Sunday, August 02, 2020

Wimps, Boors, and Philosophers

I am mining my accumulated blog posts to convert them into one or more books and have started the first chapter. It is based on exchanges with a group of libertarian political philosophers who describe themselves as Bleeding Heart Libertarians. It occurred to me that the argument I was making there was related to a different argument in a different post.

My central claim in the first group of posts was that, while the BHL were offering legitimate criticisms of arguments made by their fellow libertarians, they were unwilling to apply a similar standard to arguments made by academic philosophers. They wanted to add "social justice" to libertarianism but were unable or unwilling to give a clear explanation of what it was or on what basis it could be defended. They spoke respectfully of John Rawls but were not prepared to actually defend his central argument, which, I had long concluded, hinged on a claim about as defensible as 2+2=5, even less defensible than the libertarian arguments they had attacked.

My conclusion was that what they were offering was a version of libertarianism designed to appeal to their non-libertarian colleagues.

My other post came out of the controversy over the Ron Paul newsletters, some of which contained articles attacked as racist. While I may have missed something, I do not think any of them either asserted innate inferiority of blacks or hatred of blacks qua blacks. What they did was express a derogatory opinion of particular blacks — Watts rioters or muggers — in a gleeful fashion. They were thus likely both to appeal to racists and to offend liberals — more generally, people who accept current conventions of acceptable and unacceptable speech. My guess is that both effects were intentional.

I see the clash as between people who see non-PC speech as a  virtue and those who see it as a fault, between people who approve of offending liberal sensibilities and those who share enough of those sensibilities to prefer to respect them. The former group see the latter as wimps, the latter see the former as boors.The wimps have friends on the left they respect, so prefer to think of those on the left as reasonable people who are mistaken. The boors are more likely to have friends on the right, including some, such as religious fundamentalists or neo-confederates, whom the wimps disapprove of, so in that case the pattern reverses, with the wimps seeing those they disagree with as evil or stupid, the boors seeing them as reasonable people with, perhaps, some mistaken views.

Ron Paul, or whichever of his people wrote the relevant articles, identified with and was appealing to the boors and so offended the wimps. The Bleeding Heart Libertarians are professional academics, associate mostly with people well on the left, so speak respectfully of even bad arguments that such people respect and would like to revise libertarianism to make it more palatable to their left wing friends.

Friday, July 31, 2020

A Virtual Enchanted Ground Bardic Circle

As some of you know, I am a long time participant in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group that does historical recreation, mostly medieval and renaissance but including everything before the seventeenth century. I normally spend two weeks of each year camped out with ten thousand other crazy people in a private campground about an hour north of Pittsburgh. One of my contributions to the event is hosting a bardic circle, a group of people sitting around a campfire in my encampment in the evening entertaining each other with poems, stories, songs, music, and on one occasion a play. The idea is to create the illusion of a group of period people entertaining each other, so all conversation is "in persona," done from the point of view of the invented period person you are playing. Not "this song is late Elizabethan" but "this is a song popular at Her Majesty's court." Pieces do not have to be actually period, although period pieces are appreciated.

Due to the present unpleasantness, Pennsic was cancelled this year, I think for the first time in the fifty some years it has been happening. I am accordingly holding my bardic circle online using Zoom, starting this Sunday, which would have been the first night of the second week, when I normally start the circle.

Everyone is welcome, including people who only come to listen, but if you are going to be visible on Zoom you should be wearing something that looks plausibly period.

The schedule is:

Sunday, starting at noon Pacific time


Monday-Wednesday starting at 3:00 P.M.


Thursday starting at noon.


Friday starting at 6 PM.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

A Density Query

One factor relevant to different rates of Covid deaths in different countries is population density. People often talk about herd immunity as if it required the same percentage of immune people everywhere, but that obviously is not true. In a society where the average individual only encounters someone else every three months, herd immunity starts at zero percent immune. The more people interact, the higher the fraction that must be immune in order that each infected person will, on average, pass the disease on to fewer than one more.

Frequency of interaction depends in part on population density, but not the density calculated by dividing population by area. Adding a million square miles with nobody living there to a country sharply reduces the average population density defined in that way but has no effect on the average density experienced by an individual. What the usual definition is measuring is  density per acre averaged over acres. What we want is the density averaged over people, giving heavier weight to acres that have more people on them. That difference is the reason that people in a country like the U.S., large parts of which are nearly empty, tend to greatly overestimate how crowded it is — almost all the places they observe are places with people in them.

Does anyone know of a source for the form of population density I want? It might turn out that some countries had a much higher density relative to others than the conventional figure implies.

More on Misleading Covid Reporting

I am seeing multiple news stories warning that Sweden is a horrible example of the bad result of not locking down. They report, correctly, that Sweden's deaths per capita figures is a little higher than that of the U.S., much higher than Denmark and Norway, although a little lower than the U.K.

What they do not mention is that the daily death rate has fallen by almost two orders of magnitude over the past three months, from a high of just over a hundred deaths per day to currently one or two deaths each day, making the Swedish per capita daily death rate less than a tenth the U.S. figure. By my calculations, if daily death rates stay the same in both countries, U.S. total deaths per capita will reach the Swedish figure in about two months.

Can anyone offer an explanation other than deliberate fraud for a news story that mentions the one figure but not the other? It is, after all, exactly the pattern we would expect if a strategy of getting to herd immunity had succeeded.

P.S. I have now seen a different figure for Sweden, with daily deaths about ten times higher. I have not yet figured out why different sources are giving strikingly different numbers, but if the second number is correct, what I wrote in this post is wrong.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Pretending that Good News is Bad News

The headline of a news story today:

CDC study shows COVID-19 cases may be 10 times higher than reported

The story warns that this shows that states that are opening up are making a mistake, that the problem is worse than we thought. It does not seem to have occurred to the author that if there are ten times as many cases as we thought and the same number of deaths, that means that the disease is only a tenth as lethal as we thought it was, which is an argument in favor of opening up, not against. Nobody has been arguing that we should respond to each year's flu season with a lockdown.

The article also does not mention that this is the same result, in a somewhat stronger form, that was reported by people at Stanford quite a while back, on a similar basis, and for which they were severely criticized.

The explanation may be political bias. Trump has tended to downplay the seriousness of Covid, his opponents to do the opposite, and most reporters, probably including the author of this article, are opposed to Trump. But it may also be the bias that leads many people to believe that everyone else should be taking more precautions — against Covid, overweight, or anything else — than they are, hence to regard it as socially responsible to exaggerate any news that makes a threat look bigger, downplay or ignore news that makes it look smaller.

It is an issue I have discussed before, in other contexts, several times.

P.S. Looking at another source, it looks as though the claim is between two and thirteen times the number of known cases (for the U.S.). But I think previous mortality estimates already took account of some asymptomatic cases, so were using something larger than the known cases figure.

That said, the commentary continues to get precisely the wrong conclusion:

Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security who was uninvolved in the study, told The Washington Post. “This study should put to bed any further argument that we should allow this virus to rip through our communities in order to achieve herd immunity.”

If the number of people who have had the virus is (say) twice the number we thought it was, then the deaths we have suffered so far have brought us twice as far towards herd immunity as we thought. Aiming at herd immunity may or may not make sense, but the new evidence makes the strategy look better than before, not worse, which is the opposite of Ms Nuzzo's claim.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

An Idea for Colleges in the Pandemic

The danger in realspace classes during the current pandemic is almost entirely to professors and staff, since students who catch Covid, unless they have some significant medical problem, have a very low chance of dying from it — as best I can tell under one in a thousand. For an adult over 65, which many professors nowadays are, the chance is much higher, perhaps two or three percent. The numbers are very uncertain because we do not know how many undiagnosed cases there are, but the relative risk is at least an order of magnitude greater, perhaps two orders of magnitude, for the older group.

That suggests a policy intermediate between realspace and VR classes — students free to interact in realspace, faculty in VR. Classes  work just as last year except that the professor has been replaced by a video screen. The class can see the professor on the screen, the professor can see the class via a video camera in the front of the classroom. It would be the same approach by which I once gave a talk in the country of Georgia from my office in San Jose. Judging by my experience, it works almost as well as a live talk.

Not all students or all teachers are the same. In an improved version of what I describe, students who are at serious risk could attend virtually, with the feed to the screen also feeding to their computer and with the option to ask questions of the professor over the internet. Teachers who are not at serious risk, such as graduate student teaching assistants, could if they wished attend in realspace, which would help for classes that involved more than verbal interaction.

The last year I taught at Santa Clara University, one of my classes consisted mostly of Saudi LLM students, including a women with whom I had some long conversations about how things worked in her country. A college is either for men or for women. A women's college not only has no male students, it has no males at all inside its walls. The only way a male professor can teach in it is over video.

If the Saudis can do it, surely we can.

One problem that remains is the risk of infected students passing the virus on to parents or, worse still, grandparents. To deal with that, isolate students for a week at the end of the school year, then test them to make sure they are not carrying the virus. Quarantine any who are. Students who have gotten the virus and recovered are free to go home for Christmas and spring break.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Andrew Sullivan on Leaving Print Media for Online Media

Andrew Sullivan has a very interesting column explaining why he is leaving New York Magazine. Unlike Bari Weiss, he has no complaints about how the editors of the magazine treated him. He is leaving because enough of the staff are intolerantly woke that someone with his views no longer fits in.
What has happened, I think, is relatively simple: A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I’m a luxury item they don’t want to afford. And that’s entirely their prerogative. They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space. Actually attacking, and even mocking, critical theory’s ideas and methods, as I have done continually in this space, is therefore out of sync with the values of Vox Media. That, to the best of my understanding, is why I’m out of here.
What is interesting is not what he is going from but to. He concludes that print media, at least the parts he has been associated with, is becoming too ideologically narrow and intolerant to be useful. The reason that is not a terrible problem is that there is another alternative, online media, which can be much more open and diverse. His view of what his old blog was like is very much like mine of the Slate Star Codex commenting community.
But here’s what I do truly and deeply miss: writing freely without being in a defensive crouch; airing tough, smart dissent and engaging with readers in a substantive way that avoids Twitter madness; a truly free intellectual space where anything, yes anything, can be debated without personal abuse or questioning of motives; and where readers can force me to change my mind (or not) by sheer logic or personal testimony. I miss a readership that truly was eclectic — left, liberal, centrist, right, reactionary — and that loved to be challenged by me and by each other. I miss just the sheer fun that used to be a part of being a hack before all these dreadfully earnest, humor-free puritans took over the press: jokes, window views, silly videos, contests, puns, rickrolls, and so on.
So he is restarting his blog and shifting his efforts to it.