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Death and Taxes

August 12th, 2018

Taxes For the Common Good?

For as long as humans have lived as pack animals with a dominance hierarchy, taxes have always been a part of human life. Those who are seen as the leaders of the pack, tribe, nation, or empire have always had a social mandate (albeit often a grudging one) to eat first from a shared kill and to take food and other rights from others. For most of human history, taxes have been seized from the poor by the rich without any justification other than the occasional claim that this plunder was justified in order to pay for protection from even greater plunder by even nastier thieves.

One thing that has made this scam so easy to implement is another aspect of human pack structure, namely the tendency to cooperate in competing groups of larger than family size. This competition between groups has favoured an inherited tendency towards suppression of the individual will and acceptance of socially-mandated authority based on a sense of group loyalty.  And to facilitate that we have also inherited a tendency to identify friends and foes on the basis of features such as bodily decoration (ranging from war paint to fashion styles and military uniforms) and behaviours (such as chanting, dancing, and expressing unfounded beliefs).

The human tendency to group-identify, though, has had an interesting secondary consequence. Namely various groups of those not at the top of the dominance hierarchy can come to see themselves as a separate team, tribe, or "class", and consequently engage in attack and overthrow of the current leadership. In any "nation"  one of the main goals is therefore to build allegiance to a larger whole in which members of various interest groups may accept a "state" authority. In the case of a "democracy" this allegiance to the state is bought from the people by offer of at least the appearance of a role in determining both who wields the state authority and what it is empowered to do; and in even the most primitive groupings, the position of a leader is often dependent on giving some appearance of operating to advance the welfare of all.

Similarly, the power of taxation is often justified and maintained via a claim that property seized by the state will be used for the common good. This is a claim that I am happy to live with so long as the state is making a net positive contribution to what I consider the common good.

So What Is This Common Good?

There are many things that I accept as positive contributions by government to the common good - indeed enough in our present society that I have no hesitation in paying my taxes, no matter who is in power (at least out of the current crop of potentials in Canada). But there are a number of big things missing.

Some of these have to do with the need for better protection of the environment and of shared access to common resources, but the one I want to focus on here is wealth inequality.

It is my belief that the common good is best served by the building of a social economy in which as many people as possible feel that they have a "fair" share of the world's resources. This can be achieved in at least a couple of ways. One is to brainwash people throughout their lives with a belief that inequalities of birth are "fair", and another is to strive to remedy inequities of birth by redistributing inherited assets. I lean toward the latter.

Rather than encouraging people to believe that there is some inherent fairness in having them retain control of any assets that they may have acquired or inherited, I favour encouraging them to believe instead that it is fair to use the collective power of the state to progressively take away some of those assets that exceed the global average and distribute them for the benefit the less advantaged - especially of those born in a disadvantaged state.

In other words I favour taxation of all the assets of each individual at a rate which increases with the extent to which those assets exceed the global average.

This does not mean that I favour a taxation system which would have the effect of actually reversing wealth relationships - except under special circumstances such as where the wealthier individual is being penalized for some illegal behaviour other than just happening to have more wealth. Such a system of wealth reversal might be argued by some as a fair correction needed to bring the average lifetime wealth into balance, but I won't go there.

Also, I do not see complete elimination of wealth inequality as a necessary goal. Some inequality is unavoidable, and there might actually be value in having to accept that the decisions we make may have consequences for our future wealth and happiness.

But I do find the wealth distribution of our present societies offensive. And so I want to reduce its inequality as much as possible.

Unfortunately, giving up my own above average wealth would not solve the problem. In fact, by eliminating part of the mid-range it would make the overall distribution even more unequal. The only solution is to persuade or require those with the greatest wealth to make the biggest contribution. And this does not mean to contribute an equal share of their wealth since that would just preserve the current wealth-distribution shape. No, what is needed is indeed a progressive wealth tax in which the tax rate on an individual increases with the amount of that individual's wealth.

Some kinds of wealth are harder to assess than others, and there may be some unfairness and intrusivity in having mandated assessment. But there are various ways of overcoming this - such as only allowing insurance and legal protection of property rights up to whatever value the owner has declared for tax purposes. And while paintings etc may be hard to properly evaluate, real estate is less so. So it makes sense to start with a progressive real estate tax.

Why Not Have a Progressive Real Estate Tax?

Some people are lucky enough to have acquired homes that are now valued by the market at much more than they paid for them. And indeed in some cases many times more than they could afford to pay if they had to re-purchase the property now. For such people, the burden of even a non-progressive property tax percentage might be more than they can now afford. And the pain and disruption of having to eventually move might well be an unfair price to have to pay for the lucky circumstances that they currently enjoy. Fortunately, a closer analysis shows that such cases are actually quite rare, and there are many ways of reducing or eliminating any actual unfairness.

Let's start with the fact that a progressive property tax with higher rates on hugely above average properties might actually provide for a reduction on the tax rate for more modestly valued homes. And in any case the only owners at risk are those whose property values are above the cutoff, which for COPE's proposed 'Mansion Tax' in Vancouver captures a tiny percentage of single family dwellings. A properly implemented progressive tax would have a cutoff expressed as a percentile rank of the house prices so that it always hit only the top few percent rather than capturing more and more owners as inflation pulls all prices higher, and for Vancouver right now a $5 million cutoff means no increased taxes for any of the 99%.

And of course the impact is not sudden, for when a house price does cross the barrier the extra tax is only collected on the excess value. For example  let's consider a lower cutoff, say at the now modestly above average price of $2 million (but without the obviously necessary inflation adjustment). If a property now valued at $1.9 million gains 10% in value to reach $2.1 mllion next year, then with a 1% mansion tax the extra amount the owner would have to pay next year would be just 1% of the amount by which the new price exceeds $2 million - ie 1% of $0.1million or just $1000. (That's less than one fancy cup of coffee per day!)

But let's forget about the Province's cynical tax grab and go back to the real Mansion Tax designed to hit only the 1% (with inflation adjusted cutoff) and think of the nicest poor old pensioners you know who happen to have somehow acquired a property currently valued at $6million back when they could afford it. (Do you remember when you just missed the chance to buy such a property when it only cost a price you could afford? No, I didn't think so!). Anyhow these two old dears somehow lost all their other savings and are rattling around that great big mansion living on just CPP and OAS with barely a crust of bread to put on the table after paying their current property taxes. And now the Mansion Tax kicks in. What will become of them?

Well, let's see. The tax will be 1% of their excess value ie  1% of $1million or a whopping $10,000!  Oh dear! Oh dear!! What can they do?

Well they're wearing black, but I don't feel blue!

Why haven't they been deferring taxes for many years already? (They've got to be older than me to have been around when Shaughnessy mansions were selling for peanuts.) "Oh, but then the taxes will be charged when they sell" you say. Yes, but why would they sell? You said the didn't want to ever leave. And if they do want to move out of town ten years from now, the ten years of Mansion Tax which amounts to ten times $10,000 or $100,000 will be only a tenth of one of the six (or by then maybe more) millions they will have to play with. My eyes are stiil dry!

The real victim of course is the prosperous looking gentleman who has been selling this sob story to you. For the two old sweeties are his parents and what he's really worried about is the fact that if they defer their taxes for ten years and then die, that $100,000 hit will end up coming out of his SIX MILLION DOLLAR inheritance. Which brings up my next question.

Why Don't We Have 100% Inheritance Taxes?

...stay tuned.






Is nature continuous or discrete? How the atomist error was born | Aeon Ideas

May 21st, 2018

News Flash for Philosophers: It is NOT true that "The modern idea that nature is discrete originated in Ancient Greek atomism".

On the contrary, (to the very limited extent that it is a thing at all) it originates as a hypothesis to "explain" the observed simple rational proportions of reagents in chemical reactions - which subsequently also explained first the various observed thermodynamic properties of apparently continuous bulk matter, and then the very specific power law governing Brownian motion, and then countless other observations of all kinds of material interactions. Up to a point. At which point it was modified to include a continuous aspect (via quantum probability distributions) at every level right down to to the most elementary components of the (as yet) most complete "discrete" models.

So any inconsistency with some Philosophy professor's reading of Democritus, Epicurus, or Lucretius is not a "misreading" at all. And perhaps the suggestion that it is, should be the last Nail in the coffin of academic "Philosophy" as a respectable enterprise.


Source: Is nature continuous or discrete? How the atomist error was born | Aeon Ideas

Does a "right to believe" whatever you want to even make sense?

May 21st, 2018

It is bizarre to see a professor of Philosophy discussing whether or not we have the "right to believe" (either pro or con) without addressing the question of whether or not the concept is even coherent - especially since, so far as I can see, it is not!

Surely the best we can choose is to act and speak as if we believe something, but whether or not we actually do believe it is beyond our direct control. If we wish to maintain a belief that is weak, then we may choose to limit our exposure to contrary evidence (though the act of acknowledging that choice is surely evidence that the belief is truly weak, and admission that the belief is vulnerable to destruction by disproof may in fact further weaken it). And if we wish to expunge a belief that we find distressing, then we may well search for contrary evidence. But in either case what we actually believe is a fact about our mental state that we can only observe and have no power to change directly by an act of will.

At least, that's the way it seems to be for me!


Source: You don’t have a right to believe whatever you want to | Aeon Ideas

Pakistani humanist denied UK asylum after failing to identify Plato | UK news | The Guardian

January 21st, 2018

This is as obscene as if a refugee claiming to have converted to Christianity were denied on the basis of being unable to answer questions about transubstantiation from the Catholic catechism!

Who the fuck does that twit at the Home Office think he is and where did he get the idea that having maybe taken a philosophy course at uni makes him the arbiter of who is or is not a "humanist". (He clearly didn't learn much from that one barely passed course or he would have been aware of the fact that any philosophical or religious label has a multitude of equally legitimate interpretations - and that anyone who adopts any version of "humanism" can be at risk in a theologically dominated society.)

Source: Pakistani humanist denied UK asylum after failing to identify Plato | UK news | The Guardian

Not All Philosophy is Stupid

December 11th, 2017

Anna Alexandrova in a series of posts at The Brains Blog about her new book 'A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being' does what philosophers *should* be doing! Thinking carefully about whether the terms they throw about have any real meaning - and looking for that meaning in the way those terms are actually used and understood.

I often sneer at the notion that philosophers are needed to tell scientists what they should be doing in order to further their purely scientific enterprise, but when it comes to using science "to establish an evidence base for governments, organisations, businesses, and individuals" to use in their political and personal decision-making, then I am much more sympathetic - but only to those philosophers who focus primarily on helping people clarify to themselves and to one another what it is that they are saying or doing, rather than on pretending to have any special expertise about what they "should" be saying or doing.

The use of "for" rather than "of" in Alexandrova's title is particularly apt because I think it shows less inclination to interfere in the scientific process itself than to consider which scientific questions are of interest to the non-scientist and how the corresponding answers might be best used for personal and political guidance.

...more »

Why are Philosophers so stupid?

December 4th, 2017

On reading: What Do Philosophers Do? Skepticism and the Practice of Philosophy // Reviews // Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews // University of Notre Dame

it was not long before I came to this:

A 'brain in a vat' (BIV) is fed apparently normal perceptual experiences, just like you and I are having, by a computer simulation run by an evil scientist. Orthodoxy addresses the following skeptical argument:

For any person, S:

  1. If S is not in a position to know that she is not a BIV, then she cannot know that she has hands.
  2. S is not in a position to know that she is not a BIV.
  3. S cannot know that she has hands. (inferred from 1 and 2)

If you can't even know that you have hands, then you can't have any empirical knowledge at all.

The philosophical problem is that the argument is logically valid, the premises all seem true, but the conclusion seems false....

NO! The premises don't "seem" true.. because they obviously aren't  even close to being "true". In fact #1 is obviously false! A BIV is just as sure that she has hands as I am  .... because she DOES! Her hands are to her just like mine are to me, ie aspects of her experience which she feels the ability to use for grasping and controlling other aspects of her experience. This is not a problem unless one interprets "knowing" that one "has hands" as something none of us can ever be sure of.

Should the Study of Philosophy be Required of Science Students?

November 13th, 2017

I sympathise with the need of academic philosophers to promote their business, but am often annoyed by their claim that everyone needs their services. I don't think that is true and I think we would all be better served if they based their recruitment on enjoyment rather than utility. Just like art, music, dance, advanced mathematics, and esoteric physics, even academic Philosophy can be a source of great enjoyment without having to be "useful". The dismissive comments of Feynman, Weinberg, Hawking, et al are directed not at philosophy per se (though Weinberg correctly pointed out that, like any indulgence, it can become so addictive as to interfere with the pursuit of other pleasures). What they object to is the claim that a study of academic Philosophy is essential preparation for what they are already doing quite happily without it.

But here we go again.

The recent Aeon essay on Why philosophy is so important in science education poses the question "Is philosophy important to the study of science?" but for me the question is not well posed without some definition of what is meant by “philosophy”. If it means the study of Philosophy as an academic discipline, then for me the answer is no. In fact I would say that in my experience the study of Science has been much more important to my understanding of philosophy than the study of Philosophy has been to my understanding of science.

Stoics and Epicureans

November 4th, 2017

There are many kinds of pleasure and pain, and pleasure in one dimension of experience may well entail pain in another. Also, sometimes present pain must be suffered in order to ensure an expectation of even greater future pleasure. It is even possible to seek one kind of pain in order to mask another kind, or to somehow take actual pleasure of one kind in pain of another kind. But no matter what reward we seek, we can never do anything other than whatever (partly random) processes in our brain have decided for us in that moment.It so happens that for the virtuous person, virtue is the highest pleasure and guilt is the greatest pain. By acting virtuously is that person being a Stoic or an Epicurean?

Source: A friendly salvo against modern Epicureans – How to Be a Stoic

Donald Trump Jr.'s Wonderful Idea

November 1st, 2017

Dear Chloe,

You are so lucky to have a dad who wants to teach you about socialism. It is hard to imagine that some kids just like you have to miss all the fun of Halloween and get no candy. Some have to stay home because they are just sick on that day, but there are others who are sick all the time, and others who are well but don't have parents to go out with them and keep them safe. I think it's a great idea if you are willing to share your candy with one of those kids, and if you do find one to do that for it would be a great example of charity. But of course, as your dad will explain, socialism is more than that.

Once you find one poor child who had to stay home, you will probably also see that there are many others. And if you gave just one candy to each of them you would completely run out of candy with many still having nothing. But if all the kids in each street who got a lot of candy put some of it in a big box, and if some people got together and took those boxes around to give out candy to all of the kids who had to stay home, then that would be socialism. With socialism you can still go and visit one or two of the kids who couldn't go out and maybe give them a bit extra, but you wouldn't have to feel bad about all the others you couldn't get to because you would know that the way things were set up would make sure that they all got at least a fair share.

Unfortunately we don't yet have socialism in America, so no matter how hard you try there will be many who get no candy. But don't feel bad. There is something you can do to ensure that one day there will be no kids left out. When you grow up you can help to make America really great at last by working hard to elect a socialist government.



Source: Donald Trump Jr.'s Very Bad Tweet - The Atlantic

Council candidate pitches ‘mansion tax’ in Vancouver 

September 25th, 2017

Because it's time!

Yes, this by-Election *should* become a referendum on the "mansion tax" idea and everyone should support it by voting for Jean Swanson on Oct 14 (or before). There is no downside! or as UBC economist Thomas Davidoff said on Saturday “Politicians don’t like to irritate the kind of people who live in $5 million to $10 million homes. But there’s no good reason not to do it.”

I remember being frustrated back in 1996 when the NDP government backed down from property tax increases after a protest in Kerrisdale where some guy whined about an old lady he knew (perhaps his mum?) who would be forced out of her home by the proposed increase. BULLSHIT!!!  Anyone over 70 sitting on three million dollars worth of real estate can easily extract enough by way of reverse mortgages to provide a grand style of living to the end of her days - not to mention that property taxes can be deferred until sale or death at almost no interest by anyone over 55 in BC. So the only person who had anything to lose was the poor old lady's greedy entitled yuppie kids (who were probably the ones shedding crocodile tears on her behalf!).

And just the other day I heard a couple of disgustingly snide interviewers on CKNW bleating about how poor Chip Wilson had worked so hard to "earn" his $75 million house on Point Grey Road.

Again, BULLSHIT!!! He worked no harder for the twelve million that his property value increased last year than I did for the half million that my own house earned. In a crowded dangerous world anyone lucky enough to "own" property in Vancouver is making a huge unearned gain every year - and that will continue until we achieve global peace and population control. The proposed extra tax on Chip's property will be less than one tenth of the amount by which its book value grows each year, so give me a break and drop that line of objection also.

Clearly there is no reason not to support the mansion tax, so get out and vote for Jean Swanson on Oct 14 (or better, in one of the advance polls on Oct 4 and 10).


Source: Vancouver byelection: Council candidate pitches ‘mansion tax’ | Vancouver Sun


September 5th, 2017

Various links to comments on the Damore "memo"

Source: OneTab shared tabs

What Mass Hysteria Bubble?

August 19th, 2017

Source: How To Know You’re In a Mass Hysteria Bubble | Scott Adams' Blog

Scott Adams (of 'Dilbert' fame) is an often quite funny cartoonist with some sharp insights into ironic aspects of human relationships. But as a writer of either mockery or serious analysis he fails completely. It's so bad this time that I can't even tell which he is trying to do. Does the fact that I don't think I have seen *anyone* express a belief that "the United States intentionally elected a racist President" mean that I must be caught in the "bubble" of those who do have that belief? or what? (Or is my failure to be amused by this particularly forced example of a "Catch22" supposed to indicate that I am trapped in a bubble of literal minded humourlessness?)

But let's actually look at Adams' five "signs of mass hysteria"

1. He claims that on election night "half the country learned that everything they believed to be both true and obvious turned out to be wrong" and "decided that the only way their world made sense, with their egos intact, is that either the Russians helped Trump win or there are far more racists in the country than they imagined". No! Well over half the country (including a substantial fraction of Trump voters) learned that *one* thing they had believed was wrong - namely that they had grossly underestimated the number and frustration of those not doing well in rust belt states and that their egos would just have to suffer the consequences of being wrong.


Yes, they may have been surprised also at the extent to which that frustration seems to support racist sentiments. And it is clear that Trump and his team were less surprised, and in fact have been careful both not to alienate those who hold such sentiments and to not so subtly encourage them.

And also yes, they probably believe that the Russians helped Trump win - because of course they did as it was in their interest to do so. Given the closeness of the election, the actual win might equally well be attributed to that Russian help as to a mosquito bite that caused Hilary to grimace at an inappropriate moment, or to any one of a thousand other minor factors none of which anyone imagines would alone have been sufficient to explain the deviation from what they expected. The subsequent interest in Russian involvement is not about whether it existed or was particularly influential, but rather just about whether or not it was actively encouraged by the Trump team (and if so whether such encouragement included any hint of quid pro quo undertakings that might be contrary to the future national interest of the US).

2. No one fails to think that crazy extrapolations of what they suspect to be true actually sound crazy, so on that count also there's no-one I know in either of Adams' bubbles. (But of course I also was sure that the idea that Nixon knew in advance about Watergate was totally crazy and just too "good" to be true!)

3. It is not a misconception to *want* moral leadership from a president. It may well be delusional to *expect* it from this one, but there are surely few outside the alt.right who share in that delusion. And those who believe that Trump's Charlottesville statement prove him a racist also make a negligible contribution to the bubble. What most people who decry the statement infer from it is that Trump feels *beholden* to racists, not that he necessarily is one. But Adams seems to feel that equal protection under the law means that those who violate it by preaching hate should not be challenged until after the fact - does he also feel that robberies and assaults in progress should not be called out or interfered with until after the deed is done? All his proposed interpretations of the statement are equally silly and not held by any significant number of bubble-fillers. The one he leaves off is: The country elected a mentally unstable amoral clown with conman skills who thought it would be a good idea to go easy on murderous Nazis so as not to lose their support and tried to frame his failure to identify their illegal hate crimes as just law and order, applied equally.

4. Some people do have over-sized reactions to a perceived lack of sufficiently enthusiastic support, and there is indeed a bubble of that kind - probably not one large enough to be called a "mass hysteria", but of course that depends on what one means by "mass".

5. The fact that there are a lot of stupid incoherent people on Twitter who resort to ad hominems and insults (usually out of frustration with their own inability to express themselves) does not support the existence of a mass hysteria bubble, as such people are widely distributed across a range of views.

Adams concludes with the unbelievably arrogant claim that "If you are outside the mass hysteria bubble, you might see what I am doing in this blog as a valuable public service. If you are inside the mass hysteria bubble, I look like a Nazi collaborator." But of course although the inside/outside description leaves no third alternative there certainly is one.

How does he look to me? Basically as someone who is distorting what could have been a valuable public service into support for a dangerous egomaniac by falsely imputing extreme beliefs to all who disapprove of the egomaniac and his behaviour.




What's the big deal about Trolley Problems? 

June 30th, 2017

The shallowness of much of modern academic philosophy is demonstrated by the level of attention devoted to the "puzzle" of why most people (other than Buddhist monks, economists, and other psychopaths)  resist pushing the fat man in person but are much more willing to kill him remotely in order to save the five children on the track. To me it seems obvious that there are two main factors at play here. Firstly, on a purely utilitarian level, the suffering of a victim of a surprise accident might reasonably be judged to be less than that of a victim of personal assault (because of the emotional content and sense of rejection induced by the latter);  and secondly, at the level of the person who has to perform the act (or not), the emotional cost of facing the shock and implicit judgement of the victim is a significant deterrent which might cause the person facing the challenge to adjust his moral judgement so as to avoid an unpleasant obligation (and of course it probably also matters whether the experimenter's question is "what should you do?" vs "what would you do?") .  These may be interesting questions for psychology as a scientific study of how humans actually behave, but  the "philosophical" content is (as usual) vacuous.

The interesting question of why Buddhist monks align with economists and other psychopaths is, I suspect, answered by the fact that they share with those categories the property of being somehow "outside" normal society. A monk is seen, and thinks of himself as being seen, as not a normal person but more as an agent of nature or natural "law". So the pain suffered by his victim is more like that of an accident victim, and the monk is probably both aware of that and less open to the fear of judgement from his victim.Source: What Do Buddhist Monks Think of the Trolley Problem? - The Atlantic

P.S. Speaking of economists, I also find it bizarre how many of the behaviours identified by people such as Steven Levitt as  "irrational" are generally accepted as such when to my mind they are often perfectly rational optimizations of an objective function that is just not the mind numbingly trivial linear one that seems to be all that economists are capable of understanding.

What is a "Scientific" category?

June 2nd, 2017

Dalton Conley Speaks Out on Race in an interview at Nautilus (which I saw via 3QD). He says a lot that is sensible but his denial that "race" can be a "scientific category" is based more on wishful thinking than on reason. Most scientists think of science as "whatever works" and so would entertain any category that can be used to make consistently better than chance predictions as "scientific". And even the crudest out-dated concepts of "race" do have some predictive power. Much of what was claimed as such was probably false but some is undoubtedly real.

Conley's reference to "the chopstick problem" is a case in point.

If I desperately needed to quickly find ten people who were highly dextrous with chopsticks, and whom I was prepared to reward highly for that, and had a room of a thousand eager applicants to consider, then it might make sense to test just those with epithelial folds in their eyelids and ignore the rest. Yes, I might miss the best one in the room, but depending on the skill level needed and the urgency of that need speed might be more important than optimization. Many employers, educators and law enforcers *think* they are in an analogous situation. Often they are wrong but sometimes they may be right. The question of how to either avoid or somehow compensate for such unfair exclusions is not resolved by declaring that there is no "scientific" connection between epithelial folds and chopstick skill.

It may be morally wrong to make use of (or even talk about) some of these things, but that moral position is not advanced by misidentifying moral error as scientific error. Indeed such misidentification both undermines public scientific literacy and discredits the moral position that it was intended to advance.

Should we outsource our moral beliefs?

June 1st, 2017

In this article at 3quarksdaily, Grace Boey almost changes my mind. I have long felt that the delegation of moral authority that religion almost always leads to is harmful, but the way Boey puts things makes me feel I need to be clearer about what I mean by that.

Mythical Myths #27 - The Galileo Trial

May 29th, 2017

In 3quarksdaily: The Galileo Trial: Faux News from the 17th Century, Leanne Ogasawara refers to several misconceptions about Galileo but her main point is suspect. She refers to a number of resources on the issue, some of which I have not yet read, but the most interesting to me is the reaction of (ex)Vatican Observatory Director George Coyne to his experience on the church's Galileo Commission in the 1980s. Coyne was clearly frustrated by the abuse of process by which the Galileo Commission (of which he was a member) was purported to have identified the failings of the Church (and esp of the popes of the time) as a "myth", so unless some of the other links convince me otherwise I will have to classify Ogasawara's "Faux News" as yet another Mythical Myth.

Many Paths to Equity

May 29th, 2017

Prompted by the impact of increased labour costs on American Airlines' stock valuation, Matt Breunig writes in Jacobin (coming to my attention via 3QD):

If Naidu and others are right, Piketty’s theory of how wealth and income inequality develop may be exactly backwards. And his prescriptions for reversing skyrocketing inequality may suffer accordingly.


But I don't see any "getting it backwards" here. Piketty's observation is just that when, for whatever reason, the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of the economy, ownership will concentrate in fewer and fewer long term holders of capital. Perhaps the reverse is also true - ie that preventing the concentration of capital ownership brings down the rate of return, but none of the critics seem to be making this claim. The difference is rather about how to prevent the concentration - by taxation and/or redistribution of assets or by raising the cost of labour (which then brings down the rate of return and/or causes continued demand for a high rate of return to lower the face value of the assets). But that is a false dichotomy. We can do both!

Mythical Myths #74 - Tacoma Narrows Resonance

May 26th, 2017

According to a story by astrophysicist Ethan Siegel in this week's Forbes magazine: Science Busts The Biggest Myth Ever About Why Bridges Collapse . Wow! That headline reads as if "science" has just made a new myth-busting discovery and the article tells us that the previous understanding of what happened was based on the kind of resonance by which a singer can break a wineglass and is all wrong. But the "myth" is pretty much itself a myth here as the Federal Works Admin report way back in 1940 stated that "It is very improbable that the resonance with alternating vortices plays an important role in the oscillations of suspension bridges. First, it was found that there is no sharp correlation between wind velocity and oscillation frequency such as is required in case of resonance with vortices whose frequency depends on the wind velocity." And with regard to whether or not the actual nonlinear effect should be described as a resonance I agree with the comments by Gregg Collins two years ago and Jeff Hester (also an astrophysicist by the way) one year ago in response to munutephysics' video on this from 2011. Both of these commenters point out that despite not being a case of simple response to a periodic applied force "it is far ~more~ incorrect to say it was not a resonance at all". What really happened is that the bridge had an inadequately damped torsional vibration mode which was excited not by a periodic change in the environment but by a nonlinear interaction with steady wind which pushed harder on the twist when the twist itself was greater (much as a child on a swing pumps herself up by reacting to her position rather than moving at a predetermined frequency).

Misrepresentation of Genetic Science?

May 22nd, 2017

Razib Khan at Gene Expression: The misrepresentation of genetic science in the Vox piece on race and IQ  objects to this Vox piece about Charles Murray.

I have a number of concerns about the Vox piece but curiously the main claim that Razib objects to is not one of them. I am not close enough to the field to know whether or not it is *now* true that "no self-respecting statistical geneticist would undertake a study based *only* on self-identified racial category as a proxy for genetic ancestry measured from DNA", but what Razib presents is not a counterexample. Rather it is a reference and quotes from Neil Risch in the early 2000's which looked (to me) more like an analysis of how well racial/ethnic self-categorization *might* be (or might have been) used as a proxy for genetic structure [based on microsatellite markers] (back when the cost of the latter was prohibitive) rather than an actual use case. And, as Razib himself admits, "This isn’t 2005".  So, for what little it's worth, I do find it hard to imagine how a "statistical geneticist" (as opposed to a sociologist for example) might need to use only self-identification of subjects rather than actual DNA analysis as input into a study at this time.

Back in the 1970's (20 years *before* 'The Bell Curve'), I joined demonstrations against seminar speakers promoting the work of Shockley and Herrnstein because they treated as gospel (and advocated social policy supposedly based on) the conclusions of twin studies whose data had substantial unexplained patterns of what looked like fraudulent manipulation.

I did not necessarily believe that the conclusions were false though, and had some academic interest in whether or not they might be - but felt that that investigation would be premature without some prior thought about how to deal with the impact of whatever turned out to be the case. My general stance in favour of freedom to investigate does accept limits based on the possibility of knowledge causing social harm  (so I don't really want to know whether or not some "races" are intellectually inferior to others) - as well as on some rights of personal privacy (so that I also hold in check any curiosity I may have about my neighbours' sex lives for example).

Ever since then I have been disappointed by the left's strategy of complete denial rather than addressing the hypothetical question of how best to deal with the possibility of eventually being faced with an "inconvenient truth".

What would be the best social policies for dealing with a situation in which some readily observable characteristic turned out to be correlated with something real and valuable but less easily measurable? (Say if people with red hair had a measurably higher average rate of dishonesty for example)

Perhaps it's not the mean but the variance!

April 8th, 2017

Why are only two of the world’s top 100 chess players women?
There may be many factors at play here - including social expectations etc, as well as possible gender differences in average measures of either ability or interest. But it's also possible that a large part of the explanation is just a matter of variance (ie of spread of the distribution of ability or attitude).
As Larry Summers was criticized for pointing out, having one group dominate the top tier is not necessarily evidence that either they are better "on average" or there must be some kind of unfair selection process. The group with higher average of some measure may be under-represented at both extremes if it is more tightly concentrated. And the fact that variations on the y-chromosome may be less likely to be balanced by a partner could be a source of greater variability of some characteristics in males.
Of course, even if this is true, the apparent excess of males at the top may be more visible than the corresponding excess at the bottom, and that may both give mediocre males false confidence and discourage some females from even trying. So it is always worthwhile to counter these effects.

Source: Why are only two of the world’s top 100 chess players women? | Aeon Essays