Trifles

To be sure I’m understanding him, Gabriel is saying that one should cultivate impatience for busybody ethical “interventions” with ~0 expected benefit. Recycling (in the blue-boxes sense anyway) is a good example, but so are: unplugging phone chargers, endlessly haranguing smokers, posting “let’s take the stairs” signs on elevators, Raising Awareness, looking for satanic/sexist messages in rock songs and video games, etc.

I am sympathetic to Gabriel’s irritation with certain of these little “gestures”, such as the recycling ritual. But there is a thing or two to be said in defense of such rituals.

First, sometimes prosocial actions appear “low-leverage” because not many people have defected from the prosocial norm yet. (The first person to overgraze their sheep on the village green doesn’t see what the big deal is – there’s still loads of grass to spare. The first person to *fail to yell at* the first overgrazer, even less so.)

They may also appear low-leverage because practically everybody is already defecting from the prosocial norm. (There’s only a tuft of grass left; what difference does it make if my sheep finish it off?) In other words, rationalizations for defection are especially available at the beginning and the end of tragedies of the commons.

Second, prosociality rituals, even low-leverage ones, help maintain social capital. Conspicuous blue box recycling may be useless qua environmental intervention, but it signals to my neighbour that e.g. I am not the kind of person who will turn a blind eye when he fails to pick up his dog’s leavings. Social capital, supported by a huge edifice of cultural norms, is relatively invisible to the fish that swim in it every day, and like physical infrastructure it doesn’t disappear the very second its beneficiaries fail to maintain it. But disappear it eventually does, and the transition may be very swift indeed*.

It is also worth bearing in mind that norms can be a substitute for laws, usually operating in domains where the law would be too blunt an instrument. The latin formula “de minimis not curat lex” (the law does not deal in trifles) sums up this attitude. It’s not worth having a law requiring people to hold open doors for old ladies: it’s not important enough, it would cost too much in money and time, it would require all sorts of carefully specified exceptions (also it would reduce the signalling value of the behaviour, but I can’t decide whether that would be good or bad).

Yet holding doors for old ladies, while trifling, is one of many behaviours that by increments improve our social environment. Others include always giving the correct change even when you could cheat, washing regularly, thanking people, picking up your dog’s leavings, shovelling your sidewalk and maybe even your neighbour’s, and not making too much noise at night. Individually these things seem like trivialities, but failing at all of them adds up to misery by a thousand cuts. So if you want these trifles taken care of, but prefer not to have Sin Laws, get norming.

I said at the beginning that I was sympathetic to Gabriel’s point. I think the line between “Reusable Bags” in his pejorative sense and Social Capital Maintenance, which I want to boost a little, lies partly in who the audience is. When I take some low-leverage prosocial action, am I signalling at somebody whose own prosocial or antisocial actions affect my life (a neighbour, a friend, a member of my twitter circle, a family member), or am I degenerately signalling at some super-Dunbar audience of total strangers? These things feel very similar from the inside, but it is worth distinguishing them, because insufficient norming in real life leads to the soul-sucking anomie a lot of us live with, while norm enforcement chimp-outs are ruining the internet.

As usual, the opinions stated above are strongly stated, but loosely held.

* My crackpot theory is that cultural shifts in acceptable behaviour are often so swift because (trigger warning: handwaving) Common Knowledge about what social norms will be enforced easily collapses as soon as there is appreciable diversity-of-norms – look at a graph of e.g. divorce rates from 1960 to 1980.

Have Mercy

I. Wall of Disclaimers

This is an essay about eugenics. I resisted the temptation to write it as long as I could (several days) but it remains, unavoidably, an essay about eugenics. You should stop reading this essay if you don’t want to read a thing that can be described as “an essay about eugenics”.

Before I make any positive claims I would like to draw some attention to some claims that I am not making.

I do not support involuntary medical interventions, be they sterilizations, treatments, or cures, for conditions in general, as long as the people with those conditions are capable of distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary for curious observers, they are not unremittingly deluded about the question being posed to them, and leaving them untreated doesn’t pose a public health/safety problem. (I’d like a term for people who have conditions and prefer to keep them but I can’t think of one that isn’t terribly stupid.)

As a policy matter I am against killing humans as long as they a) are not occupying other humans who find their presence unwelcome, and b) do not, themselves, actively prefer to die.

I am in favor of default voluntary immortality for anyone who wants it, and would also be in favor of rescue sims of past people if they looked feasible.

The above premises combine mean that I actively want to live in a world which contains not only every disabled (or trans, neurodiverse, etc.) person who prefers to remain that way who is alive now, but also all of the ones who have ever existed, as long as they themselves prefer to retain their characteristics. I embrace this conclusion; it is not a bullet I have to bite but a natural and reasonable output of my beliefs.

No one holds the position that because humans are valuable, we must embrace every way via which valuable humans may come to exist. My go-to example here is that my Beloved Spouse was once informed by his parents that he was conceived as a result of a broken condom. No matter how Beloved my Spouse, and I assure you he is Pretty Damn Beloved, this does not mean that I have to campaign for poking holes in condoms, or oppose attempts to make birth control ever more effective. A more generally applicable example is that it is approximately guaranteed that every human being living today has at least one, probably many, ancestors who were the result of rape. No matter how much you like existing, this does not mean you must endorse rape. We are all capable of distinguishing between “processes which have produced valuable humans” and “processes which should go on producing humans in the future”. I encourage you to do this now.

II. Value Cancellation

The rest of this section will assume that you have read my short story Threshold. Go do that now if you haven’t yet. Alternately, consider finding that trivially inconvenient and therefore ceasing to read this essay on eugenics (why oh why did I write an essay on eugenics).

In “Threshold” I contrive to have two options from a single instance of child-having both exist as characters at once. This requires a freak accident in the story and is not, in real life, ever an available option. You cannot have both Mercy and Lyle. You can have Mercy or Lyle, one and only one.

I am pro-Mercy.

My understanding of the pro-Lyle position (or rather, the position that yields pro-Lyle if applied to this case) is that Mr. and Mrs. Long are not entitled to a referendum on the value of (in this example) trans people*. That because Lyle likes existing (and he does; I am the author and I’d know), or because other people similar to Lyle like existing, the Longs should have him.

I don’t think the pro-Lyle folks are entitled to a referendum on the value of Mercy. Advocating for Lyle in place of Mercy, and because Lyle is valuable and likes existing, only goes through if you are willing to say that Mercy is not valuable and doesn’t like existing (but she does; I am the author and I’d know). In the manner of an equation, their value and enjoyment cancels out.

You must decide between them on other parameters.

Mercy is more comfortable. Mercy has a better relationship with her parents (it would barely be a stretch to say that Mercy has better parents). Mercy requires less medical attention. This is all totally predictable from the moment Mrs. Long has her prenatal testing done and looks at the list of available tweaks.

Lyle is “natural”, admittedly, but this appeal to nature, if it is not presented as a bare fact and thus safely out of the repertoire of anyone I’m interested in arguing with, is ripe for a reversal test. Left as an exercise to the reader.

I don’t think anyone would criticize the Longs for not supplying their firstborn with twenty younger siblings. Nobody, except maybe the Quiverfull types, thinks that people have to have as many kids as they can squeeze out. But once they have decided to have one at all, some people may get very defensive of Lyle’s right to exist, even though they’d never make a peep about Greta Long, Hypothetical Sibling #19, no matter what list of conditions I assigned her. (Whether those conditions began with “cerebral palsy” or “sufficient genius to solve the problems involved in premature silicization when she grows up”. Or both.)

Whatever leads you to prefer Lyle over Mercy or Mercy over Lyle, it cannot be something they have in common. And one obvious thing they don’t have in common is that Mercy is a lot easier on Mr. and Mrs. Long, who are the ones having a child in the first place and begin the thought experiment as the only people in sight. Mr. and Mrs. Long – when permitted by their other constraints to do so – choose Mercy.

III. Who Find Their Presence Unwelcome

Why do I get the feeling that hardline anti-eugenicists don’t want me to breed?

That is to say, here is my paraphrase of the aggregate position of the firm anti-eugenics people: “If you want to biologically reproduce, you may not make any decisions about what kind of child to have except indirectly through partner selection (and it would be tacky to inquire after candidate partners’ genotypes instead of phenotypes alone). You may decide whether or not to have kids at all, but if you choose not to because you or your partner may pass on a condition and that condition isn’t on our short list of Real Bad Shit like Tay-Sachs, then you are probably making that choice for bad reasons and should feel bad. You should have as little information about a fetus you are gestating as possible if there is any chance you will use this information to make a decision about abortion; in many cases, it should be kept technologically impossible to learn this information. If you are not ready for all of the possible babies you might have, keep your gametes to yourself.”

This would be one thing to say in an era of enlightened universal health care; it is quite another in the real world. But that doesn’t form the core of my argument.

I am not ready for all possible babies.

But I am ready for most possible babies.

I would like to make use of the tools that are available to me to increase the probability of getting a baby more like the sort of baby I am ready for.

I, personally, have room in my life where others might not for babies of any sex/gender combination, babies who will need to learn to roll instead of walk, babies who never learn to speak aloud and prefer to write. Other people have other needs, more or less restrictive along various dimensions. Some needs are going to be more common than others. Some of them will change in response to new information about their subjects and some of them won’t. Letting everyone make choices based on lots of information will change the percentages of new children who have various conditions.

So it makes some sense that people who have strong feelings about those percentages would take an anti-eugenic stance, even against the gentlest, most opt-in, least coercive form of eugenics there can be.

But I’m not sure where in their reasoning they think they become entitled to, in the manner of a statistical cuckoo, place children of their favored conditions in other people’s bodies and families who find their presence unwelcome if those bodies and families have tried to open the door to other kinds of children instead. This is not kind to the parents and their opportunity cost is high. It is not kind to the children and their childhoods will be hard. It is not kind to the society around them who suffer externalities from a parent/child situation that nobody really wanted except the anti-eugenicist three towns over who doesn’t so much as have to babysit.

I will end that I have seen one solid argument against the greater availability of parental choice in child traits, which is that parents will optimize for positional goods and in aggregate everyone will end up worse off. For instance, it would be bad if everybody made their kids taller and taller. It doesn’t seem that there is an obvious way to coordinate parents with freely available choices to break out of a race like that before it causes problems, the way skewed sex selection has caused problems in parts of Asia. I don’t have an especially good reply to this specific argument and wanted to acknowledge its quality as an endnote to this goddamn essay on eugenics.

*The original concept of the story involved Mercy’s medical history containing an adjustment for a much more impairing condition, exactly what I hadn’t decided. Lyle existed as a separate character at first; him being Mercy’s trans baseline-reality counterpart came later and overdetermined the nature of her tweak.

The Fifteen Fundamental Properties

Pages 144-235 of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order Volume One: The Phenomenon of Life contain a theory of beauty as perceived by humans, conveyed in fifteen “fundamental properties.” Not every property occurs in every beautiful object, but in very beautiful buildings and objects, many of these properties are usually apparent, baked into the logic, structure, and detail.

Here I will briefly explain the fifteen fundamental properties, with reference to an early 20th century ivory dog netsuke and a Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture.

Here is the netsuke:
image
Continue reading “The Fifteen Fundamental Properties”

Centers

In The Timeless Way of Building (1979), Christopher Alexander argues for the counterintuitive proposition that feeling (in the sense of perceiving the beauty and “life” of a space), unlike ideas or opinions, is quite objective; there is an astounding level of agreement between people about how different environments and buildings feel, though there may be little agreement of opinions or ideas about them in general. I reproduce here a few crucial paragraphs from Chapter 15 of the book, which chapter and book I of course recommend reading in their entirety.
Continue reading “Centers”

Internet Respite Ritual and Public Suicide Threats

The internet is probably the most important social domain for play, not just for children but for adults as well. All cultures have some form of ritual combat – a form of ritualized fighting that transforms and subverts the normal human tendencies for hostility towards outgroups into fun. The most obvious and widespread form is athletic competition – football games, fencing, soccer. Non-athletic competition, such as chess and go, also fits the bill. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes cockfighting among the Balinese as such:

Fighting cocks, almost every Balinese I have ever discussed the subject with has said, is like playing with fire only not getting burned. You activate village and kingroup rivalries and hostilities, but in “play” form, coming dangerously and entrancingly close to the expression of open and direct interpersonal and intergroup aggression (something which, again, almost never happens in the normal course of ordinary life), but not quite, because, after all, it is “only a cockfight.”

Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight

Continue reading “Internet Respite Ritual and Public Suicide Threats”

Scribbles

“How do you manage trash disposal in the Endless World?”

As he looked, he observed that the name was not inaccurate. Unlike the other places he’d visited so far, the horizon here never actually terminated… If he strained his eyes, which seemed impossibly perceptive, he could continue to differentiate further detail. There were all sorts of questions he wanted to ask Endless’s god, but that wasn’t the issue at hand.

“Trash? Disposal of industrial and household waste, you mean?”

Endless’ god gestured to a nearby smattering of color, differentiated from emerald fields around. A small town, and indeed, in a single lot near the town’s center was a stack of materials. Corrugated metal, extruded aluminum; thin, dry cardboard, bound in thick bundles; bronze and steel cast into various odd shapes; and colorful sheets, cut to be more hole than plastic, peeking out here and there and fluttering in the wind. All remnants of different industrial processes.

Continue reading “Scribbles”

In Order To Give A Man A Fish, You Must First Teach Him How To Eat It

A couple weeks ago I got to spend an evening with Haley and Gabe in Boston discussing various things that probably bored Haley to tears (sorry!), but at least Gabe found interesting. One of Gabe’s shticks is that art should do a better job of conveying important ideas and concepts to its consumers. His favorite example of this (of everything?) is The Wire.

I want to push back on this a little bit – an alternate title this post might be “In Which I Attempt To Troll Gabe Into Coming Back To The Internet At Least In Small Doses And In A Totally Responsible Fashion Which Won’t Disrupt His Life And Waste His Time And Also Into Maybe Writing Something Interesting” but it just didn’t seem catchy enough.

Let’s take the premise at face value – that art should try to convey useful, meaningful concepts to its consumers. This seems reasonable as at least one of the things art should do. Well, it’s reasonable so long as art can convey these concepts. But can it? At face value, the answer is obvious – of course it can! The Matrix taught a generation that their perceived reality is possibly not even real. Inception did this for another generation.

But this dodges the question by avoiding the steel man: can art realistically convey new concepts to people often? Or efficiently? It’s easy to be less sanguine about this question.

A good example here is a concept from economics (and elsewhere) called elasticity. The price elasticity of demand, for example, is the % change in the quantity of a good demanded caused by a 1 % change in the price. There’s an ambiguity here though – are these percentages computed by using the original price and quantity as the base? The new price and quantity? Or maybe the average of the new and old price and quantities? Different textbooks and instructors make different decisions here, and students often get lost in a formula that doesn’t at all seem intuitive. Conveying the concept of elasticity at a high enough resolution that the recipient can understand the math is hard.

Unless they already know calculus. In terms of calculus, price elasticity of demand is dQ/dP * (P/Q), or in other words the derivative of demand with respect to price times the ration of price to demand. We can rearrange this equation as (dQ/Q)/(dP/P) in order to make it look more like percentage changes. If a student already knows calculus, it’s often very easy to explain elasticity to them – the ambiguity about base percentages goes away through the magic of calculus, and learning calculus already taught them about rates of changes. It’s also really easy to explain acceleration (the derivative of velocity) or jerk (the derivative of acceleration) or a whole host of useful concepts from a wide variety of disciplines.

I’m not just saying it’s better to teach a man to fish than to give a man a fish – as Gabe told me in Boston there’s some low hanging fruit to be grabbed just from giving people fish, and I agree. Some of the people you give fish to may have starved after all! But there’s something else going on here – not everyone knows how to eat fish. The fish eating novice might not chew thoroughly and miss the small bone tucked in the flaky goodness, resulting in some discomfort, post traumatic stress syndrome, and a lifetime devoid of fish. This, I contend, is a potential problem with trying to give someone the concept of elasticity who has never had calculus. Fundamentally, this is a really hard thing to do in such a way that requires no work on the recipient’s end.

Perhaps this is why Gabe reveres art which successfully conveys important, meaningful, and difficult concepts well – precisely because it’s so difficult. But I must ask the question, was is really that successful? Or did the people who got the concept already have the equivalent of calculus under their belt? Consider The Wire. As Robin Hanson notes:

The overall moral of the story seems to me largely libertarian.  A renegade cop effectively legalizing drugs in one area works out great, and the show’s writers have a Time oped supporting drug law jury nullification.  Dire consequences follow from child labor and prostitution being illegal.  The police, courts, prisons, schools, and city hall are unrelentingly corrupt and dysfunctional, because voters don’t much care.  In the background of the story, industries managed mainly by private enterprise, such as stores, hotels, shipping, and cars, seem to mostly function well.  Private newspapers look bad, but mainly because readers don’t much care.

Apparently, however, many see The Wired as calling for more government.  At a Harvard symposium on The Wired, many panelists said the answer was more funding.  Simon was there:

The wire is about a world in which people are worth less. … We depicted a world in which market forces always have their say and in which capitalism has triumphed, and marginalized labor – it makes labor cheap. … What we have here is a market-based [world]; capitalism has been the God.  To even suggest that there should be some social compact along with the capitalistic forces, to mitigate any of that, over the last twenty-five years, has been political suicide. … We are only getting the American that we’ve paid for, no more, and God damn it, we deserve it.

– See more at: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/10/the-wire.html#sthash.WTsGobX2.dpuf

To many people, The Wire illustrates all the reasons why capitalism caused the problems of Baltimore and other cities. Any understanding of market forces goes over their head. But to libertarian leaning economists like Robin and Alex Tabborak, The Wire is obviously illustrating how market forces work and the problems that arise when we ignore these forces. We can give these men fish; they already know calculus.