Saturday, March 24, 2012

Book Review: The Legal Analyst

My main goal in teaching my introductory Economics class is to give students a good set of mental tools for understanding the world. This semester, I had a student who already had a surprisingly good understanding of game theory and questions of knowledge and proof. As we talked after class, he mentioned that he had learned these things from a book assigned for an introductory law class. After I asked about the book, he lent it to me. 

From the minute I started reading The Legal Analyst, I saw that it was consistently excellent. About two-thirds of it was a readable, intuitive, high-quality summary of things I already knew, and the other third was new information that I am very glad to have. After finishing the book, my professional opinion is that it is extraordinarily good. Anyone who studies it will be a much better thinker and citizen.

The Legal Analyst is not just a law textbook. The subtitle is A toolkit for thinking about the law. These should be reversed. The title of the book should be A Toolkit for Thinking and the subtitle should be using examples from the legal system. The book is an excellent overview of a lot of very important things, such as incentives, thinking at the margin, game theory, the social value of rules and standards, heuristics and biases in human thinking, and the tools of rational thinking. It has the best intuitive explanation of Bayes' Theorem I have ever seen, making this incredibly important mental tool available for everyone's use. 

I am very glad that law students are reading The Legal Analyst. They will be much better thinkers as a result. The existence of this book makes me more optimistic about the future of our government and legal system. If the principles outlined here become widely understood, the world will be a better place. This book should be required reading in any course that can get away with assigning it. Anyone who is responsible for writing any kind of regulation or policy, or does economic analysis, needs the information in this book.

The Legal Analyst is a very easy book to read, making it even better from a cost-benefit analysis standpoint. I read it a few chapters a time, in my spare time, without any mental effort required. A great deal of high-quality research has been carefully and expertly summarized in clear, vibrant language.

Anyone who has an interest in understanding how the world works, or becoming a more rational thinker, should read The Legal Analyst.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Movie Review: Artificial Intelligence

Imagine a very bad version of Blade Runner. Now imagine a very bad version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now imagine a slightly better version of Waterworld. Now imagine that random bits of these three awful movies are poured into a sausage grinder, which churns them up and extrudes an oozing mass of incomprehensible nonsense. You would then have something that resembles Artificial Intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence is not simply bad in the way that a SyFy original movie is bad. It is the special unique kind of bad that can only be made by famous and pretentious people who are trying to Send A Message. While watching the movie, I could never stop wondering 'What is Spielberg trying to say here?' and 'Where is he going with this?'. It was this train-wreck fascination that kept me watching.

To share my mental state while I watched Artificial Intelligence, imagine that you have been invited to a special ritual dance of a distant tribe that you have some academic knowledge of. This ritual is clearly important to the tribe; they have put a great deal of effort and expense into it, and many members of the tribe have talked to you about how wonderful, moving, and life-changing the dance is. You decide to share in the ritual, in an attempt to better understand the culture of the tribe.

The dance starts normally enough, and is about what you expected. It seems to be a kind of origin myth that is used to illustrate the tribe's beliefs about the world. But then odd bits of imagery start to show up for reasons that you cannot understand. Stereotyped cartoonish villains appear in a way that has nothing to do with the theme of the story. They seem to be thrown in as a way to mock and belittle the tribe's traditional enemies.

Things start to happen that are almost, but not quite, entirely random. You see vague connections to the other myths and stories of the tribe, but you are increasingly lost and bewildered. You are no longer sure what the message of the dance is supposed to be, even as it becomes increasingly clear that the dance exists for the sole purpose of telling you big important things.

You can tell that the tribal dancers truly believe in the deep meaning of their dance. It is clearly a religious experience for them, but to you it seems to be nothing more than a mash of chaotic imagery. It is no longer enjoyable in any way, but you keep watching out of a vague sense of obligation, and a distant hope that it will start to make sense if you keep watching.

Finally, you think it ends, but then the dance restarts again, and makes even less sense than before. The story loses any sense of coherence and dissolves into a series of random emotional appeals and references to other tribal dances. When it does finally end, you understand the tribe even less than before, you are mad at them for wasting your time, and want nothing more to do with them in the future.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Differential Equations

One of the reasons I chose the intro Economics textbook I use in my class is that they introduce the Solow Growth Model. This is a very simple differential equation model of how economic output and growth depends on the capital stock of a country. It lets you understand the world a lot better and make useful predictions about things like the reaction to a natural disaster, the results of foreign aid, and the expected future growth rate of China.

One of the well-known pitfalls of teaching a general education class is that the students have a wide range of knowledge. This is always apparent when I teach the Solow model. People who have taken a class on differential equations pick it up very quickly and end up bored by my explanation. People who do not know differential equations have real trouble following along and often need extra help.

Today, I departed from my usual question-answer format and spend most of the class explaining the basics of the Solow model, so that they would be able to follow along better when they read it in the book.  After class today, a couple students came to me and said that they did not understand and would probably coming to office hours next week for extra help.

After that, a chemical engineer came up to me and asked, "Does this mean that we will spend the rest of the semester using differential equations to model the economy?". He was clearly excited about the idea of doing so, and disappointed when I told him that this was not the plan.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Nazi Soldiers

Think about what it was like to be a Nazi soldier.

I am not talking about the Waffen-SS, or the death camp guards, or any of the real monsters. I am talking about the ordinary infantry grunts who were drafted into the army to fight a war for their country, and went along with it.

Most of these people had no idea what their government was doing. They probably liked Hitler. Maybe they had been little boys when their parents took them to a rally, and they were happy and excited to join a huge cheering crowd. Maybe they had been in the Hitler Youth, and enjoyed a lot of good times with their friends in the countryside. Maybe they had family who fought in World War 1. They had certainly heard stories about the cruel damage that the Allies had done to Germany after winning that war.

It was easy to believe their government when it told them that fighting for their country a good and noble thing. It was easy to believe that they were protecting their friends and family from the bad people out there who were just waiting to harm them. To them, World War 2 was just another in a long series of European wars that had to be fought to protect their nation. Most of them honestly believed that their Fatherland was being threatened, and that they had a duty to defend it.

My grandfather fought the Nazis in World War 2, in the Italian front. He was captured in 1944 and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. He got along fairly well with the guards and the soldiers there. Everyone knew that they were all just soldiers, doing their jobs. There was no hate. When the war was ending and the Russian army approached the camp, the guards opened the gates and let everyone out. The Germans and Americans both went west to get away from the Russians, and the Russian prisoners went east to rejoin their people.

None of this changes the fact that Nazi soldiers were agents of evil. If they had won their war, a brutal, oppressive, horrific regime would have conquered all of Europe, destroying the lives of millions, and threatening the peace and security of the world. There is a reason we see Nazi soldiers as an embodiment of pure evil. They really were.

It was through inaction, rather than action, that these men became cogs in one of the most dangerous war machines ever created. They did not wake up one day and decide that they would become an embodiment of evil. They allowed themselves to be pulled into an evil system. 

And for this crime, they had to die. It was right and proper for soldiers like my grandfather to kill these Nazis, who in different circumstances might have been their friends. These soldiers had to be cut down on the battlefield, just like rabid dogs must be put down as a threat to humanity.

If we capture Nazi soldiers, and take their guns away, then they become human again, and deserving of human rights. It would be a war crime to murder them, when they can be locked safely away until the end of the war. But while they are armed, while they are attempting to conquer other nations, it is right to see them as inhuman monsters and kill them without mercy.

It is hard to admit that a normal human can be turned into an agent of horrible evil. We want to think that our enemies are naturally bad people. But most of them are no worse than we are.

Ask yourself this question: "What would stop me from becoming a Nazi soldier? If my country was doing something evil, and conscripted me into its army, would I resist?"

We like to think that we would resist. We like to think that we would never support our government as it wages an aggressive war of conquest. But when I am honest with myself, I realize that I would not resist. If culture, authority, and self-interest were all telling me to do something, I would do it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Too Much Service

One of my friends sent me an email yesterday that eloquently explained a mental quirk of mine I did not know anyone else shared. Since the email builds on a previous conversation, I will present an edited version so you can follow along:


I'm slightly jealous of the fact that you'll get to wear Vibrams to work - whatever shoes I end up wearing will almost certainly be less comfortable.


You don't wear Vibrams now. You will be making enough money to buy shoes that look nice while being as comfortable as non-toe shoes can possibly be. You might have to shop in stores you have never set foot in before, and spend hundreds of dollars for each pair, but it is worth it.


While I don't wear Vibrams now, I don't wear snazzy shoes now, either.
I probably will have to shop in nicer stores now.  I wish I didn't have to.  To illustrate why, I should point out that my employer is paying for relocation services, and so I'm working with a real estate agent.  This agency is clearly used to dealing with crazy people - the lady I was originally going to work with had to go to an emergency doctor appointment, and so couldn't call that day. The head of the agency called, repeatedly apologized, and said that she'd try to get the agent to call me in the afternoon (as it turns out, the original agent had to go to the hospital and, according to the agency head, got "very bad news").  My new agent is available until 10:00 PM on her cell phone.  My only thoughts are: what sort of narcissistic nutters must these people deal with on a regular basis, and how can I avoid getting lumped in with them?
So anyway, I don't want to go in really nice stores.  I'm going to shop at JCPenney as much as possible, where they (more often) deal with normal people.

The mental quirk is that excessive customer service makes us both uncomfortable, and is something to be avoided. I get annoyed whenever people do things for me that I could easily do myself. We do not want to be served too much. This seems odd at first. Why would we both prefer to avoid something that a lot of people want to pay for?

The key is in the line, "My only thoughts are: what sort of narcissistic nutters must these people deal with on a regular basis, and how can I avoid getting lumped in with them?". It is clear that, to my friend, an insistence on being served at all costs is a signal of a bad character trait.

Both of us grew up in a lower middle class culture. We are not accustomed to being served. In our worlds, service is something that is done for children, the infirm, and the incompetent. Adults are expected to be self-reliant. Economic exchange should based on specialization and mutual respect. If people are putting a lot of effort into serving us, that means, in our minds, that there is something wrong with us. If we expect that service even in the face of someone else's misfortune, than there is definitely something wrong with us.

I have no problem with people doing things for me if they have a skill, or tools, that I do not. I have no desire to ever learn how to change the oil in my car; it would be a waste of my time to bother with that when I can easily and cheaply hire a specialist. I hate the self checkouts in grocery stores, because they are so slow and inefficient. The cashier can scan and bag a dozen items in the time that it takes me to do one.*

But it really bugs me when, for example, there are no trash cans at a reception and you have to rely on a waiter to carry things off. I hate leaving a mess for other people to deal with. That is the behavior of children, not adults. I have no problem with leaving dirty dishes for them, because clearly I cannot wash the dishes myself and it would be a waste of my time. But it costs me nothing to toss junk in a trash can myself rather than find a tray to put it on.

Our ideas about service are particular to our class and culture. Rich people seem to like ordering others around. They pay a lot of money for the right to feel important and served. They grew up thinking that it was right and proper for other people to do cater to their every whim. Poor people will also spend a lot of money for people to do things for them, like preparing taxes, because they cannot handle the process themselves.

For me and my friend, it is not proper to demand or require too much service, or the wrong kind of service. Being served too much or in an unfamiliar way attacks our self-image at a very deep level. I know that a lot of this is due to habit. There are some kinds of service that we do expect, because we have grown up with them and are comfortable with them. But if we are pushed out of that cultural comfort zone, it makes us feel out of place, uncomfortable, and alien.

*This is partly due to the fact that the self checkouts are programmed with checks and delays to prevent shoplifting. It measures the weight of what you put in the bag against what you just scanned. If you go too fast, it forces you to go back and redo everything. You have to scan an item, wait two second for the horribly slow software to process it, put it in the bag, wait a couple more seconds for the weight reading to be processed, and then continue. During this whole process a loud, nagging voice is talking to you the way that a parent talks to an idiot child.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Guys and Dolls

Last year, the sensei of our dojo auditioned for a spot in Rent, and was chosen to play Benny. This year, they asked him to play Lt. Brannigan in Guys and Dolls, as well as two other minor roles. We were commenting on how he has been typecast*, but it is kind of nice to get called up without auditioning. I get the impression that there are very few black guys studying theater here.

We went to see him last night. It was an interesting experience for me, because I had seen the play before. Years ago, my family went to see it at a community theater. Before watching the play, I only dimly remembered bits of it, but as I watched it, I started to remember a lot more, so that I always knew what was coming next and was comparing the two versions.

Here, the play started with a video montage of Times Square, New York, starting in the modern era and going back in time, with images of cultural icons from each decade it passed through, before stopping in the 1930's. It was a very good way to set the scene. The curtain opened on all the actors standing so uncannily still that they looked like statues, and then they started moving all at once.

In the community theater version, Lt. Brannigan was portrayed as a lovable incompetent oaf. In this one, he was cold and menacing, filling the other characters with fear. A mutual friend mentioned to me at the climbing wall today that sensei would make a very good cop. Considering how he manages the dojo with an air of law and authority, I definitely agree.

But Snesei also played the announcer for the Hot Box Girls, and then he was a totally different person. The dojo ribbed him for being 'black Elvis' and 'Disco Stu'. He also played one of the extras in the nightclub in Hanana. I do not remember a fight in the community theater version, but here there was a giant rumble. Everyone from the dojo complained at how clumsy and off-balanced everyone looked, and commented how it much have been painful for Sensei to fight so badly.

Part of this is the requirement of being a stage actor. Every movement has to be massive and exaggerated, in order to convey emotion to the back row.

Because this was a college production, everything got amped up. The two chorus songs with Adelaide and the Hot Box Girls were almost as racy as an actual seedy 1930's nightclub, stripping down to period underwear for the "Take Back Your Mink" song, and subtly highlighting several double entendres in some of the other songs and acts that I do not remember from the community theater version. Tone of voice can really change what people hear.

The facts that the play changes every time, and that you are often more aware of the people playing the roles, make theater a very different art form than film.

*It is not just the theater people who typecast him as 'the bad guy'. Here's another example of a stage performance featuring him.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Social Criticism

One of the best things about studying history and anthropology, and reading good science fiction, is that it helps you understand the wide range of possibilities for organizing human society. To use a familiar phrase from a rotten man, it helps you see that the customs of your tribe and island are not the laws of nature.

Lots of people like to play the game of "Point out problems with your society". But at least nine-tenths of them do so in order to try to gain some kind of political power. The complaint only serves to motivate the supporters of a cause, or to score points against their political enemies. People complain about something that is wrong, blame the other side for it, and claim that they would do better. The complaints are usually designed to appeal to self-interest among a certain group of people. The condition of other places may be used as evidence to support the argument, but the comparison is rarely done from a spirit of honest inquiry. 

People whose morality is guided by self-consistent philosophical principles, rather than convention, are rare, but such people often produce social criticism. This tends to be of higher quality then the political kind, but usually it ends up comparing our society to an imaginary utopia where everything works perfectly, guided by whatever the writer's philosophy is.

It is extraordinarily rare to see people who try to look at our society from the outside in, guided not by political posturing or utopian fantasies, but by an honest attempt to think about how others might see us. It takes a lot of work to think that the things you are accustomed to might be unusual or bizarre, temporary aberrations of the human condition rather than the default state of existence.

I am going to try to point out some things that I think are uniquely wrong with our society. I have no plan to fix them. They are not caused by any one group of people or political party. There are no scapegoats. The vast majority of people accept them unthinkingly, not knowing that there is any alternative, not knowing that their beliefs and actions are anything but the natural state of humanity. There is no simple philosophical principle that could end them; they spring from a combination of deep tradition and fundamental flaws in human cognition.

I am only focusing on things that are unique to modern Western society. Human universals like greed, poverty, war, and oppression are not interesting to point out. I am looking for things that both our ancestors and our descendants would be horrified by.

1) End-of-life medical care. We do things to people that are literally torture, and have very low chances of accomplishing anything useful, out of a misguided effort to show that we care. European society has always had a tradition of invasive and pointless quackery, at least among the upper classes, but in the past people had a better understanding of the inevitability of death and it was not considered proper to do 'heroic' things just to prolong life a few months. There are many, many things we do today that future generations will view the same way we view bloodletting.

2) Mass incarceration in general, and The War on Drugs in particular. Lots of people complain about this for lots of reasons, but I want to point out how bizarre it is for us to punish people by throwing them in a box and spending more on their upkeep than most people spend to live a comfortable life. It is an astonishing waste of resources, never before seen in human history, and it serves no moral or practical purpose. Another one where both past and future generations would wonder why we are collectively insane.

3) Our educational system. For most of human history, children learned social and technical skills by working alongside friends and family. In modern society, we dump kids into an institution full of barely disciplined savages, and force them to do a regime of strange things with no apparent purpose. The result is a seething mass of bullying, alienation, and social pathology.

Notice that all of these have a common thread. We like shoving people into bizarre and unnatural institutional settings and claiming that it is for their own good. People from more 'primitive' societies do not tolerate this kind of regimentation, in any context.

I am guessing that this is related to the rise of factories as the primary tool of economic activity. For a period of about 200 years, the most productive and powerful societies were the ones that were best able to get their people in the habit of being cogs in a complex and unnatural machine. Modern warfare, with its massive armies of infantry, also selected for well-regimented societies. There were vast social pressures for people to adapt to this kind of thing, and that spilled over into other aspects of human life.

This kind of thing should slowly fade away as we move to a more service-based economy. But the rise of information technology, with people constantly connected to each other and a global information web, will probably cause a brand new set of social pathologies, just like industrialization created the social pathologies of our world.

This does not mean we should stop the process. Our world, even with all of its flaws, is far better than any that came before. The future will be better than our world. But it will probably have deep social flaws that are accepted unthinkingly by its citizens.