Why Socrates hated Democracy

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

Socrates was not elitist in the normal sense:

He didn’t believe that a narrow few should only ever vote. He did, however, insist that only those who had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote.

We have forgotten this distinction between an intellectual democracy and a democracy by birthright. We have given the vote to all without connecting it to that of wisdom. And Socrates knew exactly where that would lead: to a system the Greeks feared above all, demagoguery.

dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading’

Ancient Athens had painful experience of demagogues, for example, the louche figure of Alcibiades, a rich, charismatic, smooth-talking wealthy man who eroded basic freedoms and helped to push Athens to its disastrous military adventures in Sicily. Socrates knew how easily people seeking election could exploit our desire for easy answers. He asked us to imagine an election debate between two candidates, one who was like a doctor and the other who was like a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner would say of his rival:

Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will.

Socrates asks us to consider the audience response:

Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer – ‘I cause you trouble, and go against you desires in order to help you’ would cause an uproar among the voters, don’t you think?

We have forgotten all about Socrates’s salient warnings against democracy.

How a Chess Champion Trains for the Big Game

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

Magnus Carlsen’s fitness routine seems rather hip:

At home in Oslo, Mr. Carlsen goes to a 90-minute hot yoga class two to three times a week. He plays defense on his local soccer team but says he prefers to attack when playing casually with friends. He trains with his team one to two times a week for an hour and usually has one game a week. During Norway’s long winters, he goes cross-country skiing and hiking on weekends.

Whenever he has time to kill, such as when traveling or waiting in line at a store, he uses the opportunity to play games on his phone. “I have a team of grandmasters that create interesting chess-related games,” he says. Lately, he has been playing a text-based, multiplayer role-playing game called Avalon. It is played in real time, so players are constantly thinking about the next move. “It’s a mythological environment where you can create your own character and move through over 20,000 locations over 19 continents,” Mr. Carlsen says. “It’s easy to get caught up and play for hours.”

Mr. Carlsen eats a mostly vegetarian diet. For breakfast, he makes a superfood smoothie with ingredients like açaí berry and hemp milk, or he’ll have a fresh pressed green juice, with ginger and lemon. Lunch is a salad topped with avocado, walnuts or pumpkin seeds. He likes Asian flavors and often makes a vegetable stir fry over brown rice for dinner. During tournaments he focuses on getting enough protein to maintain his energy over long time periods. He relies on plant proteins like beans, nuts, seeds or hemp protein and drinks water throughout the tournament.

Young children are terrible at hiding

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

Young children are terrible at hiding:

Curiously, they often cover only their face or eyes with their hands, leaving the rest of their bodies visibly exposed.

For a long time, this ineffective hiding strategy was interpreted as evidence that young children are hopelessly “egocentric” creatures. Psychologists theorized that preschool children cannot distinguish their own perspective from someone else’s. Conventional wisdom held that, unable to transcend their own viewpoint, children falsely assume that others see the world the same way they themselves do. So psychologists assumed children “hide” by covering their eyes because they conflate their own lack of vision with that of those around them.

But research in cognitive developmental psychology is starting to cast doubt on this notion of childhood egocentrism. We brought young children between the ages of two and four into our Minds in Development Lab at USC so we could investigate this assumption. Our surprising results contradict the idea that children’s poor hiding skills reflect their allegedly egocentric nature.

Each child in our study sat down with an adult who covered her own eyes or ears with her hands. We then asked the child whether or not she could see or hear the adult, respectively. Surprisingly, children denied that they could. The same thing happened when the adult covered her own mouth: Now children denied that they could speak to her.

A number of control experiments ruled out that the children were confused or misunderstood what they were being asked. The results were clear: Our young subjects comprehended the questions and knew exactly what was asked of them. Their negative responses reflected their genuine belief that the other person could not be seen, heard, or spoken to when her eyes, ears, or mouth were obstructed. Despite the fact that the person in front of them was in plain view, they flatout denied being able to perceive her. So what was going on?

It seems like young children consider mutual eye contact a requirement for one person to be able to see another. Their thinking appears to run along the lines of “I can see you only if you can see me, too” and vice versa. Our findings suggest that when a child “hides” by putting a blanket over her head, this strategy is not a result of egocentrism. In fact, children deem this strategy effective when others use it.

Built into their notion of visibility, then, is the idea of bidirectionality: Unless two people make eye contact, it is impossible for one to see the other. Contrary to egocentrism, young children simply insist on mutual recognition and regard.

Children’s demand of reciprocity demonstrates that they are not at all egocentric.

The Downfall of Untempered Education

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Giovanni Dannato notes that the educated often believe sentimental ideology like it’s holy gospel:

People who get an education are generally smarter but their advantage in processing information only leads them further astray if they are given bad information. Even a great Empire like China becomes easy prey for a handful of toughened no-nonsense Mongols when the state is run by over-educated children and populated by downtrodden peasants who have no reason to care about who’s in charge.

History shows us those Mongols didn’t need college degrees or Confucian exams with 1% pass rates to run an empire. The downfall of untempered education is you can get caught up in credentials and then reel in shock when someone without a certificate in face punching walks up and simply punches you out.

The Canary in the Coalmine Theory of the Arts

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Kurt Vonnegut presented his canary in the coalmine theory of the arts in Physicist, Purge Thyself:

This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.

Adam Perkins uses this idea to illustrate the personality differences between visionaries and implementers:

The ‘Big Five’ dimensions of personality are extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness to experience. Studies show that openness to experience captures individual differences in the capacity to imagine new concepts and things — i.e., to be creative.

So far, so good: this finding tallies nicely with biographical information showing that geniuses tend to be unusually adventurous, curious and open-minded. For example, instead of spending his family’s wealth on wine, women and song as was customary for young English gentlemen of means in the early 19th century, Charles Darwin spent it on five years sailing round the world in a cramped and smelly boat called HMS Beagle, even though his voyage had no specific purpose and he suffered from chronic seasickness. But readers may also suspect that openness to experience is not the only personality dimension that is important when it comes to being one of Vonnegut’s canaries because their super-sensitivity is particularly acute for detecting danger. And threat-sensitivity is not captured by openness to experience but instead by the personality dimension of neuroticism.

Epidemiological evidence fits with the idea of visionary ability being linked to high scores on neuroticism because it shows that creative professionals have a higher than average risk of psychiatric illness and of suicide. Neurotic tendencies also seem to be commonplace in the life stories of geniuses. But these observations could just be an artefact of the pressure of constantly trying to come up with new ideas — it doesn’t mean that high scores on neuroticism necessarily aid creativity. Moreover, given the amount of hard graft that it takes to succeed as a visionary, whether Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Vincent van Gogh, Jane Austen or Bruce Springsteen, it seems likely that a person weighed down with negative thoughts and feelings would have a worse chance of making a difference to the world than a calm, cheerful, happy-go-lucky individual who bounces out of bed every morning feeling refreshed and energetic.

So how could it be that high scores on neuroticism aid creativity? One theory is that neuroticism stems from individual differences in patterns of self-generated thought (SGT) which, in turn, depend on variation in the functioning of a brain system known as the default mode network (DMN). The DMN activates when we are not engaged with the world around us, such as when we are daydreaming. This theory was created by Jonny Smallwood, Danilo Arnone, Dean Mobbs and me in response to the finding that some people have less positive thoughts when engaged in daydreaming.

Moreover, it turns out that these individuals — akin to high scorers on neuroticism — display more activity in a part of the brain that controls conscious perception of threat. The key insight is that this pattern of threat-related brain activity was observed while participants were daydreaming in a threat-free situation so these individuals can be viewed as possessing an especially active imagination when it comes to threats. This raises the possibility that the creative advantage associated with high scores on neuroticism stems from highly neurotic individuals having a problem-focussed style of daydreaming, which might help them find solutions to those problems, compared to people whose attitude to problems is “out of sight, out of mind” (i.e., low scorers on neuroticism).


It could even be said that high scorers on neuroticism are more conscious of reality than the rest of the population. When combined with other important qualities such as adventurousness (i.e., high scores on openness to experience) and plenty of neural horsepower (i.e., high IQ) it is possible that this higher state of consciousness emerges as visionary characteristics that gives the bearer a better ability to see new ways of developing music, painting and so on.

The Bubble

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

It may be time to move to the Bubble:

Radioactive Boy Scout Dead at 39

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

In 1994 David Charles Hahn attempted to build a homemade breeder nuclear reactor for a Boy Scout project in his mom’s Michigan backyard shed. He seems to have recently died at age 39 — of unknown causes.

Joe Rogan Interviews Scott Adams

Saturday, November 19th, 2016

Joe Rogan interviews Scott Adams:

(I would say it’s self-recommending, but our Slovenian guest recommended it to me.)

Batgirl Gatchaman

Saturday, November 19th, 2016

Jordan Gibson’s Batgirl Gatchaman mash-up art is delightful — if you grew up on 1960s Batman and 1970s Battle of the Planets:

Batgirl Gatchaman 01

Batgirl Gatchaman 02

Batgirl Gatchaman 03

Batgirl Gatchaman 04

Batgirl Gatchaman 05

Batgirl Gatchaman 06

You Are Still Crying Wolf

Friday, November 18th, 2016

You are still crying wolf, Scott Alexander laments:

Trump made gains among blacks. He made gains among Latinos. He made gains among Asians. The only major racial group where he didn’t get a gain of greater than 5% was white people. I want to repeat that: the group where Trump’s message resonated least over what we would predict from a generic Republican was the white population.

Nor was there some surge in white turnout. I don’t think we have official numbers yet, but by eyeballing what data we have it looks very much like whites turned out in equal or lesser numbers this year than in 2012, 2008, and so on.

[EDIT: though see here for an alternate perspective]

The media responded to all of this freely available data with articles like White Flight From Reality: Inside The Racist Panic That Fueled Donald Trump’s Victory and Make No Mistake: Donald Trump’s Win Represents A Racist “Whitelash”.

I stick to my thesis from October 2015. There is no evidence that Donald Trump is more racist than any past Republican candidate (or any other 70 year old white guy, for that matter). All this stuff about how he’s “the candidate of the KKK” and “the vanguard of a new white supremacist movement” is made up. It’s a catastrophic distraction from the dozens of other undeniable problems with Trump that could have convinced voters to abandon him. That it came to dominate the election cycle should be considered a horrifying indictment of our political discourse, in the same way that it would be a horrifying indictment of our political discourse if the entire Republican campaign had been based around the theory that Hillary Clinton was a secret Satanist. Yes, calling Romney a racist was crying wolf. But you are still crying wolf.

Read the whole thing.

Fast Facts About the FBI’s New Hate-Crime Report

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

The FBI just released new information on hate crimes — that occurred in America last year:

The new report covers incidents that occurred in 2015. This seems like the first important fact to note, since some people have already been trying to pass the data off as a response to Donald Trump’s election as president. That’s obviously impossible. Trump did start his campaign seriously in the summer of 2015, which leaves open the possibility for his influence on bias-based crimes last year. But other influential events of 2015 include major Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris and Turkey; the mass shooting carried out by ISIS supporters in San Bernardino, California; the rising refugee crisis in Europe; an array of “officer involved shootings,” anti-police brutality protests, and Black Lives Matter activism within the U.S.; and the transgender bathroom issue breaking into the mainstream media/political scene for the first time, to name a few. Any serious explanation for a shift in violence against various minorities last year must take all of that (and many other factors) into account, so it’s disappointing to see people immediately leap to pin new data to “Trumpism.” One needn’t feel love for Trump and his fan club to find any explanation that starts and stops with them woefully lacking, partisan, and, to the extent that it clouds out analysis of other factors, possibly destructive.


The first FBI hate-crime statistics included reporting data from just 11 states. Since 1990, the number of law-enforcement agencies participating in the FBI’s hate-crime reporting program has grown steadily. This means that in terms of sheer number of incidents, part (or perhaps all) of incident increases can be attributed to an increase in the number of jurisdictions and agencies reporting hate-crime data to the FBI.

Country of origin and use of social benefits

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

A large, preregistered study of stereotype accuracy in Denmark looked at stereotypes about country of origin and use of social benefits:

A nationally representative Danish sample was asked to estimate the percentage of persons aged 30-39 living in Denmark receiving social benefits for 70 countries of origin (N = 766). After extensive quality control procedures, a sample of 484 persons were available for analysis. Stereotypes were scored by accuracy by comparing the estimated values to values obtained from an official source. Individual stereotypes were found to be fairly accurate (median/mean correlation with criterion values = .48/.43), while the aggregate stereotype was found to be very accurate (r = .70). Both individual and aggregate-level stereotypes tended to underestimate the percentages of persons receiving social benefits and underestimate real group differences.

In bivariate analysis, stereotype correlational accuracy was found to be predicted by a variety of predictors at above chance levels, including conservatism (r = .13), nationalism (r = .11), some immigration critical beliefs/preferences, agreement with a few political parties, educational attainment (r = .20), being male (d = .19) and cognitive ability (r = .22). Agreement with most political parties, experience with ghettos, age, and policy positions on immigrant questions had little or no predictive validity.

In multivariate predictive analysis using LASSO regression, correlational accuracy was found to be predicted only by cognitive ability and educational attainment with even moderate level of reliability. In general, stereotype accuracy was not easy to predict, even using 24 predictors (k-fold cross-validated R2 = 4%).

We examined whether stereotype accuracy was related to the proportion of Muslims in the groups. Stereotypes were found to be less accurate for the groups with higher proportions of Muslims in that participants underestimated the percentages of persons receiving social benefits (mean estimation error for Muslim groups relative to overall elevation error = -8.09 %points).

The study was preregistered with most analyses being specified before data collection began.

The Relevant Forms of Diversity

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

There are many types of diversity, Tyler Cowen notes:

Diversity of occupation, diversity of musical taste, diversity of outlook, diversity of residence, and of course varying kinds of racial and ethnic diversity. You could list thousands of kinds of diversity.

The original thinking behind the Electoral College was that geographic diversity was important. The Founding Fathers were not majoritarian, but rather they believed in placing special weight on diversity of this kind. The prevailing view was “if too many (geographically) diverse voices veto you, you can’t get elected, not even with a majority of the votes.” That view was a strange and perhaps unlikely precursor of today’s veto rights/PC approach on campus, but there you go.

Democrats now control at least one legislative house in only 17 states, and the reach of the party is shrinking dramatically. So by the 18th century standards of diversity, emphasizing geography, the Democratic coalition is remarkably non-diverse. You can see how much of Hillary Clinton’s majority came from the two states of New York and California. That also means the Republicans are not just a “Southern rump party,” as some commentators used to suggest.

If you think of education as serving a smoothing function, the less educated are in some ways considerably more diverse than the educated.

The Democratic Party today is more likely to stress the relevance of ethnic and racial diversity, if the talk is about diversity. (Gender diversity too, but that requires its own post, maybe later to come.) Non-Democrats are more likely to count other forms of diversity for more than the Democrats do. I see Democrats as somewhat concentrated in particular cities and also in particular occupations, more than Republicans are. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is another way in which Democrats are less diverse.

When it comes to views about the relevant forms of diversity, the views of non-Democrats are more diverse than the views of Democrats, I would hazard to guess. A non-Democrat is more likely to focus on something other than racial and ethnic diversity, compared to a Democrat.

Correctly or not, many Americans do not think racial and ethnic diversity is the diversity that should command so much attention. That is one place to start for understanding why so many 2012 Obama voters switched to Trump this time around, or maybe just stayed home.

The Scrum Princess

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

If you’ve been wondering what ever happened to Aretae, he’s been busy — with many things, including writing a book. What kind of book? A children’s book. About agile software (and business) practices, of course:

Once upon a time in a land far, far away lived a princess who had lots of gold. One day she decided, “I am going to use my gold to make my kingdom the most beautiful place in the world.” But as she went, she discovered that she needed to learn some new tools to help her succeed.

Aretae may have to change hats to match his fictional counterpart:

Scrum Princess and Master Scrum

Gun Control Is Tax-Subsidized Marketing for Illegal Submachine Guns

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

Gun control Is tax-subsidized marketing for illegal submachine guns, J.D. Tuccille notes, because submachine guns are terribly easy to make:

“DIY submachine guns are popping up across the West Bank,” the Washington Post reported recently in a piece about a weapon that has repeatedly played a role in Palestinian attacks upon Israelis. The guns are of a common type referred to as the “Carlo,” based on the Swedish Carl Gustav M/45, which dates to the World War 2 era. The article added that hundreds of the submachine guns have been confiscated over the past year, and raids staged on 35 mechanics’ shops that were cranking them out.

“The Carlo has remained so popular because of how little machinery and technical know-how is required to produce it,” a Times of Israel story noted earlier this year. “A drill press, some welding equipment and blueprints from the internet are all that’s needed to create one of these potentially devastating weapons.” The story lamented that “it’s nearly impossible to prevent its production.”

Ironically, Israelis themselves relied on homemade submachine guns during their War of Independence. In their case, they knocked off copies of the British-designed Sten gun and fed them with ammunition manufactured in a clandestine factory beneath a laundry. Similarly to the weapon copied by West Bank mechanics, “the Sten used simple stamped metal components and minor welding, which required minimal machining and manufacturing,” according to Wikipedia.

That simplicity is a feature of many simple, sheet-metal submachine guns dating to the war era. Desperate to satisfy the need to produce massive numbers of guns in short order, designers crafted weapons that could be made in any number of existing shops using general-purpose machinery. Long before 3D printers and CNC milling machines drove headlines about DIY firearms, those characteristics made such weapons natural choices for various insurgencies battling governments in regions across the world.

Because they’re so easy to produce, submachine guns also became a natural go-to for non-political manufacture in countries that have strict gun control regimes. Brazil seems to be an especially fertile source for homemade automatic weapons. There’s an online cottage industry in tracking Brazilian police announcements of gun confiscations and posting photos of the creative copies of commercially produced weapons—as well as weirdly innovative original designs.

Unsurprisingly, Brazil has a thriving market for Sten guns and the like made in car repair shops because it has a severely constrained legal market for firearms. Brazilians have to jump through hoops to get government permission to purchase guns, and even if they satisfy all requirements, police can say “no” on a whim. That leaves many residents of the country without a legal means to protect themselves from the country’s extremely busy criminal class (60,000 murders every year, according to some estimates). Those criminals are, of course, well-armed courtesy of that black market described above.

Some of the country’s lawmakers want to make it less-daunting to legally own the means of self-defense. But for now guns remain easily available only to those willing to break the law, which leaves opportunity for DIY manufacturers.

Australia also has famously restrictive gun laws of such exquisite legislative perfection that they bear emulation, according to leading presidential contender Hillary Clinton. Well, except that the Australian government is a tad upset about gun smuggling by outlaw gangs and the hundreds of thousands of illegal firearms in circulation. Officials plan yet another amnesty for owners to surrender the illegal weapons, although Sydney University gun policy analyst Philip Alpers told ABC News that he expects it to produce only “rubbish guns” that nobody values.

Because, honestly, if you’ve gone through the trouble and expense of purchasing one of the “perfectly constructed MAC 10 machine guns” manufactured by a jeweler turned underground arms dealer, why would you surrender it?

Like Brazil, diversity is characteristic of Australia’s illegal arms makers, who also produce submachine guns inspired by the late Philip Luty, a Briton who created designs intended for home manufacture (he was imprisoned for his troubles, but his plans are widely available). Ten percent or more of illegal guns seized by Australian police are produced by underground armorers—with powerful and easily made submachine guns featuring prominently among them.

Australia is a much safer country than Brazil, and has a lower homicide rate than the United States. But at least one academic assessment has concluded that the crime rate seems to fluctuate independently of gun ownership. That new gun amnesty is motivated not just by a black market, but by a spike in crime including murders.