Archive for May, 2011


Weekend Reading

I came across a lot of weird little knick-knacks reading today.

This is an interesting article, because it, as always, makes them more complex. The point of the article is that men are, on the whole, interested in keeping loving monogamous relationships with women, but that power distorts many of our social feelings and abilities. In fact, the article claims to be about sexism, but is really just about power, and they cite a study showing that people put in positions of power lose the ability to read the emotions of others. It’s like the research on power is really depressing. Look first at the Milgram experiments. When humans are put in a position of subordination, we respond to totalitarian orders and stop thinking for ourselves. But when we’re put in a position of power, we lose the ability to perceive the emotions of others. So, long story short, humans can’t live with or without power in any easy sense. The challenge is to build institutions that give us power and celebrate that power while keeping us accountable to others. My claim is that the healthiest model for such a structure is competitive games and sports. This is because one adopts a dual structure towards one’s opponents, both fearing and respecting them, but also wishing to subjugate and destroy them. Thus, competition, like nothing else I’ve seen, allows us to take a dual relationship to power and be in power and out of power at the same time.

Did you know that M.A.S.H. went for 11 seasons and that its 11th season finale was the MOST WATCHED TV episode of all time? What? When David Foster Wallace wants to illustrate a father who was addicted to television. M.A.S.H. is the program he puts in the scene. Apparently, there was a black character in M.A.S.H. named “Spearchucker Jones,” which is unnerving to say the least, but get this: he supposedly dies after the biological warfare episode. Um, pop culture playing out genocidal fantasies…

We are in the matrix already. Not much to say here other than to think of how prophetic every sci-fi book you’ve ever read, is.


White Lies and Self-Fulfilling Lies

Some lies are malicious. I falsely tell you that someone started a rumor about you so that you fight with him. I take pleasure in your discord.

Other lies aren’t quite so bad. I may tell you something “for your own good.” I tell you something falsely so that you DO something that is better for you. I falsely tell you the other team is bad so that you have confidence and play better.

But what is interesting is that there are other types of lies that I have never seen talked about.

Consider a lie that is not designed to help me or to help you, but rather is designed to undermine your confidence in a poor justification for some belief you have. Think of this situation. You let me use your apartment for the weekend, but tell me that you don’t want X coming along with me, because you think X is dirty and irresponsible. I disagree and think that X is trustworthy but you disagree. How can I get evidence that will convince you? One way is to tell you, falsely, that he will not be with me when I come to your apartment and then bring him or her with me. If, the next day, when you check the apartment, nothing is damaged, then I can reveal that X stayed with me and there was no problem. In this scenario, I lie in order to circumvent an action that you want prohibited based on your bad evidence. My lie is somehow evidence enhancing. I don’t lie because I want you to be better off and I don’t like to make myself better off. Rather, I lie in the interest of robbing you of a misconception.

A variation of evidence enhancing lying is truth enhancing lying. This is the most interesting case to me. We condemn lying for many reasons: it conveys disrespect to the person being lied to (even if they know you’re lying), the lie is false in itself, and the lie is likely to get you to believe something false. Consider the last one: lying is bad because it is AN INSTRUMENT to make you believe something false. I can get you to believe something false in many ways including walking backwards in the snow to make you think I went in the opposite direction. Another way is to lie. If I tell you X is in the next room its likely to make you believe that, and then you believe falsely. But there are cases when telling a lie to you may actually cause you to now BELIEVE THE TRUTH. How is that possible?

Think of cases of self deception. You have a lot of evidence telling you that your girlfriend is cheating on you but you somehow rationalize around the evidence and think she is faithful. I try to give you more evidence, but you are impervious to the truth. You find ways around the true evidence that I have available to me to convince you. But then I tell you a lie that I think you will believe about her behavior. Pretend you wrongly think she is hung up on an old boyfriend (she isn’t; rather she’s cheating with someone else), and so I tell you “she’s been back with her ex-boyfriend.” This really upsets you and makes you see all the evidence in a new light and so accept the evidence that I’ve been throwing at you all along. You now see she is cheating with someone else (though if you believe my lie, you may also believe she is cheating with her ex boyfriend). The point here though is that my lie doesn’t only give you a false belief, it also gets you to see a true belief. How wrong is a lie like that? I’m not sure but the answer sheds light on what factors influence the wrongness of lying.


Infinite Jest and Sex

One of the main plot points of infinite jest is a movie made by a character who killed himself. The name of the movie is “infinite jest” and it is referred to by various government organizations as “the entertainment” and is considered a national security threat. The reason is that anyone who watches the tape has an irresistible desire to continue watching it forever. The movie is so pleasurable that people forget to eat and do anything else, no matter how uncomfortable they become. The movie also fries their brain.

The commentary is pretty blatant (especially in the context of the rest of the book). American culture is too obsessed with its desires and not enough on the control and mediation of those desires through principles and cognition. I don’t think rationality and cognition are the be all and end all of being human, in fact I’ve argued against that many many times in this blog. However, if you foster a culture that takes the satisfaction of all desires as the criterion for its success, you have disaster. And in the book, the CIA (well, not the CIA, but the big intelligence agency) is trying to get the tape because it represents the distillation of American life. It is the contradiction at the heart of the American system and though it gives overwhelming pleasure and satisfies one’s desire to keep watching it, it threatens society.

One of the main characters, Orin Incandenza (close to “incandescent” and I think the play on a synonym for light is probably intentional) is a player. He has sex with tons of women. At first, he just enjoyed having sex with them and seeing how much sex he could have and without how many people at once. But then, he needed to make the girl fall in love with him completely and utterly; to be come psychologically dependent on him. And this feeling of control is what he came to live for.

Now what’s interesting about this is that he wants to BECOME the Infinite Jest. The tape floating around stunning all its viewers becomes a very nice symbol for the motivations of Orin and for many other things in the book.


15 minutes extremely well spent

Use this. It takes about 15 minutes to complete and in the process you will become a much better citizen of this country. It’s not because it necessarily teaches you anything specific, but rather attacks the cancerous cynicism that infects so many people these about politics. If you play this game you will learn that governance is hard and that people are for the most part, probably trying to do their best.

I solved 125% of the social security problem and lowered the deficit to around 300 billion. Not bad, but not that good either. I did most of it by increasing taxes and slashing the military pretty heavily. I mainly boosted education and some other social services.

This game also teaches you where the big money goes and where it DOESN’T. We don’t spend shit on the environment or our court system. Things seem to work ok with that decision, but we just don’t spend anything there. This game also gives you a great sense of how ABSOLUTELY MONSTROUS our military budget it. Wow.


Shoe Sales

I was buying some shoes the other day, and of course the store didn’t have various shoes in my size, and so I had to finagle the size and the style in order to get something that matched what I wanted.

I got to thinking though, and came up with a conclusion that shoe sizing and going to “the back” to check if “I have your size” can act to camouflage a type of price discrimination. Shoes of the same style and quality are close in price, but not the same, and so the shoe salesman who can correctly identify the value I attach to my time and the convenience of getting something for my feet can effectively get me to pay more.

Usually, price discrimination is banned. If I walk into a subway for a sandwich, they can’t just pick a price based on seeing me drive up in a car (and not for instance, have taken the bus). This is to create consumer surplus. I can get a sandwich for less than what I would be willing to pay. But if Subway and other stores could do this, they could make more money from me, by further increasing the price they charge to match what I would be willing to pay.

Shoes salespeople can do this. Pretend I walk into a store and I’m not SUPER picky about what shoes I get. This assumption is necessary because if I have some so specific in mind, than trying to divert me to another shoe type might make me leave. Produce markets wouldn’t work on price discrimination as shoe salesman do because if the guy said “we don’t have eggplant, but we do have zucchini for slightly more” this would not be enticing. I need a SPECIFIC food.

But back to shoes. I come in there and I want some brown semi-formal shoes. I found two pairs I really like. One is cheaper AND I like it more. Slam dunk. I ask for them and they guy comes back and says “we don’t have those in your size, but we have the others.” In essence I’m asked to pay more for something I don’t want as much, but since I can’t see the selection of shoes offered to me, I’m at the mercy of the salesperson. I’m “in the dark” about what my true options are and the options presented to me can be manipulated to influence my choice. Pretend I liked the two shoes THE SAME. I could still be directed toward to the more expensive shoes if search costs are sufficiently large (it takes me too much time to find them again and get them).

I guess the answer to this is online shopping, which I didn’t think about when I was at the store. If I test a particular shoe and know that it fits (that’s the key right? online shoe shopping can involve a lot of back and forth if you don’t confirm that), then I can ALWAYS get it online, for a pretty minimum amount of search cost/time.

O well, the point remains that in person shoe shopping is an exercise in information manipulation and market power. More simply, there is an information asymmetry. The salesperson knows what shoes they have and you don’t.


Protesting the Media

People protest companies all the time, and they also protest actions of government, but I think this is a fascinating portent of the changes that need to be made to our media system.

You see, the New York Times, wrote a really scandalous article about the gender environment of the IMF and accused the organization of being ruled by an alpha-male mentality that made women feel objectified and victimized. As someone who these days is responsible for generating content for a website, I understand how seductive these stories are. They draw lots of eyeballs. They are also hopelessly simplistic and whip up interest at the cost of accuracy.

The women in this story though are calling bullshit, and they are doing it as a group. Normally, when someone protests a new story, they just deny it PERSONALLY or sue the organization (tabloid), but has mainstream news just become tabloid coverage, and why do outrageous stories now necessitate a  COLLECTIVE response. Notice the burden this puts on civil society. If the press is throwing its weight around with the sensationalism it can direct, then civil society has to become even more organized and vigilant to fight back.


The volunteer economy is a joke

There are some people who think that the internet will make everything free because people will have so much time on their hand that they will volunteer on causes, and that everyone will do this so that things will get done without almost non-existence collective social effort.

This is, I just recently realized, complete crap. I spend most of my day working with volunteers of one stripe or another, and in the capacity that I work with volunteers in, things go pretty swimmingly, but the situations in which spontaneous outpourings of effort get things done are LIMITED. The reason that firms exist who pay their employees to be some place (an office) at some time and sit around until there is work to do and then to do it with all possible dispatch is because this system of organization has enormous efficiency benefits.

In fact, it’s something of a puzzle for economists why there are firms at all rather than an endless sea of subcontractors. Why does Coca Cola keep ANY employees when it could just subcontract on each individual task it needs to get done. Well for one thing the transaction and search costs of finding people to do one job at a time would be a nightmare.

A similar type of logic applies to the volunteer economy. Volunteers are in it for the “cause” and as such cannot be told that they are of no use at the moment or that they are terrible at helping; this type of honesty makes them not want to help. But this psychological dance is extremely taxing because you have to make up things for people to do and to accept their word product even when constructive criticism could greatly improve it (for fear of alienating them).

Also, volunteers are not available for set periods of time usually (when business can maximally transacted in a short period of time) and their is almost no cost to them (save a sense of being valued, see above) for them to just NOT RESPOND to a given task, which can collapse a carefully constructed assembly of work that depends on the work of others in an interrelated whole.

Last, in a paid environment, it pays to do good work and lots of you, because you might get more money, but in a volunteer situation, doing really good work means being subject to bullshitty ass-kissing sessions where the end goal is to get you to spend EVEN MORE time helping that you are getting nothing for.

Don’t get me wrong, I think volunteering for various causes is a really critical part of maturing, interacting with others, and entering into valuable relationships with people who need help, not to mention reinforcing gratitude at one’s good fortune, but as an organizing principle for an ENTIRE ECONOMY; it is a recipe for extreme losses of welfare.

I would love to see Boeing try to build a jet out of a volunteer army.