Trump

Like many Hillary Clinton supporters, I was stunned upon learning that Donald Trump won the election. How could the so much obviously worse candidate win? How did the vote go to the candidate who promised to reverse decades of progress in international relations and is openly racist and sexist?

My very very blue Facebook feed was a deluge of people talking as if the apocalypse had just occurred. It was a funeral of collective mourning. Reassurances were made as if to calm the nerves after a global tragedy in which millions had perished. Some people felt that, because of aspects of their identity, they would now be demoted to second class citizens. I saw the hashtag spring forth: #notmypresident. Moving to Canada was on the table. People suddenly cared about how stupid the electoral college was. People were in shock. It was the beginning of the end of America.

And it went deeper than that. To the Left half, it was inconceivable that Trump would gain the vote of a single person, let alone half the American electorate. One person asked who are you, Trump voters? One can blame the social media echo chambers for this, but that is not the point. The real question is, for a liberal who values the rights and dignities of minorities, women, and LGBT people, how can one even begin to empathize with the other half of the nation, the Trump supporters?  The deporables? The racists, bigots, and homophobes?

In this small pocket of the electorate in my Facebook feed, I saw the great disconnect. It was an implicit assumption, an overriding narrative in almost all the posts, that anyone who voted for Trump must be all of these deplorable things: racists, bigots, and homophobes. And then I remembered why, despite voting for Clinton, I am becoming disillusioned with being a liberal. In previous posts I talked about being against the “safe space”/”social justice warrior” movement. Among the many reasons is the following. One of the tenets of of the current social justice movement is that “all white people are racist.” I’ve seen that phrase almost verbatim many times scrolling through Facebook in the past few years. I understand what it actually means, and I can definitely see where someone is coming from if they use that phrase. However, you can see the problem with this approach, right?

I try to imagine I am a random white person who just heard this statement for the first time. And then I am asked by the Left to join them, to sign on the dotted line under the phrase, “I AM A RACIST.” Sound appealing? Didn’t think so. It worries me a lot that the Left’s extreme faction is, for all its good intentions to combat racism and sexism and homophobia, building a wall that shuts out precisely the people who need most to be exposed to some liberal ideas or people. After vilifying big groups of people for so long, you’ve finally alienated them, leaving the alternative of Trump.

Most of the responses I saw after the election will only further this divide. Not everyone did this, but many people wrote off Trump supporters as the basket of deplorables: racists, bigots, misogynists, and homophobes. Can you see how this is a discussion ender, not a starter?

*

This was my attempt to empathize with a Trump voter. The story is not as simple as “all Trump supporters are deplorables.” In the CNN exit polls, for instance, Trump had the vote of 21% of non-white people, 42% of women, and 43% of college graduates. These are all considerably higher than zero.

In this post I pointed at the backlash against the recent social justice movement, but this is clearly not the only reason Trump was elected. I am also still optimistic that Trump won’t be that bad for the world, and I agree with Clinton’s plea that we keep an open mind.

Postmodernism, Progress, and Social Justice

My very simplified story of human progress is this:

Humans have improved their conditions over time, with incremental growth for most of history and exponential growth in modern times. These improvements have been made in all aspects of human life: technological, economic, cultural, social, political, medical, and ethical. There were grave setbacks along the way but we now live in the best time there ever was for our species.

I think this roughly applies to America as well, which makes the platforms of Trump and Sanders puzzling. As I wrote previously, the slogan “Make America Great Again” presumes that it is not already so, and the idea of “capitalism has failed you” coming from the other end of the spectrum is not much better. Between Trump, Sanders, and Clinton on this topic, only Clinton possesses a sane view, that “America never stopped being great.”

Anyways, I have wanted to write a longer post on human progress for a long time, ever since the bizarrely hostile responses to this 2014 post on social progress. Some people do not accept progress, and I feel like it is mostly because it doesn’t fit their narrative. If you start off with “The West is evil because colonialism,” etc., then it is difficult to also keep in mind all the progress made through human history, largely by the Western world.

The main points are:

  • We made progress.
  • It is easy to forget and/or be unaware of this progress.
  • How postmodernism is related to this.
  • How the “coddled” college student and “social justice warrior” phenomena are related to this.
  • How the presidential campaigns are related to this.

Once again, in anticipation of the response to later sections, I want to disclaim that I fully consider myself a liberal on social issues. I am pro-equal-marriage, pro-choice, pro-feminist, pro-gun-control. I plan to vote for Hillary Clinton.

We made progress

I feel like this section is unnecessary but I also know there are people who deny progress. So let’s do a history refresher. In a prior post I wrote about a few pieces of progress in the last 10 years:

Remember 10 years ago? That’s not even the 1990s. That’s the early 21st century. In these dark ages of 2006, there was no iPhone, no Snapchat, no Twitter. There was neither Tumblr nor Tinder nor Uber, while Facebook and Youtube were in their infancy. 55% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage while only 35% were in support; today, those numbers have flipped. New art and new science have developed. The US emits less CO2, and global wind power capacity has increased by a factor of 6. Global poverty has continued to decline, infectious diseases take fewer lives, US cancer mortality rates have fallen, global childbirth mortality and child mortality rates are down, and even as the world population goes up the number of people undernourished is decreasing.

That was actually the hard part, limiting progress to just the last 10 years, with a start time of just before a global financial crisis. If you go back further, say since the dawn of agriculture, it is hilariously easy to come up with progress. Every item around you, from your clothing to electric lights to the smartphone or computer on which you are reading this post, could not have been created in earlier times. But you don’t have to worry about that, as there was a 25%-33% chance you died before reaching age 5. And if you did survive, you better hope you don’t succumb to illness, as death rates for some diseases were 70-80% and you didn’t have the luxury of modern science and medicine. Tribal warfare often killed a quarter of a tribe’s total population, a figure that makes even World War II seem tame. Assuming you survived, you were overwhelmingly likely to be in a position of no political power, a slave or peasant. The standard of living was, by modern standards, approximately zero for thousands of years.

[Graph 1, Graph 2Graph 3]

gdp_long_term

gdp_per_capita_slide

gdp_growth

The things continued for thousands of years, and then some different things happened in the 1500s–1700s. A Renaissance, a religious Reformation, a Scientific Revolution, an Enlightenment, and an Industrial Revolution lifted the Western world out of the darkness and into modern times. And the standard of living took off, alongside huge decreases in violence and big expansions in human rights.

It is easy to forget and/or be unaware of this progress

It’s so much easier to think of current problems than to think of problems that we have already solved. For example, we used to (and in some backwards regions of the world, still do) accuse neighbors we didn’t like of witchcraft and stone them to death.  We used to engage in ritual animal and even human sacrifice. We used to engage in fatal duels to defend our “honor.”

Regarding torture, here is Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature:

[T]he sporadic, clandestine, and universally decried eruptions of torture in recent times cannot be equated with the centuries of institutionalized sadism in medieval Europe. Torture in the Middle Ages was not hidden, denied, or euphemized. It was not just a tactic by which brutal regimes intimidated their political enemies or moderate regimes extracted information from suspected terrorists. It did not erupt from a frenzied crowd stirred up in hatred against a dehumanized enemy. No, torture was woven into the fabric of public life. It was a form of punishment that was cultivated and celebrated, an outlet for artistic and technological creativity. Many of the instruments of torture were beautifully crafted and ornamented. They were designed to inflict not just physical pain, as would a beating, but visceral horrors, such as penetrating sensitive orifices, violating the bodily envelope, displaying the victim in humiliating postures, or putting them in positions where their own flagging stamina would increase their pain and lead to disfigurement or death. Torturers were the era’s foremost experts in anatomy and physiology, using their knowledge to maximize agony, avoid nerve damage that might deaden the pain, and prolong consciousness for as long as possible before death.

And from another post quoting the same book, on the decline in rape:

“Well into the 1970s marital rape was not a crime in any state, and the legal system underweighted the interests of women in other rapes. Legal scholars who have studied jury proceedings have discovered that jurors must be disabused of the folk theory that women can be negligently liable for their own rapes…” (395). Stats from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the annual rate of rape from 1973 to 2008 had fallen by 80%. Pinker notes, “In fact, the decline may be even greater than that, because women have almost certainly been more willing to report being raped in recent years, when rape has been recognized as a serious crime, than they were in earlier years, when rape was often hidden and trivialized” (402). Thus a decline by a factor of five in reported cases could and probably does mean an even greater decline in actual cases. On the flipside, since awareness of rape is up so much, people generally perceive it as a greater threat today than it was decades ago.

I point this out not to say “Tada, progress!” but to put these issues in historical context. Pointing out that things have gotten better does not mean that the status quo is acceptable. Much of it is not, and there is so much progress yet to be made. But it is delusional to want to return to the good old times because they were free of violence and conflict. They simply weren’t. They were far more violent and intolerant than today (see Pinker’s book).

In addition, we now have social media, where grievances that would have been considered trivial in the past can now instantly rile up thousands of people (perhaps rightfully). This creates a situation where fewer bad incidents cause the world to look worse.

Given how widespread the pessimistic view is, I don’t fault anyone for thinking things have gotten worse, but at the same time, I find the numbers quite startling. Some 46% of Americans believe life has gotten worse since half a century ago, versus 34% better and 14% same (via Pew Research). “By contrast, 88% of economists said the U.S. is better today than in 1960 and 87% see today as better than 1980” (source).

How postmodernism is related to this

One way to deny progress is to argue that progress as a concept is impossible. Progress implicitly assumes an objective measuring stick; thus, it cannot exist as there is no objective truth, only subjectivity—progress is nothing but a social construction. Another way is to argue that progress is a colonialist ideology developed by Western nations to oppress non-Western nations, and that anyone who argues for progress must be automatically racist.

That is my caricature of postmodernism, but I’m honestly not sure what else postmodernism is (as used in popular rhetoric).

Here are some passages from Edward R. Friedlander’s “Why I am Not a Postmodernist“:

The “postmodern” university gurus talk about the “dead white males” who produced the canon of literature that we have treasured over the centuries as cruel, oppressive, stupid, and deeply wrong-headed. But a fair reading of the classics — even before the enlightenment — will reveal a huge range of ideas — many of them far ahead of their times — about the rights of minorities, women, and the poor. There are many deeply sympathetic portrayals of LGBT culture and people, and appeals both for religious tolerance and religious skepticism. And no culture other than the much-maligned “European” (including America and Australia/New Zealand) has ever made a systematic effort to understand and value the other cultures of the world. Anyone who tells you otherwise is taking an obviously false political stance to deceive you.

And:

Postmodernists complain that science is a cultural prejudice, and/or a tool invented by the current elite to maintain power, and/or only one “way of knowing” among many, with no special privilege. For postmodernists, science is “discourse”, one system among many, maintained by a closed community as a means of holding onto power, and ultimately referential only to itself.

[…]

We still hear a great deal today about “multiculturalism” and “relative values”. But everybody that I know, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or religion, seems to want the same basic things. This begins with health, reasonable personal liberty and security, and a reasonable chance to have one’s initiative rewarded. Postmodernists talk about being “dehumanized” by science and technology. If they really believed this, they would trade their academic positions for the lives of subsistence farmers in the world’s poor nations, or (if they could) the short, sickly, miserable lives of chattel-serfs in the ages “before technocracy”. There they will discover that what people want isn’t “cultural integrity” or “multicultural sensitivity”, but health, food, safety, and a reasonable opportunity to choose one’s own course through life. Those who would deny them these basic human needs aren’t the scientists. It is the tyrants and ideologues of the right and the left.

And:

Science isn’t a conspiracy of power-hungry monsters against the human race. The real enemy is superstition, ignorance, and silly lies. And if you live in America, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, or Western Europe, most people in the world would gladly trade places with you.

In the twentieth century, Norman Borlaug developed new agricultural techniques in wheat that are often credited with saving the lives of a billion or more people. Yet almost no one has heard of him. I’m guessing it might have something to do with the fact that despite his huge steps in solving world hunger, his life-saving results appear numeric rather than anecdotal. And his doing this while being a white male Westerner certainly did not fit the postmodernist narrative. I would bet someone has already complained that teaching about him in school is “problematic.”

Postmodernism the movement might be long dead, but its specter continues to haunt us. All of the following can be rooted to the postmodernist style:

  • Science is just another way of knowing, no different from emotion, etc.
  • The great counternarrative, that progress is a myth, that the Western world is evil.
  • The rise of New Age wisdom versus Western science and medicine.
  • The study of STEM fields is often considered inhuman/cold, whereas currently it probably has the highest benefit for humanity.
  • Over-sensitivity to criticizing other cultures.

The last point has to do with criticizing anything that is not Western. Here is an anecdote. (Anecdotes are inherently more valuable than statistical data because the latter implies a tacit Eurocentrism.) My very liberal Facebook feed contains lots of “social justice” posts. Yesterday there was a disturbing CNN headline that read, “Pakistani men can beat wives ‘lightly,’ Islamic council says.” Being someone in a civilized country that cares about the plight of others, I was pretty offended by this and expected a lot of outrage on my Facebook feed, but instead, I saw none. I’m guessing it has something to do with how the typical post fits the narrative of “The West/white people are evil,” and this story, about how an “Islamic council” of non-Whites in a non-Western country has been/is doing something evil, does not fit that narrative and is thus rejected.

How the “coddled” college student and “social justice warrior” phenomena are related to this

Still one of the greatest articles on this is “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I fully encourage everyone to read that if they have not already. And earlier this week, Nathan Heller wrote in The New Yorker a piece called “The Big Uneasy“:

Aaron Pressman, a politics and law-and-society major, told me that he has always felt free to express his opinions on campus, but has faced “a lot of social backlash.” One of his ambitions is to become a public defender, and he has studied the free-speech work of the A.C.L.U. Last year, when he noticed a broadly worded clause about flirtatious speech in Oberlin’s new sexual-harassment policy, he advocated for more precise language. (His research told him that such broad prohibitions were often used to target ethnic groups.) “A student came up to me several days later and started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion, because I’m a white cisgender male,” Pressman recalled. He feels that his white maleness shouldn’t be disqualifying. “I’ve had people respond to me, ‘You could never understand—your culture has never been oppressed.’ ” Pressman laughed. “I’m, like, ‘Really? The Holocaust?’ ”

And:

How, then, to teach? Two years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement took off, “it felt like it was going to be a moment when we were really going to have a national conversation about police brutality and economic inequality,” Kozol said. She was excited about her students’ work in Cleveland and elsewhere. “But then, at some point, it became really solipsistic.” A professor who taught a Comparative American Studies seminar that was required for majors went on leave, and, as she was replaced by one substitute and then another, Kozol noticed something alarming: the students had started seating themselves by race. Those of color had difficulty with anything that white students had to say; they didn’t want to hear it anymore. Kozol took over the class for the spring, and, she told me, “it played out through identity politics.” The class was supposed to be a research workshop. But students went cold when they had to engage with anyone outside their community.

Seriously, what is happening? Have tribalism and postmodernism returned?

Don’t get me wrong—social justice is one of the best things ever to happen, one of the few parts of history that can be universally viewed as good. The affirmation of human dignity for every person regardless of circumstance is the most important one that can be made. But the contemporary movements resemble one-sided yelling more than discussion.

Questions of justness and fairness are hard, but you do not gain voice by preventing others from voicing theirs. A democratic society should not base its decisions on whose echo chamber is bigger, or by whichever group can frame the narrative to disqualify the other group on the basis of race or sex or other identity. The way to counter a bad idea is to present a good idea, not to call for tribal hatred and witch hunts against its proponents. Some of the most intolerant people are those who preach tolerance the loudest.

One paradox here is that as more progress is being made in social equality, the bigger an issue it becomes. From “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” (Campbell and Manning 2014):

According to Black (2011), as noted above, changes in stratification, intimacy, and diversity cause conflict. Microaggression complaints are largely about changes in stratification. They document actions said to increase the level of inequality in a social relationship – actions Black refers to as “overstratification.” Overstratification offenses occur whenever anyone rises above or falls below others in status. […] a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality… In modern Western societies, egalitarian ethics have developed alongside actual political and economic equality. As women moved into the workforce in large numbers, became increasingly educated, made inroads into highly paid professions such as law and medicine, and became increasingly prominent in local, state, and national politics, sexism became increasingly deviant. The taboo has grown so strong that making racist statements, even in private, might jeopardize the careers of celebrities or the assets of businessmen (e.g., Fenno, Christensen, and Rainey 2014; Lynch 2013).

Basically, places that have progressed the furthest toward equality are precisely where further microagressions feel like they matter most.

In this sense, one might be delighted that the university ruckuses are going on as evidence of increasing equality. But it is also the dangerous arm of postmodernism where feeling is regarded as highly as fact.

I am frightened that this movement is not only ignoring progress, but also actively trying to reverse it. You saw the self-imposed seating segregation from earlier. Freedom of speech is gradually receding in favor of oversensitivity, especially of criticizing cultures that are blatantly regressive compared to the Western world. Diversity of ideas is frowned upon, and even the idea of democracy is now considered part of a sinister colonialist agenda.

How the presidential campaigns are related to this

Here is Bernie Sanders yesterday:

As cited before, 88% of economists disagreed, saying that living standards are better than they were in the 1960s (and 87% say better than in the 1980s). Yet from popular sentiment, it would seem like Sanders is right.

To be fair, Sanders supporters are still more grounded in reality than any group of Republican supporters. Here is a poll via Pew Research on whether life has gotten better or worse than 50 years ago:

pew_better_worse

Basically, Republicans generally are more pessimistic than Democrats, with Trump supporters the most pessimist. Democrats are more optimist, with Clinton supporters the most optimist.

This is kind of surprising as everyone I know who is against the progress narrative is Democrat, but then again, I don’t know many Trump supporters, nor do I expect many people reading this to be Trump supporters. The one I really want to address is Sanders and the tendency to pin all of society’s problems on capitalism.

Two years ago, when I graduated from college, I never thought I would quote a former hedge-fund manager on capitalism non-ironically. But here is Andy Kessler to college graduates [via WSJ]:

Those of you I hear gagging in the humanities section are going to have to unlearn a few things. Harvard recently released a survey showing that over half of Americans ages 18 to 29 do not support capitalism. Ouch. You can almost feel the Bern.

Don’t be fooled. Capitalism is what allowed you to wander around this leafy campus for four years worrying about finals instead of foraging for food. It delivered the Greek yogurt to your cafeteria and assembled your Prius. The basic idea is to postpone consumption. Then invest in production to supply goods and services that delight customers. Next, generate profits. Rinse and repeat.

It’s widely known that Sanders supporters tend to be young people. I feel out-of-place as a 24-year-old that supports Clinton, but in 2012 I voted for Jill Stein, whose platform is essentially identical to that of current-day Sanders. I definitely felt the Bern (the Stein?) when I was in college, so I can understand where all the Sanders supporters are coming from. I learned a lot about economics and capitalism since 2012, and I no longer support the Stein/Sanders camp. When you look at those three graphs from earlier where the line is roughly zero for most of human history and then skyrockets to the current day, that is the force of capitalism in action. That is progress. That is the constant exchange of bad ideas, systems, tools, governments, and moralities for better ones.

It is difficult to talk so much about what seems so obvious, but yes, humans have made lots of progress, especially in the very recent past. It is easy to forget about this progress with the 24-hour news cycle and social media, but it happened. We may live in the best time there ever was, but we have to be careful to not seek return to a false mythical world of the past. Instead, we should work to better the very real world of the future.

YOLOing, Holes, and Facebook

martin_shkreli

Millennials Just Want to YOLO

It is a month old but still one of the most amazing articles on millennials. Ok fine, to be fair, it is a particular group of millennials who bet all their money in the stock market and discuss their trades on Reddit and revere Martin Shkreli. I will just link to the article here [via MarketWatch] and copy in some of its glorious quotes:

“Y-O-F**KING-LO,” the teen wrote, flashing his trading statement. “900 to 55K in 12 days!”

On Reddit, he’s known as “World Chaos,” a Florida high schooler who earlier this year multiplied his money by betting against the S&P 500. His real name is Jeffrey Rozanski, and the 18-year-old’s appetite for risk would make many seasoned market players facepalm.

And:

That was peak “WallStreetBets,” the Reddit forum where “YOLO” is the war cry, Martin Shkreli is a role model, and irreverent traders trawl for tickets to quick wealth. It has become what one member calls “the beating heart of millennial day traders.”

And:

The latest obsession on WallStreetBets is UWTI an exchange-traded note that has become a favorite of younger investors — thanks, in part, to the Reddit forum. It is a near-perfect embodiment of the YOLO spirit: Highly volatile, it uses a combination of derivatives and debt to amplify bets on oil, creating opportunities for quick profits.

And:

“This subreddit, they love Martin Shkreli,” said Asad Butt [hahahaha], a 25-year-old Pennsylvania trader who posts frequently to WallStreetBets. “He is living their dream. He got rich. He might have lied and cheated along the way, but [on the forum] that’s encouraged.”

“People want yachts,” Butt said. “They want to be rich. The joke is we are all aspiring millionaires. Shkreli actually did it. He’s a hero.”

Are you not entertained? At this point, you might as well just read the article since you’re reading half of it anyway, but I’ll throw in some more quotes:

Talk of “YOLOing” — going all in on a huge bet — is frequent, if not constant.

And:

“If you find anything volatile and high risk, that’s where you’ll see people flocking,” Rogozinski said. “Are we encouraging risky behavior? Yes.”

And:

“UWTI for LIFE baby!!” a subscriber named DrFreshh wrote in December. “History tells you all the patterns. It’s a big time win! Been researching for 20 hours straight (except for the occasional cigarettes). This is it boys and girls! Life savings on the line, we have hit the gold mine. Ask me anything and I can tell you why its bullish like none other, or the yacht is on me.”

When asked how many shares he intended to trade, DrFreshh responded, “100,000. 200,000. that’s pennies. This is an opportunity of a lifetime! I’m gonna invest like its get rich or die tryin.”

And:

Teen trader Rozanski, meanwhile, admitted that his big win was “pretty much dumb luck.” He thought about buying a Ford Mustang with his haul, he said, but decided to keep the money to fund future investments, celebrating modestly: His mom took him out to see “The Big Short,” and he bought a new computer with two monitors.

“So I can trade better,” he explained.

I think people should be free to do what they want with their money, but at the same time, YOLOing all your money seems like a bad idea. Having a yacht is nice, but so is having more than zero dollars.

Usually I would make the standard boring disclaimer that nothing on this blog is ever financial advice, etc., but here is some actual financial advice—do not be like the people mentioned in that article.

Crawlspace for Sensitive Dragons

Occasionally I read Quora for amusement. This answer by Antonio Kowatsch seemed pretty usual for a Quora answer, until I got to the comments. First, here is the question and answer:

What are some examples of bad design?

I really don’t know if this has been mentioned already but in Hong Kong there are many Skyscrapers with holes. Quite literally holes. There is a reason for the unusual design: These holes are supposed to provide a safe passage for Dragons. (This is not a joke) Since they don’t really serve an actual purpose they are literally a waste of space, which happens to be an already scarce resource in Hong Kong. This definitely classifies as a design flaw.

Here are a couple of these so called Dragon gates/holes:

holes_in_buildings

And then bam, people in the comments start defending the superstition that is feng shui and accusing Kowatsch of cultural disrespect. I want to give a little bit of a preface first before showing the comments:

  • I wouldn’t bother criticizing the comments section of a YouTube video or CNN article or Facebook post, but for some reason I have higher standards for Quora comments. Maybe the mistake is just that, and I should be ignoring these comments.
  • To the extent that “political correctness” is a real issue, I think these comments help demonstrate it. I’ve posted before about why some people are overly sensitive, and I can relate to the frustration that Kowatsch feels in his addendum. The process now is basically, someone gets offended (or tries to speak up for someone else theoretically getting offended), and instead of engaging in a rational debate, they say they are offended, shutting down any further discussion.
  • Oversensitivity is at least laudable in spirit when trying to defend a group of people. But in this case, the original poster pointed out a particular the way buildings were built that was based on superstition. Criticizing ideas, especially superstition, does not equal criticizing people.
  • Besides the accusations of cultural insensitivity, there are also people who say things like the holes are good because they allow wind through. But when it comes to physics, you need to actually do the physics, not just invent stories. The classic example is that in projectile motion, even Aristotle wrote that an object would keep moving in the launch direction until it ran out of impetus and then drop straight down. Makes sense. Except things actually move in parabolic arcs.

Here is the addendum, still by Kowatsch:

EDIT: OK, I didn’t think that so many people would argue that those “holes” are actually practical. But here I am. Exorcising this mental colic once and for all. People have left all kinds of baloney comments saying that they were “practical” because the wind could pass through them. Long story short; it’s bollocks and it does make me somewhat furious, I admit it. You may not know it but I studied physics and those holes don’t stabilize the buildings, but rather destabilize them. You know what would happen if really strong winds would act on those buildings? They would fold in half (horizontally) . Everyone who knows a little bit about statics & building physics would know that the load transfer in those buildings is suboptimal to say the least.

So here you go with some comments:

So you don´t like Feng Shui and the part about the dragon, too bad. But please understand: this is just your opinion, at the best an argument to building efficiently, but does not take into account the customs and traditions of the people living there. On the other side: there is a reason why those wholes [sic] are in those buildings: developers sell these flats like sliced bread. So a lot of HK people seem to have a different opinion from yours.

And:

Now, lets ignore all these engineering issues. Those holes make those buildings ‘special’ and ‘interesting’. It has cultural values and gives a uniqueness which other cities don’t usually have.

It is not a bad design according to me.

And:

According to this logic, anything that’s not a perfect rectangle box is a bad design.

What if they’re not trying to optimize for living space but to create a coherent skyline with cultural flair? Dragon legends are cultural – just because you don’t understand it doesn’t make it bad design. Unless you think HK people actually believe in dragons.

And:

This concept is very much similar to Indian Vastu. First let me talk about the science. When you are designing a tall building (I am an Architect myself), wind load becomes a crucial element in structural loading. So these holes or punctures in the surface let wind flow through them easily. Hence better stability.

And:

The holes are an adaptation of the skyscraper to the culture of Hong Kong, making the buildings acceptable to the people of the island.  To mock them as a design flaw as you do shows a lack of cultural sensitivity and tolerance.

And:

Ask the residents of the buildings how well the Feng Shui is working for them, then one can say if the holes are bad designs or not.

And:

Your answer is culturally biased. Xenophobic even.

Yep. When you disagree, call the other person culturally biased.

This section might just be overreacting to idiots in a comment section, but I see this same sentiment in many other places.

Now economically, in terms of whether real estate companies should construct buildings like this, that is completely up to them. If there is demand for buildings with holes in them, then by all means, make some supply. And if they are so aesthetically intriguing that they generate a lot of tourism, then sure, I’m in full support of holes. However, when someone talks about the relation of these holes to mythical dragons and feng shui, that is not xenophobia—that is stating a fact.

In related news, here is yet another “Why Free Speech Matters on Campus” article, by Bloomberg and Koch via the WSJ.

Facebook Bias, cont’d

Last time I talked about the Gizmodo story on Facebook employees allegedly manipulating the “trending” stories section to suppress conservative viewpoints. Since then, many more articles have popped up about it, and it seems like people really care about this topic. So let’s double down with another section.

I made the following points in the previous post:

  1. Facebook is a company, not a government organization. It does not have an obligation to be politically balanced.
  2. As a company, Facebook’s main goal is to generate profits, and if it does so better by instilling a liberal bias, then so what? In the scale of moral quandaries, this is pretty benign compared to what other companies do.
  3. Facebook is a social media site, not a news agency. And neither has an obligation to be politically balanced.
  4. There is some argument that the news media already has a liberal bias. If so, how is Facebook’s liberal bias different from that of other forms of media?
  5. Liberals tend to post more political things on Facebook than conservatives. So even if nobody working at Facebook is tweaking knobs, you should see more liberal posts than conservative ones, and liberal posts should trend more often.

One important thing I failed to mention was people perceived Facebook to be balanced (even though I claim it never was), and that this perception of balance is crucial. When people go to Fox News or The Huffington Post, they have expectations of political bias, but when they go to Facebook, they expect none (even though my points #4 and #5 argue you should). Thus, learning that Facebook is biased can be jarring.

As you can see, I am pretty calm about this, mainly because learning about this bias does not affect me. My Facebook circle is generally young, highly educated, and often academic, all three being strong indicators of being liberal. As a result, 95% of the posts I see are liberal anyway and I already don’t expect any semblance of political balance whatsoever when I login.

That said, I can see why some people would be taken aback. Facebook’s algorithms are still a complete mystery to me (probably rightfully so), and I feel there is not much transparency about what is going on behind the scenes. I don’t want to live in a house where I can see all the wires running through the walls, but understanding what happens when I plug something into an electric outlet provides some peace of mind.

Also, even if Facebook is right in claiming that no one is outright manipulating the trending section, it is almost certain that the reviewers are biasing the news subconsciously. Then again, what would that imply? Would you have to rely on algorithms to avoid this? But what if the algorithms too are biased? A NYT piece has more to say about Facebook and biased algorithms.

Here is Tom Stocky of Facebook, in a Facebook post:

My team is responsible for Trending Topics, and I want to address today’s reports alleging that Facebook contractors manipulated Trending Topics to suppress stories of interest to conservatives. We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true.

Facebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum. There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics.

The comments section of this post are so hilariously critical of Facebook, but as I said earlier in this blog post, “I wouldn’t bother criticizing the comments section of a YouTube video or CNN article or Facebook post.”

Facebook also released a 28-page document which is the detailed instructions manual to review trending topics. It is basically exactly what you would expect, though I do like the redacted lines.

Here is a Vox article that ties the bias to the echo chamber effect of social media, claiming “Facebook’s most biased curator is you.” The Atlantic opens with, “Facebook Doesn’t Have to Be Fair.” And here is Marginal Revolution on how the bias is probably demand driven.

I generally agree with these three articles. It is easy to call out “bias,” but what does that word mean in this situation? And even if it is biased, would it be wrong? I claim neither answer is obvious.

Misc

The New Yorker on the popularity of Donald Trump in China:

In many respects, ordinary people in China, or the “old hundred names,” as they are called—a colloquial catchall for those commoners who didn’t make it into the history books—are not unlike the largest segment of Trump supporters: of limited education, dispossessed, and frequently overlooked because of their distance from power. Abstract principles, which Hillary Clinton has been known to proclaim in China—of human rights and women’s rights—seem less relevant than the practical economic challenges facing the average citizen. “Trump is an exceedingly smart man who has had remarkable success in making hotels and towers and TV shows,” a Chinese blogger posted on a Web forum devoted to American politics. When someone else asked about Trump’s trade policies, many of which are hostile to China, the same blogger responded dismissively that Trump is “a businessman first and foremost” and “will do what is in both countries’ economic interest”—giving voice to the sentiment, perennially popular in China, that pragmatism inevitably reigns in the end.

The Washington Post on a debate by economists on the utility of Econ 101:

Even more problematic, some of the empirical research most celebrated by critics of economics 101 contradicts itself about the basic structure of the labor market. The famous “Mariel boatlift paper” finds that a large increase in immigrant workers doesn’t lower the wages of native workers. The famous “New Jersey-Pennsylvania minimum wage paper” finds that an increase in the minimum wage doesn’t reduce employment. If labor supply increases and wages stay constant — the Mariel paper — then the labor demand curve must be flat. But if the minimum wage increases and employment stays constant — New Jersey-Pennsylvania — then the labor demand curve must be vertical. Reconciling these studies is, again, way beyond the scope of an intro course.

Scientific American on why people edit Wikipedia articles for free:

Instead of public recognition, Gallus credits the success of this experiment primarily to the effect of identification with a community. That is, the symbolic recognition of receiving Edelweiss with Star made editors feel like they were part of an exclusive group. Although contributions that editors make to Wikipedia pages are public, no one gets direct credit for authorship. In the study, only about 6% of recipients publicly displayed their award on their user pages, so we can interpret this as an indication that Wikipedia editors responded well to private recognition rather than celebrity.

CNET Roadshow on the owner of a Tesla and Tesla blaming each other for crash:

While running errands, the owner claimed he parked his Model S behind a trailer. After a minute of standing near the car and talking to a fan of the brand, the owner went inside a nearby business. Five minutes later, he came out to a car with a crushed windshield and A-pillars.

After bringing the issue to Tesla’s attention, the automaker claimed it was not Tesla’s fault. Rather, the owner was “not being properly attentive” when using the car’s Summon feature, which can autonomously park the vehicle using its built-in sensors. The owner claimed he never engaged Summon.

Slate on the realism of virtual reality:

I couldn’t move. And I wasn’t laughing anymore.

Rationally, I knew that I was in a tiny, makeshift room in a convention center, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers watching me wobble and shake. I knew I was standing on a carpeted and fully corporeal floor, my arms held out for balance, and that I only had to walk about six feet in a straight line to finish. But it didn’t matter. The moment I moved to take my first step off the building and saw nothing but a wire separating me from a 1,300-foot fall to the ground below, some primal, reptilian part of my brain started screaming: YOU’RE GOING TO DIE.

The Guardian on a woman fired for not wearing heels:

Nicola Thorp, 27, from Hackney in east London, arrived on her first day at PwC in December in flat shoes but says she was told she had to wear shoes with a “2in to 4in heel”.

Thorp, who was employed as a temporary worker by PwC’s outsourced reception firm Portico, said she was laughed at when she said the demand was discriminatory and sent home without pay after refusing to go out and buy a pair of heels.

Facebook Bias, Bernie Sanders, and Ubers in Austin

Does Facebook Have a Liberal Bias?

I feel like this story is a lot less relevant than it sounds, but here is some background.

From CNN:

An anonymous former Facebook contractor says he witnessed colleagues suppress news about “popular conservative topics” from the website’s “trending” section.

Three former Facebook workers who spoke with CNNMoney echoed what some of Gizmodo’s other sources said — that personal biases might creep into the day-to-day “trending” work, but they never detected institutional bias for or against conservative information.

And here is the NYT:

Facebook denied the allegations after a backlash — from both conservative and liberal critics — erupted. “It is beyond disturbing to learn that this power is being used to silence viewpoints and stories that don’t fit someone else’s agenda,” read a statement from the Republican National Committee. “NOT LEANING IN… LEANING LEFT!” blared the top story on The Drudge Report, a widely read website.

The journalist Glenn Greenwald, hardly a conservative ally, weighed in on Twitter: “Aside from fueling right-wing persecution, this is a key reminder of dangers of Silicon Valley controlling content.” And Alexander Marlow, the editor in chief of Breitbart News, a conservative-leaning publication, said the report confirmed “what conservatives have long suspected.”

Intrigued yet? Here are some things to consider in defense of Facebook even if the allegations are true:

  1. Facebook is a company, not a government organization. It does not have an obligation to be politically balanced.
  2. As a company, Facebook’s main goal is to generate profits, and if it does so better by instilling a liberal bias, then so what? In the scale of moral quandaries, this is pretty benign compared to what other companies do.
  3. Facebook is a social media site, not a news agency. And neither has an obligation to be politically balanced.
  4. There is some argument that the news media already has a liberal bias. If so, how is Facebook’s liberal bias different from that of other forms of media?
  5. Liberals tend to post more political things on Facebook than conservatives. So even if nobody working at Facebook is tweaking knobs, you should see more liberal posts than conservative ones, and liberal posts should trend more often.

liberal-conservative-facebook

Facebook denies having any intentional bias. Here is the WSJ:

Facebook Inc. on Tuesday denied allegations from former workers who said the social media site suppressed news about conservative issues on its popular “trending” news feature.

Tom Stocky, Facebook’s vice president for search and the person responsible for the trending feature, defended the company’s practices and said it found “no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true.”

I wouldn’t be surprised either way, if there was or was no manipulation of trending news. Not that I’d notice—my Facebook newsfeed is nearly all liberal posts.

Also, I did warn that this topic is less relevant than it sounds. The best thing to do is recognize that there might be some liberal bias and move on.

Bernie Sanders and Efficient Markets

The headline for this section is not a joke, haha.

Some primary ago, Bernie Sanders won a state but his chance to win the Democratic nomination went down as a result. And on my social media feeds, people (esp. supporters of Bernie Sanders) didn’t seem to understand how this could happen. I also often heard things like “Sanders is projected to win the next 5 states, but the media is saying Clinton has practically won the nomination, so therefore the media is biased against Sanders.” This is of course nonsense. So here is my PSA to explain how markets work.

Test your understanding of markets by figuring out which statement is correct:

  1. Sanders is 5% to be the Democratic candidate according to prediction markets, but polls show him far ahead of Clinton in the next 5 states. Therefore, the real chance he has to win overall is something higher than 5%, maybe more like 10% or 20%.
  2. Sanders is 5% to be the Democratic candidate according to prediction markets, but polls show him far ahead of Clinton in the next 5 states. These polls don’t matter, and his chance to win overall is still 5%.

Naively, the first statement sounds better. But anyone who has caught on to the concept I am getting at would know that the first statement is wrong and that the second statement is correct. Why? The prediction markets already take into account the results of the polls. That is, the knowledge gained from the polls is already incorporated into the levels of the market. (This is, of course, assuming Efficient Market Hypothesis.)

You can apply the same concept to stocks. Let’s say Apple is $90 a share on the market, but you think it has a 10% chance to be bankrupt and worth $0. Thus, Apple is 90% to be worth $90 and 10% to be worth $0, for a fair value of $81 per share. [90%*$90 + 10%*$0 = $81.]

So should you sell Apple at $90? No. In fact, the calculation to get $81 is wrong.

Assuming you obtained your information legally, other people in the market, including those who have presumably spent far more time than you have researching the fundamentals of Apple, also think that Apple is 10% likely to be bankrupt. So here is what’s actually going on in the market:

  • People think Apple is worth $100 per share if it is not bankrupt.
  • It has a 10% chance to be bankrupt, in which case it is worth $0.
  • Thus, the fair price is 90%*$100 + 10%*$0 = $90.
  • Thus, it is trading at $90 in the market.

An interesting thing to consider is, what if Apple comes out on the news and releases some sales numbers, and now everyone thinks there is 5% chance Apple is bankrupt? The price actually increases, to $95 [95%*$100 + 5%*$0 = $95].

So people thinking Apple has a chance to be bankrupt can increase the price of the stock. The key is that the chance it is bankrupt is less than what everyone expected before.

Similarly, if prediction markets are already expecting Bernie Sanders to win a state with 60% of the vote but he wins with only 55%, his chance to become the nominee goes down.

You can see what prediction markets are saying about the 2016 race here.

Uber and Lyft in Austin

As a fan of free markets and as someone who grew up in Austin, TX, I am kind of sad to see Uber and Lyft shutdown in Austin over regulation. Here is TechCrunch:

Today voters in Austin went to the polls to weigh in on Proposition 1, an attempt to overturn a bill requiring mandatory fingerprint-based criminal background checks for new Uber and Lyft drivers in the city.

The results are in, and with 56 percent of total voters voting against Prop 1, the proposition failed to pass. This means that the bill requiring fingerprint-based background checks will proceed, with new drivers needing to pass the check before being able to drive.

In response to the news, Uber and Lyft have announced that they will be shutting down operations in the city — at least temporarily.

One idea of markets is that you wouldn’t do a transaction if you thought it was bad for you. So the fact that many people were using Uber in Austin before this meant that even without fingerprint checks, people preferred Uber to older cab services. And who benefits from this regulation? Older cab companies.

Of course, safety is good, but it seems ironic that a city that prides itself on being kept weird and being the new Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the south, is the one to introduce this kind of regulation that will just slow down tech development. The WSJ reports, “Austin is now the largest U.S. city where Uber isn’t currently available.”

It also seems like this is a weird political issue in that people who use Uber are generally young people, and young people are generally more liberal, but in this case they are more anti-regulation.

Here is Kristen S. Anderson, in one of the best passages from The Selfie Vote (Ch. 4):

Suffice to say, cabs hate Uber, as well as Lyft and other “ride-sharing” companies, as they came to be known. Ride-sharing companies are absolutely eating the cab industry’s lunch. Almost nothing about the existing taxicab system in most major cities resembles a free market, and the results are exactly what you’d expect. In a properly regulated free market, customers can make informed decisions about whether or not to engage someone in services for hire. They can vote with their wallets, choosing between a variety of competitors to patronize only quality vendors with good pricing, and those who offer poor service wind up failing.

The cab market in most cities is the opposite of this in nearly every way. When I’m standing on a street corner in a city, trying to hail a cab, I’m not choosing between quality drivers; I’m hopping in whatever cab pulls up and hoping for the best. I’ll pay the same rate whether the driver is kind  and funny and highly competent (as many drivers are!) or reeks of cigarette smoke and blasts the heat in July and drives like they’re running away from the cops. There’s no choice or competition, on price or quality. The lack of market forces makes the taxicab industry in many cities function like something out of the Soviet era: inadequate supply and mediocre quality.

Ride-sharing companies add competition, and there’s nothing an existing cartel hates quite like competition. In cities across the U.S., ride-sharing companies entered into battle with local regulators and taxicab unions, with the regulators and unions trying to keep the newcomers out of the market. In DC, for instance, cab protests have involved drivers swarming particular major thoroughfares and loudly honking their horns to draw attention to their plight (likely perturbing their intended audience in the process). But it wasn’t just free-market types and libertarians championing the cause of ride-sharing companies: I remember being amused at the many left-of-center writers I saw dropping their pro-union and pro-regulation posture when the unions and regulations were going to keep them from being able to get a cheap, quality ride home from work or happy hour (or perhaps Whole Foods!). The ride-sharing battle in many cities pitted entrenched interests against an upstart. Overwhelmingly, the young—moving to denser areas, eschewing cars when they can—were on the side of the upstart. And the battle over ride-sharing companies and regulations created a near picture-perfect example of the power of the oft-maligned free market to do great things, to encourage innovation, and to improve people’s quality of life.

Misc

MarketWatch on “Hillary Clinton reaping donations from Wall Street“:

The Democratic front-runner has raised $4.2 million in total from Wall Street, $344,000 of which was contributed in March alone. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of fundraising data provided by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the former secretary of state received 53% of the donations from Wall Street in March, up from 32% last year and 33% in January through February, as the nominating contests began.

Trump, by contrast, hasn’t garnered more than 1% of Wall Street contributions in any month through March.

The Atlantic on why empathy is bad:

Paul Bloom, psychologist and Yale professor, argues that empathy is a bad thing—that it makes the world worse. While we’ve been taught that putting yourself in another’s shoes cultivates compassion, it actually blinds you to the long-term consequences of your actions.

The Washington Post on being interrogated for doing math on a plane:

The curly-haired man laughed.

He laughed because those scribbles weren’t Arabic, or another foreign language, or even some special secret terrorist code. They were math.

Disclosure: I have done math on a plane before.

Tweets, Personalities, and Startups

Twitter

I started using Twitter again (maybe the 4th time), and I am finally starting to get its appeal. In this election year, I can now witness firsthand Donald Trump eating taco bowls and calling Senator Elizabeth Warren “goofy”:

And the replies:

Yep, that happened. Twitter has always felt like a children’s playground to me, and it’s hilarious to see two serious adults fighting on it.

I’ll need to order more popcorn, but in all seriousness, Hillary Clinton better win this election.

Also, if you want to follow me, the Twitter handle is @nargaque  (what else could it be?). My most retweeted post is a postmodernist joke that was copied from some academic site.

Internet Addiction

There is some irony in having a section on internet addiction following one on Twitter. But this is much more hardcore. Here is an article on an internet addiction bootcamp in China, via CNN:

“The main challenge was to keep my mind away from the repetition imposed by the school,” he said. “It was not easy to find the distance to set a point of view.”

The internees, as he called them, were boys and girls, men and women. They were as young as 8 and as old as 30. Most had been forced to enter the treatment center — sometimes kicking and screaming — by family members concerned about their physical and mental health.

At the center, they were subjected to “discipline and repetition,” which the center’s leaders said would cure their addiction. They might stay for a few weeks or many months, Maccotta said.

Their personalities are annihilated,” Maccotta said. They stay “behind a formal posture of silence and obedience. They don’t show any sadness, but I’m sure they miss families and friends.”

I’m not sure how big of an issue internet addiction is, but probably annihilating people’s personalities goes too far? Try to read this article without imagining every insane asylum you’ve seen. I wonder if the cure is worse than the disease.

The culture divide is vast. In the West we value individualism and thus see video gaming as personal expression rather than social blight. Here is one of the “Great American Stories” also via CNN:

Ask these gamers during breaks in play, and they tell tales of parents whose reactions have run the gamut from total support to utter confusion.

One mother can’t watch because the games make her dizzy; a second can’t keep the name straight and calls the game “League of Nations.” Another mom can hold her own in any competition, and a fourth carved out a weekend to play with her son so she could begin to understand. There are fathers who remain baffled, some who told their kids video games would never pay the bills and others who’ve admitted they’re downright jealous.

As for their offspring? They smile wide and can’t help but relish the turn of events, knowing they were onto something all along.

Startups

I feel like I hear more and more about startups these days. Or maybe we just label more things startups. Is Uber still a startup?

Anyway here is a cool article on the offices of NYC startups, via Mashable.

In Silicon Valley, many workers have been spoiled by sprawling campuses, free company buses, fun slides and scooters, in-house chefs and laundry services offered by prominent businesses like Google and Facebook. In New York, startup employees are accustomed to working more with less.

“Expectations, in some ways, are higher for the people in San Francisco,” McKelvey says. “In New York, you have thousands of buildings that have never been renovated, that have horrible designs, that are really cramped and terrible. Lots of people are coming out of those buildings and coming into our buildings and saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.’”

Sure enough, in tours of five prominent New York startup offices, that theme emerged again and again. Startups operating in the Big Apple don’t feel the need to dazzle staff quite as much — and particularly at a time when the startup market is more volatile — though they still go above and beyond the old-fashioned office.

San Francisco is a boring fucking city. In New York, you don’t have to entertain people because the city entertains people,” says Mario Schlosser, CEO of Oscar, a healthcare startup valued at nearly $3 billion and headquartered in the very entertaining SoHo neighborhood.

The pictures in the article are great. This stairwell setup is pretty much what you would expect of the 2010s startup, and you can just tell that each elevated level adds that much more productivity.

WeWork-office

The more different ground levels you have, the more you are a true startup.

Of course, they have the obligatory startup ping-pong table, which is even captioned, “The obligatory startup ping pong table.”

Poppin-ping-pong

It’s such a jovial picture, and what are those colored things on the shelves?

But not everyone is excited about ping-pong tables. A decline in sales of ping-pong tables could mean the tech bubble is popping, worries The Wall Street Journal:

wsj-ping-pong-table

Disclosure: The office I work in has a ping-pong table.

Palantir

I don’t usually link to Buzzfeed, but here are some interesting passages from “Inside Palantir, Silicon Valley’s Most Secretive Company“:

Over the last 13 months, at least three top-tier corporate clients have walked away, including Coca-Cola, American Express, and Nasdaq, according to internal documents. Palantir mines data to help companies make more money, but clients have balked at its high prices that can exceed $1 million per month, expressed doubts that its software can produce valuable insights over time, and even experienced difficult working relationships with Palantir’s young engineers. Palantir insiders have bemoaned the “low-vision” clients who decide to take their business elsewhere.

And:

On April 22, in an extraordinary move for a company that had prided itself on paying salaries below market rate, Palantir CEO Alex Karp announced a 20% pay raise for all employees who had worked there for at least 18 months. Karp also canceled annual performance reviews, saying the current system wasn’t working.

And:

Owing in part to the sensitive nature of its work, Palantir – which derives its name, the names of its offices (the Shire, Grey Havens, Rivendell, Gondor), and the name of its annual gathering (HobbitCon) from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books – forbids employees to speak with the press and uses quirky codenames to refer to its customers.

They include a table of such codenames, and they are actually kind of amusing:

buzzfeed-code

“Tophat” is pretty good for Bank of England, though when I enter a Walmart from now on, I will imagine the Oceans 11 team swooping in and snatching the discount toaster.

And after reading the article, I still don’t understand what Palantir actually does.

Misc

WSJ on Trump’s campaign style:

Republicans proved vulnerable to his unconventional campaign style. As a skilled entertainment professional, he made himself ubiquitous. His audience seemed ready to forgive any outrageous comment or slip-up.

Mr. Trump dominated the campaign conversation with a communications-heavy strategy that relied on mass rallies, TV interviews and debates. That meant no polling, no analytics, little paid media, no consultants.

“This election isn’t about the Republican Party, it’s about me,” Mr. Trump said in an interview this week. “I’m very proud I proved an outsider can win by massive victories from the people, not from party elites or state delegates.”

The Atlantic on the middle class:

According to Johnson, economists have long theorized that people smooth their consumption over their lifetime, offsetting bad years with good ones—borrowing in the bad, saving in the good. But recent research indicates that when people get some money—a bonus, a tax refund, a small inheritance—they are, in fact, more likely to spend it than to save it. “It could be,” Johnson says, “that people don’t have the money” to save. Many of us, it turns out, are living in a more or less continual state of financial peril. So if you really want to know why there is such deep economic discontent in America today, even when many indicators say the country is heading in the right direction, ask a member of that 47 percent. Ask me.

WBGH on Steven Strogatz on math education:

High school math, Strogatz notes, is organized the way it is because of the space race against the Soviets. The courses are literally “meant for rocket engineers in the 50s.”

But by forcing so many students to take classes like trigonometry, calculus, and algebra, Strogatz says we are forgetting about not just the utility but also the beauty of math.

NYT on Facebook:

Obviously there are limits to how much time Facebook users can spend since there are only 24 hours in a day. But short of that, “I don’t feel there’s any upper limit,” said Mr. Sena, the analyst. “Everybody wants to be the platform that’s on all day, kind of like some people used to have their television on all the time. Facebook is probably in the best position because people are already such active users.”

GDPs, Feelings, and Mountains

vintage-phone-ad

Human Progress, cont’d

The media is pretty good at reporting the most attention-grabbing headlines: popularity contests, controversies, and catastrophes. This part is fine. Companies should try to generate profits within reasonable moral bounds, and selectively reporting news stories that are the most interesting does not feel unethical.

But this causes us to miss the tiny incremental changes that have resulted in a better world, and instead focus on the seemingly endless problems that pop up every day. One would naively think, from things like the Flint water crisis, the popularized incidents of police brutality, random shooting deaths, terrorism worldwide, stagnant wages, and the growing rift of income inequality, that the United States and the world are eroding away. But this narrative misses all the positive things.

Remember 10 years ago? That’s not even the 1990s. That’s the early 21st century. In these dark ages of 2006, there was no iPhone, no Snapchat, no Twitter. There was neither Tumblr nor Tinder nor Uber, while Facebook and Youtube were in their infancy. 55% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage while only 35% were in support; today, those numbers have flipped. New art and new science have developed. The US emits less CO2, and global wind power capacity has increased by a factor of 6. Global poverty has continued to decline, infectious diseases take fewer lives, US cancer mortality rates have fallen, global childbirth mortality and child mortality rates are down, and even as the world population goes up the number of people undernourished is decreasing.

(And for computer geeks: The laptop I had in 2006 had 1 GB RAM and a 40 GB non-SSD hard drive. The one I am using to write this post costs about the same and has 16 GB RAM and a 256 GB SSD. )

So it is very puzzling that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have engaged so many people by essentially ignoring progress and calling on their followers to ignore it as well. The very idea of “Make America Great Again” is based on the narrative that the US has declined, yet there has not been a better time for the US or for the world. And the “capitalism has failed you” narrative from the other side of the spectrum is no better. Get rid of your iPhone first and then talk about capitalism produces nothing of value. Hillary Clinton understood this when she stated, “America never stopped being great.”

And here is The Economist:

Which would you prefer to be: a medieval monarch or a modern office-worker? The king has armies of servants. He wears the finest silks and eats the richest foods. But he is also a martyr to toothache. He is prone to fatal infections. It takes him a week by carriage to travel between palaces. And he is tired of listening to the same jesters. Life as a 21st-century office drone looks more appealing once you think about modern dentistry, antibiotics, air travel, smartphones and YouTube.

The question is more than just a parlour game. It shows how tricky it is to compare living standards over time. Yet such comparisons are not just routinely made, but rely heavily on a single metric: gross domestic product (GDP). This one number has become shorthand for material well-being, even though it is a deeply flawed gauge of prosperity, and getting worse all the time […]. That may in turn be distorting levels of anxiety in the rich world about everything from stagnant incomes to disappointing productivity growth.

And my favorite part from the ad at the top is, “Even use on your boat,” as if everyone had boats back then.

“I Feel Like”

Here is Molly Worthen, whose article in the NYT is titled “Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’“:

In American politics, few forces are more powerful than a voter’s vague intuition. “I support Donald Trump because I feel like he is a doer,” a senior at the University of South Carolina told Cosmopolitan. “Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,” a Yale student explained to a reporter in Florida. At a Ted Cruz rally in Wisconsin in April, a Cruz fan declared, “I feel like I can trust that he will keep his promises.”

These people don’t think, believe or reckon. They “feel like.” Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of a broad cultural contagion.

Hedging my written remarks is pretty useful when I say things on the internet that are archived permanently. It is so easy to take things out of context that I preemptively qualify statements to avoid misunderstanding.

On the other hand, I agree with all the reasons against over-hedging as discussed in the article. I am in favor of things that are rational and encourage discussion, and I detest things that shut down debates.

Yet here is the paradox: “I feel like” masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too — but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks.

When people cite feelings or personal experience, “you can’t really refute them with logic, because that would imply they didn’t have that experience, or their experience is less valid,” Ms. Chai told me.

“It’s a way of deflecting, avoiding full engagement with another person or group,” Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, a historian at Syracuse University, said, “because it puts a shield up immediately. You cannot disagree.”

This is also the primary reason why recent campus social justice movements go too far: they stifle debate rather than encourage it.

That said, there is a difference between hedging a statement and expressing an opinion:

  • If I recall correctly, the speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s.
  • I feel like Ted Cruz would make a bad president.

The first statement makes a factual claim but also expresses some uncertainty as to whether it is true. It doesn’t deflect engagement.

But the second is an opinion, and technically speaking, the claim is not that “Ted Cruz would make a bad president,” but that “I feel like Ted Cruz would make a bad president.” In this sense, you can’t really argue with the statement even if you miraculously provided evidence that Ted Cruz would make a good president, because that would not affect the person’s feelings that Ted Cruz would be a bad president.

So hedge more, “feel like” less.

Misc

NYT on Margot Robbie:

“It’s always a hustle,” she said. “I thought it would be a mountain, where you get to the top, and then it’s like: ‘Wheeee! It’s so easy after this.’”

Instead, Ms. Robbie said: “Any time I get near the top, I’m like, ‘There’s another mountain!’ The hustle continues.”

WSJ on making friends:

People with higher I.Q.s were less content when they spent more time with friends. Psychologists theorize that these folks keep themselves intellectually stimulated without a lot of social interaction, and often have a long-term goal they are pursuing.

Harvard on young people:

Sanders remains most popular candidate for America’s 18- to 29-year-olds; Nearly half believe today’s politics are unable to meet the country’s challenges; Majority reject both socialism and capitalism.

 

Brains, Stories, and Yelling

Cognitive Styles

I’m always skeptical of any explanation that involves “culture,” but here is Jennifer Richler in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind:

Previous research has shown that people from cultures that are Western,educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (“WEIRD,” in psychological parlance) tend to think analytically, using logical rules, whereas those that are non-WEIRD process information more intuitively. They even perform differently on problem-solving tasks: Americans, who are more analytical, remember individual components of a complex visual scene better than East Asians, who are more holistic.

They compared the minds of liberals and conservatives by giving them three words, e.g. “panda”, “monkey”, and “banana”, and asking which two were most related:

Liberals acted more like Westerners, pairing items that belonged to the same abstract category (for instance, two animals), whereas conservatives tended to pair items that were functionally related (monkey and banana), as non-Westerners do. One other classic test of holistic thinking also suggested that liberals tended to use a more typically WEIRD cognitive style.

The finding that conservatives think more like those from collectivistic cultures might sound counterintuitive. Aren’t liberals, who favor safety-net programs for the needy, the collectivist ones? Thomas Talhelm, now a professor of behavior science at the University of Chicago and lead author of the study, explains that true collectivism “doesn’t mean general sharing with other people. It’s about social ties and responsibilities to those within your group.” Antipoverty programs usually serve to help individuals get a leg up rather than strengthening groups—thus aligning with WEIRD cultures’ focus on individuality.

This confuses me a little because when I think about recent “liberal” examples in individualism vs collectivism, the thing that jumps out is the “check your privilege” movement, which is ultra anti-individualist. You belong to X racial group or Y social class? Privileged! Your “identity” is based on pre-defined groups (often which you did not make a choice to join) and not on your individual experience.

The counterintuitive story, that liberals are the individualistic ones, makes more sense after some thought. If you go through liberal vs conservative stances on social issues, it does seem like liberals in general favor the individual. The most glaring example is abortion, with the liberal position literally called “pro-choice.”

Here is a passage about where libertarians fit in this framework, from this article:

Historically, libertarians and modern liberals share an ideological ancestry, both tracing our roots to the classical liberal tradition of Locke, Hume, Smith, Mill, and others. In the 19th century, the classical liberals triumphed by advocating the primacy of the individual against the status quo of monarchy, mercantilism, aristocracy, theology, slavery, and the like. While the progressive movement stole our liberal terminology in the early 20th century, modern liberals and libertarians today still share that same valuation of the individual in society. This is most easily seen today in the issue of marriage equality, where social conservatives try to use the power of the state to control marriage because it is an important social institution, while liberals and libertarians focus on the importance of marriage in the lives of all individuals. It is the same core conflict between a holistic worldview that emphasizes tradition against a more analytic worldview that prioritizes the individual.

Oh, and I’m totally on team panda+monkey rather than monkey+banana. I would guess most people I know (liberals and math people) would pick the two animals as well.

Bonus: Here is a chart from the Scientific American Mind article on political party and Twitter language. It does further the story that “liberals are the real individualists”:

twitter_democrat_republican_language

Stories

Saw this on Tyler Cowen’s blog, so here is the story within a story. Just to be clear, I am quoting Tyler Cowen quoting Marti Leimbach:

“A question of privilege”

An excellent short essay by Marti Leimbach.  Here is the opening:

My university-aged daughter is always telling me about the “privilege” that people like me have and how it makes it impossible for me to understand and empathise with those whose lives are without such privilege. I do see her point. I’ve never been black or gay or trans or gender queer or mentally ill. I don’t know what it would be like to grow up in a derelict building in a dangerous neighbourhood, to have drug addicts for parents, to fear for my safety while walking to school, to be openly despised for being female, denied education or refused employment based on my skin colour or gender. And while I have been poor enough not to be able to afford a car or health insurance, I have never been so poor I had to steal food. Clearly, I’ve not suffered the worst of what society can throw at a person.

Nonetheless, this whole notion of “privilege” vexes me. We talk about it as though we can all recognise what it is. I am not always so sure. I can tell one narrative of my life and it seems to describe someone who grew up without privilege, and I can tell another narrative and it seems almost as though my life was one of ease and privilege from the time I was born.

The story continues…it is hard to excerpt with its various twists and turns, definitely recommended…

As advertised, Leimbach paints two widely differing narratives of the same set of events. It is definitely worth a read. (It also reminds me of the underrated movie Vantage Point, which shows the same plot unfold several times from the perspective of different characters.)

The power of narrative is strong. You can take the same set of facts and wind up with opposite interpretations, as was the case in Leimbach’s story. For very different example, here is a graph of US stock market investment, via Gallup:

gallup-stock-market

So should you buy into the market?

  • Story 1: “It is obviously a time to buy stocks. When the number of investors in the stock market recovers and comes back to normal levels near 60%, tens of millions of Americans will have bought stocks, making the market much higher than it is now.”
  • Story 2: “It is obviously a time to sell all your stocks. Fewer Americans are investing in the market than ever before, and this trend will only continue. Combined with the market near all-time highs, a crash is imminent.”
  • (Meta-story: “The markets are efficient and have priced in both stories 1 and 2, so it is not obviously a time to buy or to sell.”)

Do violent video games increase crime? [from this post]

  • Story 1: “People who play violent video games are likely to imitate the characters they play, thus becoming more aggressive in real life.”
  • Story 2: “People who would otherwise commit violent crimes satisfy their urges in video games and not in real life, thus decreasing the crime rate.”

So unless you have numbers to back you up or comprehensive explanations for complex issues, stay away from explaining things via simple stories.

These kinds of narratives make me skeptical of many political movements as well, whether from the right (e.g. the “war on Christianity” narrative) or from the left (e.g. the “privilege” narrative mentioned in Leimbach’s article).

Here is Cowen again, really hammering the point in a TED talk on narratives.

Basically, make sure you understand as much of the situation as you can, not just some simplified narrative.

How to Social Activism

Earlier this week, The Huffington Post on President Obama on Black Lives Matter:

President Barack Obama on Saturday praised the work the Black Lives Matter movement has done to highlight racial inequality, but also strongly cautioned activists that they needed to be realistic about their proposals and be willing to compromise.

Speaking at a town hall in London, the president mentioned Black Lives Matter specifically as he laid out his vision of how activists can achieve social change.

As a general rule, I think that what, for example, Black Lives Matter is doing now to bring attention to the problem of a criminal justice system that sometimes is not treating people fairly based on race, or reacting to shootings of individuals by police officers, has been really effective in bringing attention to problems,” Obama said.

But the president went on to say that activists needed to be realistic about what could be achieved immediately and sometimes needed to compromise to achieve long-term goals.

One of the things I caution young people about, though, that I don’t think is effective is once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them,” Obama said.

Thanks Obama! And no, that was not sarcastic. As a rationalist and individualist, I generally disapprove of schemes in which your identity is based on something that you had no control over, such as race.

I’m on team Clinton and I think many of Sanders’s plans are insane. However, I fully support Sanders’s right to speak at his own rallies, especially with so many supporters there to see and listen to Sanders, not some random people who hijacked the podium, which happened in Aug. 2015.

Things like this just alienate would-be allies. I was generally favorable towards Black Lives Matter before this and certainly had a lower view of the group after the event. And it’s not like Sanders did anything horrible to them before or during the event. I am glad President Obama was not afraid to address this.

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