Monthly Archives: December 2007


Behind on Xmas preparations?  In addition to Friday’s last minute gift suggestion, we review procrastination.  From a recent New Scientist:

So does leaving things till the last minute ever pay off, or do procrastinators inevitably pay a price for their delay? One recent North American survey found that individuals who leave the preparation of tax returns to the last moment make errors costing them $400 per return on average. … Students who scored low on the procrastination questionnaire and who worked at a steady pace tended to fare well academically, with an average grade of 3.6 out of 4. Not so those who scored high on the questionnaire, whose grade average was just 2.9. …

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Zen and the Art of Rationality

Followup toEffortless Technique

No one would mistake my writings for ancient Eastern wisdom.  Successfully or not, I aspire to clearly set forth the reasoning, antecedent assumptions, and pragmatic use of my conclusions.  Successfully or not, I aspire to cut my proposals into modular pieces, so that a user can reject one mistake without destroying the whole.  This standard of writing is inherited from the ancient traditions of technical thinking, not the ancient traditions of Zen.

No one would mistake my writings for ancient Eastern wisdom.  My goals are not the goals of Buddha or Lao Tse.  Feeling Rational suggested that emotions should follow from beliefs but not beliefs follow from emotions:  the ideal is to free yourself of all attachment to preferred conclusions about reality, arrive at your beliefs of fact by weighing the evidence without prejudice, and then feel fully whatever emotions follow from these beliefs-of-fact.  In stereotypical Eastern philosophy, you are supposed to free yourself of all attachments, not just attachment to beliefs-of-fact apart from evidence; you are supposed to relinquish all desire.  Yes, I know it’s more complicated than that – but still, their goals are not mine.

And yet it oftimes seems to me that my thoughts are expressed in conceptual language that owes a great deal to the inspiration of Eastern philosophy.  "Free yourself of attachments to thinking that the universe is one way or another:  Arrive at your picture of the world without prejudice, and then feel fully whichever feelings arise from this picture.  Let your emotions flow from your beliefs, not the other way around."  It’s not a Buddhist conclusion, but the language owes a nod in the direction of Buddhism.  Even if a Buddhist teacher would vehemently disagree, they might still grasp immediately what was being proposed.  Grasp it more clearly, perhaps, than an old-school (i.e. pre-Bayesian) Western rationalist.

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Effortless Technique

"All my life I have been intensely repelled by the idea of ‘making an effort’.  I hate this idea today as much as I did as a child.  I don’t know why I hate it so much; I just do."
           — Raymond Smullyan, The Tao Is Silent

In the Hollywood version of rationality – or even the Traditional rationality that was passed down from supervisor to grad student in ancient days before Bayesianism – rationality is a great strain, a great effort, a continuous battle to coerce your mind into a desired shape.  Spock, the archetype of Hollywood’s concept of rationality, represses all his emotions.

And this great effort, they conceive, is virtue unto a rationalist.  The more effort you expend on forcing yourself into the mold, the better the rationalist you must be.  It’s like working extra hard at your job, as demanded by the Protestant work-ethic.  If the one works long hours – sweating, getting ulcers – surely the one must be worthy of praise?

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False Laughter

Followup toPolitics and Awful Art

There’s this thing called "derisive laughter" or "mean-spirited laughter", which follows from seeing the Hated Enemy get a kick in the pants.  It doesn’t have to be an unexpected kick in the pants, or a kick followed up with a custard pie.  It suffices that the Hated Enemy gets hurt.  It’s like humor, only without the humor.

If you know what your audience hates, it doesn’t take much effort to get a laugh like that – which marks this as a subspecies of awful political art.

There are deliciously biting satires, yes; not all political art is bad art.  But satire is a much more demanding art than just punching the Enemy in the nose.  In fact, never mind satire – just an atom of ordinary genuine humor takes effort.

Imagine this political cartoon:  A building labeled "science", and a standard Godzilla-ish monster labeled "Bush" stomping on the "science" building.  Now there are people who will laugh at this – hur hur, scored a point off Bush, hur hur – but this political cartoon didn’t take much effort to imagine.  In fact, it was the very first example that popped into my mind when I thought "political cartoon about Bush and science".  This degree of obviousness is a bad sign.

If I want to make a funny political cartoon, I have to put in some effort.  Go beyond the cached thought.  Use my creativity.  Depict Bush as a tentacle monster and Science as a Japanese schoolgirl.

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The Greatest Gift, The Best Exercise

In this generous season, consider the greatest gift we regularly and personally give (even if we do not intend it as such): sex.  Back in 2005, Tyler Cowen pondered Michael Vassar’s pregnant observation: "there is an inexplicable shortage of sex."  This remains, I think, one of the most neglected questions in social science.  We should devote far more effort to diagnosing and fixing this problem.  To inspire more precious gift-giving, let us review the health benefits of sex [as of 2003]:

Saving yourself" before the big game, the big business deal, the big hoedown or the big bakeoff … there’s no evidence it sharpens your competitive edge. The best that modern science can say for sexual abstinence is that it’s harmless when practiced in moderation.

In one of the most credible studies … tracked the mortality of about 1,000 middle-aged men over the course of a decade. … Its findings, published in 1997 in the British Medical Journal, were that men who reported the highest frequency of orgasm enjoyed a death rate half that of the laggards. … In a 2001 follow-on … by having sex three or more times a week, men reduced their risk of heart attack or stroke by half.

Sex, if nothing else, is exercise. A vigorous bout burns some 200 calories–about the same as running 15 minutes on a treadmill or playing a spirited game of squash. … Sex also boosts production of testosterone, which leads to stronger bones and muscles. …

A 2002 study of 293 women … reported that sexually active participants whose male partners did not use condoms were less subject to depression than those whose partners did. One theory of causality: Prostoglandin, a hormone found only in semen, may be absorbed in the female genital tract. …

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Two Cult Koans

Followup toEvery Cause Wants To Be A Cult

    A novice rationalist studying under the master Ougi was rebuked by a friend who said, "You spend all this time listening to your master, and talking of ‘rational’ this and ‘rational’ that – you have fallen into a cult!"
    The novice was deeply disturbed; he heard the words, "You have fallen into a cult!" resounding in his ears as he lay in bed that night, and even in his dreams.
    The next day, the novice approached Ougi and related the events, and said, "Master, I am constantly consumed by worry that this is all really a cult, and that your teachings are only dogma."
    Ougi replied, "If you find a hammer lying in the road and sell it, you may ask a low price or a high one.  But if you keep the hammer and use it to drive nails, who can doubt its worth?"
    The novice said, "See, now that’s just the sort of thing I worry about – your mysterious Zen replies."
    Ougi said, "Fine, then, I will speak more plainly, and lay out perfectly reasonable arguments which demonstrate that you have not fallen into a cult.  But first you have to wear this silly hat."

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Interior Economics

Imagine you asked what fraction of whipped cream should be air, and someone responded "it is impossible to have whipped cream without air."  Or imagine you asked how much discretion judges should have, relative to following clear legal rules, and someone responded "it is impossible to eliminate all discretion from legal decisions."  You’d think they were avoiding the question.  Similarly, I asked:

For good policy advice, what is the best weight to place on economic theory, versus (individual or cultural) intuitive judgment?

And offered a tentative answer:

My guess is over 75% weight, so I try to mostly just straightforwardly apply economic theory, adding little personal or cultural judgment.

Tyler Cowen "answers":

There is no such thing as "straightforwardly applying economic theory." … Theories are always applied and interpreted through our personal and cultural filters and there is no other way it can be.  Robin believes in an Archimedean point for using theory, I do not. … Robin’s post is the clearest example I have seen of what I call Robin’s logical atomism.

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Politics and Awful Art

Followup toRationality and the English Language

One of my less treasured memories is of a State of the Union address, or possibly a presidential inauguration, at which a Nobel Laureate got up and read, in a terribly solemn voice, some politically correct screed about what a wonderfully inclusive nation we all were – "The African-Americans, the Ethiopians, the Etruscans", or something like that.  The "poem", if you can call it that, was absolutely awful.  As far as my ears could tell, it had no redeeming artistic merit whatsoever.

Every now and then, yet another atheist is struck by the amazing idea that atheists should have hymns, just like religious people have hymns, and they take some existing religious song and turn out an atheistic version.  And then this "atheistic hymn" is, almost without exception, absolutely awful.  But the author can’t see how dreadful the verse is as verse.  They’re too busy congratulating themselves on having said "Religion sure sucks, amen."  Landing a punch on the Hated Enemy feels so good that they overlook the hymn’s lack of any other merit.  Verse of the same quality about something unpolitical, like mountain streams, would be seen as something a kindergartener’s mother would post on her refrigerator. 

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Judgment Can Add Accuracy

Humans responsible for forecasting often feel the need to adjust the output of sophisticated forecasting systems.  In many contexts this makes forecasts worse, but it is worth noting this is not always the case.  In the Fall 2007 Foresight, Robert Fildes and Paul Goodwin looked at four British-based supply chain companies:

A nationwide retailer. A leading international food company.  A subsidiary of a U.S. pharmaceutical company.  A manufacturer of own-label domestic cleaning products.  We collected data on over 60,000 forecasts, interviewed the companies’ forecasters, and observed forecast review meetings where managers discussed and approved any adjustments that they thought were necessary. …

Those working for the food manufacturer adjusted 91% of the forecasts that had been generated by their expensive and sophisticated forecasting software. The four forecasters employed by the retailer adjusted only about 8% of their forecasts, but then they had over 26,000 forecasts to make each week, so there probably wasn’t enough time to put their mark on each forecast. The pharmaceutical company held 17 forecast review meetings every month, tying up about 80 person hours of valuable management time. On average 75% of the statistical forecasts in our companies were adjusted. …

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The Litany Against Gurus

I am your hero!
I am your master!
Learn my arts,
Seek my way.

Learn as I learned,
Seek as I sought.

Envy me!
Aim at me!
Rival me!
Transcend me!

Look back,
And then –
Eyes front!

I was never your city,
Just a stretch of your road.

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