Tag Archives: Fiction

Green Knight Disses Glory

Many stories have morals. While such morals could be stated directly, perhaps via witty aphorisms, many claim that we use stories to make our moral lessons clearer and more vivid, to show us how they are applied in concrete familiar situations. As Jesus did with his parables. Sounds helpful, right?

But then we get parables like the movie The Green Knight, which describe strange events in alien worlds, with their moral lessons encoded elusively. Elite movie reviewers love it, in part because it is based on a medieval story many of them had to study in college. For them, difficult to follow literary references, and difficult to interpret moral lessons, are part of the attraction, as viewers can show their sophistication by figuring it all out.

(There are mild spoilers in what follows; you are warned.) Continue reading "Green Knight Disses Glory" »

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The Coming Cosmic Control Conflict

We moderns like to join factions associated with ideologies, and many of our most inspiring stories are of great conflicts between ideologically-affiliated factions. We like such stories more when they have more morally-intense ideologies, bigger conflicts in space, time, and social scope, more impressive combatants, and more real and well-defined events.

At a cost in realism, science fiction and fantasy often turn up the other dials, making ideologies extreme, conflicts galaxy-wide, and giving combatants god-like powers. But for realism and definition, we tend to retreat to WWII, which ranks high on moral intensity, but less high on other criteria. Or more recent struggles for group respect. Our true stories of the largest scope, about our vast universe, tend to fail badly; past stories lack conflict or combatants, while future stories lack definition.

Having recently given a lot of thought to grabby aliens and UFOs as aliens, it occurs to me that they can offer great conflict stories of substantial moral intensity, plausible realism and definition, and quite unprecedented size, scope, and combatant impressiveness. Let us consider telling such stories!

The combatants in which we can be most confident are grabby aliens; the fact that we have appeared so early in the universe tells us that they are out there, and three other datums tell us we’ll meet them in roughly a billion years, if we last that long. Grabby civilizations will come into direct conflict with each other at their borders, and will compete more widely to influence the culture of the next hundred billion years. These conflicts rate high on reality, scope, and impressive combatants, but alas it seems hard to guess how such civilizations will differ, and thus to guess the ideologies that might orient their conflicts.

We can have less confidence that aliens are behind some UFOs. But they plausibly exist, and we can say a lot about a big ideological conflict they must have with grabby aliens. We can reasonably guess that UFO aliens have developed many millions of years past our level, are not changing fast now, and have coordinated to prevent any part of them from getting grabby, i.e., from aggressively expanding and filling the universe with their descendants. To achieve this, we can be pretty sure that they created a strong persistent “world” governments. And enforcing their anti-grabby rules on us is the obvious reason for them to be here now coyly showing themselves to us.

Furthermore, even if there are no aliens behind UFOs, we can forsee this same conflict in our future; we are likely to coordinate to try to prevent parts of our civilization from getting grabby. Thus the pro- vs. anti- grabby conflict is plausibly the big future ideological divide, whether or not UFOs are aliens. Let me explain.

For at least a million years, human foragers coordinated within each band to enforce local norms; individual humans were not free to do whatever they wanted. With farming, societies became larger and had more contact with outsiders, but within each society they enforced many norms and laws. And in our world today we actually have pretty strong global coordination enforcing many global norms via local laws. Human organizations have consistently been rising in size and scope, making much stronger global governance a likely outcome over the coming centuries. (It certainly happens in Age of Em.)

As an economist, I see that most people feel strongly that individual freedoms must be constrained by governance, and many seem to regret that we do not have stronger and larger scale governance to deal with our biggest problems. Few favor cutting our scales of governance. Even when governments seem to consistently fail at a task they’ve been assigned, like the unwinnable war on drugs, most are reluctant to give up; instead budgets and powers are continually increased.

Furthermore, I see these laments especially among futurists, who consider longer timescales and bigger problems. For example, many are uncomfortable with “capitalist” competition, which they hope will end soon or at least become globally managed, to prevent capitalist competition between nations. And many are wary of plain old biological competition, even without capitalism. For example, many see a big problem with overpopulation, for which their natural solution is global regulation of fertility. Some imagine that local unconstrained evolution might eliminate consciousness from future agents, or allow the values of our descendants to drift far from our own values, and suggest strong global governance as remedies for these.

In addition, we should expect rates of change due to natural selection to greatly increase with the rise of artificial life, which is likely to dominate our future starting in a few centuries. So whatever problems result from unmanaged natural selection are likely to become much stronger soon, and at a time when we in fact have a pretty strong world government.

If within a few centuries we have a strong world government managing capitalist competition, overpopulation, value drift, and much more, we might come to notice that these and many other governance solutions to pressing problems are threatened by unrestrained interstellar colonization. Independent colonies able to change such solutions locally could allow population explosions and value drift, as well as capitalist competition that beats out home industries. That is, colony independence suggests unmanaged colony competition. In addition, independent colonies would lower the status of those who control the central government.

So authorities would want to either ban such colonization, or to find ways to keep colonies under tight central control. Yet it seems very hard to keep a tight lid on colonies. The huge distances involved make it hard to require central approval for distant decisions, and distant colonists can’t participate as equals in governance without slowing down the whole process dramatically. Worse, allowing just one sustained failure, of some descendants who get grabby, can negate all the other successes. This single failure problem gets worse the more colonies there are, the further apart they spread, and the more advanced technology gets.

Thus if our descendants strongly value the regulations and coordinations that their world government allows, and are unwilling to give them up, then they may be strongly tempted to simply ban interstellar colonization beyond some manageable limits. Which is exactly what it seems that any aliens behind UFOs must have done successfully for millions of years. The exact opposite of the aggressive expansion that, for billions of years, has been and will continue to be chosen by grabby aliens.

Yes, banning internal expansion should put any civilization at a great disadvantage should they ever encounter a grabby one. But that distant possibility in perhaps a billion years may just not carry much weight against more immediate concerns. It might be easier to slip into denial, emphasizing the lack of solid proof that there will ever be any grabby aliens.

And there we have it: the grand cosmic conflict between authorities who use a strong world government to prevent local expansion, and grabby-wannabe rebels seeking a way to slip through this blockage and expand. A conflict with big values at stake, very impressive combatants, that takes places on the greatest scales of space, time, and social range, and which seems likely to be very real. Don’t you want to hear stories about that? Won’t someone write stories about that?

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Real Vs. Fake Stories: Complements or Substitutes?

Regarding meaningful stories and narratives, I see two huge trends over the last century or so.

  1. First, we’ve seen a great increase in the amount of fiction consumed. People now spend many hours of day watching TV and movies, reading novels, etc. Centuries ago this fraction of time was far lower. An important fraction of these stories take place in universes which make a lot more emotional and moral sense than our real world seems to, especially on larger historical and cosmological scales.
  2. Second, we’ve seen a great decline in passions regarding grand historical and cosmological narratives. Religion, nationalism, and ideology all seem to have waned. Yes many people still care a lot about such things today, but centuries ago people eagerly and repeatedly went to war over such things. (We even instituted “freedom of speech” to cut back on their destructive enthusiasm.)

Note that I’m not saying that these “real” narratives are true, just that many people treat them as true. (Or as more true.) This is in stark contrast to stories that inspire and engage people, but which people don’t even pretend are true. (Trekkies love Star Trek, but don’t claim it really happened.)

One simple interpretation of these two trends is that “fake” stories are a substitute for “real” ones. To review, A and B are substitutes when you less want A the more you have of B, while A and B are complements when you more want A the more you have of B. So the theory here would be that we less want “real” stories the more “fake” stories we consume.

One problem with my theory is that most people seem to think fake and real stories are complements:

Now if we just look at random stories, and ignore their types, it seems clear that individual stories are on net substitutes. We only have so many hours a day to consume stories, so if we spend another hour on a particular story, that leaves fewer hours for other stories. So if individual stories are substitutes, it seems plausible that so are categories of stories.

But they why would all these poll respondents be wrong? I suggest: social desirability bias. Stories are seen as good things, and good things are seen to be even better if they are complements. (E.g., exercise and healthy eating.) So I suggest poll respondents are saying that story types are complements mainly to show their support for the good thing of stories.

So if fake and real stories are substitutes, from which side were recent changes driven? A simple tech theory would be that we have improved our ability to tell and share fake stories far more than we’ve improved our ability to construct grant historical and cosmological narratives.

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If Aliens Are Near

Most of us have core beliefs about which we feel pretty confident, but to which we get emotionally attached. One useful exercise to help overcome such attachment is to think explicitly about how you would change other beliefs if you became convinced that a central belief were wrong.

I suggest this mostly as a private exercise, as I worry it won’t go well if critics can selectively demand: “You think you’re so rational; tell us what you’d believe if X were wrong” for any X they like. Similarly to how it wouldn’t go well if critics could selectively demand that rivals reveal nude or other severely unflattering pictures of themselves. Such tests might go better if applied uniformly applied to all, but that’s harder to arrange.

Even so, I’m inspired today to try one version of this exercise: what else would I think if I thought aliens were actually near?

My best guess is that the universe is vastly larger in space than the distance we can see. And so in all that vast volume, there are probably aliens. Even intelligent civilized aliens. But my estimate is that the nearest such are very far away, outside the visible universe. (Low intelligence alien life may be closer.) So if you offered evidence purporting to convince me otherwise, I’d be initially skeptical. If I were willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, I’d guess that you’d made an analysis mistake somewhere.

If you somehow managed to convince me of your evidence, my guess is that it would be regarding aliens who are very far away, but just not quite as far as I’d thought. And if you convinced me that no, aliens have frequently been visiting us here on Earth lately, I’d be a lot more surprised. But what if you did in fact convince me?

My guess (revising my prior best guess) is that the most likely scenario consistent with this assumption is that these aliens are from one of the Sun’s sibling stars, born in the same stellar nursery that likely birthed 100 to 10,000 stars in the same ten million year period. There was only one Eden in the visible universe which managed to seed one star nursery with life. That Eden was in our galaxy, and that nursery was our Sun’s. Eden wasn’t well suited to support fragile multi-cellar life, but against great odds it created robust extremophiles that could travel far.

These sibling stars drifted far from their nursery over the last four billion years. (They can be identified from far away via their spectra.) Some were not seeded with life, and most of the rest remain far from creating intelligent civilizations. But some, like our Sun, have already done so. Many of those killed themselves, or locked themselves down to stay on their planet or in their star system. But one managed, many millions of years ago, to create a very stable civilization that could travel to other stars.

For some unknown reason, this one successful civilization has strongly limited its internal variation, to prevent any of its parts, or later sibling civilizations, from mass colonization of the universe. Many stable civilizations will develop a ruling body with strong central control, and it seems hard to predict in general what such bodies will want or choose, other than that their choices must allow them to maintain control. So its not crazy to think that this first civilization might decide to prevent mass colonization, even if it allows limited development of a few key resources that we can’t now see.

Part of such prevention would be keeping tabs on, and limiting the growth of, life around sibling stars. Sterilization might be hard, and it is plausible that they’d be curious about and entertained by how life evolves around sibling stars.  So its not crazy to think they might make frequent if limited visits to Earth. And its further not crazy to think they might be sloppy about hiding their visits; maybe they feel very secure that we can’t threaten them, and maybe they get a kick out of being noticed.

Yes, I don’t like having to resort to multiple “not crazy” assumptions in my most likely scenario, but I am being forced to explain what I see as an unlikely scenario.

If these aliens have a policy of preventing mass colonization, they will have to step in at some point to limit Earth’s expansion. But they will have been preparing to do that for many millions of years, and may have already done this several times at other sibling stars. So our chances to defy their plans and expand anyway can’t be great.

Perhaps we have a greater chance to persuade them to change their policies. They may limit what those internal to their civilization are allowed to say on the subject, but it seems they’ve been more hands off with us, and they may allow many within their civilization to see and hear us. In which case we have a chance to persuade. Though we should expect that the more likely scenario is that they persuade us, fairly or unfairly, to endorse their policy.

If you ask me to tell the most realistic story I can wherein we see or meet aliens today, this is it. Not terribly likely, but at least not crazy. Which is actually an unusually high standard in science fiction.

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Why We Fight Over Fiction

We tell stories with language, and so prefer to tell the kind of stories that ordinary language can describe well.

Consider how language can describe a space of physical stuff and how to navigate through that stuff. In a familiar sort of space, a few sparse words can evoke a vivid description, such as of a city street or a meadow. And a few words relating to landmarks in such a space can be effective at telling you how to navigate from one place to another.

But imagine an arbitrary space of partially-opaque swirling strangeness, in a highly curved 11-dimensional space. In principle our most basic and general spatial language could describe this too, and instruct navigation there. But in practice that would require a lot more words, and slow the story to a crawl. So few authors would try, though a filmmaker might try just using visuals.

Or consider stories with non-human minds. In principle those who study minds in the abstract can conceive of a vast space of possible minds, and can use a basic and general language of mental acts to describe how each such mind might make a decision, or send a communication, and what those might be. But in practice such descriptions would be long, boring, and unfamiliar to most readers.

So in practice even authors writing about aliens or AIs stick to describing human-like minds, where their usual language for describing what actors decide and say is fast, fluid, and relatable. Authors even prefer human characters with familiar minds, and so avoid characters who think oddly, such as those with autism.

Just as authors focus on telling stories in familiar spaces with familiar minds, they also focus on telling stories in familiar moral universes. This effect is, if anything, even stronger than the space and mind effects, as moral colors are even more central to our need for stories. Compared to other areas of our lives, we especially want our stories to help us examine and affirm our moral stances.

In a familiar moral universe, there many be competing considerations re what acts are moral, making it sometimes hard to decide if an act is moral. Other considerations may weigh against morality, and reader/viewers may not always sympathize most with the most moral characters, who may not win in the end. Moral characters may have unattractive features (like being ugly). There may even be conflicts between characters who see different familiar moral universes.

These are the familiar sorts of “moral ambiguity” in stories said to have that feature, such as The Sopranos or Game of Thrones. But you’ll note that these are almost all stories told in familiar moral universes. By which I mean that we are quite familiar with how to morally evaluate the sort of actions that happen there. The set of acts is familiar, as are their consequences, and the moral calculus used to judge them.

But there is another sort of “moral ambiguity” that reader/viewers hate, and so authors studiously avoid. And that is worlds where we find it hard to judge the morality of actions, even when those actions have big consequences for characters. Where our usual quick and dirty moral language doesn’t apply very well. Where even though in principle our most basic and general moral languages might be able to work out rough descriptions and evaluations, in practice that would be tedious and unsatisfying.

And, strikingly, the large complex social structures and organizations that dominate our world are mostly not familiar moral universes to most of us. For example, big firms, agencies, and markets. The worlds of Moral Mazes and of Pfeffer’s Power. (In fiction: Jobs.) Our stories thus tend to avoid such contexts, unless they happen to allow an especially clear moral calculus. Such as a firm polluting to cause cancer, or a boss sexually harassing a subordinate.

As I’ve discussed before, our social world has changed greatly over the last few centuries. Our language has changed fast enough to describe the new physical objects and spaces that have arisen, at least those with which ordinary people must deal, if not the many new strange objects and spaces behind the scenes that enable our new world. But we have not gone remotely as fast at coming to agree on moral stances toward the new choices possible in such social structures.

This is why our stories tend to take place in relatively old fashioned social worlds. Consider the popularity of the Western, or of pop science fiction stories like Star Wars that are essentially Westerns with more gadgets. Stories that take place in modern settings tend to focus on personal, romantic, and family relations, as these remain to us relatively familiar moral universes. Or on artist biopics. Or on big conflicts like war or corrupt police or politicians. For which we have comfortable moral framings.

Stories we write today set in say the 1920s feel to us more comfortable than do stories set in the 2020s, or than stories written in the 1920s and set in that time. That is because stories written today can inherit a century of efforts to work out clearer moral stances on which 1920s actions would be more moral. For example, as to our eyes female suffrage is clearly good, we can see any characters from then who doubted it as clearly evil in the eyes of good characters. As clear as if they tortured kittens. To our eyes, their world has now clearer moral colors, and stories set there work better as stories for us.

This is also why science fiction tends to make most people more wary of anticipated futures. The easiest engaging stories to tell about strange futures are on how acts there that seem to violate the rules in our current moral universe. Like about how nuclear rockets spread radioactivity near their launch site, instead of the solar civilization they enable. Much harder to describe how new worlds will induce new moral universes.

This highlights an important feature of our modern world, and an important process that continues within it. Our social world has changed a lot faster than has our shared moral evaluations of typical actions possible in our new world. And our telling stories, and coming to agree on which stories we embrace, is a big part of creating such a fluid language of shared moral evaluations.

This helps to explain why we invest so much time and energy into fiction, far more than did any of our ancestors. Why story tellers are given high and activist-like status, and why we fight so much to convince others to share our beliefs on which stories are best. Our moral evaluations of the main big actions that influence our world today, and that built our world from past worlds, are still up for grabs. And the more we build such shared evaluations, the more we’ll be able to tell satisfying stories set in the world in which we live, rather than set in the fantasy and historical worlds with which we must now make do.

(This post is an elaboration of this Twitter thread.)

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Board Games As Policy Arguments

When we want to convince others to support our policy positions, we often tell stories. We tell people about things that happened to us, to people we know, and to people we’ve heard of. Journalists tell stories about what happened to famous people recently, or to whole sets of people in “studies”. Popular books also include such policy-lesson stories. And fiction often tries to persuade about policy using “true-like” stories, which are not actually true.

The way that these stories are supposed to support policies is that we are invited to imagine how such stories would have turned out better with different policies. That is the policy “moral” of a story. A big problem with this approach, however, is that even if the story is true, and even if we can correctly judge how a policy would have changed a story, each policy influences a great many other stories. Policy advocates are likely to select the stories that make their policy look best, out of all the other possible stories they could tell.

Academias often tell these kinds of stories, but we also tell other kinds that better avoid this problem. For example, formal game theory models describe entire formal worlds, including agents, resources, actions, info, locations, and preferences. So one can judge if a policy is good overall in such a world. A similar benefit holds for agent-based simulations, lab experiments, and field experiments. In each case, one can judge how much a policy helps or hurts overall for the world that is studied.

Of course most of these methods actually only consider relatively small worlds, which at best correspond to small parts of our big world. So if a policy has effects outside of the scope of the world that it considers, these methods won’t see that. You can try to analyze the many small worlds that a policy influences, and add up the overall effect across them all, but that is hard to do well.

These sorts of small world models also make many assumptions about the basic situations in the small worlds that they consider. So the lessons that they draw from their small worlds need not apply to the corresponding parts of our big world, if those assumptions are bad approximations to our big world. This is less of a problem when one relies on true stories drawn from our actual world. So both sorts of methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and one should plausibly use both when drawing policy conclusions.

All these methods by which academics model policy in small worlds have one big disadvantage: it is hard to use them to persuade ordinary people. They and their supporting analysis can be complex, and also just boring, and thus not emotionally engaging. Dramatic stories from the real world can overcome these big disadvantages.

However, there is another kind of policy story that has so far been neglected, but which can combine the advantages of a wholistic policy evaluation across an entire small world, with the advantages of being simple enough for ordinary people to understand, and also emotionally engaging enough to get them to pay attention. And that is board games. Consider Monopoly:

In 1903, Georgist Lizzie Magie applied for a patent on a game called The Landlord’s Game with the object of showing that rents enriched property owners and impoverished tenants. She knew that some people would find it hard to understand the logic behind the idea, and she thought that if the rent problem and the Georgist solution to it were put into the concrete form of a game, it might be easier to demonstrate. …

Also in the 1970s, Professor Ralph Anspach, who had himself published a board game intended to illustrate the principles of both monopolies and trust busting, fought Parker Brothers and its then parent company, General Mills, over the copyright and trademarks of the Monopoly board game. (More)

The rules of each board game describe both an entire small world, and also the policies that govern player actions in that world. So when people play a board game, they get an intuitive feel for how that world works, how much they enjoy living in that world, and how alternate rules would change their enjoyment. At which point they are ready to hear and understand this policy argument:

If we changed these policy-setting rules (as opposed to these world-defining rules) in this game, that would turn this into a more enjoyable game, and/or make the world it describes more admirable. So to the extent that an important part of our real larger world is like this game world, we should try to move our real policies more toward these better game policies.

Now as far as I can tell, these policy argument fail badly in the case of Monopoly. People like playing the Monopoly game as it is, and do not enjoy it as much when its rules are changed to embody the alternate property and tax policies favored by those who designed and developed it. But the basic approach to policy argument seems valid, at least as a complement to our other story approaches.

Yes, people may have different agendas and priorities regarding life in a board game, relative to their own real lives. But that critique applies as well to all the other kinds of stories that people use to argue for policies. For example, your priorities about the characters in a story you hear may not be the same as your priorities if you were in the story yourself. Yes, to the extent that video games have board game elements, with rules on how players relate to each other, video games can also support policy arguments.

So I’d like to see more people try to make policy arguments in the context of board games. Show us two variations on a game, where the more fun or admirable version corresponds to the policies that you prefer, while the other version corresponds to policies closer to what we have now. Let us prove your claim to ourselves by playing your game. Or maybe find other rules that we enjoy even more, and invite you to prove that claim to yourself by playing.

Yes, I might still not like your policy, because I think your world differs from our real world, or our priorities differ between games and real life.  And yes, the space of fun board games is far smaller than the space of games, so that fun games are far from representative of the larger space. But still, from the point of view of convincing ordinary people about policies, adding game policy arguments probably puts us in a better position than we are in now relying mainly on personal stories, fictional stories, and academic authority.

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Lazar’s Dreamland

I’ve always enjoyed science fiction, in part because such big things tend to be at stake there. But over the decades as I’ve learned more about the world, the less sense most of it makes. And I enjoy it less. Authors work hard to have their stories make sufficient sense to their median reader or reviewer, but not much beyond that.

Biographies are more realistic. They may not be exactly accurate, but they try harder to seem so. Not as many big things happen there, though I recently enjoyed Chernow’s Titan, a biography of John D. Rockefeller, wherein events are plenty big. I found I liked and admired him; he deserves a better reputation than he has.

Recently, I discovered that stories of probable hoaxes can offer a great compromise, as they try both to have big things happen, and also to seem realistic even to knowledgeable but skeptical investigators. In that spirit, I very much enjoyed physicist Bob Lazar’s Dreamland, the story of his working briefly for the US government in 1989 near Area 51 on alien UFO tech, and then publicizing that fact.

I was born seven months after Lazar, and like him studied physics, worked at secretive west coast US government labs, hung out with relatively colorful characters, and was prone to take more chances than the people around me. I was at NASA ’89-93 and Lockheed ’84-89, were I once had a top secret clearance. Lazar is a type of person I knew, describes a world I knew well, and does so believably.

Someone somewhere complained that Lazar isn’t very deep, which is true, but also realistic. Lazar is a much more hands-on intuitive guy, while I’m more of a theorist. He put a jet engine on his bike and car, and he throws around physics theory concepts in ways that I find sloppy. But that seems realistic for a person like him, and it makes sense that someone might think it would make sense to hire a person of his style to do the task he claims to have been assigned. His sort of person might even be tempted to embellish a few not-central-to-story details when telling his story.

I’ve also watched his documentary and Rogan interview, where Lazar comes across as more trustworthy than the people around him. So I’m inclined to believe him – except for that one fact: his key claims sound batshit crazy. Sorry, this isn’t the sort of thing I can believe on the testimony of one person, no matter how credible.

Reading Lazar’s Dreamland makes me a bit more eager to see a good overall stat analysis of a large dataset of UFO reports, where ideally his case is one datapoint. And more eager to read other probable-hoax biographies; what else ya got?

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Plot Holes & Blame Holes

We love stories, and the stories we love the most tend to support our cherished norms and morals. But our most popular stories also tend to have many gaping plot holes. These are acts which characters could have done instead of what they did do, to better achieve their goals. Not all such holes undermine the morals of these stories, but many do.

Logically, learning of a plot hole that undermines a story’s key morals should make us like that story less. And for a hole that most everyone actually sees, that would in fact happen. This also tends to happen when we notice plot holes in obscure unpopular stories.

But this happens much less often for widely beloved stories, such as Star Wars, if only a small fraction of fans are aware of the holes. While the popularity of the story should make it easier to tell most fans about holes, fans in fact try not to hear, and punish those who tell them. (I’ve noticed this re my sf reviews; fans are displeased to hear beloved stories don’t make sense.)

So most fans remain ignorant of holes, and even fans who know mostly remain fans. They simply forget about the holes, or tell themselves that there probably exist easy hole fixes – variations on the story that lack the holes yet support the same norms and morals. Of course such fans don’t usually actually search for such fixes, they just presume they exist.

Note how this behavior contrasts with typical reactions to real world plans. Consider when someone points out a flaw in our tentative plan for how to drive from A to B, how to get food for dinner, how to remodel the bathroom, or how to apply for a job. If the flaw seems likely to make our plan fail, we seek alternate plans, and are typically grateful to those who point out the flaw. At least if they point out flaws privately, and we haven’t made a big public commitment to plans.

Yes, we might continue with our basic plan if we had good reasons to think that modest plan variations could fix the found flaws. But we wouldn’t simply presume that such variations exist, regardless of flaws. Yet this is mostly what we do for popular story plot holes. Why the different treatment?

A plausible explanation is that we like to love the same stories as others; loving stories is a coordination game. Which is why 34% of movie budgets were spent on marketing in ’07, compared to 1% for the average product. As long as we don’t expect a plot hole to put off most fans, we don’t let it put us off either. And a plausible partial reason to coordinate to love the same stories is that we use stories to declare our allegiance to shared norms and morals. By loving the same stories, we together reaffirm our shared support for such morals, as well as other shared cultural elements.

Now, another way we show our allegiance to shared norms and morals is when we blame each other. We accuse someone of being blameworthy when their behavior fits a shared blame template. Well, unless that person is so allied to us or prestigious that blaming them would come back to hurt us.

These blame templates tend to correlate with destructive behavior that makes for a worse (local) world overall. For example, we blame murder and murder tends to be destructive. But blame templates are not exactly and precisely targeted at making better outcomes. For example, murderers are blamed even when their act makes a better world overall, and we also fail to blame those who fail to murder in such situations.

These deviations make sense if blame templates must have limited complexity, due to being socially shared. To support shared norms and morals, blame templates must be simple enough so most everyone knows what they are, and can agree on if they match particular cases. If the reality of which behaviors are actually helpful versus destructive is more complex than that, well then good behavior in some detailed “hole” cases must be sacrificed, to allow functioning norms/morals.

These deviations between what blame templates actually target, and what they should target to make a better (local) world, can be seen as “blame holes”. Just as a plot may seem to make sense on a quick first pass, with thought and attention required to notice its holes, blame holes are typically not noticed by most who only work hard enough to try to see if a particular behavior fits a blame template. While many are capable of understanding an explanation of where such holes lie, they are not eager to hear about them, and they still usually apply hole-plagued blame templates even when they see their holes. Just like they don’t like to hear about plot holes in their favorite stories, and don’t let such holes keep them from loving those stories.

For example, a year ago I asked a Twitter poll on the chances that the world would have been better off overall had Nazis won WWII. 44% said that chance was over 10% (the highest category offered). My point was that history is too uncertain to be very sure of the long term aggregate consequences of such big events, even when we are relatively sure about which acts tend to promote good.

Many then said I was evil, apparently seeing me as fitting the blame template of “says something positive about Nazis, or enables/encourages others to do so.” I soon after asked a poll that found only 20% guessing it was more likely than not that the author of such a poll actually wishes Nazis had won WWII. But the other 80% might still feel justified in loudly blaming me, if they saw my behavior as fitting a widely accepted blame template. I could be blamed regardless of the factual truth of what I said or intended.

Recently many called Richard Dawkins evil for apparently fitting the template “says something positive about eugenics” when he said that eugenics on humans would “work in practice” because “it works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses”. To many, he was blameworthy regardless of the factual nature or truth of his statement. Yes, we might do better to instead use the blame template “endorses eugenics”, but perhaps too few are capable in practice of distinguishing “endorses” from “says something positive about”. At least maybe most can’t reliably do that in their usual gossip mode of quickly reading and judging something someone said.

On reflection, I think a great deal of our inefficient behavior and policies can be explained via limited-complexity blame templates. For example, consider the template:

Blame X if X interacts with Y on dimension D, Y suffers on D, no one should suffer on D, and X “could have” interacted so as to reduce that suffering more.

So, blame X who hires Y for a low wage, risky, or unpleasant job. Blame X who rents a high price or peeling paint room to Y. Blame food cart X that sells unsavory or unsafe food to Y. Blame nation X that lets in immigrant Y who stays poor afterward. Blame emergency room X who failed to help arriving penniless sick Y. Blame drug dealer X who sells drugs to poor, sick, or addicted Y. Blame client X who buys sex, an organ, or a child from Y who would not sell it if they were much richer.

So a simple blame template can help explain laws on min wages, max rents, job & room quality regs, food quality rules, hospital care rules, and laws prohibiting drugs, organ sales, and prostitution. Yes, by learning simple economics many are capable of seeing that these rules can actually make targets Y worse off, via limiting their options. But if they don’t expect others to see this, they still tend to apply the usual blame templates. Because blame templates are socially shared, and we each tend to be punished from deviating from them, either by violating them, or failing to disapprove of violators.

In another post soon I hope to say more about the role of, and limits on, simplified blame templates. For this post, I’m content to just note their central causal roles.

Added 8am: Another key blame template happens in hierarchical organizations. When something bad seems to happen to a division, the current leader takes all the blame, even if recently replaced prior leader. Rising stars gain by pushing short term gains at the expense of long term losses, and being promoted fast enough so as not to be blamed for those losses.

Re my deliberate exposure proposal, many endorse a norm that those who propose policies intended to combine good and bad effects should immediately cause themselves to suffer the worst possible bad effects personally, even in the absence of implementing their proposal. Poll majorities, however, don’t support such norms.

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Rah Chain of Command

During the first Christmas of WWI,

soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. … to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol-singing. Men played games of football with one another, … Fighting continued in some sectors, while in others the sides settled on little more than arrangements to recover bodies. (more)

I just saw the 2005 movie Joyeux Noel on this. The movie itself, and all the reviews I could find, saw these events as a heart-warming story, of heroic soldiers resisting an evil military leadership:

Their castigators are elders who arrive to restore the bellicosity almost as a matter of tradition. (more)

[The movie] invents the notion that the men who took part in the event were subsequently punished. … But there’s no official evidence that such a thing happened, though subsequently the generals learned to rotate soldiers away from a specific section of trench. (more)

But the real military leaders did work to prevent recurrences:

It was never repeated—future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action (more)

commander of the British II Corps issued orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops. Adolf Hitler, then a young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, was also an opponent of the truce. …

The events of the truce were not reported for a week, in an unofficial press embargo which was eventually broken by The New York Times, published in the then-neutral United States, on 31 December. The British papers quickly followed. … The tone of the reporting was strongly positive, with the Times endorsing the “lack of malice” felt by both sides and the Mirror regretting that the “absurdity and the tragedy” would begin again. …

Coverage in Germany was more muted, with some newspapers strongly criticising those who had taken part … In France, … greater level of press censorship … press was eventually forced to respond to the growing rumours by reprinting a government notice that fraternising with the enemy constituted treason. (more)

I find it disturbing that viewers and reviewers aren’t more torn about this. No hesitation or reservations whatsoever expressed. Even though this is depicted in the movie as leading to soldiers deserting and spying on enemy arrangements.

Sure, if all soldiers would always refuse to fight wars, wars would not be possible, and that might be for the better, I’m not sure. But as long as war remains possible, national governments will want to control armies who can protect the nation against hostile armies. They won’t want armies who can decide to start or stop wars whenever they feel like it; they will want armies who accept a chain of command with the government at the top.

Sure, maybe we want soldiers and commanders at various levels to have the freedom to refuse to follow some limited set of commands to commit atrocities. As long as such freedoms are still consistent with our armies defending us from hostile armies. But we simply can’t just let any soldier or commander agree to a local peace any time and place they choose. Just as we can’t let them quit or switch sides anytime they choose. Or sell military equipment or supplies, or rape and pillage any accessible locals, or start new wars with new rivals.

The idea of armies that we control who defend us against hostile armies just isn’t consistent with very high levels of local discretion. Sure, the idea of armies is consistent with some modest levels of local control, and there are some borderline questions about how much discretion is desirable. But wholesale local negotiations of local truces, purposely hidden from commanding officers, surely that at least risks moving into dangerous territory. And an ordinary movie viewer who liked the idea of having armies to protect them from hostile armies should feel at least some wariness about this prospect, and some sympathy for the awkward positions in which such actions place commanding officers.

There’s a chain of command in the army for a reason. A good reason. Even at Christmas in the trenches.

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Joker is Creepy

Joker is a classic villain, opposite the classic hero Batman. The new Joker movie is an origin story that treats him sympathetically. We see how circumstances and personality can combine to turn a sad but loyal citizen into a vicious villain.

The basic formula is simple, but quite well-executed, especially via the remarkable acting performance of Joaquin Phoenix. The formula has two parts. First, there’s a slow steady trajectory. We start Joker out as a pretty ordinary if weak person, hungry for respect that he doesn’t get. We pile on abuses and crises, under which he slowly cracks. We give him the respect and attention he craves only when he is violent, and so tempt him toward more. He starts out admirably restrained in his response to quite unfair abuse, then we slowly ratchet up the size of the abuse, his sometimes out-sized response, and his comfort level with that response. He slowly becomes more confident, graceful, and charismatic, and he is surprised to learn he doesn’t feel so bad about what he’s done. With no clear bright line crossed, the movie dares the viewer to judge when exactly he has gone too far.

The second part of the formula is to subtly make Joker seem creepy, right from the start, to foreshadow the eventual outcome. (“Creepy” = ambiguous threat.) That is, though what he overtly does seems mostly restrained and reasonable, at least for a while, and though we make him understandable and sympathetic, we also pile on subtle and largely unconscious cues that he can’t be trusted. We combine signs that he’s low status and has poor social skills with signs that he’s prone toward physical outbursts. We make sure he seems self-absorbed, and that his gaze and voice seem guarded, i.e., overly controlled and evasive. Joker chain smokes, often laughs uncontrollably, often has his legs shake uncontrollably, lives among garish home furnishings, wears white socks with dark pants and shoes, has an awkward lanky running style, walks into glass doors, and is bad at reading what others will think is funny. He often fails to read or anticipate how others do or will react to what he does.

Audiences love the Joker movie:

After three impressive weekends in a row at the box office, Joker is on track to become the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time.

With Democratic candidates competing to advocate unprecedented extreme redistribution schemes, you might think left-leaning movie critics would love a film about a downtrodden guy who, suffering from public service cutbacks, starts a political movement to resist the rich and powerful. But in fact elite critics mostly hate it:

Joker … preview provided social media with the one thing it will not tolerate: moral ambiguity. … What critics … seem to fear is that Arthur Fleck … is also the kind of person we imagine would be very excited about the Joker movie in real life. … He thinks he’s taking revenge on an unjust world. This makes him look like an element of society we associate with senseless violence in real life: lonely, male and emotionally stunted. … David Ehrlich of Indiewire called it ‘a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels’ … At Slate, Sam Adams wrote that ‘no matter how emphatic Phoenix’s performance, it feels like a risk to feel too much for him, not knowing who might be sitting next to you in the theater using his resentments to justify their own. … has led reviewers to condemn the kind of moral ambiguity that was supposed to distinguish art from crass commerce in the first place. … won’t this movie cause dummies to think the Joker is good? To ask the question is to argue that nuance is dangerous. … failure to maintain critical distance… projected onto…audience that critics imagine to be more suggestible than themselves— insanely more suggestible, almost comically so… critics telling us, in a tone of concern for their fellow man, that these losers are total misanthropes. (more).

Apparently Joker being a low status white male who uses a gun to gain respect is a deal-breaker for them – that’s just too much like those incels and Trump supporters.

I’d say the movie actually pretty clearly disapproves of Joker’s actions toward the end; this is the origin story of a famous villain after all. It also disapproves of the rioting mobs that he inspires. Even if the rich and powerful have been mean to the poor and weak, wild angry rioters just make things worse. As Tyler says, “it is the most anti-Leftist movie I have seen, ever”. Which may also be why left-leaning critics hate it.

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