1. Wikipedia Tourism #18

    March 30, 2009 by Craig

    From Cousin:

    In 2004, genealogists discovered that U.S. Presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry shared a common ancestral couple in the 1500s. It was reported that the two men are sixteenth cousins, thrice removed. However, the two are in fact ninth cousins, twice removed. Also, in 2007, it was revealed that then-U.S. vice president Dick Cheney and then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama are eighth cousins.

    That’s right folks: Obama (ie: the Black Guy) and Cheney are more closely related than Bush and Kerry (two Yalies).

  2. You Can’t Handle the Truth

    September 24, 2008 by Craig

    Note: I stole the title from the same place I got the information for the post: Freakonomics Blog.

    This quote can’t sum up my beliefs more (although I’ve added some emphasis):

    As the presidential campaign heats up, intense efforts are underway to debunk rumors and misinformation. Nearly all these efforts rest on the assumption that good information is the antidote to misinformation.

    But a series of new experiments show that misinformation can exercise a ghostly influence on people’s minds after it has been debunked — even among people who recognize it as misinformation. In some cases, correcting misinformation serves to increase the power of bad information.

    That’s the message behind this story at the Washington Post.

    Sadly, I’m coming to accept this. Much of the time, people will not change their beliefs based on factual information or logically sound arguments. This seems to apply to some people more than it does to others. It’s also unevenly applicable across domains; a given person may respond favorably to logical arguments on one topic but unfavorably on others. (This is religion and politics are often taboo topics for discussion in friendly environments: they trigger irrational responses more easily and thus often devolve into hurt feelings.)

    The part about debunking being counterproductive is news to me, but it does make sense. Provide a sound argument against someone’s strongly-held position, and you’ll very rarely get a “thank you, I was wrong” (assuming, of course, that they were). Not only is a rationalizing counterargument more likely, but you might also be shut out for your attempt. The labels “elitist”, “snobbish”, and “arrogant” are often misapplied to people who challenge beliefs with rational methods.

    This is not only disheartening to me, but it’s also very dangerous. Scientific, technological, and social advancements have given humans much more power than we’ve had at any other point in history. If any of these advancements are abused via irrational beliefs and actions, there can be disastrous consequences:

    • Mass communication for the spread of (mis)information
    • Widespread political influence (which in turn depends on mass communication)
    • Large, interdependent economic systems
    • Increased environmental impact
    • Weapons of both large- and small-scale destruction

    Lately I’ve been trying to improve my effectiveness at convincing others. Thus far, my strategy has been to spread information in the hopes that it will push out misinformation. I’m starting to move past that now, but I’ve got a long way to go.

  3. Political Elitism Considered Harmful?

    September 21, 2008 by Craig

    Most of the article is an attack on Sarah Palin’s beliefs and abilities as a potential President, but there is one good general quote in this recent Sam Harris article.

    Ask yourself: how has “elitism” become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn’t seem too intelligent or well educated.

  4. Canadian Vote Swapping is Legal

    September 18, 2008 by Craig

    Vote swapping is a kind of tactical voting whereby a vote pledges to vote for a candidate in a particular riding in exchange for another voter in a different riding supporting some other candidate. Typically, it’s used to maximize the importance of individual votes; Votes for a particular party can be moved into ridings with close races where they might change the outcome — and thus become meaningful.

    The Elections Canada has just ruled that this practice is legal in Canada, and so it’s gained a bit of legitimacy and attention.

    I’d be very willing to swap my vote in the upcoming federal election, but unfortunately mine isn’t worth very much. In my riding, the Conservative incumbent will probably win in a landslide. Thus far, the only alternative is Liberal Candidate Anoush Newman. I’m going to be voting against the incumbent, so no national Liberal supporter will want to swap with me. No NDP, Green, or Bloc Québécois supporter will want to swap with me either, as I won’t be able to vote for their preferred party (and it would almost certainly be a wasted vote anyway). The only possibility for a swap would be with a Conservative supporter in a left-leaning riding who wanted to add to the already-high lead that the Conservatives have here… which is pretty much pointless.

    However, I do encourage anyone in a contested riding to consider swapping their vote; it’s one of the few ways that your vote will actually make a difference.

  5. Irrationality, Values, and Behavior

    September 11, 2008 by Craig


    Challenging irrationality may require an irrational approach.

    Yesterday I read this excellent essay by Johnathan Haidt entitled What Makes People Vote Republican?. I also sent it to Marco, who wrote a blog post on it called Why the Democrats don’t get it …. I strongly recommend reading Haidt’s article, and Marco’s ongoing U.S. political commentary is good stuff too.

    In the comments for Marco’s post I wrote:

    One important thing to realize is that most people aren’t strictly rational much of the time; rather than change their beliefs they’ll instead rationalize them and reject any challenges to them. Thus, people frequently believe that the system they’re in is really in their best interests, even if it’s objectively not. This is how oppression of all magnitudes (from head scarves to police states) continues to exist; people accept and rationalize it to some degree and thus don’t work harder to throw off the shackles. Making a rational argument against this often won’t work — it’s not that people aren’t aware of the rational points, it’s that they ignore them.

    To which Marco responded:

    Thinking that “people” are irrational but “we” are not is where the elitist label comes from. Check the polls to see how well that’s doin’.

    I do believe there is right and wrong–and that some things are wrong–but I do not just assume I am “more rational” than those who disagree. I think that’s a dangerous preconception to have 🙂

    My choice of the word “irrational” has a lot to do with the book I’m currently reading: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. It’s a great introduction into the field of behavioural economics: the science of decision making and the consequences thereof. The book deals extensively with how people tend to make decisions based on less-significant factors instead of more-significant ones. The classic example is that of the cost of a painkiller drug and its relationship on effectiveness. When patients receive painkillers, the amount of pain reduction they experience is proportional to the the cost they believe the drug posesses. A higher-cost painkiller provides more relief than a lower-cost one, even if the actual drug involved is the same in both cases. These sorts of effects and beliefs are called “irrational” because they exist solely within the human mind, and are often emotionally-based.

    The point I was trying to make in my post was that irrationality will often trump rationality in the mind of a person. If that is the case, then attempting to change belief and behavior by making a strictly rational argument is doomed to fail. This is similar to what Haidt writes; he implores the U.S. Democrats to adjust their strategy (but not their principles) to trigger the value judgements of a wider range of voters (something that the U.S. Republicans have been more successful at over the past two decades). My belief is that any position must take into account (and probably leverage) the irrationality that exists within people in order to be successful. Where Haidt and I overlap is concerning held values that happen to be irrational. We both agree that these cannot be ignored — which how they are treated by significant portion of the Americal liberal population. Because this same population also tends to be more educated than the rest, they also receive the label “elitist”, which further alientates them and hurts their cause.

    As Marco correctly points out, there is plenty of risk surrounding the question of rationality. We all act irrationally at least some of the time, and we all (irrationally) misjudge how much our beliefs are rational. Any truly rational action will have to take this into account by imposing objective checks upon itself. Assuming that disagreement equals irrationality (as Marco puts it) is certainly counterproductive.

  6. Follow the Leader

    August 15, 2008 by Craig

    Marco and I have been talking a lot about the role of leadership in organizations. We’ve gotten on to a lot of different tangents, but there’s one important point I’d like to make out in the clear.

    Marco’s Bro writes:

    When I put someone in charge it’s because I want them to use their discretion — I believe they can be successful. I trust their judgment.

    I expect that their team members will support them. I don’t expect unquestioning obedience or anything, but I expect everyone to realize that Leader Guy is, in fact, Leader Guy because I thought he was the best person for the job.

    I know Marco’s Bro and, in real life, would probably accept most of his decisions. However, I disagree with this way of thinking in a general sense. My response to his statement goes like this:

    What if you made a mistake? What if Leader Guy deceived you into thinking he’s more capable than he really is? What if he’s no longer as capable as he once was (personal problems, brain injury, etc)? What if he’s now out of his area of competence (see: the Peter Principle). What if you only rationalized to yourself that he’s trustworthy, when in actual fact you installed him because he’s dating your sister? What if your trust in him stems from his Harvard degree that his father bought for him? What if your boss chose you because he knew you’d choose That Guy, who happens to be his nephew?

    Authority is a dangerous thing. When you trust in vested authority over other qualities then you put all of your eggs in the basket of the authority figure; your risk has gone up dramatically. That may turn out OK if the leader happens to be a good decision maker. However, thousands of years of history have shown us that following the leader doesn’t always work out well, and can often be disastrous. I’m sure everyone has been in a situation where they’ve had to accept the authority of someone who, on the face of it, shouldn’t have been given that power (I know that everyone in the U.S. has).

    Marco and His Bro have stated that they don’t expect unquestioning obedience in the leader, but that when the leader has made a decision, they expect the rest of the team to go along with it, even if they think it’s wrong. This strengthens my argument against authority while at the same time cuts its legs out from under it. Yes, you want your leader to be taking the arguments of his subordinates into consideration. If, at the end of the day, he rejects them regardless of their validity, then they may as well not have been voiced in the first place. Both Marco and His Bro have said that if they’d heard of dissent escaping from the confines of the team and propagating up to their level, they’d tend to trust the leader and think of the dissenter as a troublemaker. Of course, that may true in a some cases, but this policy definitely puts a chilling effect on dissent that could be beneficial (or even critical).

    In one of my instant messaging chats with Marco, the topic of religion (very briefly) came up. Religion is, of course, the ultimate in authority, both in a supernatural and in a real-world sense. Especially in monotheism, a deity has overwhelming power over its followers, who in turn have none over it. That deity, in turn “installs” its own hierarchy of people to act as a local authority on its behalf — at least according to the people in the hierarchy. Since these people supposedly have privileged access to the deity, they are effectively granted authority by the followers. Religion is particularly good at suppressing dissent, through everything from genocide down to making virtues out of trust and belief without evidence.

    Evidence and reasoning are the keys to overcoming the risks associated with authority. They are the great equalizers, because Nature doesn’t care one bit about who has granted authority to whom — but with enough evidence and reasoning you can navigate the rules that Nature has put in place and use them to achieve your goals.

    It may very well be that the chosen leader makes successful decisions because she applies the best evidence and reasoning to a problem. Ideally, this should be true in every case; you can make the best decision possible in the shortest amount of time when you don’t have to explain and justify it to others. But we all know that this doesn’t happen every time. Even if the leader has the best reasoning skills, she may not have the best evidence, and so her conclusions might be suboptimal.

    This is why I reject authority that exists for its own sake. If an authority figure makes a decision, let the decision stand on its own merits, not on the position of the person who makes it. If it’s a good decision (based on the reasoning and on the evidence), then it’s worth supporting. If there’s an better one, let it be the course of action, regardless of who proposed it. If gathering evidence is too costly (and it often is), then it’s OK to go with the assumptions of the most “experienced” person on the team, but be prepared to reject those assumptions when the evidence contradicts it. Personal experience is a valid argument (we rely on it for a great many decisions), but it’s a weak one, and it should be overridden and/or augmented by objective evidence whenever possible.

    Authority, at best, illegitimately takes credit for success. At worst, it leads to failure. Be skeptical of it at all times.

  7. Be a Team Player

    August 13, 2008 by Craig

    In many (most?) organizations, “being a team player” is code for “being nice” — which, in turn, is often code for “not contradicting anyone.” The problem with this is that it leads to groupthink and mediocre (or often just plain wrong) results.

    I think that this Slashdotter has it right: (emphasis added by me)

    I’ve worked for years in highly effective teams, and with success. I can tell you what made all the difference: The presence of equals to debate issues with, so that we could talk each other through the problems and emerge from the session with the feeling that we had defined better solutions. Perhaps we are all arrogant nuisances, but as long as we understand and respect each other we keep each other in check, and can function as effective team members.

    The “respect among equals” also translates to “respect among people above and below you in the hierarchy” when such hierarchies exist:

    • Listen to & consider what your boss says, but call him out on it when he’s wrong or hasn’t justified his assertions.
    • Listen to & consider the objections of those below your skill and/or station, but correct them when they’re mistaken and clarify the reasoning behind your positions.

    You should only be stating agreement when you reach the same conclusions based on the available information. If you don’t think you have enough information to defend a contrary position, it’s better to state that outright rather than agree by default. The lack of agreement, even without the presence of opposition, might be enough to show that the position is potentially unreliable.

    Being a helpful member of a team means working to achieve the same goal as the other team members. It does not necessarily mean following the same process.

    Update: Fixed the link to Slashdot. Sorry for that.

  8. The Complexity of Inequality

    May 8, 2008 by Craig

    Marco has blogged about the recent Freakonomics blog series on the politics of happiness. He’s tied the discussion to biases within the political and social system against certain people (in particular women and black people; he’s viewing it in light of the current U.S. Presidential race).

    He asked the blogosphere:

    Given this amazing election year, if I look at the race as a “happy religious conservative”, seeing two people with the societal deck stacked against them, one of whom is very possibly the next POTUS, what am I to conclude about how they got there?

    To which I responded:

    If you’re willing to not put much thought into it, you can conclude absolutely anything you like.

    If you are willing to put thought into it, you can only conclude that the situation is far to complex to assign it to any handful of factors that can be explained with one-word descriptions. We simply can’t measure these things accurately enough to really have any good idea.

    Marco, in turn, responded with the question that prompted this post:

    Do you, yourself, have a feeling about any of that? Does finding the situation too-complex-to-assess make you happier? Sadder? Or does it just lead to not really caring about inequity?

    Firstly, I’d like to thank Marco for an excellent question.

    I can say that my goal is to be indifferent to the complexity itself — it is what it is, and getting an emotional response to it one way or the other doesn’t help things much.

    On the other hand, I do have an inherent desire to know *why* things like this occur, so the fact that we can’t here is a bit depressing.

    On the third hand, complexity itself can indeed be interesting; the interconnectedness of things means that we’re always being surprised and intrigued. I enjoy it when we find out things that are non-obvious (which is why I like reading Freakonomics blog myself; their whole purpose is to point out socioeconomic novelties).

    Now, Marco’s question (and blog post to a larger extent) also asked how inequality makes me feel. My answer to this is that it depends very much on the nature of the inequality.

    Some inequalities are caused by forces that I’ll label as “natural”. Effectively, they are ones that we cannot (currently) change. For example, if you are born with a severe mental handicap, then your chances of wealthy (or even independently living comfortably) are slim to non-existent. That stems largely from the fact that you are incapable of creating the sort of economic value that humanity desires and rewards. You could definitely call this “unfair”, but there’s little point in doing so, because you’d be rebuking a universe that doesn’t listen, much less care. Assuming you cannot change these things, there’s no benefit to feeling bad about them; you lose a bit of your happiness without any corresponding increase in the happiness of anyone else.

    Another class of inequality is that which is unnecessary and/or changeable: you can call it “unnatural” inequality if you like. For example, if you are a woman or black (or Catholic in the not-so-distant past), your chances of becoming President of the U.S. are reduced (and at one point they too were slim to non-existent). The bias against women and non-whites is largely based on faulty or non-existent reasoning — in particular, assuming the properties of a group also apply to an individual is not valid. This type of inequality means that humanity loses some of its potential, and is definitely something to be upset over. Ideally, we would be upset enough to change the situation so that the bias no longer occurs.

    Lastly, there is inequality that is actually desireable. For example, if you have a useful skill (take your pick, there’s lots; medical is the most palatable example), then you can use your advantage to produce more value. You will typically benefit from the value you produce; since we share our value with the less fortunate (to varying degrees), others will benefit as well. Trying to bring equality to these situations is actually counterproductive. If you force the skillful to produce at the same rate as everyone else, then there’s a missed opportunity for more vale. You can try to make the less skilled produce value at the same rate as the most skilled, but most often this is impossible (the top producers are usually at the top due to some combination of factors that can’t be replicated). This kind of equality makes me happy, because I see the benefits that come with it.

    So, I don’t not care about inequality. It’s not easy to see which type of inequality is in play at any given time (and it’s usually a combination of the three), and it’s even less easy to know what to do about it. I try my best to do what is appropriate depending on the circumstances. With that philosophy, it’s relatively easy to avoid unhappiness for the bad kinds to gain happiness from the good kinds.

  9. Issues Vs. Political Parties

    April 25, 2008 by Craig

    I don’t much like quoting myself, as it seems immodest — but in this particular case I like what I wrote on another site well enough that I’ll violate that principle.

    Marco and I enjoy political discussion, and on occasions that we end up on opposite sides we generate some good debate. There’s lots of good stuff in this thread (and in many others on his blog; I recommend subscribing). Here’s part of what I just posted:

    [Voters] are not so much Republicans/Democrats as voters who have a personal laundry list of issues, each with a position and a priority. Since your voting options are extremely limited (two viable options at best), you choose the one who you hope will serve your interests best.

    Many (most?) people do not always consider current [political party] policies when placing their votes — they just see the party name, think “they’ve felt the way I do in the past; they probably still do”, and mark their ballot. The parties can exploit this by shifting their actual behavior one way or another to acquire additional voters / influence while still (undeservedly) retaining their core.

    I’ll go on to add that this condition is far worse in a lot of other parts of the world than it is in the U.S. or Canada. Latin America seems to be particularly bad. Laura has described Costa Rican voters as voting strictly for their “chosen” party over multiple generations (i.e.: your family votes for party X so you do too). Paraguay just ended a 61-year reign; Mexico had the same party in power for over 70 years. These happen in the context of war, poverty, and famine. At least in the U.S. you can be sure that bad economic times mean a power shift.

  10. Everyday Freedom

    by Craig

    Quick, in which country do you have greater freedom: China or the United States?

    The answer is definitely the U.S., where the laws ensuring freedom have been on the books for over two hundred years. Freedom is at the core of the American legal and political system.

    However, take away all the laws written on paper for the moment. How free are you in real, every day situations?

    Elliotte Rusty Harold just got back from China, and he says that he felt freer on the streets of Beijing:

    Entering China, I was prepared to be polite to cops, show my passport as necessary, and explain as best I could just why I was walking around sewage treatment plants with camera and binoculars. To my surprise I never had to. The simple fact is that I could walk absolutely anywhere I felt like in Beijing without being hassled by anyone. … There were surveillance cameras, but fewer than in the U.S. or London. Getting on the subway, no one wanted to look inside my bags. All transactions were cash.

    I saw fewer traffic stops, arrests, and police actions against other citizens than I do in a typical week in the states. In fact, I think I saw a grand total of two, both related to car accidents; and neither looked very serious.

    Somehow I thought a one-party, authoritarian state would be more oppressive than this. At least in the capital, Beijing compares favorably to major U.S. cities. To be honest, that doesn’t speak well for the U.S. If we can’t be less of a police state than a one-party, nominally Communist nation like China, then something has gone seriously wrong.

    Disclaimer: the plural of anecdote is not data — and this is only a singular anecdote. But I thought it was interesting and postworthy nonetheless.

    What important here is that actions speak louder than words. I think that it’s very important to have freedom built into the laws (one thing that the U.S. does better than Canada). However, those laws are only written on goddamn pieces of paper, and if they’re not enforced / respected, then they’re meaningless.