Dead foreign children

A friend emailed me this news article today. It’s about Canadian politicians and the currently famous picture of the drowned Syrian refugee boy.

I have one strong case to defend the conservatives…overload. They have a lot of cases to deal with, many of them tragic. But people don’t like that excuse. I don’t envy the government officials, this is an issue that really demonstrates the difficulty of governing, at a personal level. Most of us are glad to be free of that burden.

Overall, I am most offended by the opportunism of Trudeau in this context than the conservative’s policies. What’s the quote? “You can’t decide you have compassion after the fact…etc..”(something along those lines). Mulcair’s response was much more subtle and much more palatable, but still opportunist. Harper’s response pissed me off, too. But I think it comes from a solid, respectable conviction, a conviction I disagree with, but one that is useful for the moral debate, at any rate…because it is consistent, it has merits as well as severe problems. Ultimately, I don’t know if politicians can turn that opportunistic part of their personality off, when you have been campaigning aggressively night and day, you lose sight of reality.
Yet…what I actually see in this story is the moral ineptness of our people. This is a case in which I would say, people read about it, blame someone else, and go back to their lives. If you were to bring up the refugee crisis before this photo was published, and before this story was published, people would assign it a low priority in the overall election debate. Now that the international community can blame Canada for inaction, all of a sudden it is a priority (or not, we shall see). But the problem is that I have a longer memory than the news cycle. I know from my personal experience that people don’t care until they have something tangible. A big reason is the lack of imagination and the lack of committing time to thinking about the suffering of others, and an abundance of time thinking about which beach resort to trot off to next, or which streams to go a-fishing on.
If we entered this conversation with the acknowledgement that our real set of values in this life do not place human lives above our own amusements, then we can go somewhere. But people find this appalling. So I’ll admit it, that I don’t universally value human lives above my own pains and pleasures, and this is a moral failure. This is why I feel qualified in saying that we are a morally inept people, I have to look no further than my own life. It upsets me that this is a condition of modern life, but there are reasons: lack of power to change anything; lack of information to remind me of this problem. Etc… Perhaps if society were structured differently, I would not be such a failure.
Many of those who get involved in the ’cause’ will find this position frustrating, no doubt. I have been in both sets of shoes, as an activist in certain causes and as the myopic worker bee. There are very marginal expressions of power available to people (Canadians in this case), perhaps starting with who you vote for. However, these marginal expressions of power do not produce the feedback needed to incentivise an individual to remain vigilant and committed to a cause. Rather it is the acknowledgement of like-minded peers that matters.
This is what leads me to my conclusion that these types of injustice will be a fact of life until someone comes along with a mechanism to express power, or a mechanism to sustain commitment to a cause. I would imagine a currency of some sort, ‘freedom points’ if you will, a way to contribute to the overall good of humanity in a measurable, publicly displayable fashion. The closest thing I am aware of are the works of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum…things like the happiness index. But these are macro-societal initiatives that do not communicate to individual “morality” balances.
Another interesting observation I can draw from this article is the power and real world value of art. Call a photo what you will. The narrative of this newspaper is a work of art, it is not a scientific report. It selects the facts that might compel the readers to act. If you ever doubt the fundamental power and primacy of the humanities (maybe not in an academic setting, but in the real world), here is your evidence. It’s not a scientific narrative, it’s a moral and philosophical one that is being reported.
But to focus on art. It serves the purpose of communicating emotion. And what we need in this world is a ‘free market’ of emotion. We need to obliterate emotional distance and the best tools we have, at the moment, are works of art. The sad reality is that arts in commercial settings are too often used to fuel our lust for materials, what else is pop music? It is not something I will ever really feel spiritual about, I can basically guarantee that much. If you want more evidence of our moral ineptness, turn on any television, and remember the statistic that in the time use surveys conducted recently, television is still the number one way people pass time. How many moralistic programs can you find? Well, a bit of a trick question, but the morality of the television is highly consumerist. And is a TV mirror or a window?
Anyway…Adorno basically wrote all of these ideas 50+ years ago. Nothing has changed. Thoroeau wrote this same thing 150+ years ago. Who else in history? Marcus Aurelius? The stoics? The difference is that we have technology to viably communicate these things, and most people don’t even feel guilty for wasting the opportunity.

Allain de Botton on … status, happiness, and the ‘murican dream

I finished the above Allain de Botton YouTube on status/inequality/happiness it asked the basic question: Given all of the material advances in the west, and the fact that people are wealthier than ever before, why are people more unhappy now?

For starters, are they less happy? I don’t know if I buy this, it might be us looking back with rose tinted glasses.

Second, there were lots of points in this film thtat were well articulated. On the whole, while it is not as useful as reading a book, I feel that the topic of the film and the treatment were: at worst, not a waste of time…stimulating; and, at best, thought provoking.

Allian de Botton is, to be blunt, a little funny looking, he is not particularly sharp or savvy (there is some irony, because he talks about sharpness and cleaness and vanity in the film), and he appears to approach the question with some unrevealed revelation, I suspect he has strong convictions on the topic, which is at odds with his documentary prose. It’s a curious point of the documentary, he takes an impartial voice, out of what(?) some pedagocical concern, I suppose.

But what to infer? The thesis of the film asks the question of status, and explores status symbols, it devotes some time to people who opt out (the bohemians), and it makes claims about the relative unhappiness or poor state of the modern condition. The film treats the bullish-on-success, A-types as if they are worthy of a lot more skepticism, but I got the sense that the bohemians were much more sympathetic characters. This, I believe, reveals my bias, but I am positive de Botton is of the persuasion that materialism and status are things to be conquered from within. I am unable to recal the quote, but it was de Botton recalling the conclusion of a french enlightenment thinker. I think the idea that came from that quote has to do with the idea that wealth and power could be measured in subjective terms, depending on what the individual chooses to define. The powerful idea is that the individual is subject only to his/her own narrative. If you have the power to realize that your inner- narrative controls your life, and in addition, if you are able to scrutinize your own inner-narrative, you may stand a chance at discovering mistakes, from which you can alter your commitments/how you spend your resources to better realize what is good, or best, in life.

Also, factoid I leared in the film is that ideology is a term coined by Marx. … go fugure.

Machine Learning And Choice

To follow up from the streaming music post: something I have been thinking about is the consequences of a machine learning algorithm on musical taste.

There are these ideas out there that you go through musical stages in life. I am not really convinced by the methods used in that study. And I don’t think it asks the right question. What causes musical preference?

I am out of my depth on this one, so I have more questions than answers.

Here is a theory that I couldn’t find in searching, but I know I heard from somewhere (a podcast, a ted talk…not sure). The theory is: Music tastes are path dependent. Meaning that they do not converge the way that the “stages” model describes…or at least, I think their approach imposed too many preconceptions about what music is–their definitions are something along the lines of: “Intense” (punk/metal) for teenagers.

OK…if they say so.

I would go more micro than that. When do (if) you accept synthesized music over instrumental? I think that dimension was excluded entirely. What types of accents do you like in singers?

There is also a finding out there that music becomes likeable simply via repetition. So songs that you hear over and over eventually become good.

Machine Learning

So we now have a thing that analyses some dimensions of .mp3 meta-data. It looks at the data of what we have listened to, and it suggests similar songs–similar is defined in the black box. The algos essentially try to establish links in your preferences (as if listening to a song is a signal of preference at all) to other music. You can train this algo with ‘likes’, etc…

BUT! What if you get caught in some sort of infinite loop? Like the algo defines your sweet spot so well that you have no need to browse elsewhere, to expose yourself to other types of music.

AND! What about when you are in the mood for a different type of music…the algo has almost no data on mood (YET!(1984 man! NSA! Snowden! Like…this aggression will not stand man.))

I have heard other theories about the way music evolved to ‘fit’ the environment it is played in. So chamber music had pianos and Cellos and shit, stadium rock was all about being louder, so big amps and electric guitars, and now most music is mastered for iTunes, and Kanye somehow is the best.

So what if there is value in being a traveller across music genres (btw wtf is a genre?), across mediums, and across soundscapes (different instruments producing different frequencies, at different intervals).

If your music tastes are evolutionary, what does this tool–that evolves to collect and suggest music that mimics your past tastes–do to you?

I mean, you will be listening to ‘new’ music. But it’s the same old shit, right?

Where is that WTF!? factor that makes art good? And good here is the idea that there is value in being exposed to shit you have not been exposed to, because it makes you think more broadly, and your broader tastes will help you solve riddles or some shit.

Also neuroplasticity fights alzheimers…Like…so Algos cause Alzheimers. Bro Science, bro.

Also. I don’t. know. where… to begin. But. Cheap shot!!! Protect your balls! Metal is a bunch of loud sounds, and some people think its real manly, but like what makes loud and angry manly? Nothing. Grow up.

How do magnets work?

Happy listening bro-dude-girl-baby-lady-boy 😉

An excerpt from one of my ongoing debates

Quick and dirty: The other person is arguing from a stance that I categorise this way: favours individual decision making in the hands of the individual, and strongly rejects the notion that policy makers have a paternalistic role. While I think there is a lot of merit in this position, I weakly reject it. Disclaimer: I can’t actually speak for the other debater, it’s better if you read in between the lines, and you know, generally think for yourself. I generally believe thinking for yourself is good.

The blog post is going to start at the numbered list, not with anything written prior. The reader will have to infer what the other person’s position is. This is part of a dialectic, because I have been learning about Socrates.

In response to an email, I wrote the following:

  • We are part of a swarm, with distributed intelligence.
    1. This is actually the fundamental insight of Adam Smith and the basis of many arguments put forward by Hayek/von Mises/Friedman (the Austrian/Chicago economics schools).
    2. Consider a machine learning algorithm. It can make great predictions, without understanding causation.
      1. You should try to read some material on this stuff. It’s the biggest and least well understood disruption in modern business. A lot of people talk about ‘Big Data’ but only a handful of people even know what it means. Half of my individual intellectual endeavors today are focused on to use machine learning techniques because I (an economist(ish)) am about to be made obsolete.
        1. So many tangents! The other half of my intellectual efforts are the source of these many debates, as I feel the only other value add economist have is the philosophical side…it really is a branch of philosophy more than it is a science.
      2. This theoretical framework you put forward, suffers from the informational load required by the individual.
        1. Education is a necessary step for an individual to have the ability to:
          1. Recognize they are ignorant:
            1. The more you learn, the less you realize you understand. Put differently, education raises more questions than it answers. I think this is a fundamental law. For, in practice, there is an infinite amount of knowledge.
          2. At the same time, I offer a (albeit incoherent) philosophical alternative that doesn’t address (yet) the faults of micro-political battles, and mechanisms in which people can game the system for personal gain.
            1. I feel that you have a much better “reason” based footing, and have spent more time on the problem of political philosophy, but I believe your arguments advance a position that, ultimately, is either ill-prepared or not-yet communicated to offer guidance on such nuanced implications of aspects outlined in this response…but that is why there is utility in this dialect.
  • In a practical sense, modern research offers us a lot of answers as to where and how individuals are able to make certain decisions.
    1. The study and cataloging of cognitive biases has provided people with the tools to either exploit the uneducated or to act paternalistically
      1. There is a natural/practical binary here, since the only moral pathway you have left open in your theoretical framework is one in which it is only moral to educate the individual, but since there is a cost associated with education…this is not a practical solution.
        1. We can go and find a million case studies to show that there is a natural way that this game ends, and it isn’t with education. I took a whole graduate level course that focused on these problems, and every time I bring them up I fail to impart the importance of this insight.
  • Prominent Evolutionary Biologists (See E.O. Wilson) have described the human being as one that is internally conflicted, and also not *naturally* reasoning creatures.
    1. We have conflicting internal reward systems for pro and anti social behavior
      1. The history of the homo sapiens, in evolutionary terms, is one in which strategies of survival at various times were individualistic (the most primitive regions of the brain) and collective (the regions of the brain that only humans and a few other species even have…very rarely occurs)…and yet, there were also oscillations between individualism/collectivism that continue to this day, in terms of evolutionary development.
        1. The new regions of the brain, reason dictates, had to serve some role for survival
          1. Language/communication allowed for better survival or fitness
            1. This is a collective strategy à(implies) language improves collective fitness
              1. Language is a collective tool, it’s hard to imagine what role it would occupy as something other than a collective tool. Ex: Talking to myself, out loud, with specialized vocal patterns helps me accomplish what? To provide better fitness in what way?
            2. (hotly debated) The language/communication part of the brain predates reasoned thinking à(implies) reason is not a survival function, but rather a byproduct of evolutionary history
          2. *naturally* this is a loaded/imperfect term. Don’t read too much into it. Essentially, there are no evolutionary forces that modern researchers have discovered (that have shown up in what I have read) that support reason as the mechanism of fitness in homo sapiens. Reason is a by-product. It is cognitively expensive, and our brains don’t naturally use this path of thinking unless posed with significant incentives/stimulus to do so.
            1. For me to say something dumb/but more or less what I think: THIS IS WHY LIBERTARIANSIM WILL NEVER WORK It relies on people utilizing a function of their biology that only ever kicks in when the incentives are strong enough.
            2. For this reason governments or corporations or any institution, really, can exploit any homo sapiens by using environmental factors that allow for the path of least resistance, cognitively speaking…This the most fundamental reason I believe marketing to be incredibly immoral. It is willful use of another individuals’ weakness to extract profit/rents.
              1. When it comes to judging people as moral/immoral, somehow, ignorance is an acceptable excuse for me. I don’t believe the typical person employed in marketing is aware, nor would be equipped to correct for this feature in their work.
              2. Nor do I believe it is fair to single out marketers, as my own work has many of the same issues, and I would like to not be judged harshly, either.
              3. Somehow the only correction for these problems is institutional, since it is systems that allow us to best utilize reason as a species. Institutions are guaranteed to be flawed in terms of libertarian doctrines, because by default they limit individual power (I am aware this is a leap in logic).
  • (Emphasis that this is a Belief) Ignorant conservatism does a decent job of stabilizing the most radical effects of ignorant progressives, but does not offer improvements to the status quo
    1. A point of agreement in our philosophy is that society should not throw out the distributed intelligence that has accumulated in the form of customs and culture just because you have a fancy model that tells you something else will work better
    2. In fact, reliance on new models has a long record of failure. Those who claim to be more reasonable or more enlightened are always somewhat wrong. (Ex. The residential school system in Canada, or the soviet union, etc…)
    3. At the same time it is a mistake to say that the current arrangement is a just or good
      1. Distribution of wealth is not merit based, which is a problem for stability. (Current liberal elite academic research) People are finding clever ways to show how anti-social behavior is caused by individual disenfranchisement.
        1. It is possible that this is not a failure of libertarian ideology, but rather a failure to practice libertarian ideals
          1. It is fundamentally still an unknown assumption, and probably will always remain such that society functions better or worse with more freedom at the individual level, and I suspect that even the way this is worded is terribly problematic. Especially since it is likely, not at all a linear path of causation.
  • Reason is a flawed tool for public policy, because it requires assumptions of cause and effect.
    1. Again, since a lot of human society functions, and nobody knows why, perhaps a better approach to society building is one that sets goals, and experiments on how to achieve those goals rather than one that tries to start from the principles of justice.
      1. Isn’t this already how it works?
    2. There is incredible moral hazard, admittedly, if this were a mainstream political ideology, in the wrong hands, could lead to fascism
      1. Can’t define “wrong hands”
    3. Libertarians would run this country into the ground because they are too wedded to the idea of individual responsibility, without accepting that individuals are not biologically nor socially prepared or able to make every decision.
      1. (Something you can maybe clear up for me) Libertarianism fails to go into how the individual should govern him/herself…which makes it a nice relativistic doctrine, but ultimately why the Kantian ethics don’t necessarily lead to libertarianism.