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Posted by Rebecca Watson

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Allow me to pose a question to you. A child tortures animals and grows up enjoying hurting people. As an adult, he now has killed five homeless people that he abducted from poor neighborhoods in his home city. Their dismembered bodies are currently buried in his basement. Which is more likely: that he is a teacher? Or that he is a teacher and he doesn’t believe in any gods?

Think it over and get your answer in mind!

That question was posed to more than 1,300 people in 13 different countries on all 5 continents in a new study published in Nature Human Behavior. Another 1,300 people were asked a very similar question, but they were asked if the man was more likely to be a teacher, or a teacher who is religious.

The scientists found that people were much more likely to associate the serial killer with atheism than with religion.

The interesting thing about that question is that it’s a brain teaser. The correct answer in both cases is that it’s more likely the man is a teacher, rather than a teacher who is an atheist OR a teacher who is religious. It’s just simple logic that there are more teachers in the world than there are teachers who are atheists, and there are more teachers in the world than there are teachers who are religious. It’s called the representativeness heuristic, a kind of logical fallacy type of deal where your brain loses track of basic logic because it wants to associate a particular cause with a particular effect. The classic example of this is to describe a woman in her 30s who has dyed hair and hipster glasses and tattoos, she’s registered as a Democrat, and she doesn’t plan to have children. Is it more likely that she’s a teacher, or a teacher and a feminist?

If you have a very strong feeling of what a feminist looks like and acts like, you may be inclined to choose the latter answer despite the fact that when you think about it, it’s obviously wrong. There are far more teachers in the world than teachers who are also feminist. So researchers use the representativeness heuristic to identify people’s biases without them necessarily realizing it.

In the case of the serial killer, people were more likely to think he was an atheist. But what’s even more surprising is that atheists were also more likely to think he was an atheist. Self-hating atheists, anyone?

When reading about this study in the New York Times, I noticed a few problems with the reporting. One was the conflation of “serial killer” with “psychopath” and “sociopath,” something that the author of the study actually does in his interview despite the fact that psychopath and sociopath are never mentioned in the actual study. Not all psychopaths are serial killers, or vice versa. As an atheist, I would be inclined to think that most psychopaths are atheist as well — not because they lack morality but because they are more analytical thinkers who lack the empathy that I think is necessary to fall for religion. That’s a personal opinion of mine, by the way, not science, though there has been some research that suggests it’s true.

But thinking that most psychopaths are atheists doesn’t mean that I think most atheists are psychopaths. (And obviously, I’d still answer the question correctly regardless because I know it’s a trick question.) And I don’t think most serial killers are atheists, simply because I don’t know or even believe that most serial killers kill out of sociopathy.

This problem also comes up in the quote from the study’s author, who says, “We used this psychopathic serial killer because we thought that, even if people didn’t trust atheists enough to let them babysit their children, they wouldn’t necessarily assume them to be serial killers.”

The New York Times then adds, “But they did — overwhelmingly.” But they didn’t! People did show a bias in thinking a serial killer was more likely to be an atheist, but this study did NOT show that anyone would “assume” atheists are serial killers. They assume serial killers are atheists. That’s still a problem of bias, but it’s not a problem as bad as assuming atheists are serial killers. It may sound minor, but in the first example you’re making an assumption about fewer than 200 people from the last 40 years. In the latter example you’re making an assumption about literally hundreds of millions of people.

What we can say is that people, especially those in more religious countries by the way, are probably more likely to think an atheist is a serial killer than a religious believer is a serial killer. The fact that even atheists have that bias shows how deeply ingrained it is. Only time, and increased public recognition of non-murdering atheists, will start to change that.

New Books and ARCs, 8/18/17

Aug. 18th, 2017 08:44 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

A very fine collection of new books and ARCs arrived to the Scalzi Compound in the last week, and here’s what they are! See anything you’d like on your own shelves? Tell us all in the comments.

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Posted by Mark Pack

2(a) might be beyond me, but I’m pretty confident 2(b) and 2(c) require the sorts of knowledge I have.

Capability of Fighter Ground Attack Aircraft against Tanks. Photo courtesy of https://twitter.com/jon_agar/status/382485932382756866/photo/1

It’s just possible the Cabinet Office wasn’t impressed with the Defence Scientific Advisory Committee in 1971.

ACLU gives up

Aug. 18th, 2017 07:26 pm
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Posted by Tim Worstall

The American Civil Liberties Union took a new stance on firearms Thursday, announcing a change in policy that it would not represent hate groups who demonstrate with firearms.

ACLU executive director Anthony Romero told The Wall Street Journal that the group would have stricter screenings and take legal requests from white supremacist groups on a case-by-case basis.

“The events of Charlottesville require any judge, any police chief and any legal group to look at the facts of any white-supremacy protests with a much finer comb,” Romero told the Journal. “If a protest group insists, ‘No, we want to be able to carry loaded firearms,’ well, we don’t have to represent them. They can find someone else.”

Indeed they can. But that is you giving up matey.

We might think that carrying arms in public isn’t a right that Americans should have but they do. Similarly, we might think that Americans shouldn’t be racist but they do actually have a right to be.

The great glory of the ACLU, over the decades, has been that it does simply do what is said upon the tin. Here, Americans have these rights. As we defend the rights of Americans then we defend these Americans in the exercise of their rights. That’s it.

The moment, the very moment, the ACLU says, well, you know, maybe they, that group, for this reason, shouldn’t have those rights then, well, that’s the organisation busted. Over.

Mr. Romero, you’ve just destroyed the reason for the existence of your own organisation. At which point, fuck you.

Because this is what you are for:

Citing the First Amendment, the American Civil Liberties Union is defending a group that supports pedophilia against a civil suit filed by the family of a molested and slain Massachusetts boy.

Because those lines of defending those liberties are with the hateful people that no one else likes, right?

My hope, most unlikely to be met, is that Romero gets fired immediately.

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Posted by Tim Worstall

One of the concerns many people have about all this tech and globalisation stuff is that it is increasing wage inequality–here’s a convincing argument that in fact e-Bay and Alibaba are working in the opposite direction, to reduce it. To grasp this we need a little refresher in both wage inequality and trade. Note here that we’re not talking about that 0.1% at the top, who are getting their increased income from capital. This is not about profits, this is about wages.

So, we’ve two sets of facts which rub up against each other here. The first is that it’s generally only the most productive–say the top 10% or so–firms in any economy that export. There are two reasons for this, the first being that mediocrity is easily available everywhere. Thus it’s only if you’re really good at something that it’s worth trying to export. The same is true of imports of course, they’re the production of that top 10% of firms elsewhere. The second reason is that there’re fixed costs to exporting. You’ve got to get set up to be able to do it, deal with customs, new product regulations and so on. Only productive firms can do this.

The second rubbing fact is that more productive firms tend to pay their workers more than less productive ones. By this we don’t just mean that industries with higher margins pay better, as we’d obviously expect, but that the more productive firms within an industry pay better than the others in that same industry.

We should be able to predict the effects of globalisation upon wage inequality therefore, as globalisation increases wage inequality should. For it’s the most productive firms that take part in globalisation, it’s they who therefore profit from it, expand, and become even more productive and larger, thus they have more workers they’re paying more to. Those left working purely for the domestic economy get the dirty end of the stick here.

Hmm, OK, that’s a reasonable explanation and it explains a good part of what we see around us.

Now consider e-Bay and Alibaba (and we might add those other companies which make it easier for small companies to export, Stripe and so on). Certainly, the people who work within those companies are benefiting from those same effects. But what about the people who are using them to export? The small companies that without them would have no chance of exporting?

Well, as this new paper describes, such small companies tend to employ low skill and thus low wage workers. And if they can then export in a manner not possible before then such low skill, low wages should rise. And the thing is, they find that they do:

After instrumenting online exports with time-varying geography determinants of bilateral online trade and demand shocks in partner countries to address endogeneity and measurement errors concerns, we find that as online exports increase, the wage gap between skilled and unskilled workers declines. A 1% increase in online exports reduces the wage gap between skilled and unskilled workers by 0.01%. Although the coefficient is small, one needs to keep in mind that online trade has been increasing extremely fast and will likely keep expanding in developing countries.

Aha! They do! That is, by having built the tools with which small companies can export companies like e-Bay and Alibaba are reducing wage inequality, reversing the general effect of globalisation upon wages. Note that this paper studies specifically e-Bay, but it’s no stretch at all to apply it to Alibaba.

There is one more thing though. The global trading system still just isn’t set up well for small trades, by small companies, or to small consumers. We really do want to make the system better in this manner:

Our results suggest that reducing barriers to online trade may be desirable for reasons that go beyond economic efficiency, as it may help reduce income inequality by narrowing the wage gap between skilled and unskilled workers. Unfortunately, anyone who has tried to purchase goods online across borders knows that there are still important administrative barriers to international trade online. This includes unclear taxation and customs requirements or long customs delays. Solutions to these problems need to be considered. An example of a measure that could help address these problems is the introduction of higher de minimis thresholds under which no customs duties or other taxes (such as VAT) apply. Streamlined procedures for payment of customs duties and other taxes, such as e-Customs or e-taxation, or a coordination effort by exporting and importing countries to allow for the payment of customs duties online, can also help. Bilateral, regional, and multilateral trade agreements also need to start addressing the specific problems faced by cross-border e-commerce.

I can think of ways to make this much, much simpler, no doubt you can too. I’ve bought a couple of things from China for example, and both times, once in Portugal, once in the Czech Republic, it was a nightmare paying the trivial amount of VAT and import duty levied ($10 or $15 in both cases). A simple and standard online system for the payment of these sorts of taxes would make a great deal of sense. And it really wouldn’t be all that complex either. The problem being that it’s a public goods problem and one spread across multiple governments – there’s no motivation for any one of them to solve it therefore.

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Posted by Tim Worstall

It is a standard complaint from President Trump and many others that China manipulates the value of the yuan–yes, the country does. However, that standard allegation is that China manipulates that value down so as to make exports cheaper. This is not so–it’s entirely possible they were, probably was true in the past in fact–the manipulation these days is to support the value of the yuan, to keep it up. Such manipulation of prices is never very clever and with a currency rate it’s worse than that but still, it’s their country and all that.

Why you’d not want to manipulate the rate down is because sure, it would make exports cheaper. That means you get less money for your exports, not known to be something which makes you richer.And you’d have to pay more for your imports too, also not something known to make you richer. Manipulating your currency up might mean that your imports are cheaper, which would be nice, but there’s still then the misallocation of resources from the distortions in the price system. You’ll end up importing some things which would be better made at home.

However, it is true that China is manipulating the yuan up these days:

China’s government is moving to curb domestic companies’ investments abroad in property, sports, entertainment and other fields, following a series of high-profile, multibillion-dollar acquisitions by Chinese firms.

The capital account is of course the mirror image of the current account in the balance of payments. And if you’re limiting the amount that people can send, of capital, outside the country then you are indeed raising the value of the currency. To move their capital out they must sell yuan to get currency which works in other countries. Not allowing them to do this means less yuan being sold, the price of yuan is higher.

China moved on Friday to curb investment overseas by its companies and conglomerates, issuing its strongest signal yet that it wants to rein in runaway debt that could pose a threat to the country’s slowing economy.

Beijing has stepped up its efforts in recent months to restrict some of its most acquisitive companies from buying overseas assets, worried that a series of purchases by China’s conglomerates around the world has been driven by excessive borrowing.

It does not matter why they are doing this, the effect upon the currency is the same. If you restrict domestic capital outflows then the value of your currency will be higher than if you did not restrict domestic currency outflows.

So, yes, Trump and others are right, China is a currency manipulator. It’s just that they are manipulating the value of the yuan up by imposing overseas investment restrictions.

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Posted by Tim Worstall

John Carney decides to school us all about the trade deficit and desires to use something a little more than just three weeks of Econ 101 to do so. Good, that’s excellent, it’s just great to see a slightly more sophisticated chat about trade, one that’s better than just trade deficits are bigly bad. Sadly, Carney manages to not quite go far enough in his discussions about this. It’s necessary to go through more than just one, or even two, iterations of the money changing hands in order to grasp what is happening. That being the thing that he doesn’t.

Don Boudreaux is also not happy with Carney’s description and you know if that’s happening then there’s an error or more in the explanation:

John Carney’s essay “No. The U.S. Trade Deficit Is Not a Good Thing” (Aug. 15) is a fusillade of fallacies. Among the worst is Mr. Carney’s claim that foreign direct investment “isn’t some vote of confidence in the health of the American economy. It’s just a side-effect of the fact that our deficit leaves the world with excess dollars.”

The U.S. trade deficit arises when foreigners, who earn dollars selling their exports to Americans, invest some of those dollars in America rather than spend those dollars on American exports. If foreigners had no confidence in the American economy, they would, as quickly as possible, cash out their dollars for American goods and services rather than put those dollars at risk in dollar-denominated investments. Therefore, by investing in America, foreigners do in fact cast a “vote of confidence in the American economy.”

Quite so. And I would take this one stage further, a stage that Boudreaux doesn’t. Don being far too polite to try to put across an idea he thinks someone might not be able to understand.

In ridiculing Sen. James Lankford’s optimistic assessment of the U.S. trade deficit, Mr. Carney accuses the senator of having “a kind of dorm room, first three weeks of a freshman taking Economics 101 understanding on international trade and capital flows.” In fact, the one whose understanding of economics and capital flows is sophomoric and faulty is Mr. Carney.

Well, maybe not that polite but. The point is this:

Earlier, I mentioned that the standard economics view of the fate of foreign dollar savings is “not quite right.” According to that view, dollars accumulated by foreigners must as a matter of logic eventually be spent on goods and services made in the U.S.

Yes, this is true, but Carney wants to tell us that it is not so:

Otherwise, foreigners would be selling us real things–cars, computers, call center operations–in exchange for nothing but paper: dollars, Treasuries, stocks. So unless foreigners are irrationally giving us stuff for free, they must really be accumulating dollars because they plan to buy stuff with dollars. Even if they plan to spend dollars on stuff made by other foreigners, then those folks must eventually want to buy stuff from us. Under this view, eventually our trade deficit will become a surplus as those dollars get used to buy stuff made in the U.S.

But this is too neat. It is a bit like financial economists who insist that stock prices reflect future dividends and then have to assume that stocks that pay no dividends eventually will. There’s no law of economics that says financial assets such as dollars and Treasuries cannot be accumulated without any plans to spend them on real goods. Dollars have an optionality, a call-value that is extinguished when they are spent. In the face of uncertainty about the future, it is rational for actors to preserve this optionality rather than extinguish it. And since the value of this optionality extends to subsequent generations–this of wealthy people who keep earning more than they can ever spend–that’s not necessarily the end to it. Which mean that so long as the future remains uncertain — until kingdom come — trade deficits can persist into eternity.

Err, no, that’s not the point being made at all.

I have absolutely no doubt at all that Carney agrees that the trade deficit (OK, actually the current account one) is always going to be exactly offset by the capital account surplus–that balance of payments does balance after all. For my part I’m entirely happy to agree that there’s an option value to a dollar. Even an option value to parking the money in a Treasury or a stock. Excellent, but we’ve got to track the money more than just the one or two iterations that Carney does.

The first iteration is that the money’s in Carney’s pocket, a good red blooded American and that money’s thus as Yankee as Mom’s Pie. He then spends it on some piece of Chinese electronic tchotchke and off that dollar goes to J. Foreigner. We both agree that it’s going to come back, assuming there’s a trade deficit, as part of the capital surplus. Great, Carney is now saying that the spending of that dollar on some US capital thingammiebob just pushes up the prices of thingammiebobs and doesn’t do the US economy any good. That’s looking at only two iterations of the money exchange, we need to look at the third.

Mr. J. Foreigner has spent a dollar on some capital asset in the US. Maybe it is only a Treasury and maybe it will only be held for its option value. But who has the dollar now? Whoever sold the Treasury. If it’s a new one then the US government has the dollar and as we know they spend the heck out of dollars into the US economy. Mr. J. Foreigner’s dollar is now back home and is as American again as Mom’s Pie. Maybe it’s not a new Treasury, it’s an old one. Well, someone sold it so someone got that $ for it. That someone selling might be Ms. J. Foreigner, might be J. Sixpack. In that second case then our $ is repatriated again, in the first we’ve just got to go to the fourth, fifth, sixth, iteration in order to get back to that dollar re-entering the US economy. Because, at heart, and somewhere down the line, only an American can sell, for the first time, a US asset.

And when an American–and this is true of a company selling stock, the government selling Treasuries and secondary investors in any of these–sells an asset then the American has only three things he can do with the $ he receives. He can invest that money, spend it in the domestic American economy or buy an import–at which point the whole rigmarole starts again. This is true of second hand stocks and bonds, new ones, of property, of houses, of everything.

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Posted by Tim Worstall

Sure, this is a vastly fun game, find someone in the modern world you don’t approve of and compare them to some monster from the past. Use the right rhetoric and you might even be able to get people to think that our modern dislike for the one truly does equate to that monstrosity of the past. Which is rather what Paul Krugman is doing today, equating certain aspects of Donald Trump with that of Caligula. Well, OK, maybe not the sleeping with his sisters–Caligula that is–nor the alleged ripping from the womb and subsequent eating of a fetus. We’re really pretty sure that if Trump had done that we’d have heard of it by now.

But Krugman really does make the analogy:

Trump Makes Caligula Look Pretty Good

Well, you know, all’s fair in politics and hyperbole and all that:

Even before the media obsession with Hillary Clinton’s email server put The Worst President Ever™ in the White House, historians were comparing Donald Trump to Caligula, the cruel, depraved Roman emperor who delighted in humiliating others, especially members of the empire’s elite. But seven months into the Trump administration, we can see that this comparison was unfair.

For one thing, Caligula did not, as far as we know, foment ethnic violence within the empire. For another, again as far as we know, Rome’s government continued to function reasonably well despite his antics: Provincial governors continued to maintain order, the army continued to defend the borders, there were no economic crises.

Finally, when his behavior became truly intolerable, Rome’s elite did what the party now controlling Congress seems unable even to contemplate: It found a way to get rid of him.

Well, yes, whatever you say Paul. Except on Krugman’s own subject of expertise, economics, he is in fact wrong here:

Caligula……there were no economic crises

For there was indeed a significant economic crisis in Caligula’s time, some two years after his accession, in AD 39. He had inherited a bulging treasury from Tiberius and spent it, gleefully, on buying the adoration of the public:

According to Cassius Dio, a financial crisis emerged in AD 39.[44] Suetonius places the beginning of this crisis in 38. Caligula’s political payments for support, generosity and extravagance had exhausted the state’s treasury. Ancient historians state that Caligula began falsely accusing, fining and even killing individuals for the purpose of seizing their estates.

Historians describe a number of Caligula’s other desperate measures. In order to gain funds, Caligula asked the public to lend the state money. He levied taxes on lawsuits, weddings and prostitution.Caligula began auctioning the lives of the gladiators at shows. Wills that left items to Tiberius were reinterpreted to leave the items instead to Caligula. Centurions who had acquired property by plunder were forced to turn over spoils to the state.

The current and past highway commissioners were accused of incompetence and embezzlement and forced to repay money.

Now yes, that’s Wikipedia, a translation of one of the sources is here.

Buying the love of the people–buying the votes these days of course–by spending the hell out of the Treasury and then desperately casting around for something to tax, anything at all to tax, to make up the difference? Doesn’t that sound rather more like a Democrat to you? Possibly some of those cities and states going bust these days as they try to pay for past pensions promises?

To compare Trump to Caligula is of course overblown hyperbole but that’s a game that two can play at. Draining the bulging Treasury then wondering what else to tax in order to pay for the panem et circenses reminds me of a rather different set of politicians to be honest.


Aug. 18th, 2017 02:59 pm
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Posted by Tim Worstall

What does an angry white boy really want? “A girlfriend,” comes the mocking answer, and there’s probably more to that than mockery. The proprietor of one of the nation’s premier websites for neo-Nazi knuckleheads advised his colleagues in Charlottesville that, after the protest — which included a murder — “random girls will want to have sex with you.” I ran this proposition past a few random girls, and I suspect that the apfelstrudelführers are going to go home disappointed. There are many shades of white, and Mom’s-basement white is the least popular crayon in the box.

Kevin Williamson of course.

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Posted by Mike Smithson

His YouGov favourability drops a net 13% on June

For only the second time since the shock General Election outcome YouGov has carried out a favourability poll on the main parties and their leaders and the contrast with the post election survey is striking.

Theresa May is moving up a notch though still in deep negative territory. She was a minus 34 – that’s down to 27%.

Corbyn is going in the other direction. He was level pegging in June and is now a net minus 13%. So overall the PM has moved a net 20 points closer.

Given his position on BREXIT Corbyn’s remain voter split is a surprising 53% favourable to 39% unfavourable. Amongst Leavers it is 68% unfavourable to 25% favourable – numbers which suggest that that Labour’s creative ambivalence is continuing to have a political impact.

The YouGov numbers also allow us to compare leader ratings with how the sample viewed their parties. Both LAB and CON rated higher than their leaders by 3 and 6 points respectively. The only recent leader who generally polled better than his party was Cameron.

Mike Smithson


Popper and the Paradox of Tolerance

Aug. 18th, 2017 02:00 pm
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Posted by Dan

In the days since the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, there has been a new addition to the online/social-media meta-discourse on the problem of protected political speech in the context of the open and ongoing resurgence of white nationalism and Nazi iconography in American politics. It is a series of memes based on Karl Popper’s idea of the “Paradox of Tolerance,” which he introduced in his 1945 work of political philosophy entitled The Open Society and Its Enemies. Most of the memes are of the usual text-on-photo style, but there is also a popular cartoon version, which I’ll reproduce below:

Most of the memes paraphrase or otherwise do not include the full text of the relevant passage for reasons of space, but since it is relatively short I will also reproduce it here:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.—In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right to not tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal. [1]

The appeal of this passage to those seeking philosophical justification for suppressing the political rights of Nazis and white nationalists (who, after all, are practically the definition of intolerance), should be obvious.

But while Popper might at first seem to be providing a clever loophole in the traditional arguments around free speech that would allow only the most dangerous ideas and ideologies to be censored or otherwise suppressed, he has in fact only managed to disguise the problem by shifting the goalposts. Even if we answer the question of “what kind of political speech should be suppressed” with “intolerant speech,” we are still left with the same old problem wherein the arbiters of what kinds of ideologies are considered “intolerant” and worthy of suppression will inevitably be those who operate the levers of state power.

Given the current political situation in the US, where Republicans control all three branches of the federal government and the vast majority of state governments, there is simply no reason to think they will use that power in ways the left find agreeable or just. Quite the opposite: right-wing critics of Islam have already invoked Popper to justify further abrogating the rights of Muslims, and Republican and alt-right media personalities and provocateurs have spent years painting the left as “regressive” and “intolerant” of other viewpoints, sometimes violently so.

The actual merits of any case for one group being more intolerant than another are unfortunately immaterial in the larger context; once the meta-argument is conceded that intolerance justifies suppression, the targets of the oppression will depend more on who is in power than how intolerant their ideology might actually be.

This is the other half of the paradox, and why Popper includes all that softening language that doesn’t make it into the memes: it is preferable to keep toxic ideas in check with argument and public opinion precisely because the last resort of trying suppress them by force can also prove very dangerous to an open society. In an important sense, once you get to the point where neither argument nor public opinion can keep a dangerous and intolerant ideology in check, you have already lost.

[1] Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, ed. Alan Ryan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 513.

Are you “Lost in Light”?

Aug. 18th, 2017 01:08 am
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Posted by Phil Plait

Oh my, this has been quite a week. A lot of poisonous things are happening politically in my beloved country. I am quite politically active — if you follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or read any of my political posts, you know this — and the past few days have been no exception.

And while I will not stop nor even rest for long, there are times when a short break is needed to detox the brain, what has become popularly known as “self-care.” So, as I sat in front of my computer, I thought to myself: “How about a beautiful time-lapse video, something with gorgeous imagery, uplifting music, interesting science, and a message that can be used to make the world better?”

So I searched my emails to see if anyone had sent me a note about such a video, and lo, I found just such a message. It was from photographer Sriram Murali, who, like me, is concerned that we’re losing the night sky. Light pollution — light from buildings, fixtures, and so on sent needlessly up instead of down, where we need it — is stealing the stars from us. To document this, he went to various locations with different levels of dark skies, and shot the same part of the sky from each to compare the view.

And to do so, he chose a celestial icon, something that almost anyone will recognize: Orion. The result is not only lovely, but (if you pardon the pun) eye-opening. So watch “Lost in Light II, and you know the drill: Make it full screen, high-res, and enjoy the music, too:


Ooph. As the video progresses, and the sky gets darker, so many treasures become visible. Now, of course the camera captures more than the eye does; digital detectors are more sensitive, and time exposures get deeper and show fainter objects. Still, the lesson is told. Orion has bright enough stars to see even in pretty light-polluted skies, but the real power of it ramps up as the sky background light ramps down (incidentally, Murali made a video he called "Lost in Light," the precursor to this one, which showed the Milky Way in various conditions, but found it wasn't resonating since it's not as familiar a sight, so he redid it with Orion).

There’s a lot to look at in the video. Did you see Barnard’s Loop, a sweeping reddish glowing arc of hydrogen gas curling around the lower left of Orion? Not before the sky got to level 4 at worst. How about the Orion Nebula, the middle “star” in Orion’s dagger? In the first parts of the video it does look like a star, but as the sky grows darker, its true nature as a premier star-forming gas cloud becomes more obvious.

I enjoyed seeing geosynchronous satellites, too: satellites orbiting so high off the equator that they orbit in the same period it takes the Earth to spin. As the stars move, the satellites appear to remain stationary, and they’re obvious if you let the stars flow past your eye in the latter parts of the video. Orion’s belt is on the celestial equator, so the satellites are easiest to see there.

And while some people are familiar with the bulge of the central part of the Milky Way in videos like this, it’s easy to forget that the galaxy stretches all the way around the sky, and the bright stars of Orion punctuate it off to the side. That is apparent again only in the latter parts of the video, when light pollution drops.

And those red waves that look like clouds you can see sweeping across the sky? That’s airglow, gas molecules high in the atmosphere gently releasing the energy from sunlight they accumulated all day. That takes fairly dark skies to see at all, and is something you’ll never see at all from even a moderately light-polluted location.

Now, remember: All of these beauties are there in the sky all the time. You just can’t see them due to wasted light.

So, what can you do to make sure your skies are pristine? It’s not easy, but it’s not all that hard either. The International Dark Sky Association has a list of resources that can help. It mostly boils down to using light fixtures that don’t point up. Seems simple, right? The hard part is getting governments to invest in them. These features tend to save money in the long run, but do cost money initially. Still, a lot of towns and cities are moving in this direction, and there are even dark sky sanctuaries being established.

I find that hopeful. There are lots of practical reasons to do this, but in the end, what motivates me to talk about it is the beauty. The art. The way the stars touch us, move us, inspire us. They show us that there are concerns outside of our petty lives, there are vast things, ancient things, things that dwarf our human existence and yet remind us that we are a part of them and owe our existence to them.

Certainly, we need to remember that this past week. But there is never a time, never a moment, in my life where that much larger reality isn’t affecting my own much smaller one. I think it makes my life better. I hope it does yours, too.


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Title shot from "Lost in Light II", a time-lapse video about light pollution. Credit: Sriram Murali
[syndicated profile] tim_harford_feed

Posted by Tim Harford

Undercover Economist

“The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same . . . generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” This anxiety about the stupefying effects of cog-in-a-machine manufacturing sounds like a line from Karl Marx. It is, in fact, from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

As the anniversary of Smith’s death was this week, it seemed like a good moment to reflect on the Scottish philosopher’s warning about the deadening effect of repetitive work. Smith knew that specialisation and the division of labour weren’t about to disappear, so he advocated publicly funded schools as a path to more fulfilling work and leisure.

The emergence of mass production lines made Smith’s words seem prophetic; but many repetitive jobs have since been taken by machines. So, has his warning about stultifying work been rendered obsolete?

The Wealth of Nations is almost a quarter of a millennium old, and we should not expect every word to ring true today. But correctly read, Smith’s anxiety continues to resonate — and not just for people with repetitive jobs, but knowledge workers too.

The modern knowledge worker — a programmer, a lawyer, a newspaper columnist — might appear inoculated from Smith’s concern. We face not monotony but the temptations of endless variety, with the entire internet just a click away. All too easily, though, we can be pulled into the soothing cycle of what slot-machine designers call a “ludic loop”, repeating the same actions again and again. Check email. Check Facebook. Check Instagram. Check Twitter. Check email. Repeat.

Smith would not have dreamt of a smartphone, but what is a ludic loop but “performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same”?

Smith was concerned about jobs that provided no mental challenge: if problems or surprises never arose, then a worker “has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention, in . . . removing difficulties which never occur.”

For the modern knowledge worker, the problem is not that the work lacks challenge, but that the challenge is easily ducked. This point is powerfully made by computer scientist Cal Newport in his book Deep Work (US) (UK). Work that matters is often difficult. It can be absorbing in mid-flow and satisfying in retrospect, but it is intimidating and headache-inducing and full of false starts.

Email is easier. And reading Newport’s book I realised that email posed a double temptation: not only is it an instant release from a hard task, but it even seems like work. Being an email ninja looks professional and seems professional — but all too often, it is displacement activity for the work that really matters.

A curious echo of Smith’s warning comes in Robert Twigger’s new book Micromastery (US) (UK). Mr Twigger sings the praises of mastering one small skill at a time: not how to cook, but how to make the perfect omelette; not how to build a log cabin, but how to chop a log. There is much to be said for this. We go deep — as Newport demands — but these sharp spikes of skill are satisfying, not too hard to acquire and a path to true expertise.

They also provide variety. “Simply growing up in the premodern period guaranteed a polymathic background,” writes Twigger. To prosper in the premodern era required many different skills; a smart person would be able to see a problem from many angles. A craft-based, practical upbringing means creative thinking comes naturally. “It is only as we surge towards greater specialisation and mechanisation that we begin to talk about creativity and innovation.”

I draw three lessons from all this. The first is that learning matters. Smith wanted schooling for all; Twigger urges us to keep schooling ourselves. Both are right.

The second is that serious work requires real effort, and it can be tempting to duck that effort. Having the freedom to avoid strenuous thinking is a privilege I am glad to have — but I am happier when I don’t abuse that freedom.

The third lesson is that old-fashioned craft offered us something special. To Smith it was the challenge that came from solving unpredictable problems. To Twigger it is the variety of having to do many small things well. To Newport, it is the flow that comes from deep immersion in a skill that requires mastery. Perhaps all three mean the same thing.

Smith realised that the coming industrial age threatened these special joys of work. The post-industrial age threatens them too, in a rather different way. Fortunately, we have choices.

“The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments,” wrote Smith. So whether at work or at play, let us take care that we employ ourselves wisely.


Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 21 July 2017.

My new book is “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” – out last week in the UK and coming in a few days in the US. Grab yourself a copy in the US (slightly different title) or in the UK or through your local bookshop.

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[syndicated profile] tim_worstall_feed

Posted by Tim Worstall

We are nowhere near these systems in so many areas it’s just ludicrous to think we can exit the EU in April 2019.

But I think it may be worse than that. After forty years of being in the EU I think we may find that the demand of creating independently what was previously possible only because it was shared may be insurmountable, as well as being beyond the capacity of our economy because the costs will be so great.

At sometime this realisation will dawn. Then, as I said in a tweet yesterday, someone in politics is going to have to realise that we just can’t leave the EU: it’s simply not technically and economically possible for the UK to replicate its systems, let alone in any way that gives us anything but a massive diseconomy of scale.

Those who would rule us are insufficiently competent to even negotiate our way out of a treaty.

But, still, of course, they should have greater power over our lives.

Round and Round The Mulberry Bush

Aug. 18th, 2017 12:30 pm
[syndicated profile] tim_worstall_feed

Posted by Tim Worstall

So Spudda thinks that a Guardian article about neoliberalism is worth a read.

I wrote about that neoliberalism article using Spudda as an example of why The G is wrong here.

And so we dance around, eh?

[syndicated profile] political_betting_feed

Posted by Harry Hayfield

Park on Peterborough (Lab defence)
Result: Labour 1,713 (50% unchanged on last time), Conservative 1,375 (40% +5% on last time), United Kingdom Independence Party 176 (5% -3% on last time), Liberal Democrat 109 (3% +1% on last time), Green Party 83 (2% -2% on last time)
Labour HOLD with a majority of 338 (10%) on a swing from Lab to Con of 2.5%

St. Mary’s on Forest Heath (Con defence)
Result: Conservative 338 (50% +11% on last time), Labour 276 (41% +9% on last time), Green Party 60 (9%, no candidate last time) No UKIP candidate (28% last time)
Conservative HOLD with a majority of 62 (9%) on a swing of 1% from Lab to Con

Riverside (Con defence) and Southcourt (Lib Dem defence) on Aylesbury Vale
Result: Conservative 301 (35% +4% on last time), Liberal Democrat 286 (33% +17% on last time), Labour 210 (24% +6% on last time), United Kingdom Independence Party 48 (6% -30% on last time), Green Party 23 (3%, no candidate last time)
Conservative HOLD with a majority of 15 (2%) on a swing of 6.5% from Con to Lib Dem

Result: Liberal Democrat 456 (37% +8% on last time), Conservative 386 (32% +10% on last time), Labour 270 (22% -1% on last time), Green Party 58 (5% -1% on last time), United Kingdom Independence Party 54 (4% -17% on last time)
Liberal Democrat HOLD with a majority of 70 (5%) on a swing of 1% from Lib Dem to Con

[syndicated profile] tim_worstall_forbes_feed

Posted by Tim Worstall

Steve Bannon seems to be thinking that the US, and presumably by extension the other North Atlantic economies, are fighting a trade war against China. This is wrong, for trade is mutually beneficial. That is, it benefits us to be trading with China, it benefits China to be trading with us, we all get richer together the more trade we do. This is because, as economists put it, trade is positive sum, not zero sum.

This is also true of another country getting richer. If they are richer then that must mean that they are more productive–these are the same statement. You become richer by being more productive, becoming more productive means you are becoming richer. And if other people are more productive then that means that they are, quite obviously, producing more, more that we can then trade with them for.

So, whether we’re talking about trade or just the simple economic growth of another country their doing more makes us richer again. It’s all positive sum, we are not made poorer by their economic growth.

But Bannon does still seem to think China’s growth is a bad idea:

Steve Bannon expressed anger that the crisis had forced the US to postpone plans for tougher trade sanctions on China to enlist its support in putting pressure on North Korea. “We’re at economic war with China,” he said in an unguarded interview. “On Korea, they are just tapping us along. It’s a sideshow.”

This is simply wrong, as I say, their doing better means that we do better at the same time.

“The economic war with China is everything,” he said. “We have to be maniacally focused on that.”

It’s difficult to even understand the concept that he’s aiming at. China makes all those iPhones–we get to consume them. What’s “war” about that?

Responding to Mr Bannon’s remarks, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry said there was “no winner in a trade war” and that both sides benefited from trade. “We hope the relevant people can refrain from dealing with a problem in the 21st century with a zero-sum mentality from the 19th or the 20th century.”

As I’ve said before, isn’t it odd when it’s the communists who manage to get the effects of trade correct?

[syndicated profile] el_reg_odds_feed

Posted by Paul Kunert

Man pulls out replica rifle after frosty treat disappointment

An irate McDonald’s drive-thru punter was so pissed that he couldn’t get his Sunday morning ice cream fix due to a broken dispenser that he pulled out a replica AR-15 rifle from his car boot in protest.…

[syndicated profile] lib_dem_voice_feed

Posted by Kirsten Johnson

One of the key elements in my campaign for election as Oxfordshire County Councillor was the cut in funding many of the Children’s Centres throughout Oxfordshire.

The closure of the Maple Tree Children’s Centre, Wheatley, in my patch inflamed the local community. Many parents and carers relied on the services and support provided at the Children’s Centre for health advice, parenting support, breast-feeding counselling, and meeting other local parents/carers.

This has been a big local issue. Our new Oxford West and Abingdon MP, Layla Moran, secured a debate in Westminster Hall on Children’s Centres. She moved that, “That this House has considered the role of children’s centres in tackling social inequality.”  You can read the full debate here.

Of those children’s centres slated for closure, communities were given the opportunity to keep their centres open. Residents of Wheatley rallied and a group was set up. The hope is that they will re-open the Maple Tree Children’s Centre from September, albeit with more limited services.

My gripe is this: why cut funding for services which support the newest members of our society? Yes, savings needed to be made, but I would argue this is a false economy. Providing support for young parents, for single-parent families, for carers, for the children themselves, gives children a much better start in life.

These centres also build community. I remember when my three girls were young, and how my husband and I took it in turns to access local play groups, health visitor clinics, etc. The friendships made, and the peer-support offered, were invaluable.

Relying on volunteer groups to run these children’s centres is an ask too far. These centres should be government-funded services. They need to be offered and run for the benefit of local communities.

Families and children need support from day 1. Cutting these services is endangering children and isolating families. And, to reiterate Layla’s point, does not help tackle social inequality.

* Kirsten Johnson is the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Spokesperson for Oxford East and a member of the Federal International Relations Committee.

matgb: Artwork of 19th century upper class anarchist, text: MatGB (Default)

British Liberal, house husband, school play leader and stepdad. Campaigner, atheistic feminist, amateur baker. Male.

Known to post items of interest on occasions. More likely to link to interesting stuff. Sometimes talks about stuff he's done. Occasionally posts recipes for good food. Planning to get married, at some point. Enjoying life in Yorkshire.

Likes comments. Especially likes links. Loves to know where people came from and what they were looking for. Mostly posts everything publicly. Sometimes doesn't. Hi.

Mat Bowles

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October 2015


Stuff and nonsense

I'm the Chair of the Brighouse branch of the Liberal Democrats & the membership secretary for Calderdale Lib Dems and run the web campaign for the local candidates. I have a job, a stepdaughter and a life.

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