Jan 31, 2020 in Falsifiable
Let’s look at how accurately Zach predicted 2019. As usual (2017 results, 2018 results), the predictions are broken down by region.
Jul 28, 2019 in Ethics
Paul Manafort just narrowly avoided spending time in Rikers, which has left some people disappointed. There’s a certain glee that’s common to cases where the defendant is hated, as people begin to speculate just how grim their life will be in prison.
To some, the indignities and violence of life in jail and prison are just part of the punishment; an added way of getting justice for what criminals have done.
I think this perspective is wrong-headed. I think the commonly held intuition that prison life (as opposed to simple confinement in prison) is a punishment rests upon a very shaky moral foundation, one that falls apart under any inspection. There already exist many...
What happens if you don’t pay your taxes?
I’ve never actually tried this, but I’m pretty sure the sequence of events goes like this:
Here jail is the terminal punishment. Demands 1-4 above are backed up by threat of jail1. But there is no threat that gets you to go to jail; if you refuse, armed men and women will drag you there by force (and a...
May 27, 2019 in History, Quick Fix
The Battle of the Tsushima Straits is the most underrated moment of historical importance in the 20th century.
We’ve all heard lots of different explanations for the start of the First World War. The standard ones are as follows: Europe was a mess of alliances, imperial powers treated war like a game, and one unlucky arch-duke got offed by anarchists.
Less commonly mentioned is Russia’s lack of international prestige, a situation that made it desperate for military victories at the same time it made the Central Powers contemptuous of Russia’s strength.
Russia was the first country to mobilize in 1914 (with its “period preparatory to war”) after Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia and it was arguably this mobilization that set the stage for a continent spanning war.
Why was Russia so desperate and the Central Powers so unworried?
Well, over 24 hours on May 27/28th, 1905, Russia went from...
May 5, 2019 in Economics
I’ve certainly made no secret about how important monetary economics is to my thinking, but I also have never clearly laid out the arguments that convinced me of monetarism, let alone explained its central theories. This isn’t by design. There’s almost an introduction to monetarism already on this blog, if you’re willing to piece together thirty footnotes on ten different posts. It is obviously the case that no one wants to do this. Therefore, I’d like to try something else: a succinct explanation of monetary economics, written as clearly as possible and without any simplifying omissions or obfuscations, but free of (unexplained) jargon.
Apr 27, 2019 in Literature, Philosophy, Politics
Many, including me, have relied on Max Weber’s definition of a state as “the rule of men over men based on the means of legitimate, that is allegedly legitimate violence”. I thought that violence was synonymous with power and that the best we could hope for was a legitimate exercise of violence, one that was proportionate and used only as a last resort.
I have a blog post about state monopolies on violence because of Hannah Arendt. Her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil was my re-introduction to moral philosophy. It, more than any other book, has informed this blog. To Arendt, thinking and judging are paramount. It is not so much, to her, that the unexamined life is not worth living. It is instead that the unexamined life exists in a state of mortal peril, separated only by circumstances from becoming one...
Apr 20, 2019 in Economics, Politics, Quick Fix
Degrowth is the political platform that holds our current economic growth as unsustainable and advocates for a radical reduction in our resource consumption. Critically, it rejects that this reduction can occur at the same time as our GDP continues to grow. Degrowth, per its backers, requires an actual contraction of the economy.
The Canadian New Democratic Party came perilously close to being taken over by advocates of degrowth during its last leadership race, which goes to show just how much leftist support the movement has gained since its debut in 2008.
I believe that degrowth is one of the least sensible policies being advocated for by elements of the modern left. This post collects my three main arguments against degrowth in a package that is easy to link to in other online discussions.
To my mind, advocates of degrowth fail to advocate a positive vision of transition to a...
Apr 13, 2019 in History, Literature
The modern field of linguistics dates from 1786, when Sir Willian Jones, a British judge sent to India to learn Sanskrit and serve on the colonial Supreme Court, realized just how similar Sanskrit was to Persian, Latin, Greek, Celtic, Gothic, and English (yes, he really spoke all of those). He concluded that the similarities in grammar were too close to be the result of chance. The only reasonable explanation, he claimed, was the descent of these languages from some ancient progenitor.
This ancestor language is now awkwardly known as Proto-Indo-European (PIE). It and the people who spoke it are the subject of David Anthony’s book The Horse The Wheel And Language 1. I picked up the book hoping to learn a bit about really ancient history. I ended up learning some of that, but this is more a book about linguistics and archeology than about...
Apr 6, 2019 in Model, Politics, Quick Fix
Richard Nixon would likely have gone down in history as one of America’s greatest presidents, if not for Watergate.
To my mind, his greatest successes were détente with China and the end of the convertibility of dollars into gold, but he also deserves kudos for ending the war in Vietnam, continuing the process of desegregation, establishing the EPA, and signing the anti-ballistic missile treaty.
Nixon was willing to try unconventional solutions and shake things up. He wasn’t satisfied with leaving things as they were. This is, in some sense, a violation of political norms.
When talking about political norms, it’s important to separate them into their two constituent parts.
First, there are the norms of policy. These are the standard terms of the debate. In some countries, they may look like a (semi-)durable centrist consensus. In others they may require accepting single-party rule as a given.
Second are the...
Apr 3, 2019 in Model, Philosophy, Quick Fix
I was reading a post-modernist critique of capitalist realism – the resignation to capitalism as the only practical way to organize a society, arising out of the failure of the Soviet Union – and I was struck by something interesting about post-modernism.
Insofar as post-modernism stands for anything, it is a critique of ideology. Post-modernism holds that there is no privileged lens with which to view the world; that even empiricism is suspect, because it too has a tendency to reproduce and reify the power structures in which in exists.
A startling thing then, is the sterility of the post-modernist political landscape. It is difficult to imagine a post-modernist who did not vote for Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein. Post-modernism is solely a creature of the left and specifically that part of the left that rejects the centrist compromise beloved of the incrementalist or market left.
There is a...
Mar 30, 2019 in Model, Politics
The fundamental problem of governance is the misalignment between means and ends. In all practically achievable government systems, the process of acquiring and maintaining power requires different skills than the exercise of power. The core criteria of any good system of government, therefore, must be selecting people by a metric that bears some resemblance to governing, or perhaps more importantly, having a metric that actively filters out people who are not suited to govern.
When the difference between means and ends becomes extreme, achieving power serves only to demonstrate unsuitability for holding it. Such systems are inevitably doomed to collapse.
Many people (I am thinking most notably of neo-reactionaries) put too much stock in the incentives or institutions of government systems. Neo-reactionaries look at the institutions of monarchies and claim they lead to stability, because monarchs have a large personal incentive to improve their kingdom and their lifetime tenure should...
Mar 27, 2019 in Politics, Quick Fix
Last week I said that I’d been avoiding writing about Brexit because it was neither my monkeys nor my circus. This week, I’ll be eating those words.
I’m a noted enthusiast of the Westminster system of government, yet this week (with Teresa May’s deal failing in parliament and parliament taking control of Brexit proceedings, to uncertain ends) seems to fly in the face of everything good I’ve said about it. That impression is false; the current impasse has been caused entirely by recent ill-conceived British tinkering, not any core problems with the system itself.
As far as I can tell, the current shambles arise from three departures from the core of the Westminster system.
First, we have parliament taking control of the business of parliament in order to hold a set of indicative votes. I don’t have the sort of deep knowledge of British history that is necessary...
Mar 23, 2019 in Model, Politics, Quick Fix
Brexit was always destined to be a shambles.
I haven’t written much about Brexit. It’s always been a bit of a case of “not my monkeys, not my circus”. And we’ve had plenty of circuses on this side of the Atlantic for me to write about.
That said, I do think Brexit is useful for illustrating the pitfalls of this sort of referendum, something I’ve taken to calling “The 50% Problem”.
Mar 20, 2019 in Economics, Quick Fix
The 2019 Budget introduced by the Liberal government includes one of the worst policies I’ve ever seen.
The CMHC First-Time Home Buyer Incentive provides up to 10% of the purchase price of a house (5% for existing homes, 10% for new homes) to any household buying a home for the first time with an annual income up to $120,000. To qualify, the total mortgage must be less than four times the household’s yearly income and the mortgage must be insured, which means that any house costing more than $590,0001 is ineligible for this program. The government will recoup its 5-10% stake when the home is sold.
The cap on eligible house price is this program’s only saving grace. Everything else about it is awful.
Now I want to be clear: housing affordability is a problem, especially in urban areas. Housing costs are increasing above...
Feb 10, 2019 in Link Post
Shinzō Abe has made increasing the participation of women in the workforce one of the key planks in his economic recovery plan. This is complicated by the frankly bonkers amount of work that women have to do as soon as they have kids in Japan – work men often cannot help with because they are expected to be in the office for 16 hours at a time. In addition to the normal tasks parents in North America expect (cooking, cleaning, etc.), parents in Japan have to do things like launder the linens their children use at school, fill out exhaustive diaries documenting everything their children do at home, and sign off on every piece of homework. I sometimes feel like someone needs to hijack the public-address system in Japan and play “work smart not hard” on repeat for as long as it takes for the message to sink in....
Jan 26, 2019 in Ethics, Model, Philosophy
Should lawyers be able to turn in their clients? When is society strengthened, rather than weakened, by having several different (and hardly compatible) moral systems in the mix?
Jan 9, 2019 in Link Post
Power generation and distribution is used in economics textbooks as the classic example of a natural monopoly. Lebanon proves this doesn’t have to be the case, with a mostly functional (and mostly illegal) parallel power distribution system that many people rely on to supplement the official system. I don’t think this should be used more generally – having a bunch of small generators is definitely more polluting – but it’s interesting to see that markets can work even in cases where people normally expect them to fail.
On the advice of a high school teacher, I once read most of the epic fantasy series “The Malazan Book of the Fallen”. One thing it made clear to me was just how dangerous and difficult it is to be an absolute ruler. Anyone who controls the information flow to you can essentially control you. By this token, it should be worrying that
Jan 6, 2019 in Falsifiable
Here are my 95 predictions about the next year. If you’d like to make your own predictions, you can download my blank template. Like previous years (2017, 2017 results, 2018, 2018 results), I’ve broken them down by region.
Jan 1, 2019 in Falsifiable
In what is becoming a New Year’s tradition, let’s look at how accurately I predicted the future a year ago.
Dec 9, 2018 in All About Me, Politics
“Hi, I’m Zach! I’m out here knocking on doors for Tenille Bonoguore, who is running to represent you in Ward 7. Do you have any questions for her, or concerns that you’d like her to know about…” is now a sentence I have said more than possibly any other.
Ontario had municipal elections on October 22nd. I looked at the bios of my local candidates, emailed all of them to find out more about their platforms, met with two of them, and ultimately decided that I wanted to help Tenille. Soon after that, I had been drafted to help manage canvassing efforts (although my colleague Tanya did more of that work than I did) and I was out knocking on doors again.
I knocked on countless doors and talked to an incredible variety of people. I don’t even know how many times I went out canvassing, but it was...
Dec 5, 2018 in Model, Quick Fix
Every year, I check in to see if we’ve eradicated polio or guinea worm yet. Disease eradications are a big deal. We’ve only successfully eradicated one disease – smallpox – so being so close to wiping out two more is very exciting.
Still, when I looked at how much resources were committed to polio eradication (especially by the Gates Foundation), I noticed they seemed incongruent with its effects. No polio eradication effort can be found among GiveWell’s top charities, because it is currently rather expensive to prevent polio. The amount of quality-adjusted life years (QALYs, a common measure of charity effectiveness used in the Effective Altruism community) you can save with a donation to preventing malaria is just higher than for polio.
I briefly wondered if it might not be better for all of the effort going to polio eradication to instead go to anti-malaria programs. After...
Dec 2, 2018 in Link Post
This true crime story ticks a lot of my boxes. The villain is created by the slow entropic decay of corruption and temptation, while the hero chose to prosecute white collar crimes because he wanted to go after crimes of greed, not desperation. I continue to believe that as a society, we’re too lenient on crimes of greed and too harsh on crimes of desperation, so it was easy to cheer the prosecution on.
This post claims that the pharmaceutical industry is soon going to fall apart because returns on R&D aren’t keeping up; all the low hanging fruit is gone and none of the harder to reach stuff is profitable. If anyone can give me a sense of how deeply I should be worried by this, I’ll be deeply appreciative.
If your restaurant is failing, or if you want to maximize your chances of success when you...
Nov 26, 2018 in Economics, Model
I have previously written about how to evaluate and think about public debt in stable, developed countries. There, the overall message was that the dangers of debt were often (but not always) overhyped and cynically used by certain politicians. In a throwaway remark, I suggested the case was rather different for developing countries. This post unpacks that remark. It looks at why things go so poorly when developing countries take on debt and lays out a set of policies that I think could help developing countries that have high debt loads.
The very first difference in debt between developed and developing countries lies in the available terms of credit; developing countries get much worse terms. This makes sense, as they’re often much more likely to default on their debt. Interest scales with risk and it just is riskier to lend money to Zimbabwe than to Canada.
But interest payments...
Nov 19, 2018 in Model, Philosophy
So, there’s this thing that happens in certain intellectual communities, like (to give a totally random example) social psychology. This thing is that novel takes are rewarded. New insights are rewarded. Figuring out things that no one has before is rewarded. The high-status people in such a community are the ones who come up with and disseminate many new insights.
On the face of it, this is good! New insights are how we get penicillin and flight and Pad Thai burritos. But there’s one itty bitty little problem with building a culture around it.
Good (and correct!) new ideas are a finite resource.
This isn’t news. Back in 2005, John Ioannidis laid out the case for “most published research findings” being false. It turns out that when you have a small chance of coming up with a correct idea even using statistical tests for to find false positives can...
Nov 12, 2018 in Model
It is against commonly held intuitions that a group can be both over-represented in a profession, school, or program, and discriminated against. The simplest way to test for discrimination is to look at the general population, find the percent that a group represents, then expect them to represent exactly that percentage in any endeavour, absent discrimination.
Harvard, for example, is 17.1% Asian-American (foreign students are broken out separately in the statistics I found, so we’re only talking about American citizens or permanent residents in this post). America as a whole is 4.8% Asian-American. Therefore, many people will conclude that there is no discrimination happening against Asian-Americans at Harvard.
This is what would happen under many disparate impact analyses of discrimination, where the first step to showing discrimination is showing one group being accepted (for housing, employment, education, etc.) at a lower rate than another.
I think this naïve...
Nov 4, 2018 in Link Post
When a poet writes about his experience of becoming a lawyer after his release from jail, you know it’s going to be a punch in the gut. One thing I noticed: he would have had a much easier time reintegrating to society, finding a job, etc. had he been tried as a juvenile, rather than an adult. Has there been any meaningful study on recidivism rates between these two groups? You could compare 17 year olds and 18 year olds charged with the same crime and look at outcomes fifteen years down the road.
Segway’s patents are now at the core of the new crop of ride-sharing scooters, which may finally bring about the original promise of the Segway. Perhaps one element of Segway’s downfall (beyond how uncool they were) is how proper they were about everything. They worked hard to get laws passed that made it legal...
Oct 30, 2018 in Economics, History
A friend of mine recently linked to a story about stamp scrip currencies in a discussion about Initiative Q1. Stamp scrip currencies are an interesting monetary technology. They’re bank notes that require weekly or monthly stamps in order to be valid. These stamps cost money (normally a few percent of the face value of the note), which imposes a cost on holding the currency. This is supposed to encourage spending and spur economic activity.
This isn’t just theory. It actually happened. In the Austrian town of Wörgl, a scrip currency was used to great effect for several months during the Great Depression, leading to a sudden increase in employment, money for necessary public works, and a general reversal of fortunes that had, until that point, been quite dismal. Several other towns copied the experiment and saw similar gains, until the central bank stepped...
Oct 21, 2018 in Model, Politics, Science
A while back, I was linked to this Tweet:
|￣￣￣￣￣￣￣￣￣￣￣|— Audra J. Wolfe, PhD (@ColdWarScience) July 12, 2018
It had sparked a brisk and mostly unproductive debate. If you want to see people talking past each other, snide comments, and applause lights, check out the thread. One of the few productive exchanges centres on bridges.
Bridges are clearly a product of science (and its offspring, engineering) – only the simplest bridges can be built without scientific knowledge. Bridges also clearly have a political dimension. Not only are bridges normally the product of politics, they also are embedded in a broader political fabric. They change how a space can be used and change geography. They make certain actions – like...
Oct 14, 2018 in Literature
Theranos was founded in 2003 by Stanford drop-out Elizabeth Holmes. It and its revolutionary blood tests eventually became a Silicon Valley darling, raising $700 million from investors that included Rupert Murdoch and the Walton family. It ultimately achieved a valuation of almost $10 billion on yearly revenues of $100 million. Elizabeth Holmes was hailed as Silicon Valley’s first self-made female billionaire.
In 2015, a series of articles by John Carreyrou published in the Wall Street Journal popped this bubble. Theranos was a fraud. Its blood tests didn’t work and were putting patient lives at risk. Its revenue was one thousand times smaller than reported. It had engaged in a long running campaign of intimidation against employees and whistleblowers. Its board had entirely failed to hold the executives to account – not surprising, since Elizabeth Holmes controlled over 99% of the voting power.
Bad Blood is the story of how this...
Oct 7, 2018 in Model
Or: the simplest ways of killing people tend to be the most effective.
A raft of articles came out during Defcon showing that security vulnerabilities exist in some pacemakers, vulnerabilities which could allow attackers to load a pacemaker with arbitrary code. This is obviously worrying if you have a pacemaker implanted. It is equally self-evident that it is better to live in a world where pacemakers cannot be hacked. But how much worse is it to live in this unfortunately hackable world? Are pacemaker hackings likely to become the latest crime spree?
Electrical grid hackings provide a sobering example. Despite years of warning that the American electrical grid is vulnerable to cyber-attacks, the greatest threat to America’s electricity infrastructure remains… squirrels.
Hacking, whether it’s of the electricity grid or of pacemakers gets all the headlines. Meanwhile fatty foods and squirrels do all the real damage.
Sep 29, 2018 in Economics, Politics
Vox has an interesting article on Elizabeth Warren’s newest economic reform proposal. Briefly, she wants to force corporations with more than $1 billion in revenue to apply for a charter of corporate citizenship.
This charter would make three far-reaching changes to how large companies do business. First, it would require businesses to consider customers, employees, and the community – instead of only its shareholders – when making decisions. Second, it would require that 40% of the seats on the board go to workers. Third, it would require 75% of shareholders and board members to authorize any corporate political activity.
(There’s also some minor corporate governance stuff around limiting the ability of CEOs to sell their stock which I think is an idea...
Aug 26, 2018 in Economics, Model
As interest in how artificial intelligence will change society increases, I’ve found it revealing to note what narratives people have about the future.
Some, like the folks at MIRI and OpenAI, are deeply worried that unsafe artificial general intelligences – an artificial intelligence that can accomplish anything a person can – represent an existential threat to humankind. Others scoff at this, insisting that these are just the fever dreams of tech bros. The same news organizations that bash any talk of unsafe AI tend to believe that the real danger lies in robots taking our jobs.
Let’s express these two beliefs as separate propositions:
Can you spot the contradiction between these two statements? In the common imagination, it would require an AI that can approximate human capabilities to drive significant unemployment. Given that humans are the largest existential risk to other humans (think thermonuclear war and climate change), how could equally intelligent and capable beings, bound to subservience, not present a threat?
Aug 16, 2018 in Falsifiable, Physics, Quick Fix
One of the best things about taking physics classes is that the equations you learn are directly applicable to the real world. Every so often, while reading a book or watching a movie, I’m seized by the sudden urge to check it for plausibility. A few scratches on a piece of paper later and I will generally know one way or the other.
One of the most amusing things I’ve found doing this is that the people who come up with the statistics for Pokémon definitely don’t have any sort of education in physics.
Takes Onix. Onix is a rock/ground Pokémon renowned for its large size and sturdiness. Its physical statistics reflect this. It’s 8.8 metres (28’) long and 210kg (463lbs).
Surely such a large and tough Pokémon should be very, very dense, right? Density is such an important tactile cue for us. Don’t believe me? Pick up a large piece of solid medal. Its surprising weight will make you take it seriously.
Aug 6, 2018 in Model, Politics
Did you know that half of all surgical complications are preventable? In the US alone, this means that surgeons cause between 50,00 and 200,000 preventable deaths each year.
Surgeons are, almost literally, getting away with murder.
Why do we let them? Engineers who see their designs catastrophically fail often lose their engineering license, even when they’re found not guilty in criminal proceedings. If surgeons were treated like engineers, many of them wouldn’t be operating anymore.
Indeed, the death rate in surgery is almost unique among regulated professions. One person has died in a commercial aviation accident in the US in the last nine years. Structural engineering related accidents killed at most 251 people in the US in 20161 and only approximately 4% of residential structure failures in the US occur due to deficiencies in design2....
Jul 29, 2018 in Economics, Model
Economists normally splits goods into four categories:
Club goods are perhaps the most interesting class...
Jul 22, 2018 in Advice, Literature, Model
For the uninitiated, Sanderson’s Law (technically, Sanderson’s First Law of Magic) is:
An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
Brandon Sanderson wrote this law to help new writers come up with satisfying magical systems. But I think it’s applicable beyond magic. A recent experience has taught me that it’s especially applicable to fantasy cultures.
I recently read Sunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss, a book that falls into one of my favourite fantasy sub-genres: hopeless siege tales.
Sunset Mantle is what’s called secondary world fantasy; it takes place in a world that doesn’t share a common history or culture (or even necessarily biosphere) with our own. Game of Thrones is secondary world fantasy, while Harry Potter is...
Jul 15, 2018 in Software
In my capacity as a senior employee at Alert Labs (it’s easy to be senior when the company is only three years old), I do a lot of hiring. Since I started, I’ve been involved in interviews for four full time hires and five interns. Throughout all of this, I’ve learned a lot about what to look for in a resume.
I’ve also gotten in the occasional disagreement about what we should look...
Jul 11, 2018 in Economics, Politics, Quick Fix
Last week I explained how poor decisions by central bankers (specifically failing to spur inflation) can make recessions much worse and lead to slower wage growth during recovery.
(Briefly: inflation during recessions reduces the real cost of payroll, cutting business expenses and making firing people unnecessary. During a recovery, it makes hiring new workers cheaper and so leads to more being hired. Because central bankers failed to create inflation during and after the great recession, many businesses are scared of raising salaries. They believe (correctly) that this will increase their payroll expenses to the point where they’ll have to lay many people off if another recession strikes. Until memories of the last recession fade or central bankers clean up their act, we shouldn’t expect wages to rise.)
Now I’d like to expand on an offhand comment I made about the minimum wage last week and explore how it can affect recovery,...
When you’re noticing that you’re talking past someone, what does it look like? Do you feel like they’re ignoring all the implications of the topic at hand (“yes, I know the invasion of Iraq is causing a lot of pain, but I think the important question is, ‘did they have WMDs?’”)? Or do you feel like they’re avoiding talking about the object-level point in favour of other considerations (“factory farmed animals might suffer, but before we can consider whether that’s justified or not, shouldn’t we decide whether we have any obligation to maximize the number of living creatures?”)?
I’m beginning to suspect that many tense disagreements and confused, fruitless conversations are caused by differences in how people conceive of and process the truth. More, I think I have a model that explains why some people can productively disagree with anyone and everyone, while others get frustrated very easily with even...
Jul 1, 2018 in Economics, Falsifiable
The Economist wonders why wage growth isn’t increasing, even as unemployment falls. A naïve reading of supply and demand suggests that it should, so this has become a relatively common talking point in the news, with people of all persuasions scratching their heads. The Economist does it better than most. They at least talk about slowing productivity growth and rising oil prices, instead of blaming everything on workers (for failing to negotiate) or employers (for not suddenly raising wages).
But after reading monetary policy blogs, the current lack of wage growth feels much less confusing to me. Based on this, I’d like to offer one explanation for why wages haven’t been growing. While I may not be an economist, I’ll be doing my best to pass along verbatim the views of serious economic thinkers.
Jun 25, 2018 in Economics, Politics
There are many problems that face modern, developed economies. Unfortunately, no one agrees with what to do in response to them. Even economists are split, with libertarians championing deregulation, while liberals call for increased government spending to reduce inequality.
Or at least, that’s the conventional wisdom. The Captured Economy, by Dr. Brink Lindsey (libertarian) and Dr. Steven M. Teles (liberal) doesn’t have much time for conventional wisdom.
It’s a book about the perils of regulation, sure. But it’s a book that criticizes regulation that redistributes money upwards. This isn’t the sort of regulation that big pharma or big finance wants to cut. It’s the regulation they pay politicians to enact.
And if you believe Lindsey and Teles, upwardly redistributing regulation is strangling our economy and feeding inequality.
They’re talking, of course, about rent-seeking.
Now, if you don’t read economic literature, you probably have an idea of what “rent-seeking” might...
Jun 18, 2018 in Economics, History, Politics
Friends, lend me your ears.
I write today about a speech that was once considered the greatest political speech in American history. Even today, after Reagan, Obama, Eisenhower, and King, it is counted among the very best. And yet this speech has passed from the history we have learned. Its speaker failed in his ambitions and the cause he championed is so archaic that most people wouldn’t even understand it.
I speak of Congressman Will J Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech.
William Jennings Bryan was a congressman from Nebraska, a lawyer, a three-time Democratic candidate for president (1896, 1900, 1908), the 41st Secretary of State, and oddly enough, the lawyer for the prosecution at the Scopes Monkey Trial. He was also a “silver Democrat”, one of the insurgents who rose to challenge Democratic President Grover Cleveland and the Democratic party establishment over their support for gold over a bimetallic (gold...
Jun 11, 2018 in All About Me, Politics
“Hi I’m Zach. I’m out here canvasing for Catherine Fife, Andrea Horwath, and the NDP. I was wondering if Catherine could count on your support this election…” is now a sentence I’ve said hundreds of times.
Ontario had a provincial election on June 7th. I wasn’t fond of the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party’s leader, one Doug Ford, so I did what I could. I joined the PC party to vote for his much more qualified rival, Christine Elliot. When that failed, I volunteered for Waterloo’s NDP Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP), Catherine Fife.
As a volunteer, I knocked on more than a thousand doors and talked to more than two hundred people. I went out canvassing eight times. According to Google Maps and its creepy tracking, I walked about 24 kilometers while doing this (and have still-sore feet to prove it).
Before I started canvassing, I knew...
Jun 3, 2018 in All About Me, Politics
I like to keep track of my life over time. I’m an obsessive journaler (and, as this blog can attest, a fairly regular blogger). At the end of every day, I track my mood, my sleep, my productivity, my social life, and how well I did in spaced repetition exercises. Last May, I decided to track one more thing about myself and start a tradition of publishing my Political Compass results yearly.
I’m a bit late this year (I kept the title because I started the post in May) because there’s actual politics happening; I’ve been volunteering for my local MPP’s re-election campaign. Of explanations for being late with a politics related blog post, that might be the best one I ever give.
Last year, I scored -3.25 on the economic axis and -6.56 on the authority axis.
Canadian results come from The Political Compass’s...
May 30, 2018 in Literature, Politics
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an academic over the age of forty must be prepared to write a book talking about how everything is going to hell these days. Despite literally no time in history featuring fewer people dying of malaria, dying in childbirth, dying of vaccine preventable illnesses, etc., it is very much in vogue to criticise the foibles of modern life. Heck, Ross Douthat makes a full-time job out of it over at the New York Times.
Enlightenment 2.0 is Canadian academic Joseph Heath’s contribution to the genre. If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because I’ve referenced him a bunch of times on this blog. I’m very much a fan of his book Filthy Lucre and his shared blog, induecourse.ca. Because of this, I decided to give his book (and only his book) decrying the modern age a try....
May 22, 2018 in Ethics, Philosophy, Quick Fix
In some parts of the Brazilian Amazon, indigenous groups still practice infanticide. Children are killed for being disabled, for being twins, or for being born to single mothers. This is undoubtedly a piece of cultural technology that existed to optimize resource distribution under harsh conditions.
Infanticide can be legally practiced because these tribes aren’t bound by Brazilian law. Under legislation, indigenous tribes are bound by the laws in proportion to how much they interact with the state. Remote Amazonian groups have a waiver from all Brazilian laws.
Reformers, led mostly by disabled indigenous people who’ve escaped infanticide and evangelicals, are trying to change this. They are pushing for a law that will outlaw infanticide, register pregnancies and birth outcomes, and punish people who don’t report infanticide.
Now I know that I have in the past written about using the outside view in cases like these. Historically, outsiders deciding...
May 6, 2018 in Quick Fix
First: May the Fourth be with you (“and also with you” is how you respond if like me, you grew up Catholic). As you might be able to tell from this shirt, I am religiously devoted to Star Wars. I know a lot about Star Wars, but I’m more of an orthodox fan- I was all about the Expanded Universe, not this reverend-ing stream of Disney sequels.
They might be popepular, but it seems like all Disney wants is to turn a prophet - just get big fatwas of cash. They don’t care about Allah...
May 1, 2018 in Data Science, Economics, Falsifiable
When dealing with questions of inequality, I often get boggled by the sheer size of the numbers. People aren’t very good at intuitively parsing the difference between a million and a billion. Our brains round both to “very large”. I’m actually in a position where I get reminded of this fairly often, as the difference can become stark when programming. Running a program on a million points of data takes scant seconds. Running the same set of operations on a billion data points can take more than an hour. A million seconds is eleven and a half days. A billion seconds 31 years.
Here I would like to try to give a sense of the relative scale of various concepts in inequality. Just how much wealth do the wealthiest people in the world possess compared to the rest? How much of the world’s middle class is concentrated in just a...
Apr 19, 2018 in Data Science, Economics, Falsifiable
The Cambridge Analytica scandal has put tech companies front and centre. If the thinkpieces along the lines of “are the big tech companies good or bad for society” were coming out any faster, I might have to doubt even Google’s ability to make sense of them all.
This isn’t another one of those thinkpieces. Instead it’s an attempt at an analysis. I want to understand in monetary terms how much one tech company – Google – puts into or takes out of everyone’s pockets. This analysis is going to act as a template for some of the more detailed analyses of inequality I’d like to do later, so if you have a comment about methodology, I’m eager to hear it.
Apr 9, 2018 in Literature, Model
[Warning: Spoilers for Too Like the Lightning]
What marks writing as amateurish (and whether “amateurish” or “low-brow” works are worthy of awards) has been a topic of contention in the science fiction and fantasy community for the past few years, with the rise of Hugo slates and the various forms of “puppies”.
I’m not talking about the learning works of genuine amateurs. These aren’t stories that use big words for the sake of sounding smart (and at the cost of slowing down the stories), or over the top fanfiction-esque rip-offs of more established works (well, at least not since the Wheel of Time nomination in 2014). I’m talking about that subtler thing, the feeling that bubbles up from the deepest recesses of your brain and says “this story wasn’t written as well as it could be”.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because about ¾ of...
Apr 1, 2018 in Falsifiable, Physics, Politics
Under the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), all nuclear tests except for those underground are banned. Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), only the permanent members of the UN Security Council are legally allowed to possess nuclear weapons. Given the public outcry over fallout that led to the PTBT and the worries over widespread nuclear proliferation that led to the NPT, it’s clear that we require something beyond pinky promises to verify that countries are meeting the terms of these treaties.
But how do we do so? How can you tell when a country tests an atomic bomb? How can you tell who did it? And how can one differentiate a bomb on the surface from a bomb in the atmosphere from a bomb in space from a bomb underwater from a bomb underground?
I’m going to focus on two efforts to monitor nuclear weapons: the national security apparatus...
Mar 25, 2018 in History, Quick Fix
There is perhaps no temptation greater to the amateur (or professional) historian than to take a set of historical facts and draw from them a grand narrative. This tradition has existed at least since Gibbon wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with its focus on declining civic virtue and the rise of Christianity.
Obviously, it is true that things in history happen for a reason. But I think the case is much less clear that these reasons can be marshalled like soldiers and made to march in neat lines across the centuries. What is true in one time and place may not necessarily be true in another. When you fall under the sway of a grand narrative, when you believe that everything happens for a reason, you may become tempted to ignore all of the evidence to the contrary.
Instead praying at the altar...
Mar 18, 2018 in Economics, Politics
I watch a lot of political debates with my friends. A couple of them have turned to me after watching heated arguments about public debt and (because I have a well-known habit of reading monetary policy blogs) asked me who is right. I hear questions like:
Is it true that public debt represents an unfair burden on our hypothetical grandchildren? Is all this talk about fiscal discipline and balanced budgets pointless? Is it really bad when public debt gets over 100% of a country’s GDP? How can the threat of defaulting on loans lead to inflation and ruin?
And what does all this mean for Ontario? Is Doug Ford right about the deficit?
This is my attempt to sort this all out in a public and durable form. Now when I’ve taken a political debate drinking game too far, I’ll still be able to point people towards the answers to...
Mar 4, 2018 in Model, Politics, Quick Fix
Tanya Granic Allen is the most idealistic candidate I’ve ever seen take the stage in a Canadian political debate. This presents some awkward challenges for the candidates facing her, especially Mulroney and Elliot.
First, there’s the simple fact of her idealism. I think Granic Allen genuinely believes everything she says. For her, knowing what’s right and what’s wrong is simple. There isn’t a whole lot of grey. She even (bless her) probably believes that this will be an advantage come election time. People overwhelming don’t like the equivocation of politicians, so Granic Allen must assume her unequivocal moral stances will be a welcome change
For many people, it must be. Even for those who find it grating, it seems almost vulgar to attack her. It’s clear that she isn’t in this for herself and doesn’t really care about personal power. Whether she could maintain that innocence in the face of...
Feb 26, 2018 in Economics, Model, Quick Fix
No, this isn’t a post about very pretty houses or positional goods. It’s about the type of beauty contest described by John Maynard Keynes.
Imagine a newspaper that publishes one hundred pictures of strapping young men. It asks everyone to send in the names of the five that they think are most attractive. They offer a prize: if your selection matches the five men most often appearing in everyone else’s selections, you’ll win $500.
You could just do what the newspaper asked and send in the names of those men that you think are especially good looking. But that’s not very likely to give you the win. Everyone’s tastes are different and the people you find attractive might not be very attractive to anyone else. If you’re playing the game a bit smarter, you’ll instead pick the five people that you think have the broadest appeal.
You could go even...
Feb 26, 2018 in Biology, Ethics, Literature, Philosophy
The Righteous Mind follows an argument structure I learned in high school debate club. It tells you what it’s going to tell you, it tells you it, then it reminds you what it told you. This made it a really easy read and a welcome break from The Origins of Totalitarianism, the other book I’ve been reading. Practically the very first part of The Righteous Mind proper (after the foreword) is an introduction to its first metaphor.
Imagine an elephant and a rider. They have travelled together since their birth and move as one. The elephant doesn’t say much (it’s an elephant), but the rider is very vocal – for example, she’s quick to apologize and explain away any damage the elephant might do. A casual observer might think the rider is in charge, because she is so much cleverer and more talkative, but that casual...
Feb 10, 2018 in Economics, Politics, Quick Fix
I don’t understand why people choose to go bankrupt living the most expensive cities, but I’m increasingly viewing this as a market failure and collective action problem to be fixed with intervention, not a failure of individual judgement.
There are many cities, like Brantford, Waterloo, or even Ottawa, where everything works properly. Rent isn’t really more expensive than suburban or rural areas. There’s public transit, which means you don’t necessarily need a car, if you choose where you live with enough care. There are plenty of jobs. Stuff happens.
But cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and San Francisco confuse the hell out of me. The cost of living is through the roof, but wages don’t even come close to following (the difference in salary between Toronto and Waterloo for someone with my qualifications is $5,000, which in no way would cover the...
Feb 4, 2018 in Economics, Model
In simple economic theory, wages are supposed to act as signals. When wages increase in a sector, it should signal people that there’s lots of work to do there, incentivizing training that will be useful for that field, or causing people to change careers. On the flip side, when wages decrease, we should see a movement out of that sector.
This is all well and good. It explains why the United States has seen (over the past 45 years) little movement in the number of linguistics degrees, a precipitous falloff in library sciences degrees, some decrease in English degrees, and a large increase in engineering and business degrees1.
This might be the engineer in me, but I find things that are working properly boring. What I’m really interested in is when wage signals break down and are replaced by a job lottery.
Jan 28, 2018 in Advice, All About Me, Biology
The first time I tried vegetarianism, I ended up deficient in B12. Since then, I’ve realized just how bad vitamin B12 deficiency is (hint: it can cause irreversible neural damage) and resolved to get it right this time.
I’m currently eating no meat, very little milk, almost no eggs, and a fair amount of cheese. I consider clams, oysters, and mussels to be morally (if not taxonomically) vegetables, but am too lazy to eat them regularly. To figure out what this diet put me at risk for, I trolled PubMed1 until I found a recent article arguing for a vegan diet, then independently checked their nutritional recommendations.
Based on this, I’ve made a number of changes to my diet. I now take two vitamins in the morning and a slew of supplements in sugar-free...
Jan 23, 2018 in Economics, Politics
When you worry about rising inequality, what are you thinking about?
I now know of two competing models for inequality, each of which has vastly different implications for political economy.
In the first, called consumptive inequality, inequality is embodied in differential consumption. Under this model, there is a huge gap between Oracle CEO Larry Ellison (net worth: $60 billion), with his private islands, his yacht, etc. and myself, with my cheap rented apartment, ten-year-old bike, and modest savings. In fact, under this model, there’s even a huge gap between Larry Ellison with all of his luxury goods and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett (net worth: $90.6 billion), with his relatively cheap house and restrained tastes.
Jan 14, 2018 in History, Literature, Politics
Hannah Arendt’s massive study of totalitarianism, The Origins of Totalitarianism, is (at the time of writing), the fourth most popular political theory book on Amazon (after two editions of The Prince, Plato’s Republic, and a Rebecca Solnit book). It’s also a densely written tome, not unsuitable for defending oneself from wild animals. Many of its paragraphs could productively be turned into whole books of their own.
I’m not done it yet. But a review and summary of the whole thing would be far too large for a single blog post. Therefore, I’m going to review its three main sections as I finish them. Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem set my mind afire and spurred my very first essay on political theory, so I’m very excited to be reviewing the section on antisemitism today.
(Reminder: unless I’m specifically...
Jan 7, 2018 in Advice
Why do so many people undermine their apologies with defensiveness?
When celebrity chef Mario Batali apologized for sexually harassing his employees, he included a link to a recipe at the end of the email.
This fits into the pattern we’ve seen in many of the recently named abusers. When (if) they apologize, they’re sure to lace it with a few face saving measures:
Amazingly, and for the first time I can remember, (most) people aren’t buying it.
Jan 6, 2018 in Economics, Falsifiable, Politics
Since the minimum wage increase took effect on January 1st, Tim Hortons has been in the news. Many local franchisees have been clawing back benefits, removing paid breaks, or otherwise taking measures to reduce the costs associated with an increased minimum wage.
TVO just put out a piece about this ongoing saga by the Christian socialist Michael Coren. It loudly declares that “Tim Hortons doesn’t deserve your sympathy”. Unfortunately, Mr. Coren is incorrect. Everyone involved here (Tim Hortons the corporation, Tim Hortons franchisees, and Tim Hortons workers) is caught between a rock and a hard place. They all deserve your sympathy.
It is a truism that a minimum wage increase must result in either declining profits, cuts to...
Jan 3, 2018 in Falsifiable
Inspired by Slate Star Codex, this is my second year of making predictions (see also: my previous predictions, their scores, and my recent LessWrong post about these predictions).
Before I jump into the predictions, I want to mention that I’ve created templates so that anyone who wants to can also take a stab at it; the templates focus on international events and come in two versions:
With both these sheets, the idea is to pick a limited number of probabilities (I recommend 51%, 60%, 70%, 80%, and 90%) and assign one to each item that you have an opinion on. At the end of the year, you count the number of correct items in each probability bin and use that to see how close you were to ideal. This gives you an answer to the important question: “when I say something is 80% likely to happen, how likely, really, is it to happen?”
Jan 2, 2018 in Falsifiable
Now is the big reveal. Just how did I do in 2017?
When you make continuous, incremental improvements to something, one of two things can happen. You can improve it a lot, or you can fall into superstition. I’m not talking about black cats or broken mirrors, but rather humans becoming addicted to whichever steps were last seen to work, instead of whichever steps produce their goal.
I’ve seen superstition develop first hand. It happened in one of the places you might least expect it – in a biochemistry lab. In the summer of 2015, I found myself trying to understand which mutants of a certain protein were more stable than the wildtype. Because science is perpetually underfunded, the computer that drove the equipment we were using was ancient and frequently crashed. Each crash wiped out an hour or two of painstaking, hurried labour and meant we had less time to use the instrument...
Dec 10, 2017 in Literature
If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you probably know that I’m a big fan of the sociologist and feminist scholar Professor Arlie Russell Hochschild. Previously I have reviewed her books “Strangers in Their Own Land” and “The Second Shift”. I’ve also published a practical guide to sharing housework, inspired by reading “The Second Shift”. Today I’m going to review The Managed Heart the book that first brought Professor Hochschild to mainstream attention.
But before I begin the review, I’d like to talk about words.
Words are handles to grasp concepts. These handles (like the concepts they evoke) are by necessity blurry and fuzzy. They...
Dec 3, 2017 in Model, Politics
Since June 21st of this year, Mohammed bin Salman (often known by his initials, MBS) has been the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. This required what was assuredly not a palace coup, because changes of government or succession are never coups, merely “similar to coups”, “coup-like”, “coup-esque”, or “coupLite™” 1. As crown prince, MBS has championed a loosening of religious restrictions on women and entertainment, a decrease in reliance on oil for state revenues, and a harder line with Qatar and Iran.
Media coverage has been, uh, split. Here’s an editorial in The Washington Post comparing MBS to Putin, while an editorial in The New York Times fawningly declares “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last”2. Given that there’s so much difference in opinion on MBS, I thought it might be useful to...
Dec 1, 2017 in Model, Philosophy
In utilitarianism, “remoter effects” are the result of our actions influencing other people (and are hotly debated). I think that remoter effects are often overstated, especially (as Sir Williams said in Utilitarianism for and against) when they give the conventionally ethical answer. For example, a utilitarian might claim that the correct answer to the hostage dilemma1 is to kill no one, because killing weakens the sanctity of human life and may lead to more deaths in the future.
When debating remoter effects, I think it’s worthwhile to split them into two categories: positive and negative. Positive remoter effects are when your actions cause others to refrain from some negative action they might otherwise take. Negative remoter effects are when your actions make it more likely that others will engage in a negative action2.
Of late, I’ve been especially interested...
Nov 26, 2017 in History, Model
In 2006, Dr. Atul Gawande wrote an article in The New Yorker about maternal care entitled “How Childbirth Went Industrial”. It’s an excellent piece from an author who consistently produces excellent pieces. In it, Gawande charts the rise of the C-section, from its origin as technique so dangerous it was considered tantamount to murder (and consequently banned on living mothers), to its current place as one of the most common surgical procedures carried out in North American hospitals.
The C-section – and epidurals and induced labour – have become so common because obstetrics has become ruthlessly focused on maximizing the Apgar score of newborns. Along the way, the field ditched forceps (possibly better for the mother yet tricky to use...
Nov 23, 2017 in Data Science, Literature, Model
Recently, I talked about what I didn’t like in Dr. Cathy O’Neil’s book, Weapons of Math Destruction. This time around, I’d like to mention two parts of it I really liked. I wish Dr. O’Neil put more effort into naming the concepts she covered; I don’t have names for them from WMD, but in my head, I’ve been calling them Hidden Value Encodings and Axiomatic Judgements.
Nov 19, 2017 in Data Science, Literature, Model
I recently read Weapons of Math Destruction by Dr. Cathy O’Neil and found it an enormously frustrating book. It’s not that whole book was rubbish – that would have made things easy. No, the real problem with this book is that the crap and the pearls were so closely mixed that I had to stare at every sentence very, very carefully in hopes of figuring out which one each was. There’s some good stuff in here. But much of Dr. O’Neil’s argumentation relies on two new (to me) fallacies. It’s these fallacies (which I’ve dubbed the Ought-Is Fallacy and the Availability Bait-and-Switch)...
Nov 12, 2017 in Model, Politics
Last week, I used the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution to find a set of stable equilibria in the present conflict between North Korea and the USA. They were:
But how much can we trust these results? How much to they depend on my subjective ranking of the belligerent’s preferences? How much do they depend on the stability metrics I used?
To get a sense of this, I’m going to add another stability metric into the mix, come up with three new preference vectors, and look at how the original results change when we consider a North Korean invasion to...
Nov 5, 2017 in Model, Politics
Why do things happen the way they do?
Every day, there are conflicts between decision makers. These occur on the international scale (think the Cuban Missile Crisis), the provincial level (Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum anyone?) and the local level (Toronto’s bike lane kerfuffle). Conflict is inevitable. Understanding it, regrettably, is not.
The final results of many conflicts can look baffling from the outside. Why did the Soviet Union retreat in the Cuban missile crisis? Why do some laws pass and others die on the table?
The most powerful tool I have for understanding the ebb and flow of conflict is the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution (GMCR). I had the immense pleasure of learning about it under the tutelage of Professor Keith Hipel, one of its creators. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share it with you.
GMCR is done...
Nov 2, 2017 in Politics
The following is the annotated speakers notes for a talk I gave on nuclear weapons today. I’d like to claim that it was a transcript, but after practicing from these notes for almost a week, I ended up giving the talk mostly ex tempore. Like I always do.
Note: The uncredited photos were created by the US government and therefore have no copyright attached. All other images are either original (and therefore covered by the same license as the rest of the blog) or are credited and subject to the original license (normally CC-BY of some sort).
Hi I’m Zach.
This will be a backwards explanation of nuclear weapons; I don’t have time to cover it all so instead of covering the boring stuff like how fission works, I’m going to talk about the strategic...
Note: This blog post is about housework and chores. If disability or mental illness makes chores difficult for you to do and having someone breezily describe it as “easy” will be bad for you, I recommend skipping it. This meant to help people who are able split chores with a partner – but historically haven’t – begin to do so. It isn’t meant to be a cudgel with which to beat people who have difficulty with chores due to ability status. If this describes you, you are not lazy or broken and your difficulties are real and valid.
So, you’ve seen the comic by Emma, or read The Second Shift (which also happens to be my favourite term for the chores and childcare that happens after or before work), or maybe someone has linked you here with a pointed note. In any...
Oct 25, 2017 in Economics, Model, Quick Fix
Previously I described regulation as a regressive tax. It may not kill jobs per se, but it certainly shifts them towards people with university degrees, largely at the expense of those without. I’m beginning to rethink that position; I’m increasingly worried that many types of regulation are actually leading to a net loss of jobs. There remains a paucity of empirical evidence on this subject. Today I’m going to present a (I believe convincing) model of how regulations could kill jobs, but I’d like to remind everyone that models are less important than evidence and should only be the focus of discussion in situations like this, where the evidence is genuinely sparse.
Let’s assume that regulation has no first order effect on jobs. All jobs lost through regulation (and make no mistake, there will be lost jobs) are offset by different jobs in regulatory compliance or the jobs...
Oct 22, 2017 in Model, Quick Fix
[3 minute read]
Most of us are familiar with what it looks like when someone we know is living beyond their means. Expensive vacations, meals, or possessions pile up, accompanied by a veritable mountain of credit card debt. People fall into the horrible habit of paying one credit card off with another and get punished by punitive credit card interest rates.
If someone lives beyond their means for years, they may never be able to retire. Only frantic work keeps them just ahead of the tsunami of debt.
People living beyond their means often have a higher material standard of living then their friends. They have a nicer house, nicer cars, take nicer vacations and eat out more. But they tend to be more stressed out. Every month they have to figure out how to make ends meet.
For people who like possessions and don’t mind stress, it can be...
Oct 16, 2017 in Politics
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita… ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’” – J Robert Oppenheimer, on the reaction to the successful test of the first atomic bomb.
Sep 17, 2017 in Literature
Fittingly enough, The Second Shift is the second book I’ve read by the famed sociologist Professor Arlie Russel Hochschild. It’s a book about the second working shift – the one that starts when people, especially parents, come home from work and find themselves confronted with a mound of chores.
I really liked this book. It’s one of the most interesting things I’ve read this year and I’ve regaled everyone who will listen with facts from it for the past few weeks. Now I’m taking that regaling online. I’m not going to do a full summary of it because I think a lot of its ideas have entered the cultural consciousness; it’s well known that women continue to do the majority of work at home and have less time for leisure than men and this popular comic about mental load summarizes that section of the book better than I ever...
Sep 12, 2017 in Literature, Science
I recently read The Singularity is Near as part of a book club and figured a few other people might benefit from hearing what I got out of it.
First – it was a useful book. I shed a lot of my skepticism of the singularity as I read it. My mindset has shifted from “a lot of this seems impossible” to “some of this seems impossible, but a lot of it is just incredibly hard engineering”. But that’s because I stuck with it – something that probably wouldn’t have happened without the structure of a book club.
I’m not sure Kurzweil is actually the right author for this message. Accelerando (by Charles Stross) covered much of the same material as Singularity, while being incredibly engaging. Kurzweil’s writing is technically fine – he can string a sentence together and he’s clear – but incredibly repetitious. If you read the introduction,...
Sep 3, 2017 in Politics
I’ve been ranting to random people all week about how much I love the Westminster System of parliamentary government (most notably used in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK) and figured it was about time to write my rant down for broader consumption.
Here’s three reasons why the Westminster System is so much better than the abominable hodgepodge Americans call a government and all the other dysfunctional presidential republics the world over.
And more importantly, the head of state is a figurehead.
The president is an odd dual-role, both head of government (and therefore responsible for running the executive branch and implementing the policies of the government) and head of state (the face of the nation at home and abroad; the person who is supposed to serve as a symbol of national...
Aug 27, 2017 in Economics, Politics
It used to be a common progressive grumbling point that the social safety net subsidized the low wages of McDonald’s and Walmart (and many less famous and less oft grumbled about enterprises). The logic went that employees at those companies just weren’t paid enough; they wouldn’t be able to survive – a necessary prerequisite to showing up at work – without government assistance. The obvious fix for this would be forcing these companies to pay their employees more – raising the minimum wage.
In my last piece on the minimum wage, I said the existing evidence pointed towards minimum wage hikes having few negative consequences. Recent evidence from Seattle suggests this may not be the case (although there are dueling studies, further complicated by accusations of academic misconduct against the scientists who found the hike had no effect). If my...
Aug 21, 2017 in Ethics, Philosophy
The nagging question that both halves of Utilitarianism for and against left me with is: “can utilitarianism exist without veering off into total assessment?”
Total assessment is the direct comparison of all the consequences of different actions. It is not so much a prediction that an individual can make as it is the providence of an omniscient god. If you cannot perfectly predict all of the future, you cannot perform a total assessment. It’s conceptually useful – whenever a utilitarian is backed into a corner, they can fall on total assessment as their decision-making tool – but it’s practically useless.
Absent total assessment, utilitarians kind of have to make their best guess and go with it. Even my beloved precedent utilitarianism isn’t much help here; precedent utilitarianism focuses on a class of consequences that traditional utilitarianism can miss. It does...
Aug 13, 2017 in All About Me
This will be a ramble.
I’ve managed to break my arm. Injuries – by necessitating a convalescence – can quickly become an opportunity to reflect. I have a lot to reflect on.
I don’t want to say that (temporarily) losing the use of my arm has given me empathy for those who go about life one handed. That supposed empathy can become a type of mockery. Disability isn’t a costume to try on for a few weeks.
My left hand was never as functional as my right. My left thumb is not truly opposable. Over the years I’ve come up with so many workarounds that I almost forget. It comes up only when I must try new things; when I tie strange knots, or eat with fancy utensils. My thumb has taught me that you cannot compare a cast to a disability. A...
Aug 6, 2017 in Model, Politics, Quick Fix
Previously, I talked about akrasia as one motive for socially conservative legislation. I think the akrasia model is useful when explaining certain classes of seemingly hypocritical behaviour, but it’s far from the only reason for social conservatives to push for legislation that liberals oppose. At least some legislation comes from a desire to force socially conservative values on everyone1.
Liberals are terrible at understanding the values underlying conservative legislation. When an anti-abortion single issue voter took a reproductive rights seminar at Yale, he was surprised to hear that many of his classmates believed that anti-abortion laws were aimed entirely at controlling women’s sexuality, rather than stopping the (to his eyes) moral crime of abortion2.
This is an easy mistake to make. It’s true...
Jul 30, 2017 in Model, Politics
If you hang out with people obsessed with self-improvement, one term that you’ll hear a lot is akrasia. A dictionary will tell you that akrasia means “The state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgement through weakness of will.”
Someone who struggles with it will have more visceral stories. “It’s like someone else is controlling me, leaving me powerless to stop watching Netflix” is one I’ve often heard. Or “I know that scrolling through Facebook for five hours is against my goals, but I just can’t help myself”.
I use commitment contracts (I agree to pay a friend a certain amount of money if I don’t do a certain things) or Beeminder (a service that charges me money if I fail to meet my goals) to manage my akrasia. Many of my friends do the same thing. Having to face...
Jul 27, 2017 in Economics, Model, Politics
Breaking news: a retired mechanic spent one afternoon and $550 building a staircase. This is news because the City of Toronto said it would cost $65,000 for them to do it. They’ve since walked back that estimate, claiming it won’t be that expensive (instead, the final cost looks to be a mere $10,000).
Part of this is materials and labour. The city will probably go for something a bit more permeant than wood – probably concrete or metal – and will probably have higher labour costs (the mechanic hired a random guy off the street to help out, which is probably against city procurement policy). But a decent part (perhaps even the majority) of the increased costs will be driven by regulation.
First there’s the obvious compliance activities: site assessment, community consultation, engineering approval, insurance approval. Each of these will take the...
Jul 23, 2017 in Literature, Politics
My latest non-fiction read was Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. In addition to making me consider a career in political consultancy, it gave me a welcome insight into some of the fascinating choices the Clinton campaign made during the election.
I really do believe this book was going to rip on the campaign no matter the outcome. Had Clinton won, the thesis would have been “the race was closer than it needed to be”, not “Clinton’s campaign was brilliant”.
Despite that, I should give the classic disclaimer: I could be wrong about the authors; it’s entirely possible that...
Jul 19, 2017 in Economics, Model, Politics
There are two sides to every story. Zoning and maximum occupancy regulations are exclusionary and drive up the price of housing. They are also necessary to prevent exploitative landlords from leaving their tenants in squalor. Catastrophic health insurance plans leave patients uncovered for many of the services they might need. They’re also often the only plans that are rational for younger people to buy.
Where you come down on either of these – or any similar cases where there’s a clear trade-off between maximum access and minimum standards – is probably heavily dependent on your situation. If you’re an American millennial without an employer-provided or parental health care plan, you’re probably quite incensed about the lack of catastrophic health care insurance. For healthy young adults, those plans were an excellent deal.
Similarly, workaholics in the Bay Area sometimes want to...
Jul 16, 2017 in Ethics, Literature, Philosophy
Three weeks ago, I reviewed the first half of Utilitarianism for and against. This week I’ll be reviewing the second half, the against side. I should note that I’m a utilitarian and therefore likely to be biased against the arguments presented here. If my criticism is rather thicker than last week, it is not because the author of the second essay is any worse than the first.
The author is one Sir Bernard Williams. According to his Wikipedia, he was a particularly humanistic philosopher in the old Greek mode. He was skeptical of attempts to build an analytical foundation for moral philosophy and of his own prowess in arguments. It seems that he had something pithy or cutting to say about everything, which made him notably cautious of pithy or clever answers. He’s also described as a proto-feminist, although you wouldn’t...
Jul 3, 2017 in Model, Politics
There is perennial debate in Canada about whether we should allow a “two-tiered” healthcare system. The debate is a bit confusing – by many measures we already have a two-tiered system, with private clinics and private insurance – but ultimately hinges on the ability of doctors to mix fees. Currently it is illegal for a doctor to charge anything on top of the provincially mandated fee structure. If the province is willing to pay $3,000 for a procedure, you cannot charge $5,000 and ask your patients (or their insurance) to make up the difference.
Supporters of a mixed system argue that it will alleviate wait times for everyone. Detractors argue that it will create a cumbersome, unfair system and paradoxically increase wait times. It’s enough to convince me that I don’t know what the fuck a two-tier healthcare system would have as its first order effects.
Jun 25, 2017 in Ethics, Literature, Philosophy
Utilitarianism for and against is an interesting little book. It’s comprised of back-to-back ~70 page essays, one in favour of utilitarianism and one opposed. As an overview, it’s hard to beat something like this. You don’t have to rely on one scholar to give you her (ostensibly fair and balanced) opinion; you get two articulate philosophers arguing their side as best they can. Fair and balanced is by necessity left as an exercise to the reader (honestly, it always is; here at least it’s explicit).
I’m going to cover the “for” side first. The “against” side will be in later blog post. Both reviews are going to assume that you have some understanding of utilitarianism. If you don’t, go read my primer. Or be prepared to Google. I should also mention that I have no aspirations of being balanced myself. I’m a utilitarian; I had much more to disagree...
Jun 19, 2017 in Advice, Literature
I identify so strongly as a person who writes daily that I sometimes find myself bowled over by the fact that I haven’t always done it.
Since my first attempt to write a novel (at age 13), I’ve known that I really enjoy writing. The problem was that I could never really get myself to write. I managed the occasional short story for a contest and I pulled off NaNoWriMo when I was 20, but even after that, writing remained something that happened almost at random. Even when I had something I really wanted to write it was a toss-up as to whether I would be able to sit down and get it on a page.
This continued for a while. Up until January 1st, 2015, I had written maybe 100,000 words. Since then, I’ve written something like 650,000. If your first million words suck – as is commonly...
Jun 11, 2017 in Science
Do you want to understand how the material world works at the most fundamental level? Great! There’s a tool for that. Or a method. Or a collection of knowledge. “Science” is an amorphous concept, hard to pin down or put into a box. Is science the method of hypothesis generation and testing? Is it as Popper claimed, asking falsifiable questions and trying to refute your own theories? Is it inextricably entangled with the ream of statistical methods that have grown up in service of it? Or is it the body of knowledge that has emerged from the use of all of these intellectual tools?
I’m not sure what exactly science is. Whatever its definition, I feel like it helps me understand the world. Even still I have to remind myself that caring about science is like caring about a partner in a marriage. You need to be with it in...
Jun 5, 2017 in Ethics, Philosophy
I’m a person who sometimes reads about ethics. I blame Catholicism. In Catholic school, you have to take a series of religion courses. The first two are boring. Jesus loves you, is your friend, etc. Thanks school. I got that from going to church all my life. But the later religion classes were some of the most useful courses I’ve taken. Ever. The first was world religions. Thanks to that course, “how do you know that about [my religion]?” is a thing I’ve heard many times.
The second course was about ethics, biblical analysis, and apologetics. The ethics part hit me the hardest. I’d always loved systematizing and here I was exposed to Very Important Philosophy People engaged in the millennia long project of systematizing fundamental questions of right and wrong under awesome sounding names, like “utilitarianism” and...
Jun 3, 2017 in Economics, Politics
ETA (October 2018): Preliminary studies from Seattle make me much more pessimistic about the effects of the Ontario minimum wage hike. I’d also like to highlight the potential for problems when linking a minimum wage to inflation.
There’s something missing from the discussion about the $15/hour minimum wage in Ontario, something basically every news organization has failed to pick up on. I’d have missed it too, except that a chance connection to a recent blog post I’d read sent me down the right rabbit hole. I’ve climbed out on the back of a mound of government statistics and I really want to share what I’ve found.
Reading through the coverage of the proposed $15/hour minimum wage, I was reminded that the Ontario minimum wage is currently indexed to inflation. Before #FightFor15 really took...
Jun 3, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Quick Fix
I predict that within five years of the implementation of the new $15/hour Ontario minimum wage, we’ll see an increase in the labour participation rates of women and a decrease in the labour participation rates of people with disabilities or developmental delays.
May 31, 2017 in All About Me, Politics
Like many others who are a bit, um, obsessive when it comes to politics, I’ve long been a fan of the Political Compass. Most people are familiar with the differences between left wing redistributive and right wing capitalist politics. The observation underlying the Political Compass is that these aren’t the only salient axes of political disagreement.
In addition to the standard left-right economic disagreement, the Political Compass looks at the disagreements between libertarians and authoritarians. This second axis deals with the amount of social restrictions (or, from the other point of view, mandated social cohesiveness) a government imposes on its citizens.
The Political Compass breaks political parties (and the political views of individuals) into four quadrants: the authoritarian left (think centralized communism, e.g. Mao, Stalin), the authoritarian right (think socially conservative capitalism, e.g. Reagan, Thatcher), the libertarian right (think socially permissive capitalism e.g. Macron, Gary Johnson), and the libertarian...
May 30, 2017 in Model, Politics, Quick Fix
I’d like to expand on one of the points I raised yesterday about Canadian social conservatives and the sorts of things they can expect from Andrew Scheer, because I think the Canadian approach to “family values” conservatism is desperately under-theorized.
Yesterday I claimed that the main way that Harper pushed so-called family values was through economic incentives to have a 1950s-style nuclear family. Both income splitting and the Universal Child Care Benefit were designed to make it more feasible to have a single income family.
This is a radically different tack than taken by American family values candidates, who primarily exercise their beliefs by banning sex education, fighting against gay marriage and adoption, and restricting access to abortion1. The American approach attempts to close off all alternatives but a heterosexual, monogamous, child-producing marriage. The Canadian approach is to bribe people into this (and to...
May 28, 2017 in Politics
Yesterday generic conservative Andrew Scheer was crowned leader of the Conservative Party of Canada in a nail-biting 14 ballot process. His margin of victory over the libertarian Maxime Bernier was less than 2%.
Reuters managed to get pretty much everything about this story subtly wrong, from the number of votes political observers expected – by the final week, most of us remembered that there were so many low support candidates that it would probably go to the very final ballot – to Scheer’s position in the party. Reuters has Scheer pegged as a social conservative, whereas people watching the race were much more likely to describe him as the compromise candidate.
The Conservative Leadership race was one of the high points of my engagement in Canadian politics. I haven’t been this engaged since the 2011 election (I was out of country for the 2015 election which limited my involvement...
May 20, 2017 in Literature, Politics
I just finished Professor Arlie Hochschild’s latest book, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”, a book some people are trumpeting as the one that explains Trump.
That wasn’t exactly how I read the book. I think Trump’s win is well explained by some combination of the “fundamentals” and the Comey Letter just before the election. I’m also wary of falling into the trap of drawing conclusions about America because Trump won. The result of the election could have been changed by dozens of random events. I’m following Scott Alexander’s advice and not basing my narratives off of which potential events happened to actually happen.
Besides, Trump is barely even in this book. He only appears in any substantive way in the last chapter and Prof. Hochschild doesn’t devote much ink to him. If you’re using this book to explain Trump, you’re...
May 13, 2017 in Biology, Politics
If you don’t live in Southern Ontario or don’t hang out in the skeptic blogosphere, you will probably have never heard the stories I’m going to tell today. There are two of, both about young Ontarian girls. One story has a happier ending than the other.
First is Makayla Sault. She died two years ago, from complications of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She was 11. Had she completed a full course of chemotherapy, there is a 75% chance that she would be alive today.
She did not complete a full course of chemotherapy.
Instead, after 12-weeks of therapy, she and her parents decided to seek so-called “holistic” treatment at the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida, as well as traditional indigenous treatments. . This decision killed her. With chemotherapy, she had a good chance of surviving. Without it…
There is no traditional wisdom that offers anything against cancer. There is no...
May 7, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Quick Fix
A friend asked me what I thought about the candidates in the leadership race for the Conservative Party of Canada. I found I had more to say than was strictly reasonable to post in a Facebook comment. I posted it anyway – because I’m sometimes unreasonable – but I found I also wanted to record my thoughts in a more organized manner that’s easier to link to.
Right now, I think there are a few meaningful ways to split up the candidates. You can split them up based on what block of the party they represent.
The way I see it, you have:
It might be possible to collapse these categories a bit; unobjectionable compromise candidates and Harper clones don’t have that much difference between them, for example. But I think I’m clustering based on salient differences in what the candidates are choosing to highlight, even when their policy positions or voting records are very similar.
Apr 30, 2017 in Model, Physics, Science
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...
Apr 26, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Quick Fix
Back in February, I predicted that the slew of scandals Trudeau was facing wouldn’t decrease his approval ratings. To put numbers on this, I gave my confidence intervals for Trudeau’s approval ratings in April.
Thanks to the “Leader Meter”, it’s easy for me to check up on how Trudeau is doing. As of right now, the most recent poll has him at 48% approval (this is conveniently the first poll since April 1st, making it useful for the purposes of checking my prediction), while Éric Grenier’s model has him at 50.6% approval.
Both of these are within all three probability intervals I offered. In addition, Trudeau was polling higher in March than he was in February, further evidence that the scandals in February (and the abandonment of electoral reform) haven’t hurt his popularity.
I continue to believe that the erosion of political norms around scandals during Steven Harper’s time in office has played a large role in Trudeau’s enduring popularity.
Apr 6, 2017 in Economics, Model, Politics, Quick Fix
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...
Mar 29, 2017 in Economics, Model
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.
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...
Mar 16, 2017 in Philosophy
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.
Can God create a rock so large that he himself cannot lift it?
Mar 12, 2017 in History, Literature, Politics
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan is the second book I’ve read about World War II and culpability. I apparently just can’t resist the urge to write essays after books like this, so here we go again. Since so much of what I got out of this book was spurred by the history it presented, I’m going to try and intersperse my thoughts with a condensed summary of it.
Aside from the prologue, which takes place just after Hirohito’s (arguably) extra-constitutional surrender, the book follows Hirohito’s life chronologically. Hirohito’s childhood was hardly idyllic. He spent most of it being educated. Meiji Era Japan drew heavily from Prussia and in Hirohito’s education, I saw an attempt to mold him into a Japanese Frederick the Great.
I think Dr. Bix is right to spend as much time on Hirohito’s childhood as he does. Lois McMaster Bujold once criticized authors who write...
Feb 24, 2017 in Falsifiable, Literature, Model, Science
I just finished Pump Six, a collection of short stories by Paolo Bacigalupi. A few weeks prior to this, I read Ted Chiang’s short story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others and I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between them. Ted Chiang writes stories about different ways the world could work. Paolo Bacigalupi writes stories about different ways the future could happen.
These are two very different sorts of speculation. The first requires extreme attention to detail in order to make the setting plausible, but once you clear that bar, you can get away with anything. Ted Chiang is clearly a master at this. I couldn’t find any inconsistencies to pick at in any of his stories.
When you try to predict the future – especially the near future – you don’t need to make up a world out of whole cloth. Here...
Feb 22, 2017 in Model, Politics
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...
Feb 20, 2017 in Data Science, Politics
The other day, I posed a question to my friends on Facebook:
Do you think countries with higher taxes see more charitable donations or fewer charitable donations? What sort of correlation would you expect between the two (weak positive? weak negative? strong positive? strong negative?). I just crunched some numbers and I'll post them later. First I want to give people a chance to guess and test their calibration.
I was doing research for a future blog post on libertarianism and wanted to check one of the fundamental assumptions that many libertarians make: in the absence of a government, private charity would provide many of the same social services that are currently provided by the government.
Feb 14, 2017 in Ethics, Politics, Quick Fix
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...
Feb 12, 2017 in Politics, Science
In an effort to make my nuclear weapons post series a one stop resource for anyone interested in getting up to speed on nuclear weapons, I’ve decided to add supplementary materials filling any gaps that are pointed out to me. This supplementary post is on laser enrichment.
Enrichment is one of the more difficult steps in the building of certain nuclear weapons. Currently, enrichment is accomplished through banks of hundreds or thousands of centrifuges, feeding their products forward towards higher and higher enrichment percentages.
Significant centrifuge plants are relatively big (the Natanz plant in Iran covers 100,000m2, for example) and require a large and consistent supply of energy, which often makes it possible spot them in satellite imagery. The centrifuges themselves require a recognizable combination of components, which are carefully monitored. If a nation were to suddenly buy up components implicated in centrifuge design, it would clearly signal...
Feb 7, 2017 in Model, Politics
There is an interesting post by Professor Bryan Caplan spinning limited government as an insurance policy against wild swings in political climate. You should go read the whole thing, but I’ll summarize for the lazy.
Professor Caplan makes his case using a thought experiment with an angel. This angel talks to you during Obama’s inauguration and offers you a bargain. The terms are simple If you accept, neither Obama nor Trump will be able to get much done. You trade away Obamacare and in exchange you don’t get Trump’s immigration policies. Professor Caplan frames this as a form of political insurance, a guarantee of mediocracy instead of potentially wild swings.
Professor Caplan points out that this insurance (which might be sounding pretty tempting to you right about now) is actually similar to the concept of limited government, something we already know how to achieve.
Feb 6, 2017 in Model, Politics
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rang in 2017 with an ethics scandal. Electoral reform and President Trump might have pushed it out of the news, but it still bears talking about.
Maybe it’s just that my memory is fuzzy before 2004, but I feel like there was a point in Canadian politics when scandals weren’t a run of the mill occurrence. It seems like we’ve been treated to a non-stop parade of them since the sponsorship scandal. There was the In-and-Out scandal, that time Maxime Bernier left classified documents with his Hell’s Angels girlfriend, that horrible mess with Afghan detainees, the Robocalls (and associated criminal charges!), the F-35s, the senate, and now the Aga Khan.
There’s also been a host of minor scandals that didn’t even make it into this list, like the $50 million of G8 money spent to make Tony Clement’s...
Feb 3, 2017 in Advice, Software
Cast: The Hare (interviewer #1), The Coyote (interviewer #2), and The Tortoise (interviewee).
Hare: Okay, that wraps up the technical portion of the interview. Now we want to ask you some lateral thinking questions.
Tortoise: Lateral thinking questions?
Coyote: You know, questions that challenge your ability to come up with non-obvious solutions? Or when you find a solution by throwing out all your assumptions? Here at Acme Corp., we pride ourselves in coming up creative solutions to problems.
Hare: We’ll start off easy1. Acting on an anonymous phone call, the police raid a house to arrest a suspected murderer. They don’t know what he looks like but they know his name is John and that he is inside the house. The police bust in on a carpenter, a lorry driver, a mechanic and a fireman all playing poker. Without hesitation or communication of...
Jan 31, 2017 in History, Model, Politics
Yonatan Zunger has an article in Medium claiming that the immigration executive order from last Friday is the “trial balloon” for a planned Trump coup. I don’t think this is quite correct. While I no longer have much confidence that America will still be a democracy in 50 years, I don’t think Trump will be its first dictator.
I do think the first five points in Dr. Zunger’s analysis are fairly sound. I’m not sure if they are true, but they’re certainly plausible. It is true, for example, that it is unusual to file papers for re-election so quickly. Barack Obama didn’t file his re-election form until 2011. Whether this means that Trump will use campaign donations to enrich his family remains to be seen, but the necessary public disclosures of campaign expenses make this falsifiable. Give it a year and we’ll know.
Unfortunately, the 6th point is much...
Jan 29, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
Nuclear weapons represent an existential risk. I’ll let 80,000 Hours speak for me for a minute:
A survey of academics at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference by Oxford University estimated a 1% chance of human extinction from nuclear wars over the 21st Century. … Luke Oman estimates the probability “for the global human population of zero resulting from the 150 Tg of black carbon scenario in our 2007 paper [delving into the effects of a single nuclear exchange] would be in the range of 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 100,000.” This being said, we think this estimate is too low, as it doesn’t account for the potential for weaknesses in their model or the risk of a societal collapse causing a permanent reduction in humanity’s ability to reach its potential (which is nonetheless an existential risk even if people remain).
If you’re interested in reducing the existential risk...
Jan 28, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
Having covered the practicalities of nuclear physics, nuclear weapon design, and nuclear weapon effects, we may now turn our attention to the strategies that have grown out of these physical realities.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of nuclear weapons – tactical and strategic. This post has been focused primarily on strategic nuclear weapons, high yield weapons capable of destroying cities and hardened targets. Tactical nuclear weapons have smaller yields, allowing them to be hypothetically used on a battlefield that contains friendlies.
The line between the two gets somewhat blurred with the highest yield tactical weapons. Is a 5kt bomb tactical or strategic? No one really has a clear answer. These already crystal clear waters get muddied further when you add in “dial-a-yield” weapons, which can yield anywhere from <1kt to ~100kt. On the low end, they’re definitely tactical. But at the high end,...
Jan 27, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
All the nukes in the world are useless unless you have a way to get them to their targets. Aside from outlandish and potentially suicidal methods like suitcase nukes or nuclear artillery, there are three main ways of doing this: bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
The only nuclear weapons ever used in anger were delivered by B-29 bombers, the Enola Gay and the Bockscar. Because the Allies had attained near total air-superiority over Japan at the time of the bombings, it was possible for these bombers to go in without any real escort. They were accompanied only by weather reconnaissance and observation planes.
In a modern nuclear exchange, total air superiority would probably be required for a country to be able to openly deliver a bomb. If a nuclear bombing is attempted with anything less than total superiority, the attacker can...
Jan 27, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
To understand the effects of nuclear weapons, you first need to understand how those effects scale with weapon yield.
Modern bombs are much smaller than the Tsar Bomba. The standard US nuclear warhead, the W88, is a “mere” 475kt, a yield that is 100x less than that of the Tsar Bomba. On the other hand, the W88 weighs in at 360kg, 75x lighter.
This may seem like a poor trade, but it’s actually a very good one, due to the fundamental properties of explosive scaling. Scaling factors are very important to weapons. They determine the stable equilibriums that designs fall into. For example: we have tanks instead of mechs because strength scaling and mass scaling together make tall vehicles very vulnerable to weapons.
Scaling factors for all nuclear weapon effects (the fireball, the shock wave, and electromagnetic radiation) are different, but we can use the scaling factor...
Jan 26, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
The last section required that you take it on faith that nuclear weapons are hard to design. Now it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty details of weapon design and understand why that is.
Nuclear explosions require a critical mass of the right unstable isotope. But there’s no safe way to store an assembled critical mass. As soon as you get to the critical mass, the chain reaction starts and an explosion will occur without drastic countermeasures.
All nuclear weapon design ultimately starts with this problem of assembling a critical mass in situ (and only ever in situ).
The first atomic bombs used one of two methods: gun assembly or implosion. These methods are still used to this day in fission weapons or in the fission first stage of multiple stage weapons.
Jan 25, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
There are currently nine countries with acknowledged or suspected nuclear arsenals. Five of them are signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the main international treaty aimed at minimizing the number of nuclear armed states. Ideally, no country or group would have nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world; the NPT is maybe the next best thing.
The NPT acknowledges the right of the permeant UN Security Council members (UK, USA, France, China, and Russia) to possess nuclear weapons even as it bans anyone else from getting (or trying to get) them. The remainder of the nuclear armed states (Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea) haven’t signed on to NPT or signed and later withdrew from it. South Sudan also isn’t a signatory of the NPT – I think they just haven’t gotten around to it – but no one is particularly worried about that (for reasons that...
Jan 24, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
For this to all make sense, we should start with a brief review of atomic theory.
All matter is made up of atoms. Atoms have an outer shell of negatively charged electrons (more accurate descriptions exist, but I’m not going to delve into them; throughout this section I’m going to use simplified models wherever they’ll do the topic justice) and an inner core containing uncharged neutrons and positively charged protons.
The number of protons in an atom determines which element the atom is. All atoms with two protons are helium, all atoms with six protons are carbon, and so on. Much of the time, elements will have the same number of electrons as they have protons, so that the charges cancel each other out. Forms of elements with differing numbers of electrons are called ions. Ionization is a very common phenomenon. You observe it whenever you see lightning or dissolve...
Jan 23, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
With President Trump in possession of the nuclear launch codes, I have a feeling that many people who’ve neglected nuclear weapons as an important cause area may begin to sit up and take notice. This is a good thing. There currently exist basically no checks and balances on a US President’s ability to go to nuclear war. Harold Hering was cashiered from the Air Force in 1973 after asking (on the subject of nuclear weapons launch) “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?”. Nothing has changed since then.
This post series is meant as a non-exhaustive primer on the (declassified) physical and strategic realities of nuclear weapons. It’s supposed to get you up to the point where you can begin asking the right questions in a relatively short time period. If you want more information, I’ve included relevant...
Jan 22, 2017 in History, Literature
I just finished reading SPQR, by Professor Mary Beard. As a history of Rome, it’s the opposite of what I expected. It spends little time on individual deeds; there is no great man history here. More shocking, there is very little military history. As part of an audience taught to expect the history of Rome to be synonymous with the history of its military, I was shocked.
This book is perhaps best understood as a conversation with Romans masquerading as a political and social history of Rome. Prof. Beard sums this up in her epilogue: “I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans… but I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn – as much about ourselves as about the past – by engaging with the history of the Romans.”
Jan 21, 2017 in Politics
Note: A previous version of this post referred to Kellie Leitch as “Ms. Leitch” instead of “Dr. Leitch”. I don’t know how I forgot she was a doctor, but I’m deeply sorry that I did.
Nick Kouvalis (campaign manager for Canada’s cheap knock off demagogue, Kellie Leitch) bragged in Macleans1 about how he’s deliberately spreading “fake news” on Twitter to help him identify liberals who are joining the Conservative party to vote against Kellie Leitch.
“We call it Operation Flytrap,” Kouvalis says. “We did it knowing that people who aren’t real Conservatives can’t help themselves, so they post something negative about me, or Kellie. Some of them use real names. We find out who they are, and check them against the membership list. I’m going to challenge as many as I can.”
But there are further layers of dishonesty going on here....
Jan 21, 2017 in Politics, Quick Fix
Jan 8, 2017 in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics
Remember Horseshoe Theory? It’s the observation that in many ways, the extremist wings of political movements resemble each other more than centrists or their more moderate brethren. We see this in anti-Semitism, for example. In any given week this year, you’re about as likely to see anti-Semitism come from Stormfront… or the British Labour Party.
I’ve been thinking about horseshoe theory in light of another issue: the police. Let me explain.
Like most denizens of the internet, I’ve been exposed to libertarians of various persuasions. One common complaint I’ve seen among these libertarians is a belief that the state has an illegitimate monopoly on violence. This is most frequently bundled with calls to abolish the police in specific and government in general. Now I see calls to abolish the police coming from the left.
I disagree strongly with calls to abolish the police. It’s not that...
Jan 1, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics
In the vein of Slate Star Codex, I’d like to publicly post my predictions for 2017. I’ve tried to tie these predictions to empirically verifiable outcomes as much as possible, so that there’s no room for interpretation or wiggling. I’ve also included my confidence in my predictions (all predictions are formulated so confidence is at least 50%) so that I can check my calibration as well as my accuracy. If you can think of a better formulation of any of these that maintains the meaning, please let me know before January 7th. I will not edit this post at all after then, even to correct typos.
Dec 8, 2016 in Politics
This is the final post in my public safety green paper consultation project. This time around, I’ll be focusing on just the questions dealing with secret and classified evidence.
This section is a mixed bag. I think lawyers with security clearances are a great idea (although I have nagging worries about access to them; for all its potential for abuse, at least the special advocate program is free), but I’m deeply creeped out by the concept of classified evidence. It feels fundamentally at odds with a free and democratic society.
I recognize that I’m coming from a place of feeling safe. Terrorism doesn’t feel like much of a threat to me. I care far more about democratic values than the small chance of dying a really horrible death. I even care more about democratic values than the small chance of my loved ones dying horrible deaths. But I understand that other people make that...
Dec 6, 2016 in Politics
This is a special edition of my public safety green paper consultation project. This time around, I’ll be focusing on just the questions dealing with digital investigations, encryption, etc. It’s all one section on the consultation website.
In contrast to many of the other sections, where I felt that the questions were leading in a positive direction, I’m deeply worried with where the government wants to go with digital investigative powers. I feel like there’s a fundamental disconnect between how the government thinks online security and encryption works and how they actually works. I hope that others who understand the value of encryption can join with me in voicing our fears to the government.
Dec 6, 2016 in Politics
The Canadian government is currently reviewing the national security framework and is soliciting public comment. I’ve decided to post my comments publicly, in the hopes of spurring discussion and providing model comments for others to riff off of.
If you care about limiting government spy powers and government accountability, I urge you to read the Green Papers and comment yourself.
In Part 3, I cover Procedures for Listing Terrorist Entities and Terrorist Financing.
I noticed that the listing process doesn’t officially include an arms embargo, which seems to be required under UNSC Resolution 2253. I assume that the legislation listed as stemming from UNSC Resolution 2253 included an arms embargo, but it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to automatically forbid Canadian companies and citizens from selling any arms or military equipment to any entity listed through the...
Dec 4, 2016 in Politics
The Canadian government is currently reviewing the national security framework and is soliciting public comment. I’ve decided to post my comments publicly, in the hopes of spurring discussion and providing model comments for others to riff off of.
If you care about limiting government spy powers and government accountability, I urge you to read the Green Papers and comment yourself.
In Part 2, I cover Information Sharing, The Passenger Protect Program, and Criminal Code Terrorism Measures.
One person’s lawful protest is another person’s riot. Whether protestors are given sympathetic treatment or labelled as an unruly mob often depends on...
Dec 4, 2016 in Politics
The Canadian government is currently reviewing the national security framework and is soliciting public comment. I’ve decided to post my comments publicly, in the hopes of spurring discussion and providing model comments for others to riff off of.
If you care about limiting government spy powers and government accountability, I urge you to read the Green Papers and comment yourself.
In Part 1, I cover Accountability, Prevention, and Threat Reduction.
Yes. The recent revelations about metadata collection show that oversight bodies need to be strengthened. In addition, it may be very useful for review bodies to be allowed (and required) to do some amount of independent investigation, without having to wait for a complaint to be made. Preventative audits of our national security services would help increase Canadian’s faith...
Nov 23, 2016 in Advice, Ethics, Politics
A couple months ago, I wrote of Kellie Leitch:
I remain genuinely unsure what Kellie Leitch’s goal is. I went into this blog convinced she was another hypocrite who was only using queer Canadians when it suited her racists agenda. And yet, she voted yea to Bill 279 (to treat gender identity as a protected class) despite almost every single one of her cabinet colleagues opposing it. She does appear to have a principled and reasonably long standing support for queer rights. She voted the party line on whipped bills (as does basically every MP in Canada), but when she’s allowed to vote her conscience, we see that it is rather different than many of the other Conservatives. She may be a political opportunist who can sense which way the wind blows. Or she may be trying to change the conservatives from within.
I spent weeks wondering: is Dr. Leitch just a political opportunist, or is she driven by real (albeit misguided) principles?
Nov 21, 2016 in Advice, Software
I graduated from the University of Waterloo with a degree in Honours Nanotechnology Engineering in 2015. Like all engineering programs at UW, this is a coop program. Over the course of four coop terms, I submitted over a hundred resumes and did about 20 interviews.
After I dropped out of graduate school, moved back to Waterloo, and got a job at Alert Labs I suddenly found myself on the other side of equations. I’ve now had a chance to interview students and look at resumes. Hundreds of resumes. Do you know what looking at 200 resumes in a day does to a person? It’s not pretty.
Looking through all these resumes, I was struck by a bunch of self-defeating things that students did. Some of them I remembered doing myself. The double vision was… enlightening. I considered posting an angry anonymous rant on the UW subreddit, but with some...
Oct 26, 2016 in Literature, Model
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.
Imagine you ask me to tell you a story and I start with these famous six...
Oct 17, 2016 in Ethics, Philosophy
When I first heard about deontology, I was intrigued. Here was an ethical system that could break you, if you weren’t careful. I was young and hadn’t really systematized my morality yet, but I dearly wanted to. I’d just learned about the stages of moral development and I felt a keen need to be at Kohlberg VI.
Time passed and I forgot that systematizing was a goal of mine. While I aimed for consistency across my moral principles, I did this largely blindly, lacking a single meta-principle to guide me.
Last year, I read Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil, the (in)famous book by Hannah Arendt. The only ethics mentioned in the book is Kantian and Arendt herself is hard to pigeonhole into any one system. But reading the book set my mind afire. By the time I finished it, I...
Sep 30, 2016 in Ethics, Philosophy
To answer that question, you have to think about another, namely: “what makes an action right?”
Is it the outcome? The intent? What is a good intent or a good outcome?
Kantian deontologists have pithy slogans like: “ I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law” or “an action is morally right if done for duty and in accordance to duty.
Virtue ethicists have a rich philosophical tradition that dates back (in Western philosophy) to Plato and Aristotle.
And utilitarians have math.
Utilitarianism is a subset of consequentialism. Consequentialism is the belief that only the effects of an action matter. This belief lends itself equally well to selfish and universal ethical systems.
When choosing between two actions, selfish consequentialist (philosophers and ethicists would call such a person an egoist) would say...
Sep 3, 2016 in Falsifiable, Politics
Note: A previous version of this post referred to Kellie Leitch as “Ms. Leitch” instead of “Dr. Leitch”. I don’t know how I forgot she was a doctor, but I’m deeply sorry that I did.
Kellie Leitch recently put out a survey that asked potential Conservative voters “should the Canadian Government screen potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values as part of its normal screening process for refugees and landed immigrants.” This has proved controversial, to say the least. It’s been described as a dog-whistle and has prompted other candidates to ask her to leave the race.
Dr. Leitch later clarified that she meant immigrants should be screened for: “intolerance towards other religions, cultures and sexual orientations, violent and/or misogynist behaviour and/or a lack of acceptance of our Canadian tradition of personal and economic freedoms”.
I have a lot of conflicted feelings about this. First, I’ve heard Canadian progressives wish...
Aug 18, 2016 in Biology, Falsifiable, Science
There are a lot of living things that are quite good at killing humans. Tigers, anthrax, lions, cows, bears, and other people do away with thousands of us each year.
There are a few non-living things that are also quite good at offing us. Good old water manages to take quite a few. In good years, we don’t lose anyone to the nerve gasses sarin or VX (Unfortunately, the last few years haven’t been good ones in that regard).
What about those liminal critters though? Viruses and prions aren’t really alive in the traditional sense. They can replicate, they can even evolve, but they lack the hallmarks of life, foremost among them the ability to reproduce. Both of them find ways to hijack the machinery of living organisms and use them for their own ends.
These self-replicating patterns and their potential to wipe us out are the subject of this...
Aug 16, 2016 in Falsifiable, Politics
This post is a response to a recent Slate article.
A quick summary: the coup attempt in Turkey, terrorist attacks in France, Brexit in the UK, and rise of Trump in the US are all connected and can be viewed as the four horsemen of the end of liberal democracy. As the last defenders of liberal democracy struggle with the spectre of illiberal democracy (the will of the people unadulterated by any pesky rights for minorities) they throw up roadblocks in the form of undemocratic liberalism (rights for minorities without any of that pesky voting). Defenders of liberalism need to restore the core promise of democracy – that it will lead to ever increasing wealth if we’re to keep the “fact” that no wealthy, consolidated democracy has ever fallen true.
I didn’t buy the theory. I think some of this came from me having factual disagreements with it – Chile...