Sunday, February 17, 2008

World of Warcraft: The Next Step

In World of Warcraft, most communication between players is text, typed on a keyboard and read off a screen. But it is also possible for players in a group to speak to each other, using either third party software or a voice option provided by Blizzard. Doing this has at least two obvious advantages: Most people can speak much faster than they can type, and speaking leaves your fingers free to control your character.

From the standpoint of role players, however, it has a serious disadvantage. It's hard to believe that the person you are talking with is a female elf when "her" voice is that of a young man. It's hard to believe in the elderly dwarf when the voice is that of a sixteen year old girl. And it's hard to hear the frivolous and irresponsible gnome in the voice of a sixty-some professor.

This problem is soluble. There exist ways of modifying the sound of a voice--shifting the frequency up or down, changing it in subtler ways. Blizzard should make them available as an option on its in-game speech. Players who want to sound like themselves can, but so can players who want so sound like their character—deeper voices for males, still deeper for dwarves, and whatever tones feel right for other races. With a little practice, it ought to be possible for the speaker to learn to control the modified voice well enough to express emotions in a believable fashion, and so to carry in-game role playing to a new level.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

His vs "His or hers"

I have just been going through the copy edited version of my next book. Many of the editor's suggested changes are correct and helpful. But I am continually irritated by her practice of replacing almost every "he" by "he or she," and similarly for "his," "him," etc.

I can see only three plausible reasons for the practice. One is that the fact that the person in question might be either male or female is important to what you are saying, and so should be emphasized. Thus in one passage, where the point I was making was that you wouldn't know anything about the person--the context was encrypted interaction online--the editor changed "he" to "he or she" and I changed that to "he, she or it." But in most of the text, gender is simply irrelevant--the points I am making would be equally true in a world of all men, all women, or all hermaphrodites.

The second possible reason is that "he or she" is seen as politically correct, thus using it instead of following the traditional practice of letting "he" stand for either male or gender neutral shows the enlightenment of the author. This strikes me as at best silly, at worse conformism at the cost of good writing.

The third reason is that the writer wants to make a political point--that the traditional practice reflects features of the society that writer wishes to criticize. This seems to me a legitimate reason if that happens to be a point that that writer wants to make. But it isn't a point I want to make, and I strongly object to being drafted into someone else's crusade.

That said, I will happily agree that the lack of gender neutral pronouns in English is a problem. With the one exception mentioned above, I have accepted (so far) none of my editor's alterations from "he" to "he or she." To my ear that is not only clumsy--three words instead of one--it is misleading, since it suggests, almost always incorrectly, that there is some particular reason for pointing out that the person in question might be female. What I have done is to look for another way of writing the sentence that works at least as well and avoids raising the question of whether I am talking only about males. Sometimes that is possible, sometimes it is not.

Another possible solution would be to give in to the common practice of using "they" as a gender neutral singular, a practice I abhor. I suspect my editor does too, since she is enough of a grammatical purist to insist on treating "data" as a grammatical plural and to distinguish carefully between "who" and "whom."

Friday, February 15, 2008

Ideology as Coalition: Environmentalists vs The Poor

It is a familiar observation that political parties are coalitions containing a variety of ideologies and interest groups. It is a little less obvious that ideologies too are coalitions.

Consider the American conservative movement of the fifties and sixties. It was made up of at least three distinct groups: Traditionalist conservatives, classical liberals/libertarians, and southern conservatives, in large part populist. Where some had strong views and the others didn't--anti-communism, for instance--they tended to all go along. Where different groups had different strong views--government control over sexual behavior, for example--they agreed to disagree. The more common the latter situation was, the greater the tension within the ideology.

The modern American left is also a coalition. Someone who thinks of himself as a leftist is probably in favor of increasing environmental regulation, redistribution in favor of the poor, greater government regulation of business, gay rights, feminism, prohibition of private discrimination on any of a considerable variety of grounds. He is probably against aggressive foreign policy, anti-nuclear, suspicious of law enforcement and the criminal justice system but supportive of class actions, punitive damages, and similar features of the tort system.

In that coalition too, there are potential strains. For someone in favor of helping poor people, the economic development of China and India is arguably the best news of the past fifty years. Development was, after all, the explicit goal of foreign economic aid, development planning, a variety of programs in the post-war period that were supposed to lift the third world out of poverty--and didn't. The fact that more than two billion people are now in the process of moving from extreme poverty towards the sort of life westerners have long lived represents an enormous improvement in the condition of the world's poor.

It also represents a sharp increase in the consumption of depletable resources and production of carbon dioxide. The same changes that should be good news to the leftist qua egalitarian are very bad news to the leftist qua environmentalist. Not only are people who used to be poor consuming more and polluting more, they are cutting down rain forests in South America, threatening endangered species in Asia. They are, in other words, doing the same things our ancestors did.

Nuclear power is another obvious problem for the left. It provides a way of replacing a large fraction of fossil fuel power with an alternative that does not produce CO2, using current technology at costs not wildly above current power costs—as France has demonstrated. Arguably, it provides the only such way. With fairly modest improvements in the technology of synthesizing liquid hydrocarbons, it could replace practically all fossil fuel use. But the left is traditionally anti-nuclear for a mix of reasons, including hostility to nuclear weapons and a more general suspicion of technology.

Biofuels present the most recent example of a conflict between environmentalism and concern for the poor. Supporters argue that they reduce dependence on foreign (and depletable) supplies of oil and reduce CO2 production—although there now seems to be evidence that the latter may not be true. Critics point out that diverting large amounts of farm land and farm output from producing a lot of food to producing a little fuel will cause--indeed, has already caused--a steep increase in food prices, an implicit tax that falls most heavily on the poor.

All of these conflicts among left wing objectives are accidental—it just happens that the same change which helps in one direction hurts in another. There are additional problems that are more fundamental. One reason some on the left don't want a nuclear solution to global warming is that they see the threat of global warming as a useful argument for lifestyle changes—less power consumption, urban instead of suburban life styles, less consumption—that they favor for other reasons. For those in that position, a way of preventing global warming that doesn't require other people to revise their lives is a threat, not a promise.

In much the same way, the threat of nuclear winter was pushed not so much because its supporters believed in it as because its supporters were, understandably enough, looking for ways to prevent nuclear war. In both cases, the problem with such indirect motives is not that they are necessarily unjustified but that they are likely to lead to dishonest arguments. If your objective is not to prevent global warming or nuclear winter but only to use their threat to persuade other people to do things you want them to do or not to do things you don't want them to do, whether the arguments you offer are right becomes less important than whether they are persuasive.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Thoughts for Obama

Two years ago, I suggested that the Democrats ought to be trying to pull libertarian voters, broadly defined, out of the Republican party--which hasn't provided much for them in recent years. I don't know whether Barack Obama is thinking in those terms or not, but it does look as though he is trying to change the current coalition structure that defines the parties, which could be interesting. How might he do it?

My original suggestion was for the Democrats to come out in favor of medical marijuana, at least to the extent of making it clear that federal law enforcement would be instructed not to target people who were using marijuana in conformity with state law. That not only sends a signal to voters unhappy with the current war on drugs, it also suggests a greater willingness than either party has shown to respect state sovereignty, at least on that issue.

A second possibility that occurs to me is to take advantage of the budgetary implications of Obama's opposition to the Iraq War. If the U.S. pulls out, we will get a "peace dividend"--a whole lot of money now being spent on the war will be available for other purposes. No doubt lots of people, in both parties, will have ideas for ways of spending it.

Suppose Obama commits himself not to let the peace dividend be spent on new projects, or at least not all of it. Suppose, for instance, that he promises that at least half of the saving will be used to reduce the budget deficit. That puts him in the position of the fiscally responsible candidate, which should appeal to conservatives as well as libertarians. And it is a pledge that McCain cannot match, since he supports the war and so is not going to have any peace dividend to allocate.

What other things can he do along these lines? He can't come out for school vouchers without alienating the teachers' unions, which are a major power in his party--although I can barely imagine his doing it when running for a second term, if his position then is strong enough. What about coming out against overreaching by the criminal justice system--no knock raids on the homes of defenseless grandmothers, rogue prosecutors, and the like? Is there some way he could do that without opening himself up to the "soft on crime" charge?

How about property rights? Kelo seems to have been massively unpopular, resulting in a lot of state laws purporting to restrict seizures of private property by eminent domain. Is there some way he could get on that bandwagon? It would pull in libertarians--whom would it offend?


Friday, February 08, 2008

Verse Contradictions

A very long time ago, a friend of the family's named Dorothy Brady introduced us to the game of finding pairs of proverbs with opposite meanings, such as "He who hesitates is lost"/"Look before you leap." More recently it occurred to me that one might do the same thing with pairs of poems, ideally both by the same poet. My one example so far—my wife thinks she pointed it out to me twenty-some years ago—is a pair of sonnets by Millay.

Part of the argument of "Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow" is summed up in the line "Were you not lovely I would leave you now."

While the argument of "Love is not blind" is

"Well I know
What is this beauty men are babbling of;
I only wonder why they prize it so.

Which reminds me of a quote that I thought was by Heine but now cannot find a source for:

"Why should I be always of my own opinion?"

Can anyone offer other such pairs of poems? A source for my quote?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Default Rules and Soft Paternalism

Consider two firms, otherwise identical, with different default rules. Firm A tells its employees that it normally diverts 10% of their salary to a pension fund but will be happy to pay the money directly to the employee if he prefers. Firm B tells its employees that it normally pays them all of their salary, but will be happy to divert 10% of the salary to a pension fund for any employee who prefers that option.

On the face of it, one would expect about the same fraction of employees to go with each option in each firm, since the amount at stake is large enough to make the extra cost of filling out a request or stopping by the human resources office to tell them that you want to switch away from the default trivial in comparison. I am told that in fact such default rules have quite a large effect--that many more employees will go with the pension plan in firm A than in firm B. I have not looked into the literature on the subject myself, but for the moment will assume it is true.

If so, that suggests the possibility of "soft paternalism." If the government thinks employees would be better off putting money into a pension plan, they require all employers to act like firm A. It is "soft" because the employee is still free to choose whether or not to go along. I gather that some thinkers on what I think of as the new new left--academics who accept a good deal of the libertarian view of the desirability of markets and individual choice while still looking for ways of altering behavior in what they think desirable ways--have made proposals along these lines. Presumably part of their argument is that if individual choice is being affected in this way by default rules then it isn't entirely rational, so there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of the irrationality to get people to voluntarily choose what they "ought" to choose.

When I discussed this issue with my daughter Rebecca, she offered an interesting explanation of the pattern of behavior--interesting in part because it makes the behavior rational. The cost of switching into or out of the pension plan is negligible, but the cost of getting the information needed to decide whether to switch in or out is not. In this case as in many others, one cheap way of getting information is by observing what other people do. If, as seems plausible, the firm will have chosen as the default the option most of its employees prefer, thus saving trouble for all concerned, the default rule is a signal of the choices of other employees, hence cheap evidence of what an employee who doesn't know which option is better should do. So the employee rationally goes along with the default option unless he has some good reason to think the alternative is better.

If this analysis is correct, it implies that soft paternalism won't work, or at least won't work for very long. Once it becomes clear that default rules are being chosen not by the employer to fit employee preferences but by the government to nudge employees into doing what the government thinks they should do, the argument for going along with the default breaks down.

Of course there might be a new argument--that if the government thinks you should get a pension that's a reason to do so. But if people actually accept that, there is no need to use default rules; the government can simply tell employees what it thinks they should do.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Law School Accreditation and Bar Passage Rates

The Volokh Conspiracy Blog has a recent post on and discussion of ABA proposals to make law school accreditation depend on bar passage rates.

As anyone involved with law schools knows, bar passage rates are a hot topic closely connected with the issue of affirmative action. A recent article in the Stanford Law Review by Richard Sanders argued that affirmative action by law schools injures blacks; the student who would have done reasonably well in (say) a third tier law school with other students about as able as he was gets admitted to a first or second tier law school eager to increase its (racial) diversity, and ends up never passing the bar. I discussed the issue in a post some time back. After hearing about the article I asked a colleague likely to be unsympathetic with its conclusion if she knew of a good rebuttal. Having read the article she suggested, whose argument ultimately came down to "Sanders is a racist," I concluded that if that is the best rebuttal available, Sanders is probably right. If anyone knows of a better rebuttal, I would be interested in the cite.

The easiest way for a law school to raise its bar passage rates in order not to be at risk of losing its accreditation is by reducing its willingness to admit black students with low LSATs. Thus the ABA proposals, apparently made in response to pressure from the Department of Education, are likely to be seen as an attack on affirmative action. They are also seen as threatening traditionally black law schools. If Sanders is correct, the first may actually be a good thing; the second is not.

In my view, the fundamental problem with the ABA proposal is that it is measuring the wrong thing. There are two different mistakes one would like law schools to avoid:

1. Admitting students who won't benefit from admission and probably won't pass the bar, in order to raise the racial diversity of their student body.

2. Rejecting students who will benefit from admission but will still have a lower than average chance of passing the bar, given where they are starting from, in order to raise the school's bar passage rate.

The real test of the education provided by a law school should be some measure of value added rather than quality of graduates (as measured by bar passage rates). The fact that a school can get a student who starts at the 99th percentile of the LSAT to pass the bar isn't much evidence that it is worth going to. If the ABA is going to set standards along these lines, they should be based, not on average bar passage rates, but on the relation between bar passage rates and entering LSATs.

Doing that is pretty straightforward. Run a regression for each state with LSAT as the independent variable, bar passage probability as the dependent variable, to find, on average, the probability that a student who starts with a given LSAT will end up passing the bar. Use the results of that regression to calculate what the bar passage rate ought to be for a given class at a given law school if the school is providing an average education. If the actual rate is more than a fixed amount below that, the school doesn't get accredited. That way accreditation provides the information that matters to the student--how much more likely am I to pass the bar if I go to this school or that?

Of course, I also have reservations about other parts of the system--but at least, if they are going to do this part, they ought to do it right.

Accreditation requires a yes/no decision. The approach I have described also makes it possible to provide more detailed information to applicants trying to decide whether to go to law school and, if so, what school to go to. Each school could report bar passage rate for its graduates over the past ten years as a function of entering LSAT, both as an absolute number and relative to the average figure for the state.

What a student wants to know, after all, is not how good a job the school does on average but how good a job it is likely to do for him. If, as Sanders' article implies, a student with a less than stellar LSAT is likely to learn less at Harvard Law School than at some less prestigious school better adapted to teaching students like him, that is information the student ought to have.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Barack v Hilary v ...

This morning, while driving, I heard some excerpts from the Obama/Clinton debate. Judging by those, Obama is the more libertarian of the two. Both want large scale government involvement in health insurance, but Obama is willing to permit people to choose not to be insured if they really don’t want to be insured and actually sounds uncomfortable with the idea of forcing people to do things. He also has made statements in favor of decriminalization of marijuana, although they suggest a pretty watered down version and it isn’t a position he has emphasized in the campaign.

I am also prejudiced against highly educated people who choose to use “I” when “me” is grammatically correct—as Hilary did in one of the bits I heard. It might be simple ignorance, but I doubt it; my suspicion is that she is playing up to people who think “I” is the classier word.

If I were voting in the Democratic primary, I would vote for Obama. The more interesting question is whether, if he gets the Democratic nomination and McCain or Romney gets the Republican nomination, I and other libertarians should prefer the Democratic candidate.

Just over two years ago, I had a post here suggesting that the Democrats should try to pull libertarian voters out of the Republican party. It will be interesting to see if Obama tries and succeeds. I am unlikely to vote for him; I almost never vote for major party candidates. But there are a lot of libertarians more broadly defined--people who favor more liberty than we have in both economic and social areas--who do. In the past most of them have voted Republican, but that was less true in 2004 than in 2000. It may be still less true in 2008.


After first posting the above, I came across a page where some people are arguing that Obama is, in some important sense, a left-libertarian.