Saturday, March 15, 2014

Against stupidity

Today I spent all day doing good, meaningful work on green chemistry.  It's one of the few days where you feel you've unmistakably made a difference.  Then I made the mistake of reading three internet articles on the subjects in my work and leaving them feeling as if I'd accomplished nothing against the tide of ignorance upon display.

This is one of those moments where I'm not sure if our society is strong enough to survive beyond my lifetime, or indeed before the end of it.

Against stupidity, the Gods themselves struggle in vain?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Arguments that annoy me, Part II

Part II in a long-delayed series.

Occam's Razor Proves I'm Right

If I had got a nickel for every time this argument has been leveled at me, I'd only be a few dollars richer, but I'd still have a year or so taken off my lifespan.  Drat. 

The argument is deceptively simple.  People have heard of Occam's Razor, or the principle of parsimony, wherein of competing explanations or arguments, the simplest is the one that is superior.  And to be fair, within reason this is a very valid point.  The problem occurs when people forget - or perhaps never learned - that Occam's Razor is a marginal principle. 

Simply put, it's a tiebreaker used for mental exercises.  Whatever argument is put forward still has to fit the facts at hand or adequately explain the situation, and it still has to stand up to testing.  It has to take into account evidence for the alternatives as well.  Occam's razor would be perfectly adequate to judge between, say, two formal proofs in pure mathematics (hence, the concept of elegance of a proof).  But beyond that, it's a heuristic method for guiding how people make theories and nothing more, a bulwark against putting in thousands of exceptions to a rule.

An appalling number of people don't seem to get this.  To them, Occam's Razor is used not just as a principle for thought, but as evidence for or against a theory as if it had as much weight as observations of phenomena.  It is not.  In science, and in all social studies that claim to use the scientific method, Occam's Razor is a preference for a simpler explanation but it is no substitute for good logic or scientific result.

And yet, when I argue for an explanation for, say, an epidemeological phenomenon that has many factors in it, I get people telling me that there is only one cause "because of Occam's Razor."  In a particularly stupid debate, someone claimed that the drop in crime in the United States over the last 30 years had to be from the phase-out of lead in gasoline, despite the sketchy evidence for that cause alone, "since Occam's Razor proves I'm right."  Um, what?

This makes my head hurt.

A roof over your head and a lead weight in the wallet

I'm approaching the age where according to certain traditional notions of American culture, I am supposed to be thinking about buying property sometime in the next decade or so, no doubt financed by a mortgage, to be sold if I and mine need to uproot ourselves.  It's a strange thought - not least since I'm still somehow getting over being allowed to drink alcohol.  Yet it is also strange to think about the idea and find that despite my culture's love affair with homeownership, the more I think of it the more I find it iffy.  This is shaping up as a rant, but whatever.

I can't help but feel, for example, that our cultural fetish for owning one's home is obsolete in an age when most people of my generation will switch employers every three to five years - if current trends continue, well into middle age.  All the arguments about putting down roots in the community by buying property seem moot when your ultimate outcome will be to flip that property right after getting properly settled down.  And as for roots, I don't see how my behavior might personally change in my community due to owning property - except, perhaps, for the inevitable politics over things like property taxes or HOAs.  Somehow, I don't view that as a change for the better.

The other thing I've heard over the years is that your home is a valuable investment that "encourages you to build up equity."  However, I've wrestled with more than a little bit of cognitive dissonance over this idea because I've been a relatively well-informed, if hands off, individual investor since the day I started drawing my own salary.  I balance risk between bonds and equities, make sure my portfolio is diversified to hedge against risk, avoid high costs, and save as much as I can as often as I can.  I simply am unable to square that approach with buying a house as an investment: not only do you make a huge outlay as a speculative bet on a very risky, illiquid, undiversified piece of real estate - why are you not buying a REIT, again? - but it's a leveraged investment as well, giving you the equivalent of costs equal to your interest rate.  As an index fund investor I'm leery of over 1%; mortgage interest rates seem to make this a fantastically bad idea.  And as for building up equity, well, my view is that savings are savings, and essentially paying a bank for the service of forcing you to save sounds iffy.*


The one wrinkle in this are the preferential tax treatments you can get.  The first is the mortgage interest rate tax deduction, which seems tailor made to simply make a portion of a person's opportunity cost of living in a property tax free if they take out an enormous amount of debt on it, but doesn't extend that same privilege to someone who rents.  I've expressed my frustration about this before, many times, but often the only response is to drink the kool aid, join in and buy a house, so you can take advantage of it, too!  In the long run, you'll be losing money if you don't!
Where have I heard that logic before?
For me this is only a bigger argument that the mortgage interest tax deduction needs to go.  Pushing an unsound investing strategy speculative property bet with a clearly discriminatory tax expenditure is just plain irresponsible, and doesn't change the fact that buying property as a young person with inevitably shaky job security is plainly stupid. 

The other one that strikes me as similarly plainly unfair is the capital gains adjusted basis, where the proceeds from the sale of a home have up to $75,000 in gains exempt from taxes.  What?  What other type of large investment receives this type of protection?  It seems to be wildly irresponsible on the part of the government to grant that protection to homes and not to any other type of investment.  Not only is it clearly discriminatory against people who lives in areas where most housing is held by others as investment property, it's a policy that inherently encourages speculation on the part of people with low levels of savings.  Historically housing has yielded about 0.4% above inflation, and is subject to vicious boom and bust cycles, and that is encouraged?

I've had the argument leveled at me that all of this tax support for ownership is to make housing affordable and to encourage the building of more homes.  Frankly, I find that idea to be nonsensical.  People who take advantage of this favorable tax treatment will invariably have no trouble finding housing in any case, even if it is not quite as big or as well-located as they like - else, if they were closer to the subsistence level, they would not be paying taxes at all.  Nor do I accept the argument that these things "clear" housing at the lower ends, since the property market builds both new multi-family and single-family dwellings according to demand (there was, for example, an imbalance during the financial crisis as retrenching families raised the demand for smaller units, catching developers off guard). 

No, the one conclusion I can draw is that most of what these tax supports tend to do is subsidize larger and more expensive homes.  Still worse, since the capital gains basis adjustment is post-sale, and the mortgage interest tax deduction is only open to the 30% of taxpayers who can gain by itemizing their deductions, the encouragement on marginal renters to buy is either limited to those living in very high cost areas (in which case these people hardly needed income support anyway) or premised on just how much a person thinks they can gain from their poorly diversified, speculative, illiquid, high cost asset.

* Clearly my circumstances are different from most in that I do know how to invest (thanks, Dad) and have the dedication to save on my own initiative, but even for those that don't have these advantages I fail to see how buying a house is at all better than taking a hundred-thousand dollar loan and plumping it all into a total stock market index fund, except as a cultural affectation.  In fact, the stock market is likely to do significantly better than speculative property in the long run...

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Post-expat culture shock

I'm in Kuala Lumpur today on business.  This is the first time I've been back in Asia in some time, and the first time in Malaysia in about ten years.  I arrived late at night, but right from the beginning I felt discombobulated.  It is strange to be back in a place that is at once so familiar - at least, close enough to Singapore that it certainly feels familiar - and at the same time so foreign.  In some small ways I am beginning to remember some of what it was like to be an expatriate.

The first and strangest experience is the one of suddenly feeling out of place.  I do not speak Malay, and despite the outward similarity to my familiar years in Singapore, upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur I was suddenly disoriented by the lack of English speakers.   Exhausted and confused, it was an hour or so before I could orient myself enough to figure out how to get a cab ticket. 

When I got to the hotel, other things began to make me feel out of place.  I have never been comfortable with the obsequious way in which foreigners are treated, and it was no different arriving there.  I was given prompt and attentive porter service, and the person holding my bag accompanied me directly to my room.  In the elevator with us, on the other hand, was a Malay family - with kids - obviously also just checking in.  They were carrying their own bags, and while the porter greeted them amicably he didn't offer any service.  It felt very wrong.

Since my arrival, I realized that where I am staying happens to be located directly adjacent to an upmarket mall.   This also felt strange, mostly because it was also so familiar.  The ethnic makeup of the people visiting the mall changed radically to be mostly ethnic Chinese and a smattering of obvious foreigners.  The language of the mall is not Malay but English or Chinese.   While Kuala Lumpur is about 45% Malay, this mall could not have been more than 10%.  It was a stark reminder of how ethnicity is tied to wealth in this country.

Finally, it was some time before I figured out why everybody insisted on speaking to me in English and treating me like an obvious foreigner.  I would order my food in mandarin and have people serve me meals with a fork and spoon (the ethnic Chinese would get chopsticks).  It was confused for a while, but suddenly remembered: in Singapore, and in Asia in general, I am always singled out as a Westerner, despite the exact opposite being true in the United States.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Arguments that annoy me, mandarin edition

I've started studying mandarin again.  As part of this, I've been encouraged to write my normal type of writing and translate it into mandarin.  The original English post is reproduced first, followed by the translation.  To aid my studying, I've bolded words that are new to me.  I originally wrote this post in February of this year, link here.

I love debate.  Once upon a time, I liked competitive debate, too, and thought that I liked pounding other people's arguments into the dust.  However, as time went on I realized that what I enjoyed was not winning per se, but having conversations with intelligent people.  People with poor argumentation and poor logic not only made for poor debate, but simply annoyed me.

To this day, there are few things that annoy me more.  So I'm going to blog about them. Hah.

1.  "It is better to be consistent than correct"

Hypocrisy is an irrelevant ad hominem, but I see this all the time.  Essentially, someone argues that because person/country/organization A has done something before, but subsequently advocates against it, the argument is invalid.  A is hypocritical!  Common examples:

  • The US has violated someone's sovereignty before, therefore its advocacy against a violation of other people's sovereignty is invalid.
  • <insert political party here> did something in the past, therefore its current stand against the practice is invalid.
  • You once believed this, but now you've flip-flopped and your argument is weaker because of it.
I could go on and on.  This is a poor argument.  Accusations of hypocrisy are often valid, but the only thing that they should do is cast aspersions on the character of the advocating party - they never have any relevance to an argument itself, unless that argument is about a person or organization's character.

When presented in simple terms as above, it's easy to spot how fallacious an accusation of hypocrisy is.  I more frequently see it presented in forms more difficult to recognize.  For example, if I were to hypothetically accuse the Republican party of being obstinate in their use of the filibuster in the Senate of the US, I might receive the following reply:
"But when the Democrats were in the minority during the Bush years, they also heavily used the filibuster and justified it by claiming that they were doing the job of the minority in protecting their interests, and you didn't complain then!"
Sound familiar?  Doesn't address the issue at hand, doesn't address anything but the parties to the argument (the Democrats and the proposer), allegation of hypocrisy.  While pointing out how hypocritical a group or person is might cast aspersions on their character, it has zero to do with the argument.  Instead, it's a statement that amounts to "it is better to be consistent than correct," or, alternatively, "consistency is a prerequisite for having a valid argument."

Top places I see that argument:
  • Anti-colonial related rants
  • Chinese uberpatriots
  • American political debate 
 Translation:

我从高中以后爱讨论。从前,我也爱讨论比赛,因为我觉得把别人的论据击开乐趣。但是,参加几个讨论比赛后,我发现我不是喜欢赢了讨论比赛,我喜欢的是跟聪明的人谈话。参加着用低质量的低质量的论据和推理不过把讨论变成真没意思,也简单地打扰我。

到现在,几乎没什么比较打扰我。所以我先要在网上对这事发泄一下。哈。

1. "一致正确好“

伪善大是人身攻击,但是我还常常看人用伪善似乎是效力的论据。伪善的用法就是这样:A反对别人的行为,但是有时候A跟别人有一样的行为。A很伪善!比如说:
  • 美国侵犯过外国的主权,所以美国的论据反对别的国家的侵犯主权行为就无效了。
  • 什么政党以前的行为象他门现在的反对,所以他们的反对就无效了。
  • 你以前相信这个论据,但是你推翻了你的决定,所以你现在的论据更无效。
这样真是低只来年个的推理。指责谁的伪善是理由批评,可以把注意力吸引到他的坏个性,但是除了他的个性以外,指责伪善没有解决他的论据有什么问题。象这样报告,很容易明白这样的想法真荒谬。我比较常看这个论据用其他的,比较难认出的形式。比如说,假如我指责美国的共和党阻挠什么不喜欢的议案通过是很不负责人,我可能有这样的回答:
在Bush总统的年代民主党也是少数,他们也跟今天的共和党一样阻挠议案通过,解说也是为了防守少数人的利益,但是那时候你一点都没有抱怨
这样的看法熟悉吗?没有对别人的看发有什么解决,没有说有什么不同意,只对对方的人指责伪善。这样的论据就是说“一致比正确好”,或者说“有一致才有好的论据”。废话。

我最常看这样的论据是对按照几个样子:
  • 殖民注意咆哮
  • 中国五毛咆哮
  • 美国政治了解

Friday, October 11, 2013

A small incident (Translation)

I've started studying mandarin again.  As part of that, I am systematically reading through a book of short stories by one of China's grandmasters of literature, Lu Xun (鲁迅), who lived during early revolutionary China. To aid my study, each story I go through I'm going to post here and then try to translate it as best I canThe original text is below, the translation is presented first.

"A small incident" - Lu Xun, July 1920

I moved from my hometown to the capital, and in the blink of an eye six years has passed.  In this time, everybody says that our so-called country has had not a few milestones; but in my heart, none of them have left any mark, and if I try to bring out what impression I have of these events, it only increases my mean feelings - truthfully, it teaches me to look down on people more and more each day.

But there is one small incident that for me has significance, dragging me out of my mean feelings, that until now I have been unable to forget.

This was in the country's sixth year's [1917] winter, with the North wind blowing hard, when for work I had no choice but to commute in the mornings.  When I started my commute there were almost no people to be seen, so it was easy to find a rickshaw, telling the driver to go to the S Gate [one of Beijing's gates].  It didn't take long for the North wind to die down and the dust on the road to clear, leaving a spotless white path, letting the rickshaw puller go faster.  Just before the S Gate, suddenly on the rickshaw's axle there was a person, who slowly fell down.

The fallen person was a woman, with grizzled hair, and very ragged clothes.  She had abruptly turned from the street and cut in front of us; despite the rickshaw puller giving her right of way, the woman's jacket hadn't been buttoned, and a gust of wind had caused it to open and finally wrap around the rickshaw axle.  Luckily, the rickshaw puller had slowed down, or else the woman would have been caught and overturned, her head struck and bleeding.

She lay on the ground; the rickshaw puller put down the handles.  I judged that this old woman wasn't hurt, and no one saw it, so I thought the stop was strange, and that he was asking for trouble and delaying my trip.

He said to her:
"Are you alright?"
"Something's broken."

I thought, I saw you fall slowly to the ground, how is it that she could have broken something, she's malingering, how reprehensible.  The he's meddlesome and asking for trouble, getting his own ideas about walking around.

The rickshaw puller, upon hearing the old woman's words, did not hesitate for a moment, suddenly supporting the woman by her arm and walking forward step by step.  I was a little astonished, forgetting to look forward to see a police station in front of us, upwind, with no one outside.  The rickshaw puller was supporting the old woman as they made their way towards the big door.

In that moment I suddenly felt an unusual feeling, like the impression in the dust from the rickshaw puller became taller, or perhaps grew ever larger, so that I had to crane my neck to see it.  Or maybe he gradually became more powerful, even as I felt my petty concerns being squeezed from underneath my leather jacket.

My life's urgent pace slowed down, sitting there without moving, without thinking, until I got off when a police patrolman approached the rickshaw.

The policeman said, "You should book another rickshaw, he won't be pulling you."

Without thinking, I pulled a roll of coins from my jacket, giving it to the policeman, saying "Please give this to him..."

The wind died down, the street was still very clean.  I walked, lost in thought, almost scared of my introspection.  With everything else in my life temporarily set aside, I asked myself, what was the meaning of that roll of coins?  To reward him? Could I still judge the rickshaw driver?  I couldn't bear to reply to myself.

To this day that incident is one I frequently remember.  I therefore always remember to put aside my pain, to strive to think about myself.  These past few years' cultural forces, like the classical aphorisms I memorized at a young age, have so faded from my memory that I can't even half recite them.  Only this small incident, which hovers just in front of my eyes, sometimes even more clearly, has taught me to be ashamed, urged me to reform, and renewed my courage and hope.

Professional Translation linked here

Original:


一件小事 - 鲁迅 July 1920

我从乡下跑到京城里,一转眼已经六年了。其间耳闻目睹的所谓国家大事,算起来也很不少;但在我心里,都不留什么痕迹,倘要我寻出这些事的影响来说,便只是增长了我的坏脾气,——老实说,便是教我一天比一天的看不起人。
  但有一件小事,却于我有意义,将我从坏脾气里拖开,使我至今忘记不得。
  这是民国六年的冬天,大北风刮得正猛,我因为生计关系,不得不一早在路上走。一路几乎遇不见人,好容易才雇定了一辆人力车,教他拉到S门去。不一会,北风小了,路上浮尘早已刮净,剩下一条洁白的大道来,车夫也跑得更快。刚近S门,忽而车把上带着一个人,慢慢地倒了。
  跌倒的是一个女人,花白头发,衣服都很破烂。伊从马路上突然向车前横截过来;车夫已经让开道,但伊的破棉背心没有上扣,微风吹着,向外展开,所以终于兜着车把。幸而车夫早有点停步,否则伊定要栽一个大斤斗,跌到头破血出了。
  伊伏在地上;车夫便也立住脚。我料定这老女人并没有伤,又没有别人看见,便很怪他多事,要自己惹出是非,也误了我的路。
  我便对他说,“没有什么的。走你的罢!”
  车夫毫不理会,——或者并没有听到,——却放下车子,扶那老女人慢慢起来,搀着臂膊立定,问伊说:
  “你怎么啦?”
  “我摔坏了。”
  我想,我眼见你慢慢倒地,怎么会摔坏呢,装腔作势罢了,这真可憎恶。车夫多事,也正是自讨苦吃,现在你自己想法去。
  车夫听了这老女人的话,却毫不踌躇,仍然搀着伊的臂膊,便一步一步的向前走。我有些诧异,忙看前面,是一所巡警分驻所,大风之后,外面也不见人。这车夫扶着那老女人,便正是向那大门走去。
  我这时突然感到一种异样的感觉,觉得他满身灰尘的后影,刹时高大了,而且愈走愈大,须仰视才见。而且他对于我,渐渐的又几乎变成一种威压,甚而至于要榨出皮袍下面藏着的“小”来。
  我的活力这时大约有些凝滞了,坐着没有动,也没有想,直到看见分驻所里走出一个巡警,才下了车。
  巡警走近我说,“你自己雇车罢,他不能拉你了。”
  我没有思索的从外套袋里抓出一大把铜元,交给巡警,说,“请你给他……”
  风全住了,路上还很静。我走着,一面想,几乎怕敢想到自己。以前的事姑且搁起,这一大把铜元又是什么意思?奖他么?我还能裁判车夫么?我不能回答自己。
  这事到了现在,还是时时记起。我因此也时时煞了苦痛,努力的要想到我自己。几年来的文治武力,在我早如幼小时候所读过的“子曰诗云”一般,背不上半句了。独有这一件小事,却总是浮在我眼前,有时反更分明,教我惭愧,催我自新,并且增长我的勇气和希望。

Monday, October 7, 2013

On the concurrent majority and the Westminster system

With the recent US government shutdown, there has been a lot of talk on the nature of majority rule and the way our system works in comparison to others.  I want to go over some of the things I've been hearing and my thoughts on them.