Lying to Criminals

Monday, September 25, 2017

From tech businessman Jacques Mattheij comes a life lesson about honesty, which includes the bonus of an example of the impossibility of applying moral principles in the absence of context. Mattheij describes an episode from his youth, when the growing evidence of his technological ability attracted the attention of a shady relative:

... I could easily see is that this would be a beginning, and a bad beginning too. You can bet that someone somewhere will lose because of crap like this. (Fortunately, now the EU has made odometer fraud illegal). You can also bet that once you've done this thing and accepted the payment that you're on the hook. You are now a criminal (or at least, you should be) and that means you're susceptible to blackmail. The next request might not be so easy to refuse and could be a lot worse in nature. So I wasn't really tempted, and I always felt that "but someone else will do it if I don't" was a lousy excuse.

If you're reading this as a technical person: there will always be technically clueless people who will attempt to use you and your skills as tools to commit some crime. Be sure of two things: the first is that if the game is ever up they'll do everything they can to let you hold the bag on it and that once you're in you won't be getting out that easily.
The young man's thinking reminds me of both (1) Ayn Rand's case against lying, as related by Leonard Peikoff in "My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand" and (2) the proper way to apply principles.

Is it always wrong to lie, as, for example, Mattheij did when he told his relative he couldn't do what he was asked? Or might there be cases in which telling the truth would actually be wrong? Ayn Rand once summarized the virtue of honesty as follows:
Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud -- that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness become the enemies you have to dread and flee -- that you do not care to live as a dependent, least of all a dependent on the stupidity of others, or as a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling -- that honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others.
When a criminal, through the initiation of force (or the threat thereof) places you in a position in which your statement of a fact only makes him better able to make you act against your better judgment, you are in a situation in which telling him a lie is a perfectly moral (or, in some situations, the only) thing you can do in self-defense. This is not "stooping to his level" (as an intrinsicist might say), because you aren't trying to obtain anything by fraud. Nor is it an example of subjectivism, because one is actually doing this in order to continue acting (or once again be able to act) in accordance with one's best judgment. Neither inflexible commandments nor the fiction that reality is infinitely malleable can provide any useful guidance on the matter of how to live one's life.

-- CAV


Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, September 22, 2017

Notable Commentary

"The [Patent Trial & Appeal Board] was supposed to address the problem of low-quality patents; it now threatens all patents, undermining the foundation of the American innovation economy." -- Adam Mossoff, in "Patent Unfairness" at RealClear Politics.

"[I]f there is no difference between words and action -- if communicating certain 'wrong' ideas is subject to punishment -- there is a corollary: the actual use of force can be exonerated if done in the name of the 'right' ideas." -- Peter Schwartz, in "The Ideology of Violence" at The Huffington Post.

"Bitcoin's unstable price makes it unusable as money." -- Keith Weiner, in "Bitcoin: Tragedy of the Speculations" at SNB & CHF.

"[The TC Heartland decision] significantly multiplies the costs to all patent owners in securing their property rights in court" -- Adam Mossoff, in "'Examining the Supreme Court's TC Heartland Decision': Testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Courts, IP, and the Internet" (PDF, 11 pages, June), George Mason Law and Economics Research Papers, no. 17-29.

"[Conservative commentator Star] Parker should embrace the one idea in Christianity that is the most secular -- the importance of the individual." -- Robert Stubblefield, in "Letter: Keep Religion out of Government" at The Aiken Standard.

From the Blogs

ICouldAndDid wraps up his three-part critique of Sam Harris's Free Will over at You Can and Did Build It, and summarizes the whole as follows:

How Sam Harris wants you to see yourself. (Image courtesy of Pixabay.)
... The first part of this review identified the arbitrary underlying premise behind Harris' view that past brain states necessitate all future actions. He simply ignores, without any argument, the possibility that a being could possess capabilities that are enabled by and emerge from the brain yet are not completely necessitated in every detail by the brain's neurology. The second part of this review analyzed the gimmick that gives plausibility to the argument, namely focusing only on a straw man (the last split second of the process of choice) rather than the true nature of free will (the entire sequence of mental events and choices from the primary choice to focus and leading up to a final, higher-level choice). Finally, the present post identified the conceptual inversion involved in denying the validity of free will while depending on it for an argument. This vast collection of fallacies -- arbitrariness, use of straw-man tactics and hierarchy violations -- are the means used by the neurological determinist to deny the universal experience of free will. Any one of those transgressions alone would be sufficient reason to reject Harris' arguments, and to accept what one grasps from personal experience rather than deny it as a delusion. The combination of all three logical insults should make one recoil from the poisonous free-will-denier's doctrine. [bold added]
Earlier in the post, ICouldAndDid notes a similarity between what Ayn Rand called the "stolen concept fallacy" and the denial of free will by Sam Harris and his ilk.

-- CAV


Legacy of the Welfare State

Thursday, September 21, 2017

In a recent column, Walter Williams questions the idea that the problems faced by black Americans are a "legacy of slavery," while at the same time raising another possibility that too many miss or ignore:

According to the 1938 Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, that year 11 percent of black children were born to unwed mothers. Today about 75 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers.
LBJ signing the Poverty Act.
Is that supposed to be a delayed response to the legacy of slavery? The bottom line is that the black family was stronger the first 100 years after slavery than during what will be the second 100 years.

At one time, almost all black families were poor, regardless of whether one or both parents were present. Today roughly 30 percent of blacks are poor. However, two-parent black families are rarely poor. Only 8 percent of black married-couple families live in poverty. Among black families in which both the husband and wife work full time, the poverty rate is under 5 percent. Poverty in black families headed by single women is 37 percent. The undeniable truth is that neither slavery nor Jim Crow nor the harshest racism has decimated the black family the way the welfare state has.

The black family structure is not the only retrogression suffered by blacks in the age of racial enlightenment. In every census from 1890 to 1954, blacks were either just as active as or more so than whites in the labor market. During that earlier period, black teen unemployment was roughly equal to or less than white teen unemployment. As early as 1900, the duration of black unemployment was 15 percent shorter than that of whites; today it's about 30 percent longer. Would anyone suggest that during earlier periods, there was less racial discrimination? What goes a long way toward an explanation of yesteryear and today are the various labor laws and regulations promoted by liberals and their union allies that cut off the bottom rungs of the economic ladder and encourage racial discrimination. [bold added, format edits]
Williams goes on to note that most black politicians support the government programs that thwart initiative or enable idleness. I leave it to the reader to consider whether those politicians see this as a bug or a feature.

-- CAV


Poise vs. Repression

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The excellent Captain Awkward, in reply to someone dumped when she thought an engagement might be in the offing, gives her advice on recovering and on how to maintain poise in the meantime. This comes with the following memorable passage on dealing with what I think of as "emotional lag":

Image courtesy of Pixabay.
It's okay to still be in love. Love is -- as this hideous wedding-cake topper excruciatingly reminds us -- patient, it is kind, it believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. So there you are, all shaggy and embarrassing bounding toward your person wagging your tail and doing that adorable thing you do where you pretend that you're not going to hand over the ball you're carrying in your mouth and your person doesn't even want your stupid ball and then the leash of reality yanks you back. That part of you is the purest and best and truest part of you, and you can't really turn it off. It's just going to love for a while.

I say this because it's really fucking frustrating to try to talk yourself out of having a feeling or beat yourself up for having a feeling at the same time you're having the feeling. So just have the feeling. Just be the Golden Retriever of Love. You're not stupid for feeling it, you're not a bad person, you didn't do anything wrong. You just feel what you feel, and you'll feel until one day you stop, and you can't decide when that is, so don't even try. [bold in original]
This is an excellent illustration of the nature of emotions, as identified by Ayn Rand:
Your subconscious is like a computer -- more complex a computer than men can build -- and its main function is the integration of your ideas. Who programs it? Your conscious mind. If you default, if you don't reach any firm convictions, your subconscious is programmed by chance -- and you deliver yourself into the power of ideas you do not know you have accepted. But one way or the other, your computer gives you print-outs, daily and hourly, in the form of emotions -- which are lightning-like estimates of the things around you, calculated according to your values. [bold added]
In abstract terms, the letter-writer, who was mistaken about the man she loved, valued him highly and had woven him into her life and hopes. This happened over time, and correcting the mistake will also take time. The resulting emotions will take time to catch up with the intellect, simply by the nature of how they work: Lots of subconscious associations are still there to be altered or supplanted by new ones.

I note this not as some attempt to improve on Captain Awkward's advice to her writer. She said exactly the right thing, and in just the right way. Rather, I go to the level of the abstract because it can help show the advice to be more generally applicable. False hopes of marriage are hardly the only way to meet visceral, disorienting levels of emotional pain, and it can be comforting to know this. Why? Because the mechanism of recovery will be the same. One can do similar types of things to aid that recovery. And one can know that despite an unpredictable time course, there can be certainty of a recovery.

-- CAV


Did Trump's Election Aid the Political Discourse?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Image courtesy of Pixabay.
Conservative Andrew Klavan makes some astute observations about what he calls the "surreal blessings of Donald Trump." Although I think Klavan errs in seeing conservatism as a viable alternative to leftism, I think he is right to note the following items of cultural good news resulting from the Trump presidency.

First, the rabid hatred of Trump coming from the left is causing many decent people to start questioning the opinions they had been defaulting to thanks to the cultural dominance of the left:
[T]he riots, the seething Facebook posts and, of course, the slavering fake news of the mainstream media -- has revealed the left's true, nasty and oppressive nature to the liberal middle. YouTube suddenly abounds with stories of "red pill" moments in which liberals, experiencing the wickedness of the left, suddenly realized that conservatives are now actually the liberal ones. I think this is the beginning of a groundswell that will have a profound and beneficial effect on the culture... [link in original]
A bit later on (and somewhat contradictory to his next two paragraphs), Klavan notes something even more interesting:
... Trump has so divided conservatives that we are now arguing fervently among ourselves -- that is, we're not just crushing idiot leftists, we're actually engaging with other smart conservatives over essential differences! I have hopes that these arguments will lead to a new, stronger and more modern conservatism. Trump blew every candidate away in the primaries. That alone should tell us that the Republican Party needs reform, and it ought to begin with a reformed conservatism, a conservatism that can win. [bold added]
I don't completely agree with this: I'd say Trump has made fault lines within the conservative movement more evident. I strongly agree that those differences urgently demand not just acknowledgement, but exploration.

Perhaps Donald Trump hasn't merely -- by single-handedly making himself their presidential nominee -- shown the GOP to be pushovers. Perhaps this revelation and others that have come up during his young presidency will also help people see the need for a better alternative to the left than Trump, the GOP, or the conservative movement can offer.

-- CAV


1.5 Times World Output in Your Pocket

Monday, September 18, 2017

Over at his blog, Grasping Reality With Both Hands, Bradford DeLong considers what it would take to emulate the latest iPhone with technology available in 1957. I'm inclined to agree with the commenter who thinks doing so at speed would have been impossible, but I think what DeLong comes up with is well worth considering:

Image courtesy of Unsplash.
The transistors in an iPhoneX would, back in the late 1950s, implemented in vacuum tubes, have:
  • cost 150 trillion of today's dollars, which is:
    • one and a half times today's global annual product,
    • more than seven times today's U.S. annual national product
    • forty times 1957's U.S. national product
    • fourteen times 1957's global annual product
  • taken up 100 billion square meters of floor space
    • that is (with a three-meter ceiling height per floor): a hundred-story square building 300 meters high, and 3 kilometers long and wide
  • drawn 150 terawatts of power -- 30 times the world's current generating capacity
[minor edits]
This reminds me a little of a similar comparison, between the amount of hardware electronic data storage required that I mentioned here a few years ago: In fifty years, the weight of the hardware needed to store 8 GB of data had decreased by a factor of 134 million. (And that figure, I am sure, is giving a pass for how quickly one could access said data.)

Such comparisons can serve two apparently contradictory purposes. On the one hand, no matter how clumsily they do so, they help concretize otherwise very abstract kinds of technological progress. (See also photos at my old post.) And on the other, they help us imagine the full meaning of Frédéric Bastiat's parable of the broken window. I am far from finding fault with that simple example. However, it does fail to convey just how disastrous government "planning" and plunder can be, as when thought, effort, and property that could go towards the next near-miracle of innovation are, instead, squandered on the alleged needs of others today.

-- CAV


Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, September 15, 2017

Four Things

1. Now that my daughter is six, I'm starting to see amusing juxtapositions of toddler behavior and "big kid" behavior (for lack of a better term). One morning last week, Pumpkin was in need of a waking-up to make it to school on time. She seemed to resist all efforts to roust her, so I picked her up out of bed, carried her downstairs, and set her down in an easy chair. Apparently dead to the world the whole time, she opened her eyes, grinned, and said, "Psyche!" as soon as I set her down. She got me to carry her, and I got a chuckle out of the deal.

2. Enjoying a song on a local college radio station, I became curious and found the following whimsical video:


French singer "Jain" (Jeanne Galice) sounds quite promising, and has just started her career.

3. If you have fond memories of her books, either from having them read to you when you were young, or from reading them yourself, here's your chance to learn more about Sandra Boynton, the reigning Doctor Seuss:
In person, Sandra Boynton is warm and funny, with a throaty voice and a soft, easy smile. She's not an introvert, but those who know her best say she's somehow been able to hold on to childhood sensibilities that most of us surrender.

So the books, the drawings, the songs -- "They're for me," she says. "They're for me as a child. Things I would respond to."
I knew her books were popular, but it surprised me to learn how much she makes from them.

4. Via GeekPress comes the story of the invention of the tater tot:
He's certainly not alone. "Fuck making them," says Dale Talde, head chef and founder of the casual Asian-American restaurant Talde in South Brooklyn. "I always buy them frozen. There is no benefit from making them unless you are a [masochist]." Talde's former restaurant, the now-closed Pork Slope, served up tots in a dish called "Irish Nachos": a layer of crispy tots, topped with cheese sauce, chili, onions, tomatoes, and jalapeños. Talde says he thinks the tot has endured at all levels -- from caviar paired in restaurants like Elske in Chicago to school lunch trays -- because people "have great memories and and love crunchy, salty stuff."
The tater tot forms the third member of a trifecta of trash-to-treasure food innovations in America, the others being baby carrots and Buffalo wings.

-- CAV