan government (and you if you’re caught – please don’t actually do this).

Propping up the value of a currency this way is very expensive. If the Bolivar loses no more purchasing power, then Venezuela can limp along like this for two more years. If oil becomes cheaper or Venezuela becomes less able to export it, then Venezuela will lose purchasing power and that grace period shrinks. Once Venezuela exhausts its currency reserves it will be essentially unable to import anything and this story will end the same way every story about socialism ends: with a horrific famine.

This of course assumes that Venezuela doesn’t attempt to seize what it needs from its neighbours using force. Throughout this post I’ve assumed that trade has been undertaken freely for the mutual benefit of all participants. This hasn’t always been the case.

Colonialism is perhaps the best example of trade where one participant was compelled to participate. In colonies Europeans used force to extract resources and labour from non-Europeans. The colonizing Europeans would then ship these raw goods back to their home country in exchange for manufactured goods they couldn’t get from in the colony.

Trade was only ever disastrous for the colonized. They were forced to produce cash crops or mine until they were nearly dead from exhaustion, all in exchange for goods that they would never receive and had little use for even if they had.

There’s one last concept to cover. Let’s return to the jellybean metaphor!


Your sister gets deeply addicted to a game on your Nintendo Switch. Unfortunately, she’s still getting far fewer jellybeans than you are. She has to do a lot of chores just to get to play it at all, many of which aren’t particularly fun or pleasant. Because of your control of the Switch, you don’t have to do any chores; you always have some of your sister’s jellybeans to trade for whatever you need. While your sister might be happy while playing her game, she’s deeply peeved about all the chores she has to do in order to be able to play it all.

Eventually, your sister’s desire for video games overcomes the number of jellybeans she can earn. You allow her to pay you in IOUs. Soon she’s racked up hundreds of them. When she finally beats the game and has free time for other things, she realizes that she’s going to have to spend weeks working and giving you all the jellybeans just to pay off the debt she owes.

She tries to default, but you go to your parents. They decide that she can’t be trusted to pay off the debt on her own, so they’ll give you red jellybeans for every chore she completes until she’s settled the account. Now your sister is stuck doing all the chores without any benefit to herself. It takes her weeks to dig herself out of her hole and start receiving green jellybeans again.


Even when trade technically makes people better off, it can be a devil’s bargain. The benefits of modern medicine and technology (like smartphones) are so overwhelming that many developing economies must set aside a significant amount of their potential productivity creating products that aren’t locally useful so that they have something developed countries want and will trade medicine and technology for.

This can lead to vast monocultures of cash crops grown only for foreign export, stifling unsafe textile factories, and vast poisonous open pit mines.

It’s not just modern necessities that cause countries to give over vast portions of their economies to export. Poor (one might even say predatory) lending practices by world financial institutions have left many nations with unsustainable foreign debts, denominated in foreign currencies.

Remember, the only way to get foreign currencies is by having something foreign countries want and being willing to sell it to them. As long as a country has foreign debts to service, it must leave aside a chunk of its productivity for foreign rather than domestic priorities. If the pie is big and the slice set aside for other countries is small, this is sustainable. But when a small pie requires a big slice, disaster can strike. Debt relief for struggling countries remains an urgent humanitarian priority.

In real life, the IMF and the World Bank have taken a role not unlike that of your parents in the metaphor. They threaten poor debtor countries with dire consequences unless they continue to pay down their (often) ridiculously large debts. This occurs even when debts were racked up by dictators, or are for money that was stolen from the public purse by corrupt administrators.

All serious advocates of international trade need to acknowledge and grapple with the negative consequences trade can have.

But I’m hopeful. I refuse to believe that there exists no way we can make essential generic medicine and essential modern technology available to all of the people of the world except through unsafe working conditions and environmental destruction. Debt write-offs can fix some of the problems, but other reforms can only occur once the narrative around trade changes.

Framing trade as an adversarial process allows business interests to push for the rollback of worker and environmental protections where they exist and fight their introduction where they don’t. Protectionist rhetoric, whether it comes from Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, is wrong and hurts workers the world over. Trade isn’t a competition. Framing it that way may be useful for politicians when they are competing for votes, but it won’t improve the material situation of anyone, at home or abroad.

As prosperity increases, all of these problems become more tractable. International trade remains one of the best ways we have of increasing prosperity. We can’t afford to go without it. Trade is something people should be able to agree on, whether they want to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and ensure a just global society, or just plain get rich.


My primary source was Joseph Heath’s wonderful economics book, Filthy Lucre (subtitled Economics for People who Hate Capitalism). It systematically dismantles 12 common economic fallacies, 6 beloved of the left and 6 beloved by the right. Trade is covered in Chapter 5: Uncompetitive in Everything.

The rest comes from reading too many articles on Wikipedia and too many news think pieces. Some things only became clear to me as I was writing this, like the difference between Japan’s debt and Greece’s. I’m also indebted (heh) to Tessa Alexanian, who explained to me why trade can be bad for developing countries. She influenced most of the ideas laid out in that section (that said, I should get all the credit for any errors).

As usual, this blog post should only be taken as an accurate account of my own views, not the views of anyone else.

Epistemic Status: Model

Philosophy

Cutting the Gordian Knot: Bad Solutions to Good Paradoxes

Russel’s Paradox

Image Credit: Donald on Flickr

In a village, the barber shaves everyone who does not shave himself, but no one else. Who shaves the barber.

Imagine The Barber as similar to The Pope. When he is in his shop, cutting hair, he is The Barber and has all of the powers that entails, just as The Pope only possesses the full power of papacy when speaking “from the chair”. When The Barber isn’t manifesting this mantle, he’s just Glen, the nice fellow down the lane. Glen shaves his own beard. The Barber therefore doesn’t have to.

Alternatively, the barber is a woman.

Omnipotence Paradox

Image Credit: Tim Green on Flickr

Can God create a rock so large that he himself cannot lift it?

It depends.

In Christian theology, God is often considered all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. Some theologians dispute each of these, but most agree he has at least some mix of those three attributes. It turns out the answer to this paradox depends on which theologians are right.

This question is only interesting if god is all-powerful. If God isn’t all powerful, then this question will be determined by which is greater: his power of creation, or his power to manipulate creation. That’s a boring answer, so let’s focus on the cases where God is all powerful.

If God is all-knowing, then we’ll probably be left unsatisfied. God will know if he can or cannot create the boulder, so he’ll probably feel no need to test if he can.

If God is not all-knowing but is all-loving, then the question will only be answered if God cannot lift the first boulder he creates. If he can lift the first one, he will quickly realize that he could end up spending all of eternity trying to make a big enough boulder on the off chance that this is the one he finally cannot lift. An all-loving God would not abandon his flock for such a meaningless task, so we’ll never see the answer.

If God is neither all-knowing nor all-loving and has at least a bit of curiosity, then we should be able to eventually observe him trying to create a boulder large enough that he cannot lift it. This God won’t know the answer and wouldn’t necessarily care that finding out requires abandoning all of his other duties.

Given that this question was first posed right before the crusades, I believe that we’re experiencing the third scenario. The mere act of raising this paradox caused God to turn his face away from the world and worry about more interesting problems than those caused by a bunch of jumped up apes.

Zeno’s Paradox

Image Credit: Miranche on Wikimedia Commons

If you want to go somewhere, you first have to get halfway there. But to get to the midpoint, you have to go a quarter of the way. But to get to a quarter… When you subdivide like this, you’ll see that there are an infinite number of steps you must take to go anywhere. You cannot accomplish an infinite number of tasks in a finite time, therefore, movement is impossible.  

It’s a common mistake that space is infinitely sub-dividable. In fact, there is a limit to how finely you can cut space. You cannot cut the universe more finely than 1.61x 10-35m, a length called the Planck Length. The Planck length is to the width of a hair as the width of a hair is to the whole universe. It’s an unimaginably tiny length.

An important property of halving things: you get really small numbers very quickly. If you halve a distance of 1m a mere 116 times, you’ll have cut the distance as finely as it is possible to cut anything. At this point, you can halve the distance no more and you can proceed to your destination, one Planck length at a time.

Sorites Paradox

Image Credit: David Stanley on Flickr

There is a pile of sand in front of you. If you remove a grain of sand from it, it will still be a pile. If you remove another, it will still be a pile. But if you keep removing them, eventually it won’t be. When does it stop being a pile?

I’m emailing ISO and the NIST about this one. I expect to have an answer after ten years and three hundred committee meetings.

The Ship of Theseus

Image Credit: Verity Cridland on Flickr

The Athenian Theseus bequeathed his ship to the city. As the ship aged, the Athenians kept it in perfect condition by replacing any planks and fittings that rotted away. Eventually, the entire ship had been replaced. This caused all of the philosophers in Athens to wonder: was it still Theseus’s Ship.

We could leave this one to ISO as well, but luckily as a Canadian I have another recourse.

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the EU (of which Greece is a member) and Canada considers a car “Made in Canada” or “Made in Europe” if at least 50% of the car came from there and at least 20% of the manufacturing occurred there.

Treating boats with a similar logic, we can see that as long as the Athenians were using local materials and labour (and weren’t outsourcing to the Persians or Phoenicians), the ship would count as “Made in Greece”. Since the paradox specifically states that the Athenians were doing all the restoring, this is probably a safe assumption.

If we take this and assume that Theseus had a solid grounding in trademark law – which would allow us to assume that he made his ship a protected brand like Harris Tweed, Kobe beef, Navaho, and Scotch – then we can see that the ship would still fall under the Theseus’s Ship™ brand. Most protected brands require a certain geographic origin, but we’ve already been over that in this case.

Even when philosophers argue that the boat is no longer Theseus’s Ship, they have to admit it is Theseus’s Ship™.

Unexpected Hanging Paradox

Image Credit: Adam Clarke on Flickr

A prisoner is sentenced to hanging by a judge. The judge stipulates that the sentence will be carried out on one of the days in the next week, that it will be carried out before noon, and that it must be a surprise to the prisoner.

The prisoner smirks, believing he will never be hung. He knows that if it is Thursday at noon and he hasn’t been hung, then the hanging would have to be on Friday. But then it wouldn’t be a surprise. So logically, he has to be hung before Friday. If this is the case though, he can’t be hung on Thursday, because if he hasn’t been hung by noon on Wednesday then a hanging on Thursday won’t be a surprise. Following through this logic, the prisoner could only be hung on the Monday. But then it will be no surprise at all!

This is indeed a problem if the judge is as good at logic as the prisoner. But if the judge remains blissfully unaware of logical induction, there is no paradox here. The judge will assume that by picking a day at random she can surprise the prisoner. The prisoner will no doubt be quite surprised when he is hung.

This becomes more likely if we set the problem in America, where some judges are elected and therefore aren’t governed by anything so limiting as qualifications.

Model, Politics

The Pitfalls of One-Man Rule

In light of the leaks about Michael Flynn, just about everyone, from America’s allies to its intelligence officers, seems to be reconsidering how much intelligence they share with Donald Trump’s White House. I can’t think of anything more damaging to President Trump’s ability to govern than various domestic and allied agencies (semi-)publicly mulling whether or not to share information with him.

It’s not that I think this will cause irreparable damage to his public image. At this point, you can be swayed by other people’s opinion of Trump or you can’t. Trump’s base doesn’t care what a bunch of intelligence geeks in suits think about him. They just want to see jobs come back.

It’s just that Trump is already beginning to experience one of the most significant failure modes of single-person rule: isolation.

One of the little talked about virtues of democracy is how its decentralizing tendency makes isolation of key decision makes much more difficult. Take Canada as an example. There are 338 Members of Parliament, each based in a different geographic region and expected to regularly travel there and respond to the concerns of the local residents. Each MP also has several aides, responsible for briefing them and keeping them in the loop. Cabinet Ministers have all of this, plus they’ll have one or two MPs acting as their assistants in matters of their portfolio. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is accountable to his constituents, his cabinet, his MPs, and through them, all of Canada.

It is very difficult to influence Mr. Trudeau’s decision making by influencing the information he receives. Government agencies can attempt it, but Mr. Trudeau is broadly popular, which makes this much more difficult. To hide information from a leader, you need a quorum. While this can be accomplished by a vocal minority, it becomes very difficult to gather even this in the face of enthusiastic majority support.

In addition, the diverse information channels Mr. Trudeau has access to mean that he is very likely to hear about any notable news that leaks out a department, even if his chief of staff or one of his cabinet ministers doesn’t want him to.

This has the effect of making power struggles somewhat transparent. In general, power among the elites is apportioned based on the results of elections and measured in terms of Members of Parliament and political capital (or, more concretely, opinion polling and what this means for re-election chances). All of this information is a matter of public record. Anyone who wants to know what elite faction is currently dominant and how much political capital it has left can find this out with a simple Google search.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the Vatican. Pope Francis was elected through an opaque process and few Catholics saw his election coming. The power games of the cardinals are hidden from most congregants and their reasons for voting how they do are between them and their god. Francis will reign until he dies or steps down, but the power games of the elites (read: the cardinals) haven’t stopped. Instead of jockeying for position directly, they will jockey by trying to control the flow of information to Francis. If one group of cardinals succeeds (or even partially succeeds), they will wield significant invisible influence.

This same sort of opacity is what makes the “science” of Kremlinology appealing. Without clear information, it takes a hundred subtle hints to figure out who has power (and perhaps even more critically, who is being listened to by those with power).

Right now, it seems like Donald Trump is in a situation that is closer to the Pope than the Prime Minister of Canada.

This normally isn’t the case for presidents. They’re deeply embedded in the fabric of a party and have multiple channels for information – as well as multiple factions they depend on for support. Trump lacks both history and (in his mind, at least) dependency. The route of last resort for information to travel to the president is through donors. Trump has closed off this route by believing he’s entirely self-made.

All of this means that Trump is at serious risk of being controlled by one or two influential advisors. If this happens, there really are limited options for his party to bring him back in line and coordinate on a legislative agenda if the interests of those advisors don’t align with the interests of the Republican party.

This is what should be keeping congressional Republicans up at night. Trump should be staying up at night wondering about what his agencies are refusing to tell him.

Governments have to rely on veritable armies of analysts to keep them swimming in the data they need to act. You want to launch an airstrike on a suspected terrorist? You’re going to need a dozen people to correlate a hundred small tidbits of information to positively identify them with enough time to spare to launch a cruise missile or a drone.

These people tend not to be that loyal to any particular party (at least when it comes to how they do their job). While the heads of departments are often political appointees, their deputies are career men and women who have come up through the civil service. Whatever they lack in loyalty to parties, they make up for in loyalty to the system. This is generally enough to allay any fears about them hiding information or failing to perform their role.

Enter Donald Trump, who seems like he might just try and rip the whole system down around their ears. Do you think they’re going to stand for that? If you can’t believe that they have conviction and a genuine loyalty to the system, at least believe that they have some instinct for self-preservation. Career civil servants rely on the system for a paycheck, after all.

Imagine you’re an intelligence officer, fairly high up. You know how much of a threat Russia is. You’ve been watching them for a decade and you’ve seen how they’re gobbling up territory along their borders, trying to reclaim some slice of their lost empire. You think Trump is going to give some of the intelligence you just collected to Russia, blowing the cover of a source or two. So, you hide it. It’s easy enough to do. All you really have to do is flag it as routine, not pass it up the chain of command. It’s almost the same as phoning it in, really.

Imagine you are Trump. Intelligence is drying up. What do you do? You can go yell at your CIA Department head (who might be loyal to you). He or she can go yell at some subordinates. And they’ll promise to do better. They might, for a week or two, or they might not. Maybe you start getting more intelligence, but it’s all of terrible quality.

What do you do? What can you do?

In the end, Trump is one man. He has maybe a hundred people who are personally loyal to him. If we’re generous, we might call it 150. But I think we have to cap it at Dunbar’s number. He can’t count on an unbroken chain of personal loyalty either, because there is a disconnect between the career civil servants and the political appointees.

Trump and all of his henchmen can rant and rail all they want. But at the end of the day, they can’t compel. They can’t hold guns to the heads of every CIA analyst and demand they tell the administration everything they know. They can’t even fire them all. You can’t solve an intelligence shortage by getting rid of all your intelligence analysts. At a certain point, you just have to give up.

Think I’m exaggerating? Think this couldn’t possibly work on Trump? Read Eichmann in Jerusalem and you’ll learn it worked on the Nazis. Where open resistance failed, obstructionism and carefully cultivated laziness succeeded.

Power is in many ways an illusion and a fragile one at that. Break it and you might not be able to put it back together. If Trump threatens the CIA (or any other agency; you can also image the DoJ taking forever to close an investigation or the EPA having a bunch of trouble finishing an inspection and giving an all clear) and fails to deliver on his threat (likely), then the jig is up. He’s lost all ability to change anyone’s behaviour through threats.

So, this is the problem Trump faces. He has the presidency and he intends to use it to make sweeping changes to America. But without close cooperation with lawmakers, his term is going to look a lot like an attempt at one-man rule. Certainly, this should be frightening for everyone who cares about checks and balances in America.

But it should also frighten Trump’s supporters. One man rule is a terrible system of government. If Trump makes a serious go at it, his cabinet and advisors will be at each other’s throats (when he isn’t around) in next to no time and he’ll face persistent (but impossible to end) resistance from almost every Federal department. I don’t know how exactly Trump plans to make America great again, but I bet he isn’t prepared for large scale passive resistance.

The final remaining question then is: will this resistance show up, or are the early rumours exaggerated. On this point, the world is watching and hoping that the ordinary civil servants of America display the requisite moral courage to passively resist Trump’s most damaging requests.

Epistemic Status: Model

Ethics, Politics, Quick Fix

Don’t confuse constitutional rights with social norms

When Ken over at Popehat gets into a full-on rant about people who don’t understand rights, I’m often sympathetic. It was Ken who made me understand that people who don’t understand rights are a threat to everyone. When many people are misinformed about their rights, those rights become easier to take away.

When Scott at Slate Star Codex talks about good social norms, I’m very keen to listen. Scott helped me understand that social groups are worth cultivating and that it’s a good idea to think about how your group norms will change your experience of interacting with people.

So, when Tessa linked me to a Slate Star Codex post where Scott disagreed with Ken, I had some thinking to do.

The Slate Star Codex post is a response to a piece Ken put up after the furor around Justine Sacco’s tweets a few years back. Ken is defending the right of everyone else on Twitter to say whatever they like in response to Justine Sacco’s thoughtless tweets. The particular part Scott highlights is:

The phrase “the spirit of the First Amendment” often signals approaching nonsense. So, regrettably, does the phrase “free speech” when uncoupled from constitutional free speech principles. These terms often smuggle unprincipled and internally inconsistent concepts — like the doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker. The doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker holds that when Person A speaks, listeners B, C, and D should refrain from their full range of constitutionally protected expression to preserve the ability of Person A to speak without fear of non-governmental consequences that Person A doesn’t like. The doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker applies different levels of scrutiny and judgment to the first person who speaks and the second person who reacts to them; it asks “why was it necessary for you to say that” or “what was your motive in saying that” or “did you consider how that would impact someone” to the second person and not the first. It’s ultimately incoherent as a theory of freedom of expression.

Scott disagrees. He argues that there is a spirit of the First Amendment and it’s summed up by Eliezer Yudkowsky with: “Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Never. Never ever never for ever.”

Scott asks to imagine at what point damaging responses become appropriate:

What does “bullet” mean in the quote above? Are other projectiles covered? Arrows? Boulders launched from catapults? What about melee weapons like swords or maces? Where exactly do we draw the line for “inappropriate responses to an argument”?

Scott’s eventual line in the sand is: “Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Does not get doxxing. Does not get harassment. Does not get fired from job. Gets counterargument. Should not be hard.”

I’m sympathetic to what Scott was trying to do here, but ultimately, I’m on the side of Ken.

Scott wants to talk about the spirit of the First Amendment, which is fine. But the spirit he wants to read into it is divorced from the reality of constitutional rights. The First Amendment, like many of the rights in the US Constitution, is a negative right – it prevents the government from acting in a certain way, rather than saying it must provide people with a certain thing. The US Government can’t stop you from saying what you want, but it has no obligation to make you heard. If everyone ignores you, the government will not intervene.

It’s pretty weird to try and read a positive spirit into a negative right. The framers of the Bill of Rights knew when the rights they were setting down were negative rights. They understood the difference between negative and positive rights. To claim that the spirit of a definitely negative right is actually positive feels like an unfair attempt to halo a set of normative ethics (or perhaps aesthetics) with the positive affect that many Americans hold for their constitution.

As far as the government is concerned, as long as people are debating and silencing through legal means, there actually isn’t a distinction between trying to debate and trying to silence. Neither type of speech can be stopped. And I think it’s trivially easy to come up with examples for why neither should be stopped as a matter of routine (if you need inspiration, think of what your worst political enemies call “hate speech” and shudder about it being banned).

Luckily, negative speech and association rights and the government monopoly on force means that it is really hard to credibly threaten people’s freedom of association, so Scott is free to build a subculture that shares his beliefs about normative ethics. A subculture is free to demand positive rights for all members within the context of subculture related discussions and has free association as the perfect tool for enforcing it.

I’m glad that this is what rationalists are trying to do and I like our subculture and all, but we can’t claim that our weird norms are universal positive rights. I know this is a common thing for subcultures to do, but it’s embarrassing.

Literature, Model

Levels of Reading or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and (Occasionally) Love Literary Fiction

Annoyed with me describing If on a winter’s night a traveller as “very literary” one too many times, my partner Tessa challenged me to explain what I meant by “literary”.

This presented a problem, because I’ve been using literary as a shorthand for “that type of book that people who review books for a living get really excited about but I never seem to like” – basically as a category label, not as a descriptive phrase. Even worse, If on a winter’s night a traveller didn’t really fit into the category anyway; it’s a book that I’m heartily enjoying.

To answer Tessa’s question, I had to abandon using “literary” as a category label and instead treat it as a handle for a concept. But first, I needed a concept.

Levels of Reading

Imagine you ask me to tell you a story and I start with these famous six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

How do you interpret this story?

You could just look at the plot, such as it is. Clearly someone is selling some baby clothes; not very interesting.

Or you could look at it from the perspective of someone who has an idea of the flow of stories. What are the implications of selling baby’s clothes that are never worn? Clearly this is telling us that someone has undergone a tragedy.

Or you could look at it as someone who knows they’re being told a story. What themes seem to be present? Have you read other similar stories? Is this an allusion to them? A deconstruction? Is the author doing something interesting with language?

As a reader, you can expect to fluidly move between these stances. Sometimes, when the action is intense, you will read the book mainly on the first level. But then when you catch a sign that the characters have missed, you might be tossed up to the second level and spend some time contemplating what is being foreshadowed. Or perhaps a chance word will force you to consider the story from a broader social context.

Okay, enough examples. Let’s formalize these reading levels!

I’m positing a model where there are three levels of reading. Any story can be read at any level and most stories are intended to be read at every level at least some of the time. What distinguishes genres like literary fiction from pulp novels is the expected default level and the level at which the reader is supposed to derive the majority of their enjoyment.

Aside: In a perfect world, people could pick whichever books draw them to the reading level they enjoy the most. Unfortunately, I think it is common to attach character judgements to people who have an aesthetic preference for books on a certain level. It’s all too easy to claim that someone who prefers to read at a different level than you do is somehow deficient in some virtue or is aesthetically stunted. Therefore, I’ve attached my estimation of the common judgements made of works that are meant to be read at each level, in the hopes that it will help both me and my readers notice these judgements and avoid perpetuating them.

Level 1

At level 1, the reader is focused solely on the immediate plot. What is going on? What are characters feeling? How does this make you feel? Here you are using your ability to read to connect words into coherent sentences that immerse you in the story.

Stories read mostly at this level: “Pulpy” fiction, “young readers” books, any science fiction or fantasy that sells a lot of copies but is never nominated for the Hugo Awards.

What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: “shallow” or “lacking in substance”, not appropriate for adults or appropriate only for reading while travelling or on vacation, indicative of unrefined tastes.

Level 2

At this level, the reader is focused on the form of the story. What is being foreshadowed? What character growth is being highlighted? Was that just a callback to the first book in the series? Here you are using your memory and intuitions to connect parts of the text to other parts of the text, even those you have not seen yet.

Stories read mostly at this level: “character-driven” fiction, classical tragedies, thrillers that rely on suspense and foreshadowing, most books that win Hugo Awards

What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: “watered-down”, overly conventional, clichéd/predictable, or pandering.

Level 3

At this level, the reader is focused on how the story interacts with the wider world. What sort of tone does the author set? What other works are alluded to, deconstructed, or reconstructed. What techniques are used and which techniques are ignored? What flourishes does the author use? Here you are using your knowledge of culture and conventions to understand the place of the work in the context of a larger corpus of related works.

Stories read mostly at this level: “experimental” novels, deconstructions, “literary” fiction, most books that win the John W Campbell Award.

What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: incomprehensible, dense, elitist, snobbish, lacking in plot, or read more for signalling than genuine enjoyment

“Literary” as a handle

With this model, I can now use “literary” in a descriptive sense. If I describe a book as literary, I’m really saying that I view the book as one meant to be primarily read and enjoyed on the third level.

Reflecting on this model has helped me systematize some of the things I get out of books. In general, I prefer works that are meant to be enjoyed and read mainly on the first two levels. I tend to feel that novels that expect me to engage with them primarily on the third level have abrogated their duty to entertain me. That said, I can like works that focus on level 3 when they cause me to ponder areas I’m already interested in.

This helps resolve the question that started this whole mess, namely: “if I generally dislike literary books, why am I enjoying If on a winter’s night a traveller”. It’s now clear that I like it because it engages with the experience of being a reader, an experience dear to my heart. If it spent the majority of its time demanding that I read it on the third level while failing to engage with topics I cared about, I think I’d be much less likely to enjoy it.

Understanding this gives me a better heuristic for making book buying decisions when the only information I have is reviews. In general, I should avoid books that are described with terms that suggest that the book should primarily be enjoyed on the third level, unless the book seems to require engagement with a topic I already care about.

On the other hand, I should look for indications that the book encourages readers to occasionally read on level 3. While I tend to rip through books written to be read mostly on level 1, the books that I come back to again and again spend most of their time on level 2, but use level 3 strategically to highlight themes and really drive their points home.

A final note: this model can be applied to any work of fiction, not just books. For example, Psycho Pass is an anime that exists primarily on level 2, but uses level 3 to great effect. Madoka Magica, on the other hand, is primarily on level 3; it would not be nearly as strong of work without the context of other magical girl anime within which it exists. It may even be possible to extend this model to music or art, but here I must plead ignorance and leave that labour to another.

Epistemic Status: Model