Tuesday, July 21, 2015

thinking on the margin

They say economic thinking is thinking on the margin, and that's very true, in fact so true our brains sometimes ignore everything else except the current margin. As I've recently discovered, I don't even know what my preferences are away from the margins I have experience with.

I try to be "mostly vegetarian" which in the U.S. led me to basically never cook meat except for a $9 loss-leader thanksgiving turkey once a year. I really love vegetables and fried tofu and lentils and TVP anyway so I thought the high price of meat was basically irrelevant to those habits, at best a handy way to keep delicious overpriced steak out of mind.

Then I moved to Australia where fresh produce costs about three times what it does in California (where it is unusually cheap and varied and wonderful), and even though meat costs more as well, the relative price has plummeted. Without thinking about it, and without abandoning my conscious aversion to buying meat in the first place, lo and behold I find myself grilling chicken every couple of months. And putting $3.50/kg chicken in my curries instead of $7/kg tofu.

My preferences didn't change, my expected consumption habits didn't change, but then in that moment at Costco when I can't turn down the $6 rotisserie chicken right after leaving the Asian grocery store with only one package of tofu in the hopes that I'd run into a better sale soon, somehow my actual consumption habits did change. That's the invisible hand in action, not caring that I'm not aware of the margin and forcing me towards the new one anyway.

(Overall it seems that the prices don't stop Australians from kicking butt in this department overall. Even compared to California.)

Monday, July 20, 2015


This quickly devolves into a personal story that only speculatively has anything to do with faceblindness, but in the meantime it's interesting. I've been thinking about how to recognize faces more often since I realized more clearly how bad I am at it, and since moving to Brisbane was the first time I've moved since having that clarity, meeting so many new people over the last 9 months has provided a constant stream of new data. Disorganized thoughts:
  1. The "I know you face" is indeed extremely helpful. I also try to arrive early to things when meeting an acquaintance so that they'll have to approach me, as I mentioned previously and as the lady in that story says she does. And if I get there on time, I avoid eye contact and focus somewhere off in the distance or do whatever else it takes to give them the opportunity to make the I-know-you face at me. If I'm not sure whether I know someone or not, I also maneuver things to the same effect (by making sure they see me while I'm not obviously looking at them.) It's extremely helpful and probably the single most important thing I use.
  2. Conversely, I think I've subconsciously converged my polite-hello and I-know-you faces. Strangers may question whether they've met me before, but at least people I know can't be sure that I don't recognize them. I hope. The story in the article about her dad tipping his hat to absolutely everyone sounds very familiar.
  3. Recently I had the extremely unusual experience of recognizing someone who didn't recognize me. He had a rainbow mohawk. Unfortunately, it's not always rainbow, so I'll never recognize him again...
  4. Moving here with Matt has been particularly interesting because he is unusually great at recognizing people, and we're meeting all these new people at the same time so the disparity is crystal clear. Twice a month we go to a functional programming meetup group together, and he recognizes everyone there no problem whatsoever, and while I know most of the names, they are ALL white males, 80% with facial hair, and it is frankly comical how hopeless I am at keeping them straight. Someone gives a talk and by the time we're standing around eating pizza ten minutes later I don't know who it was. I talk to one of them at the bar afterwards for over an hour and the next month don't realize that I've ever seen him before. This all despite quite a bit of deliberate effort to come up with distinguishing features on my part. Matt apparently didn't realize how much I meant it when I said I'm bad at faces, and finds the whole thing pretty hilarious.
  5. Aren't I lucky to be accompanied by a guy with such a convenient skill who's nice enough to put up with my endless questions? I just have to get him to come to conferences with me :) Sigh, I had such high hopes for google glass taking care of this for me...
  6. I've realized that height is another really important way I recognize people, in addition to hair and clothing. Unfortunately, height is perceived relative to one's own, so "the guy who's a little bit shorter than me" means nothing to Matt (when trying to figure out who someone is after the fact by describing him), and isn't enough for me to pick them out of a photo.
  7. Voice, unlike the lady from that article, is really not that useful. Maybe that would be helpful to focus on, but it wouldn't help with the single thing that I actually really want help with, which is being able to identify whether I already know someone in order to navigate the beginning of conversations. I've had plenty of practice at deducing who someone is or whether I know them from the conversation itself.
  8. That is much more than enough introspection into such a trivial issue. Back to work! (But why is it that differences in mental experiences are so fascinating? A mild case of faceblindness can't possibly affect my experience more than, say, missing one pinky toe, and I doubt a severe case is more impactful than missing a finger, but I sure don't see any viral articles about physical issues. Is it purely that it's harder to imagine being in a different mind than in a different body? I suppose I can believe that.)
(Link stolen from MR.)

Friday, July 17, 2015

ignore Hanlon's More Optimistic Razor at your own peril

(Absolutely no good can come from throwing gasoline onto fires started by arsonists, but sometimes emotions override logic and you just want to watch some stuff burn...)

The problem with social justice warriors is the negligence of Hanlon's razor. Don't attribute to malice that which can be explained by ignorance.

Actually, Hanlon's razor isn't quite right. The problem with social justice warriors is that they frequently attribute to malice what can be explained by misguided good intentions, or non-misguided good intentions, or good but different intentions, or ignorance. Let's call it Hanlon's More Optimistic Razor.

This is highly counterproductive. My advice to them, which I truly hope they take since I usually share their goals, is to replace their vinegar with honey, and to do so not to strategically lure flies but because HMOR makes you honestly want to.

I'm not a particularly empathetic person myself, so I am constantly surprised at the extent to which people think their views are the only possible views with good intentions. Democrats think Republicans can only want tax cuts to reduce their personal tax bills or because they hate poor people. Republicans think Democrats can only want tax hikes because they are lazy or because they hate rich people. Christians think atheists can only be motivated by selfish immorality and atheists think evangelists can only be motivated by bigotry and hatred. The most rudimentary empirics you can imagine completely discredit all of these views, of course, but they persist.

These examples might be blatant enough that, when pushed, people will usually back off and admit that others' motives aren't quite as bad as they make them out to be. But the gut feeling and rhetoric persists. And there are plenty of other less salient examples where the acknowledgement of equally well-intentioned, but different, goals, definitely doesn't match reality. I study social norms, in particular differences in beliefs between individuals, and I cannot count how many times I've had examples responded to with "but... that's not really the same thing as different norms, because only one of them is a real belief, the other one is just concocted to justify preferences." No one can really think you should eat meat, or that you should allow guns to be legal, or that you shouldn't go to college, or that should beat women who reveal too much skin in public. But even in the most extreme examples, I firmly believe, not without evidence[1], that most people are inherently well-intentioned and simply have different goals and/or beliefs about how those goals can be attained. In fact, limiting ourselves to American/first world politics for the moment, I'd go even further and say it's really just the latter. People are mostly well-intentioned, and people mostly want the same things for the world, they just disagree about how to best achieve it.[2]

So why did I start this ramble by pointing fingers specifically at social justice warriors? Well, that's the fire I was referring to. Unlike other political battles, the war between the SJWs and the Scott Alexanders of the world seems to me to be almost exclusively fueled by the neglect of HMOR on the former side and the understandable defensiveness that the latter side responds with. If we could all just stop treating people we basically agree with who do things a little differently as evil, the entire war would end.

The specific motivating issue that leads me to write about this right now[3] is this whole pointless fight over the confederate flag that we're going through yet again. I am so bored by the confederate flag. And by politically correct vocabulary. And by correct pronouns and titles. And by innocuously-mistaken-yet-Bayesianly-reasonable-and-appropriately-corrected assumptions. There's a fair chance I'll be attacked or lectured for that paragraph, but I'm frankly too bored with the topic to respond, so apologies in advance.

The problem, for SJWs, with not being bored with the confederate flag is that it is counterproductive. Trying to make people feel bad for doing something they believe in will only make them more adamant about doing it. I have a model of social pressure that explains why. It's a double-whammy: If you attack me for flying the flag, then by keeping it up I get to signal that I am a person who does what I believe in even in the face of adversity. That's a pretty great reputation to have. And, you're making my friends pay more attention to the issue, leading them to pour even more approval on me. This is why I'm not remotely surprised that support for the confederate flag is increasing among Republicans as it falls overall.[4]

Obviously I'm against racism and a lot people who fly the confederate flag do so in part to express racism. But the act of flying the flag itself isn't harmful, so for the sake of the majority of the flyers who are well-intentioned and just want to express some southern pride[5] or have a nostalgic attachment to it or who want to make some statement about states rights, I just don't care. Even for the sake of the well-intentioned racists who have a different enough life experience that they honestly feel moral justification for their views... I'll vehemently try to convince them that they're wrong but it's a hell of a lot more effective to appeal to the inherently good person inside than to tell them that their views are so black-and-white plain-and-simple evil they shouldn't even be expressed.[6] In the meantime, that's all it is, an expression.

So please, for your sake, can't we all just get along?


[1] In fact, I was shocked that this apparently qualifies as a new surprising theory. Isn't it obvious!?

[2] And that's why people should put more bayesian weight on the opinions of economists, since this is what we spend our whole lives studying after all :)

[3] Other than my current sleep deprivation which makes me rambly instead of motivating me to focus harder on the work that has the imminent deadline that is the source of the sleep deprivation in the first place..

[4] I'm actually annoyed that I didn't blog this before seeing that link because I was going to predict exactly that. Oh well; I know I was right :)

[5] And by the way, the need that southerners feel to express their southernness, I can tell you for absolutely certain from my own experience, is strongly amplified by the constant dismissive derision from the rest of the country. Yet another perfect example of perilous neglect of HMOR...

[6] Yes I know that the debate isn't over the right of individuals to fly it, but the psychological impact of a debate over whether a state's citizens are allowed to choose to fly it on a government building is hardly any different.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


Remember 10 years ago when we were so excited that a new mission to the edge of the solar system was being launched, to map the one former planet that hadn't yet been seen up close, but then, well, it was 10 years away, so we kinda forgot about it?

It's here! And holy crap: