Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Teaching vs. Learning

I sometimes wonder if there might be too much teaching in a "crowding-out" sense. There is only so much time and teaching takes it away from independent learning. If one is assigned sufficiently many books to read and techniques to learn, one cannot pursue independent thoughts to the possible detriment of new ideas. However, if one is not assigned anything, one might conclude that one should not do anything. What is the optimal mix between independence and "teaching"?

Dr. Johnson's adage that "a man should read as his fancy takes him for what he reads as a chore will do him little good" seems to me to be almost self-evident, though many will require some assistance in getting the most out of their fancies. For instance, there are exceedingly many books worth pursuing and one's fancy may find difficulties in choosing among several at the top. The guidance of seniors, such as teachers assigning books to read, may then prove helpful.

This approach regards fancy as rather finely divisible, since one is allowed guidance to pursue it, in contrast to the route of choosing a subject (say, in graduate school) and being offered guidance there according to often fairly stringent limits: these very courses and these specific books or papers. But again, maybe that is the right approach?

Here is a radical idea that I wish would be implemented to test the relative merits of the finely-divisible fancy and the block-fancy: Let students take whatever courses they like (if any) and judge their progress by paper output after three or four years. Students taking courses may begin writing papers more slowly, but to the extent that courses help them their papers will be of a much higher quality when they begin. Students who want very narrow specialization can avoid several courses and, if they were right in doing so, will benefit from the freedom to pursue their own projects which reduced course work allows.

Maybe there are some programmes of this variety, only I have not been acquainted with them yet. It would be interesting to attempt to measure the calibre of the students they graduate as compared to that of other programmes.

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Morality of Monopoly

If somebody controls all of some valuable commodity or service and no-one else knows how to produce it, that somebody is a monopolist. If I lament that his high prices are therefore immoral, do I have a case? I would say that the answer is in general "no".

Consider now the analogous case in which one man possesses very many characteristics prized by females, so that hundreds of women really would like to marry him in a gargantuan group marriage. This is of course not without precedent as harems have historically been a part of many countries' institutions. However, the man only wants one woman - who may or may not end up paying a higher "price" for having him all to herself.

The man is a monopolist for only he possesses that very combination of qualities which makes women like him so much. One could imagine that he has done something really extraordinary so that he really has no close substitutes. So why should it be OK to deplore the traditional monopolist but not the popular gentleman? As far as I can tell, it should not be OK. Perhaps the reason has to do with rights.

One has the right to do as one pleases with what one owns. Therefore, popular males have no obligation to be polygynists and monopolists have no obligation to supply more of what they can produce. Of course, this assumes rightful appropriation, so very many actual monopolies might be said to be immoral. But in my idealized case, I have trouble seeing some other plausible defence of the monogamous man, though maybe I am wrong.

With some things, the appropriation of some of it leaves less for others to enjoy, some of whom are unborn. John Locke defended private property of land as long as the appropriator leaves as much, and of as good quality, to others, which seems quite impossible on a spherical earth. But maybe one's efforts on one's land can raise the value of land nearby and produce stuff others value, which compensates the non-owners. However, if one has the right to do as one pleases with what one owns, one can also use the land as a dump.

The thinking presented in the paragraph above contradicts the defence of the monogamist. If one has an obligation to leave as much for future generations who could not help not existing yet, then one should make maximal use of one's resources now, including capacity to procreate with willing persons. But if one may do what one wants with one's property, there is of course no such obligation.

The justification for why one might have an obligation to future generations (even if one has no obligation to one's contemporaries) says that contemporaries can act now, so any resources presently up for grabs may go to them if they apply themselves. Not so for the unborn. It is right and proper to point to the tendency for individuals to use their resources optimally so that future generations are compensated, but what this blog post deals with is the moral question of why it would be wrong to fail to optimize.

Notice, however, that if people did not care about material things, nobody would challenge the landowner who refuses to do anything worthwhile with his property. It is only because people care that some say he is obliged to maximize. If people care by and large, but the landowner does not, those who care will probably get rich and either buy the land from the non-maximizer or find ways to live without his land. In this way, non-maximizers count, too.

In other words, if there are people who do not care about maximizing, should not their wishes count to those who do? This argument appears to me to win the game for natural rights.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Tit for Tats

Recent interesting posts on MarginalRevolution about the so-called "body art" known as tattoos have got me thinking about the issue. I find them thoroughly objectionable, but as is said in the new book by Professor Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner, one should put one's moral (or in this case perhaps one's aesthetic) compass out of commission when analysing a phenomenon as a social scientist.

What do tattoos signal? For women, they probably signal some degree of promiscuity. As far as I understand things, in order to get a tattoo, one needs to be touched and those otherwise functioning people who want something to stand out like a scar on their skin normally pay someone to ink them up in this way. In other words, they pay to be touched. Provided there is no discrepancy in price for men and women, this seems to me to indicate that tattooed women are a little bit on the easy side. If they paid to be touched, imagine how much one could touch them, if so inclined, if one did not charge for it. Or, maybe that is just me not seeing the point of touching outside a relationship. This point may be sensitive to the decision of where on one's body to get it.

For men, the promiscuity signal is of weaker value because men are biologically more inclined towards such behaviour anyway (greater downside risk for women than for men, since men don't become infertile for nine months). If I have understood correctly, it hurts to get a permanent mark on one's body, so perhaps tattoos signal that one withstands pain? If so, they make other people less likely to attack, since they will then know that the fight can take a long time before there's any chance of submission.

Historically, tattoos have been more common in prisons and on ships, both of which are male-dominated environments. In such environments, some men exhibit homosexual tendencies. A tattoo which signals a high tolerance for pain (apart from embarrassment...) could then say to potential rape victims that they had better give in. To a potential rapist, they will signal greater resistance as the above paragraph makes clear. I have always found tattoos to signal a bit of "butch"-ness as well, in which case a tattoo turns a man who was previously an acceptable substitute for a woman into a poor substitute.

However, this last point is at odds with the conjecture above that women get tattoos to signal availability. But actually, I conjectured that they signal promiscuity, which is slightly different from availability. Maybe tattooed women are promiscuous and stupid, so they want "it" more but choose inefficacious ways of getting it. Or is my aesthetic compass getting in the way after all? I suppose even a somewhat "butchified" woman will still find it rather easy to find a mate for the short term. Generally women only have to say "yes" rather than make an effort for very short-term relationships. Or maybe tattoos do not signal "butch"-ness after all? I wonder what the relative ratios are between men and women who sport those nasty things.

There is probably a bit of a low-brow association with tattoos. In sports such as football ("soccer", that is, I don't know the American kind) they are very common indeed, and since that sport does not require much in the way of equipment, it may be that lower-class backgrounds are overrepresented in the game. By contrast, I have never seen a golfer or a tennis player with a tattoo and those are considered gentlemen's game (though it may be that their respective associations also have rules prohibiting tattooed persons to play). Perhaps tattoos are had by folks who know their mental faculties are so deficient that higher aspirations are futile, alternatively, by people who are so brilliant that even something so objectionable as a tattoo won't hurt their career prospects?

Tattoos were nowhere before this century as far as I can recall, but now they are not uncommon. I wonder what has caused this trend. If social interactions were enough, why have they not risen and fallen in the past? And why should one permanently mark oneself because of social interactions? Maybe I am missing something, but peer effects do not seem to have such big impacts in other contexts. Perhaps laser removal technology has improved and come down in price, so that tattoos are not in fact quite so permanent anymore? These are strange things to me, possibly because I failed to disable my aesthetic compass.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Imminent (?) Brown Bag-Ban

California Governor Jerry Brown is poised to sign a piece of legislation banning single-use plastic bags (i.e. not "thick" plastic bags) in California, "reasoning" that "there are about fifty cities with their own plastic bag ban and that's causing a lot of confusion", in reference, it would seem, to chain stores having to send different bags to different locations. I don't know but I guess this ban is imminent. I have not paid attention to the issue until now so I cannot say. Hence the "(?)" in the title.

Unlike the Governor, I am not an expert on logistics and so cannot offer comment on the chain stores' shipment difficulties. However, it strikes me that locations differ in many other respects, too, besides whether their local politicos look favourably on thin plastic bags. For instance, chain stores presumably send more ice cream to any given retailer in San Diego than to one in Eureka, and fewer umbrellas to Los Angeles than to Crescent City (on the Pacific shore near the Oregon border). Maybe the consumers who preferred single-use plastic bags could accommodate confused retailers on these matters as well?

And why stop there? The beleaguered postmen all over the world must sort newspapers so that the right household gets the right subscription. Can't just all the newspapers merge and every household subscribe for the resultant paper? If these proposals seem silly, it is because they are. So is the proposal by the Sacramento legislators. Other things count beside avoiding "confusion". Maybe the cities which have banned single-use bag had some particularly good reason for doing so? I doubt this is true in every case, but it could be true for some of them. The one-size-fits-all agenda will certainly stop some people's confusion, but like all central directives it will be costly to those of a different size and strike a blow (albeit a small one) to the prospects of Tiebout competition.

Apart from the issue of confusion, there is also an environmental aspect. Of course, plastic degrades slowly and is thereby anathema to many environmentalists. I wonder, however, whether the extreme thinness of single-use bags, which I have frequently used, makes them more environmentally friendly than the thicker bags after all. For example, if the multi-use bag can be used, on average, a thousand times more than can the single-use bag but has a thousand-and-one times greater mass, it would seem plain that the multi-use bag is environmentally the worse option.

Perhaps the environmentalists and the politicos favouring the ban have already thought of all this and answered that multi-use bags are indeed better. If so, I have just missed the part when they said all this. But given the plethora of ill-considered policies in place throughout the world, ranging from minimum-wage legislation and CAFE standards to tariffs and drafts, my guess is that it is, for the moment, an open question whether single-use bags are actually any worse for the environment than are multi-use bags. And even if they are worse, if they are only a little bit worse it would likely still be a terrible idea to ban them since many people find it in their interest to use them and the environment is not all that counts.

PS. Notice in the title the importance of hyphens (-). Ban of the lunch bag would see the hyphen between "brown" and "bag" as in Brown's "Brown-Bag Ban". As far as I understand the English language, it is up to the writer whether he wants a hyphen between "Bag" and "Ban" as in the title of this post. I do it to connect the ban with bags rather than with bags which are brown.

PPS. This blog post seems to have momentarily disappeared for some reason. This is the second attempt at posting.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Three Pungent Quotations

Every now and then, I read short sentences which contain so much insight that I feel the urge to write them down. I used to have a note pad full of them (quite a sizable one, more so, effectively, because my handwriting is tiny), but unfortunately I lost it when moving house. Fortunately, I found it again when moving a second time! Onwards and upwards! Here are some choice ones:
"[E]agles and lions can never be so plentiful as pigeons and antelopes"
- Alfred Russel Wallace
On a first glance, this looks vaguely mysticist if one is unacquainted with biology. However, it has to be true, because lions and eagles eat antelopes and pigeons. So if there were more predators than prey, the predators would starve and die, making the prey relatively more numerous.
Another one:
"Diminishing marginal utility is increasing marginal cost".
- Frank Knight
Optimizing individuals who suddenly produce one fewer of something to make one more of something else are no longer optimizing. This is nothing huge to any economist, but it is a pithy formulation of the fact that increasing marginal cost implies diminishing marginal utility, and vice versa.
"And the angel of the Lord said unto her, I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude"
- Genesis 16: 10 (quoted on p. 29 of Jan Gullberg's Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers)
Illustrating the concept of infinity as being beyond numbering, this is a very profound titbit of insight from the Holy Bible.

Here is another quotation to end this post:

"That's all, folks!"

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Political Economy of Duckburg - Instalment 3: The Alleged Imperialist Ideology

When Scrooge, Donald and Huey, Dewey and Louie travel away from Duckburg, they encounter foreigners of different characters, some peaceful, others bellicose; some enlightened, others lazy and stupid. The book by literary critic Ariel Dorfman and sociologist Armand Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, which I mentioned in my preceding instalment on the topic of the Political Economy of Duckburg, argues that the Ducks spread a market ideology to the Third World or really anyone outside of the Bourgeois sphere, a world of witches, villains, and uncivilized foreigners.
In the action-packed classic 'The Treasure of Marco Polo' (Uncle $crooge 64), there is arguably some material for this sort of skewed reading. In this story, Scrooge is eagerly anticipating a jade elephant from the country of Unsteadystan, a somewhat unruly country, as its incredibly well-crafted name suggests, which I presume is to be found somewhere in Asia. There is a problem with the shipment and only the elephant's tail arrives, so Scrooge and nephews have to travel to Unsteadystan to retrieve the remainder of the valuable mammal made of jade. Upon reaching their destination, they are shot at and when trying to get to Duckburg's Embassy, a militant Unsteadystani throws a bomb at it which demolishes the building.

In some parts of the world, there is civil war, so although foreigners are not always shown at their best, representing their conflicts is quite accurate. In other parts of the world, people's work habits are not quite in line with the Weberian notion of the Protestant Work Ethic (perhaps due to bad institutions, or who-knows-what), which is the topic of 'Volcano Valley' (Donald Duck Four Color 147), a story in which Donald and his nephews go to the titular nation, whose inhabitants are pathologically lethargic to the point where they are normally found reclining against their low-quality buildings, and stupid to the point where they are unaware of milk.

Other stories feature witch doctors (such as 'The Great Wig Mystery' of Uncle $crooge 52, in which poor natives share but one telephone with a hotline to the World Bank!) and civilized but evil powers like Brutopia (featured, for instance, in 'A Cold Bargain' of Uncle $crooge 17 - its first appearance, I believe, whose coat of arms is a pair of hand-cuffs and a hammer). Yet, it would be in error to accept this picture of foreigners as representative of the Duck Universe created by the great Duck Man Carl Barks, who wrote and drew all of these stories. Stories such as these get a lot of publicity because the foreigners have such a long list of shortcomings, but a representative sample of comics would palpably not show the "capitalist" world centred around Scrooge with such comparable favour. (Not that it would be in error to do so, for the free market system is indeed full of great advantages.)
Scrooge McDuck is often considered the archetypal capitalist-duck and even though he is quite affable and thereby gives a fairly positive impression of wealthy men (or ducks), the moral of a tonne of stories is that he should not overreach in his quest for gold, or he will disrupt a delicate harmony that foreigners often represent. Nowhere is this better illustrated than when Scrooge goes to the land of Tralla-la (Uncle $crooge 6). He does so because he is temporarily sick of money and the natives in the idyllic Himalayan Valley of Plenty offer every piece of evidence that money - and indeed every quest for material wealth - is a cancer. This story is clearly no defence of capitalism or of the Western (Duckburg) Way; while the free market certainly tolerates beatnik types who worship at the Buddhist altar, it also tolerates people's striving to increase upon what they have, a way of life which would nevertheless not be acceptable in Tralla-la.

The Peeweegahs in 'Land of the Pygmy Indians' (Uncle $crooge 18) offer another example of foreigners having reached a better way to live than that of smoggy "capitalist" Duckburg. The tiny Arabs of 'Pipeline to Danger' (Uncle $crooge 30) provide another sympathetic view of non-Duckburgers, as do the Indian-like egg eaters of 'Island in the Sky' (Uncle $crooge 29). At other times, natives appear to be just like people in general, enjoying dance and fun and otherwise working hard, like the Indochinese people of the wonderful story 'City of Golden Roofs' (Uncle $crooge 20). This is also tolerably close to how the people of Plain Awful are depicted in the classic 'Lost in the Andes' (Donald Duck Four Color 223), with differences mainly due to the paucity of almost any natural resources barring the chickens which lay square (or actually cubic) eggs. In all of these stories but the last two, Scrooge, in one way or another, must heed values other than his selfish interest in money. And there are many, many additional examples.

If Scrooge is frequently taught lessons of "social responsibility" in this way, the stories can only teach that "capitalism" is socially most useful when greed is strictly bridled. This is hardly "capitalist imperialism". By contrast, Scrooge's main rival entrepreneur in the Barksian view, Flintheart Glomgold, appears to make his money by lies and deceit. Flintheart's greed is unbridled and is depicted as something bad since he is clearly evil. Moreover, he is not as successful as Scrooge when it comes to making money, losing to him - albeit narrowly - in 'The Second-Richest Duck (Uncle $crooge 15) and in 'The Money Champ' (Uncle $crooge 27). (On the other hand, Scrooge's other main rival, John D. Rockerduck, never does anything really bad in the one story in which Carl Barks used - and invented - him: 'Boat Buster' of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories 255.)

Thus, Scrooge's "human-faced capitalism" is frequently quite lenient on the Third World and on natives, who frequently manage to teach "lessons" of better ways to live. Foreigners are sometimes indolent and ignorant, but culturally and spiritually advanced at other times. In light of these facts, it is hard to see any justification for the "imperialist" label.

This is the last blog post of the series on the Political Economy of Duckburg, though I will certainly return to the Ducks in future. Instalment two on the political economy of Duckburg is here; the first instalment is here.

Monday, 25 August 2014

On the Freedom of the Will

Many problems in metaphysics are particularly troubling because their concerns are as close to us as anything can be, yet certainty about their answers might be impossible to obtain. Among these problems we find the issue of identity; is mind no matter, and what is matter (never mind!)? Might our mental faculties be governed by immaterial minds? Experienced things such as the outside world and time are also incredibly difficult problems, though their closeness to us is immediate. The aim with some of my blog posts is just to put some fairly basic thoughts together on this sort of problems of metaphysics or other areas of philosophy. This blog post deals with free will.

I am a keen believer in free will, but whether the doctrine of free will is true or not is quite a tricky question, indeed. Certainly, the disbelievers must carry the burden of proof, because they argue that something does not exist which everyone experiences every day (barring, perhaps, some pathological cases). However, once the idea of causation is taken seriously, one may begin to doubt the actuality of free will, because if every action in physics has a cause in physics, electrical impulses and chemicals in my brain caused me to write this sentence (or caused me to think that I was writing it).

Moreover, there is evidence from neuroscience to suggest that we do not become aware of our intentions to act before the physical signs of how we will act have presented themselves. I think much of this evidence is obtained by presenting a person with some choices and monitoring brain activity. On the other hand, maybe this only says something about the relationship of consciousness and free will. The evidence would certainly be more impressive if choice were predicted, the prediction shown to the choose before his choice, and the chooser then unable to change his choice. It seems beyond incredible that a person in such a situation would be unable to change his decision, though as far as I know this has never been tested.

From my psychologist friends, I have learnt that belief in "free won't" is a big thing in some circles. This view has it that actions are initiated and that such events are beyond our control, but once we become aware that an action has been initiated, we can nevertheless control what we do by vetoing the action. This amounts to a version of free will, since the vetoing may presumably continue indefinitely. The resultant lag in choice of action may be thought of as a slight handicap to free will, however.

There is an interesting link between free will and epistemology. If we have no free will, epistemically good reasons for any belief become tricky. Since we have no choice in whatever we believe, what reason is there to expect beliefs to be well-reasoned? Maybe beliefs satisfy something altogether different from epistemically sound argument. If there is no free will, the door is thus left ajar for solipsism, though perhaps not too much if evolution has weeded out genes which opted for epistemically hard-to-justify beliefs. But how could we really tell that there is any reason to believe in such tendencies or even in evolution if there is no free will? The falseness of solipsism offers some support for the truth of free will.

In my judgement, free will beats determinism on introspection, on epistemology, and on fancy testing, but free will is defeated on causality and naïve testing. On these reasons, I find it easier to believe that there is something special about living things (or at least about humans) that gives them an ability to initiate action independent of physical fact. While this does seem very odd indeed, I find it easier to believe than the alternative which violates basic epistemology, thought experiments about sophisticated tests, and the most common everyday experiences.