Category: Philosophy

The evolution of successful prediction

Therefore, on balance, our results suggest that Danto was substantively correct. As the number of events being evaluated grows, successful predictions will be increasingly outnumbered by events that seem insignificant at the time, but which come to be viewed as important by future historians in part because of events that have not yet taken place. More generally, our results provide further evidence for the observation that the combination of nonlinearity, stochasticity and competition for scarce attention that is inherent to human systems poses serious difficulties for ex ante predictions—a pattern that has previously been noted in outcomes such as political events, success in cultural markets, the scientific impact of publications and the diffusion of information in social networks. Given that historical significance is typically evaluated on longer time scales than these other examples, it is especially vulnerable to unintended consequences, sensitivity to small fluctuations and reinterpretation of previous information in light of new discoveries or societal concerns. A further complication is that historical significance, even when it can be meaningfully assigned, is specific to observers whose evaluation may depend on their own idiosyncratic interests and priorities. Although we speak of history as a single entity, in reality there may be many histories, within each of which the same set of events may be recalled and evaluated differently.

That is from Joseph Risi, Amit Sharma, Rohan Shah, Matthew Connelly, and Duncan J. Watts in Nature, in their new piece “Predicting History.

Via William A. Benzon.

Fleabag and Killing Eve

Fleabag (Amazon) and Killing Eve (BBC America) are two television shows written by the absolutely brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge who also stars in the former. I tweeted:

Image result for fleabagFleabag 2nd Season even better than 1st. An indelible portrait of toxic femininity. No accident that the brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge also wrote Killing-Eve featuring a different female killer but in male style and fantasy form rather than the more mature & realistic Fleabag.

Not everyone understood the tweet and some were confused. How could Fleabag be about toxic femininity when Waller-Bridge is a feminist? Fleabag is misunderstood because people try to frame it in terms of victimhood and Waller-Bridge is having none of that. Her method for illustrating the equality of the sexes is to show that women can be just as evil as men. Fleabag is much darker and more religious and mystical than most people realize.

I have written somewhat elliptically in what follows so as not to give much away but….mild spoiler warning. Herewith some observations.

Killing Eve features the serial killer, Villanelle. In one episode, she kills her lover using perfume. What could be a better metaphor for toxic femininity than that? Although they appear very different, Villanelle and Fleabag have much in common. Both of them, for example, are sociopaths.

Fleabag says as much herself, “I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman.” But even more telling is that the other characters tell us that Fleabag is a sociopath. “You know exactly what you are doing,” “You only do what you want,” “You know what you are going to do,” or words to that effect are said many times. To understand Fleabag the show, you need to take these words seriously and backcast them to the events that happened before Season One. Namely, in a fit of sexual jealousy, Fleabag decided that if she can’t have what she wants then no one will. She wills it. It happens.

In doubt? Consider the scene at the funeral of Fleabag’s mother. Is she upset? Distraught? In tears? No, she looks radiant. She is more beautiful, more composed, more at peace on the day of her mother’s funeral than any day before and everyone tells her so. “I have never seen you looks so good,” “You look glorious,” and my favorite, “Gosh, grief really agrees with you.” Her body tells the truth. It is a mistake to wish this away.

In Season One, Fleabag is only just realizing the power that her sociopathy and sexual charisma bestow upon her and at first she is frightened. By S2, however, she is in command and we see her using her intense sexual charisma to bend men to her will. Men worship her and she treats them like objects and playthings. In one case, she literally has her boyfriend on his hands and knees scrubbing the floors. It’s hilarious.

FB is not the only example of toxic femininity in the series. The stepmother is an older version of Fleabag who also uses her sexual charisma to get what she wants. She has Fleabag’s father by the balls and to prove it she hangs them on the wall (I am not making this up). Fleabag cannot defeat the passive-aggressive stepmother because her sexual powers work only over men (notice the Kristen Scott Thomas scene and recall that FB didn’t get what she really wanted pre Season One). The stepmother is in fact a kind of witch who uses words to destroy those around her even though the words themselves are pleasant sounding. The stepmother also fashions a voodoo doll, a statue of Fleabag’s mother–whom she has replaced–that is notably beheaded.

The real plot of Season Two is that Fleabag is bored by how easy it is to control men and so she goes after bigger game. Can she top her pre-Season One triumph? Can she steal a man from God? Priest and witch enter into a battle of wits and wills. The Priest thinks he is going to exorcise her demons. This is a feminist show. He doesn’t.

The priest is a very interesting character. He is specifically introduced as a new priest, i.e. a new church, and he is young and cool and sexy. He is also a complete failure. Is Waller-Bridge, who was schooled by nuns, saying the new church fails or the church in general? Either way, despite being celestially warned, the priest fails God, he fails the Church and, perhaps most of all, he fails Fleabag. To be saved, Fleabag needed to find an incorruptible man, one who truly believes that there are bigger things than sex and dominance and worship of self. Instead, she finds in the church nothing but hypocrisy. In choosing sex over God and devotion to others, the Priest violates a sacred trust just as the pedophile priests violated their sacred trust (and Waller-Bridge makes clear the family resemblance). It does not take much imagination to see that the Priest will soon meet his fate in an alcoholic stupor (many hints are given).

In the final scene Fleabag walks into the sunset contentedly, like a talented Mrs. Ripley. The priest leaves in the opposite direction pursued by a demon symbolizing his failure to guard his flock.

Addendum: By the way, we never learn Fleabag’s name. She is a temptress who kills. Thus, another good name for Fleabag would be Killing Eve.

The economics of privacy

Perhaps the biggest complaint about tech companies today is that they do not respect our privacy. They gather and store data on us, and in some cases, such as Facebook, they charge companies for the ability to send targeted ads to us. They induce us to self-reveal on the internet, often in ways that are more public than we might at first expect. Furthermore, tech data practices are not entirely appropriate, as for instance Facebook recently stored user passwords in an insecure, plain text format.

This entire debate is overblown, and the major tech companies are much less of a threat to our actual privacy than is typically assumed.

For most people, gossip from friends, relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances is a bigger privacy risk than is information garnered on-line. Gossip is an age-old problem, and still today many of the biggest privacy harms come through very traditional channels. And unlike false charges planted on social media, often there is no way to strike back against secretive whisperings behind one’s back. In the workplace, one employee may tell the boss that another employee does not work hard enough, or high school gossip may destroy reputations and torment loners and non-conformists, to give two common examples of many.

If anything, the niche worlds made possible by the internet, and yes by Facebook and Google, are giving many people refuges from those worlds of public scrutiny and mockery – you can more easily find the people who and like respect you for what you really are.

Life in small towns and rural areas is another major threat to privacy – too often everybody knows everybody else’s business. In contrast, if you live in a major city or suburban area, you have a much greater ability to choose whom you interact with, and you are more protected from the prying of your neighbors and relatives. And it seems that so far, contrary to some initial “death of distance” predictions, the internet has encouraged people to move to major urban centers such as New York and San Francisco. To that extent, internet life has boosted privacy rather than destroying it.

There’s also evidence that young Americans are having less sex these days and they are less likely to be in a serious relationship. The internet is likely one cause of that isolation, and in my view those changes are probably social negatives on the whole, and they represent a valid criticism of on-line life. But is the internet in this regard boosting privacy? Absolutely. The internet makes it much easier to be in less contact with other people, whether or not that is always wise or the best life course overall. It strikes me as odd when the same people blame the internet for both loneliness and privacy destruction.

A lot of actual privacy problems in the public arena don’t seem to attract much attention, unless they are tied into a critique of big tech. For instance, autocratic governments are using Interpol and its police powers and databases (NYT) to track down and apprehend ostensible criminals who are in fact sometimes merely domestic political dissidents. It is likely that many innocent individuals have ended up in jail (can the same be said from social media violations of privacy?) That’s an example of using databases for truly evil ends and, while it was covered by The New York Times (p.A10), it is hardly a major story.

It is striking to me how much the advocates focus on regulating the big tech companies, because a true pro-privacy movement might not have that as a priority at all.

By the way, how do you feel about obituaries?  The newspaper collects information on you for years, and then suddenly one day they publish it all and then keep it on the web, whether you like this or not.  They’ll even throw in snide remarks, sarcastic tone, or moral judgments about you, depending on the outlet of course.

If the privacy landscape is so complex, why then is there so much anger at Facebook and other social media companies? First, most users of services such as Facebook and Google are actually pretty happy with those services and with the companies. Some of the opposition is coming from intellectuals with core anti-business grudges, politicians looking to get headlines, or often from media itself, who face Google and Facebook as major and far more profitable competitors.

Second, social media themselves create contagion effects, whereby attention is piled on a relatively small number of select victims. For instance, the #MeToo campaign has focused condemnation on a small set of offenders, such as Harvey Weinstein, then magnified by Twitter and other social media. Many other offenders get off scot-free, simply because attention has not been directed their way. Ironically, one of the better arguments against social media is to look at how social media treat and discuss social media itself. On the privacy issue, Facebook rather than say Google has ended up as the main whipping boy, even though it might have gone the other way (who again controls your gmail?).  Ironically, perhaps the actual best argument about social media is how social media reflexively covers social media itself.

Third, many of the supposed concerns about privacy are perhaps questions of control. It is correct that the major tech companies do “funny things” with our data which we neither see nor understand nor control.This unsettles many people, even if it never means that some faux pas of yours is revealed in front of a party of your mocking friends. Still, I am not sure the underlying notion of “control” here has been satisfactorily defined. Many marketers, and not just on the internet, do things you do not control or even know about.  Furthermore, see Jim Harper on privacy, who covers security, seclusion, autonomy, and absence of objectification as some of the different features of privacy concerns.

Of course, just as privacy violations do not stem mainly from the big tech companies, we have never been in control of what is done with information and opinion about us, again think back on social gossip. This fundamental lack of control is just now being pushed in our faces in new and unexpected ways. In part it is actually unsettling, but in part we also are overreacting.

Privacy is a real issue, but to the extent it can be fixed, most of that needs to happen outside of the major tech companies.  Most of what is written about tech and privacy is simply steering us down the wrong track.

My Conversation with Russ Roberts

The podcast master himself, here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:

What are the virtues of forgiveness? Are we subject to being manipulated by data? Why do people struggle with prayer? What really motivates us? How has the volunteer army system changed the incentives for war? These are just some of the questions that keep Russ Roberts going as he constantly analyzes the world and revisits his own biases through thirteen years of conversations on EconTalk.

Russ made his way to the Mercatus studio to talk with Tyler about these ideas and more. The pair examines where classical liberalism has gone wrong, if dropping out of college is overrated, and what people are missing from the Bible. Tyler questions Russ on Hayek, behavioral economics, and his favorite EconTalk conversation. Ever the host, Russ also throws in a couple questions to Tyler.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s a reader question. “In which areas are you more pro-regulation than the average American?” They mean government regulation.

ROBERTS: Than the average American?

COWEN: Yes.

ROBERTS: I can’t think of any. Can you help me out there, Tyler?

COWEN: Well, I’m not sure I know all of your views.

ROBERTS: What would you guess? Give me some things to think about there. In general, I think government should be smaller and regulations should be smaller.

COWEN: I’ll give you–

ROBERTS: Let me give you a trick answer. Then I’ll let you feed me some.

COWEN: Sure.

ROBERTS: Many people believe that the financial crisis was caused by deregulation. I think that’s a misreading of the evidence. It’s true that some pieces of the financial sector were deregulated, but government intervention in the financial sector was quite significant in advance of the crisis. In particular, the bailouts that we did of past failed financial institutions, I think, encouraged lenders to be more careless with how they lent their money, mainly to other institutions, not so much to people out in the world like you and me.

Deregulation’s a little bit tricky, so I wanted to get that in. I’m not sure how that pertains to the question. It does, probably, in some way. So give me something I should be more regulatory about.

COWEN: Well, one answer —

ROBERTS: Baseball? Baseball, of course. [laughs]

COWEN: I would say animal welfare — government should have a larger role. But also what counts as a tax-exempt institution, I would prefer our government be stricter.

ROBERTS: Well, I’m with you there. Yeah, okay, kind of.

COWEN: Well, that’s more regulation, okay?

ROBERTS: I guess.

COWEN: Kind of.

ROBERTS: Yeah, kind of. It’s different standards.

COWEN: Higher capital requirements for banks.

ROBERTS: I’m okay with that. Yeah, that’s a good one. I’d prefer a laissez-faire world for banks, more or less. If we can’t credibly promise not to bail out banks — if that’s the case, we live in a world where banks get to keep their profits and put their losses on taxpayers — bad world. A more regulated world would be better than the world we live in; not as good as my ideal world, though. But there’s a case where I would be in favor — like you just said — more capital requirements.

You’re on a roll. See what else you can come up with for me.

COWEN: Spending more money for tax enforcement, especially on the wealthy.

ROBERTS: Not the worst thing in the world.

COWEN: You can spend a dollar and bring in several times that, it seems.

ROBERTS: I don’t think rich people cheat on their taxes. Do you? [laughs]

COWEN: “Cheat” is a tricky word, but I think we could spend more money.

ROBERTS: We could probably collect more effectively.

COWEN: And it would more than pay for itself.

ROBERTS: Yeah. That’s probably true.

COWEN: We’re actually big fans of government regulation today.

ROBERTS: Yeah, we’ve really expanded the tent here. [laughs]

Do read or listen to the whole thing.

Cosmopolitanism vs. nationalism

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  It is hard to excerpt, but here is the closing bit:

The best way for that to happen is to let practical nationalism reign, while at the margin seeking to soften it with moral cosmopolitanism. Both perspectives are valuable, and neither can be allowed to dominate. Each perspective, standing on its own, is intellectually vulnerable, yet the two outlooks together are not quite fully harmonious. It is this dynamic clash, however, that helps to account for the strength of each.

Try explaining all that, and its required background knowledge, in a 280-word tweet. Yet much of the world manages a pretty fruitful balance between moral cosmopolitanism and practical nationalism. There is a wisdom embodied in this lived experience which neither pundits nor philosophers can convey.

A tempered and centrist cosmopolitanism won’t always command the strongest loyalties, nor will practical nationalism always look so pretty. If we can accept that reality, then maybe we can stop throwing stones at each other.

*The New Right: A Journey to the Fringe of American Politics*

That is the new book by Michael Malice, and I have to say it will go down as one of the more important albeit objectionable books of this year.  Imagine an well-informed anthropological treatment of Gamergate, PUA, Ann Coulter, Mike Cernovich, Milo, and all the rest of “that stuff,” both its history and how it fits together.

Just to be clear, this book is not written from the perspective of a journalist trying to make these movements look weird, rather it is written from the perspective of an anarchist trying to make these movements look (relatively) normal.  You might find that approach is not affiliated with the proper mood.  I don’t get the sense that Malice is “one of them,” but his “objectivity” might not be the right kind of objectivity.  I’m not going to try to resolve that meta-issue here, I’ll just say that a “normalizing” treatment of “the New Right” has some descriptive virtues, and you might end up more scared and more concerned than if you read a journalistic expose.  That said, I am not sure the author really grasps the non-niceness of so much of this stuff, or the import of that non-niceness.

Every page of this book is interesting, and so I am going to recommend it.  Here is a Kirkus Review, otherwise MSM doesn’t seem to be touching this one at all.  Here is the Amazon link, 79 reviews and an average of five stars.  The reviews themselves are not entirely reassuring.

I thank an MR reader for the pointer.

*The Marginal Revolutionaries: How Austrian Economists Fought the War of Ideas*

That is the new and very interesting forthcoming book by Janek Wasserman, focusing on the history of the Austrian school of economics and due out in September.  A few comments:

1. It is the best overall history of the Austrian school.

2. It is in some early places too wordy, though perhaps that is necessary for the uninitiated.

3. I don’t think actual “Austrian school members” will learn much economics from it, though it has plenty of useful historical detail, far more than any other comparable book.  And much of it is interesting, not just: “Adolph Wagner and Albert Schaeffler taught in the Austrian capital in the 1860s and early 1870s, but quarrels with fellow incumbent Lorenz von Stein led to their departure.”

4. Even a full decade after its release in 1871, Menger’s Principles was not achieving much attention outside of Vienna.

5. The early Austrians favored progressive taxation and fairly standard Continental approaches to government spending.

6. The Austrian school of those earlier times was in danger of disappearing, as Boehm-Bawerk was working in government and the number of “Austrian students” was drying up, circa 1905.

7. The very first articles of Mises were empirical, and covered factory legislation, labor law, and welfare programs.

8. Wieser and some of the others lost status with the fall of the Dual Monarchy after WWI; Wieser for instance no longer had a House of Lords membership.  Schumpeter and Mises responded to these changes by writing more for a broader public, often through newspapers (not blogs).  Mises’s market-oriented views seemed to stem from this time.

9. Hayek in fact struggled in high school, though his grandfather had gone on Alpine hikes with Boehm-Bawerk.

10. The Lieder of the original Mises circle were patterned after the poems of Karl Kraus, and one of them mentioned spaghetti and risotto.

11. Much of this book is strong evidence for the “small group” theory of social change.

12. The patron institution for Hayek’s business cycle research of 1927 to 1931 was partly sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation.

13. By the mid-1930s, Mises, Tinbergen, Koopmans, and Nurkse were all living in Geneva.  There was a Vienna drinking song saying farewell to Mises.

14. I wonder how these guys would have looked as Emergent Ventures applicants.  [“We’re going to run away from the Nazis and recreate anew our whole school of thought in America, with thick Austrian accents…and with a night school class at NYU to boot.”]

15. The Austrian school eventually was reborn in the United States, which accounts for many more chapters in this book, some of them concerned with the ties between the Austrian school and libertarianism.  There are some outright errors of fact in this section of the book, sometimes involving matters I was involved with personally (and which are non-controversial, not a question of “taking sides”).  I think also the latter parts of the book do not quite grasp the extensive influence of the Austrian school on America, extending up through the current day, and covering such diverse areas as regulatory policy and tech and crypto.

Nonetheless, recommended as an important contribution to the history of economic thought.

On Left Straussianism

We might therefore say that the left intellectual becomes the left Straussian when they decide that, in addition to sometimes filtering their own public speech to advance an ideological agenda, they’re additionally responsible for “protecting” the public from being exposed to conversations not disciplined by political strategy. To the extent that their own ideas are not already disciplined by such a strategy, they limit discussion of them to close friends and sympathetic colleagues.

And:

In each case, thoughtful criticism of an author’s argument—for being confused, or incomplete—was overshadowed by the left-Straussian assertion that, regardless of whether the argument was true or reasonable, it was “irresponsible” for the author to make it in public.

And:

Those who engage in such tactics would never endorse Strauss’s hard distinction between the elect few and the unthinking many—at least not explicitly. But the care they take to pre-screen intellectual material indicates that they share his dark foreboding about the “costs” of public intellectual conversations reflecting rather than repressing the complexities of private ones. Attempting to marginalize or disqualify intellectual arguments itself implies a gap between the commentator, who trusts themselves to evaluate the arguments in question, and their imagined audience, who is assumed to lack either the tools or the ability to do so unaided. Left Straussians may not believe that they are philosopher-kings but they repudiate, in practice and increasingly even in theory, the possibility of the philosopher-reader.

Here is the full piece by Anastasia Berg and John Baskin, via Agnes Callard.

*Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World*

That is the new book by David Epstein, the author of the excellent The Sports Gene.  I sometimes say that generalists are the most specialized people of them all, so specialized they can’t in fact do anything.  Except make observations of that nature.  Excerpt:

In an impressively insightful image, Tetlock described the very best forecasters as foxes with dragonfly eyes.  Dragonfly eyes are composed of tens of thousands of lenses, each with a different perspective, which are then synthesized in the dragonfly’s brain.

I am not sure Epstein figures out what a generalist really is (and how does a generalist differ from a polymath, by the way?), but this book is the best place to start for thinking about the relevant issues.

My Conversation with Ezekiel Emanuel

Very much a fun one, here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the opening summary:

Do we overrate the importance of doctors? What’s the importance of IQ versus EQ in the practice of medicine? What are the prospect for venture capital in biotech? How should medical training be changed? Why does he think the conventional wisdom about a problem tends to be wrong? Would immortality be boring? What would happen if we let parents genetically engineer their kids?

Tyler questions Emanuel on these topics and more, including the smartest thing his parents did while raising him, whether we have right to medical self-defense, healthcare in low- versus high-trust institutions, and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How can we improve medical education?

EMANUEL: Cut it down. Make it shorter.

COWEN: Cut it down? Why does that make it better? Or does it just make it cheaper?

EMANUEL: No, I think it will make it better. So, we have a lot of memorization, a lot of . . . So, let’s go back to the start. The four years of medical school: two years of preclinical in the classroom learning about biochemistry, genetics, anatomy, microbiology; and the two years of clinical time in the hospital, on the wards.

That dates from 1910. We haven’t really updated it much, except in this one way: we’ve cut down the preclinical time because — less of it — and it changes so fast, by the time you learn it in medical school, get out as a doctor, it’s out of date, A; and B, it’s more or less irrelevant to managing most patients…

And then, by the way, in med school, spending your time in a hospital is not the future. The future of American medicine is out of the hospital. So we need more rotations, more experiences for students out of the hospital.

No med school has made that big shift, and those are the shifts that are going to have to happen over the next 15 or so years.

And:

COWEN: Is there a right to medical self-defense that should override FDA bans on drugs and medical devices? I want to try something that’s not approved —

EMANUEL: No. I don’t like that.

COWEN: I’m saying it’s my body. But why don’t you like it?

EMANUEL: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, Tyler.

Finally:

COWEN: Now, you’ve written a much-misunderstood article about how hard you would try yourself to live past the age of 75. Would not the suspense of world and national history always keep you wanting a bit more extra time?

So, say I’m 75. I’ve decided I agree with you, but the NBA Finals aren’t over yet. I want to see game seven. I want the Mueller report to come out. Isn’t there always something?

And then, it’s kind of intransitivity of indifference. Every day there’s something, and you just keep on hanging on, even if one accepts your arguments in the abstract. Can you talk me out of that?

EMANUEL: No, no, Tyler, I think you’re exactly right. That’s why people do hang on. It’s because . . . you know, so I talked to my father, who — he says, “Zeke, you’re absolutely right. I’ve become slower, physically slower, mentally slower. My life” . . . what ends up happening is your life cones down, and you begin to overvalue certain small things. Like the NBA Finals. Like what’s in the Mueller report.

We all know, from any cosmic standpoint — even not a cosmic standpoint, just a 2,000-foot standpoint — most of those things are not irrelevant. It’s really cool to know.

You often ask — and this happens to me all the time. I teach undergraduates. Pretty smart undergraduates. Very smart undergraduates. MBA students, nurses, doctors, right? They have no understanding of history. So, whoever finishes in the NBA Finals, in five years, people have forgotten.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

We’re a Niche, We Just Didn’t Know

That is the new Medium essay by Anna Gát, it is the best attempt I know of to formulate a “new ideology” of sorts, or maybe a new manifesto, but also a post-political one.  Here are a few scattered bits:

Let’s imagine the I.I. [Inter-Intellect] as a loose-knit on/offline niche of people with similar mental energy: we seem to have roughly the same companion + kindness + information needs, activity levels and communication preferences…

We seem to prioritize open discussion and collaboration across differences, and establishing projects that can address real-world questions better…

We believe individuals are capable of acting virtuously without external intervention and judging the consequences of their own actions, and that open discussion of our life plans, decisions or progress can inspire others.

“Example over slogans” is the tldr…

Being conscious of this, the I.I. is age-agnostic and instead problem/progress focused.

Interesting throughout.