Friday, June 20, 2014

The Purpose of Commencement Addresses

I don't usually make posts that are links to webcomics, but this one is both good economics and good commentary.

I deduce from further research that the strip in question is aimed at readers with a background in physics and economics and side interests in philosophy and probability theory. Funny that.


At 12:35 PM, June 20, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OT - I just finished reading the 2nd Volume William Patterson's biography of Robert Heinlein.

You show up in the footnotes, apparently a letter to you from RAH about a meeting with Libertarians in Arizona. Heinlein's appearance fee was 50 pints of blood.

Heinlein says he played devil's advocate at the meeting and challenged the attendees with his "Lifeboat problem": you are on an overcrowded life boat with even more folks nearby in the sea. You have the only gun. What decisions do you make?

At 12:51 PM, June 20, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

Could be true, but I don't remember any such incident. I did meet him at least once, but I don't think it was at anything I had arranged.

I believe Neil Schulman told me he had offered Heinlein my theory that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a murder mystery, containing the clues to who killed Mike, and he denied it.

At 1:15 PM, June 20, 2014, Anonymous Laird said...

SMBC is a consistently funny, and thoughtful, webcomic. It's worth following.

At 3:33 PM, June 20, 2014, Blogger Dan said...

Also be sure to click the big red button. It gives a bonus comic frame. Much like xkcd's mouseover text.

At 6:13 PM, June 20, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Sometimes SMBC's got the economics wrong though:

Dad is the only employer in the household...but the kids are the only providers of labour (as long as dad is not going to convince mom to do the work or do it himself...and mom has very strong bargaining tools in negotiations with dad :)) ). There is a bilateral monopoly.

Still, generally SMBC is usually funny and sometimes quite insightful. xkcd is similar, I'd say xkcd has worse presentation (drawings) and usually more insight (and maybe less slapstick humour which can be seen as both good and bad). Both are worth reading.

David: Would you be so kind and elaborate on that theory? Even if the author denied it, it could be fun to hear. Without giving it much thought, I'd blame the professor. He was a kind of a guy who might do that to make the people independent of an essentially benevolent and enlightened dictator (without his subjects even realizing that) Mike was gradually becoming or had a potential to become.

At 6:25 PM, June 20, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Also, I think Weiner (the author) first studied literature at a university, then after some years he started studying again, this time physics.

Also, this is his initiative and quite funny too:

The aim is to come up with an ad hoc hypothesis about something that is almost surely bogus (and also funny) and to come up with plausible sounding arguments that support it. His own entry was about shape of babies and their skin texture. The hypothesis was that they are shaped the way they are and have smooth skin to improve aerodynamics...because our ancestors - living in isolated valleys in mountainous areas - used catapults to migrate children from one village to another to prevent inbreeding. And of course, through evolution, the children best adapted to catapulting spread their genes most effectively.


Also this is one of my favourite SMBCs (also about education):

Unfortunatelly, it is quite accurate :)

At 10:40 AM, June 21, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

Tibor: Got it in one. Prof has the motive. By memory:

"When this is over, the first thing I'm doing is setting up some news source that doesn't funnel through our friend Mike."

He (reasonably enough) sees the enormous concentration of power in Mike as a danger. And he has made it clear that he will not be constrained by ordinary moral principles if enough is at stake.

And I claim that the book provides him with means as well as motive. Provided he is willing to pay the cost. And he is.

At 11:00 AM, June 21, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

Tibor: With regard to the monopoly/monopsony issue, I was reminded of my old blog post comparing the Lott's childrearing policies with ours. I commented on Gertrude Fremling (John Lott's wife) remarking on the perhaps surprising failure of her children to engage in bidding conspiracies against their parents.

At 1:14 PM, June 21, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

David: Yes, I remembered the professor saying something like he had a motive, but I can't see him having the means. He had never got anywhere close to Mike, only Manny did of all the people who were aware of Mike's existence.

The kids: Interesting. And a interesting way to raise kids. I would like to see the long term results (with a much larger sample of families) :)

Also I would like to see how children of, say, a union leader would behave in this situation - that is whether they would come up with a mini union themselves :)

At 1:14 PM, June 21, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5:59 AM, June 22, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

I stopped reading SMBC about a month ago because it had turned into a "hate read". I realized it almost never made me chuckle or laugh, and more often than not made me irritated because of its smug rejection of some contrary and unpopular viewpoint. This was especially common in the comics dealing with social issues. (To a much greater degree this is the same reason I stopped watching The Daily Show back when I was about 19.)

At 6:34 AM, June 22, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

I thought to write my point above because the particular strip David linked to here exemplifies my point.

Rather than take on the issue of articulate, groundbreaking, and scholastically accomplished academics like Charles Murray being boycotted at (alleged) places of learning, SMBC ignores it (probably because Zach whats-his-name buys into the slander that Murray is an Old White Racist) and instead heaps on more reasons why we should hate him: not only is he an Old White Racist, he's also a Rich McGreedypants who Earns Way Too Much Money! (I wonder if Murray's accountant would agree?)

The economics may be "true" to some extent, but are they "good"? Or are they overly cynical and short-sighted? Isn't it possible that universities also try to bring in speakers who exemplify scholastic ideals? (Well, if they actually do this, then certainly no good deed goes unpunished.)

By the way, does anyone know of Hillary Clinton being boycotted from her university speeches after the Benghazi incident?

What about Al Sharpton after, oh say, ANY of the immoral and illegal things he's done?

While I was there, Cornel West once came and spoke (it was more like "moved his mouth and made noises"; nothing of substance was said) to a packed house at my university. And I do mean packed: people were literally crammed into the aisles.

West is an open socialist who has called Obama a "Rockefeller Republican in Black Face". He received two standing ovations, limousine service to and from the school, and a check for, I hear, $40,000.

If any of these people had been boycotted, would there have been a snarky SMBC comic saying that the only reason a school would invite any of them is to show off its brand? I don't think so.

At 6:45 AM, June 22, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

A bit of cursory research suggests that Charles Murray's speaking fee is somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000, and that Cornel West's ranges between $30,000 and $50,000.

At 8:36 AM, June 22, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Power Child: I was not really aware of this, but I think you might be reading too much into the comic :) I bet a lot of readers are not aware of anything happening around Murray (I don't even know him...but I guess US readers mostly will). I don't see anything that would suggest "he is a greedy bastard" about anyone. Even after learning about Murray, I'd still bet that Weiner was not trying to talk about Murray at all. Also, don't expect deep analysis from a webcomic. It is supposed to be funny first and there are only so many words one can put in an online comic strip (indeed even fewer than this or your comment).

Yes, Weiner is quite left wing (although not extremely so) and some of his comics show that. I sometimes don't agree with a point he is trying to make there or I find it as an oversimplifaction. But very rarely it is just stupid slander. And again - it is not supposed to be an essay, it is a webcomic :)

What I find mildly irritating about him is that he is trying to be very PC. Almost all (or maybe even all of them?) of the pairs in his comic are mixed race or gays/lesbians (or both). Maybe it is just me suspecting shoving something down my throat (which is what's irritating, otherwise I don't really care about it...if it were a webcomic about a lesbian pair or something like that, it would be relevant to the comic and I would not have that feeling) where there is nothing like that. But even if he does try to push it this way, it is only mildly irritating.

One last thing:
These speeches in Europe are very different...well, at least at the old universities. Charles' university in Prague was founded in 1348 and it still shows. Our (Master's) graduation ceremony took place in a chapel in one of the oldest buildings of the university, they played Gaudeamus on the chapel organ, we were read a ceremonial vow in latin (I still don't know what it means exactly...although there is a translation online, I might read it eventually :) ) and then we each one by one said a memorized a sponsion (also in latin, I think it is "Spondeo an policerum" ... I swear on the scepter...or something like that) with one hand (almost) on a scepter held by a Pedel. The speech was probably before the vow and it was all done by our pro-dekan (this is a title used in Czech and German, I don't know the english equivalent). And so it was 5k-40k dollars cheaper :) A couple of minutes of a pretty much vague talk really cannot give you anything too valuable (certainly not anything worth 5 or more grand) and I agree that it is almost entirely about prestige. And for the same reason our graduation was held with all of these medieval traditions, so people see "all the history and tradition". Of course, people also want to keep tradition for its own sake, but you can use it to add to the reputation.

At 8:49 AM, June 22, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Power Child:

Is this an(other) example of what I find irritating?

This is where I think the author oversimplifies. But smug? I would not say so. Then I simply don't laugh at this one. If these were more common than the funny ones, I would stop reading, sure. But I think that if you keep "politically profiling" people like this, you will end up not really talking to/listening to/reading many people at all. I mean, I sometimes like to listen to Rage Against the machine. But their lyrics...well, not only they are absurd "revolutionary communist" but somehow they manage to contradict each other on the same album - several times. So I just ignore them and enjoy the music like I enjoy the occasional irritating comic strips. I am not suggesting that you should do the same, but maybe just take these thing a bit less seriously - it is entertainment, not scholarly discussion.

At 11:54 AM, June 22, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

I was also struck by the fact that, in the world of the strip, a majority of couples appear to be same sex.

But I didn't think the overall tone was particularly left wing. My main reservation, other than the impression that the early ones, when I looked at them, weren't very good, was that the author seemed to have a rather dark view of the world.

My younger son, who doesn't like the strip, says "cynical" rather than dark.

At 10:08 PM, June 22, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of colleges, what do you think about Bryan Caplan's claim that education is predominantly signaling?

At 4:00 AM, June 23, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...


Well, I could be wrong on that, but if I were to guess I would expect him to be left of the center based on the overall mildly PC tone of the comic (I've been reading it for a couple of years now) and occasionally a comic that seems to hint to a more left wing viewpoint. But since it is not a "left wing comic," i.e. a comic that systematically tries to push a certain viewpoint, it is not very important what the author's opinions are. Plus he strikes me as a rather reasonable person and probably would be fun to argue with. That I base on this other comic I really like a lot and that I think is a very accurate description of how most (not only internet, although there it is worse) "debates" go:

This indicates that the author realizes that people who disagree with him don't have to be stupid or evil. Sadly, a lot of people don't realize that.

On second thoughts, some strips would point out to something different than the typical left wing PCness (this one is again one I like a lot):

Either way, it is probably not very interesting or important to guess someone's political affiliation.

As for dark humour, I don't think it is particularly dark...but I like dark humour so that's maybe why :)

At 4:09 AM, June 23, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Also, considering the first strip I linked to in my previous comment - I really wonder how one would go about getting to the last frame of it systematically. That is how one could for example set up an internet discussion forum where there would be only (or almost only) reasonably arguing people on both sides of any argument, i.e. how one would go about filtering out the circular sectors and little squares (see the strip) from the discussion.

I can and try to do that individually, but that takes a lot of time. Although, I'm afraid this is the best way there is anyway. Also, unfortunately, I have a very bad habit of often trying to argue even with the people who I am reasonably sure belong to the unreasonable category. Then I waste a lot of time doing that. Well, at least I managed to make myself stop reading the discussions on news portals :)

At 6:02 AM, June 23, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

If there is a "normalcy quotient" to couples in real life (i.e. a 1 being normal being same-race opposite-gender), then SMBC couples average probably somewhere around a 0.2.

The author is a white guy married to a white woman, apparently of a similar economic and educational background--so, they are about as "1" as it gets.

The comic itself may be rather "thoughtfully left-centrist", but the tone is about as "Guilty Leftist" as it gets.

At 8:27 AM, June 23, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

Tibor asks how you get reasonable conversation online. One thing I've done successfully (on FB) is to participate in a conversation where the other side had lots of unreasonable people and one reasonable person. When the reasonable person left I friended him, and since have participated in various comment threads on his posts.

Also, even the unreasonable people can be interesting as a way of understanding human beings, something I would like to be better at.

At 8:33 AM, June 23, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

So far as Zach's political views, he does have a small book out that's relevant. I haven't read it, but it sounds from the description as though he is proposing something intermediate between the present system and anarcho-capitalism. I can't tell if he has thought through the problems, in particular how you deal with legal conflicts between neighbors who are citizens of different nongeographical states.

At 11:13 AM, June 23, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

David: Interesting. Maybe I am too hasty with putting people in boxes (and I hate it so much when other people do it with me :) )...And maybe he is not trying to be PC but just enjoys drawing lesbians :D

Thanks for the notice. I'm considering reading the book.

At 5:01 PM, June 23, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

So I read the book (it is indeed rather short and I had nothing much better to do this evening) and the society Zach is imagining is sort of a system of protection agencies (although he calls them anthrostates) embedded within a framework of what he calls a polystate. The polystate sets up some, presumably few, basic rules for the anthrostates to work in (it is not explained how the polystate is set up and how its rules are enforced). Then the people choose their anthrostates whose laws they then abide and they are free to switch (or switch once in a period of time given by the polystate).

So basically it is somewhere in between our current system and anarcho-capitalism (although Zach seems to prefer and to a certain degree expect most polystates to be some sort of a social democracy...although he partly admits it might be wishful thinking on his side). As he notes at the beginning himself, it is a collection of thoughts and not all that detailed or extensive. I guess it would be a very interesting read for me had I not read Machinery of freedom before. Now I mostly noted the problems that would arise and were not mentioned or problems that were mentioned as possibly severe while there could be a neat solution to them.

In any case, it is good if more people start get confronted by these sort of ideas (and I would say there are going to be many fans of SMBC that would probably not read a book with a subtitle "a guide to radical capitalism" but who might actually find this line of arguments persuasive :) ).

So if I had to put him in a box, after reading his short book, I'd say something like "left-libertarian".

At 5:47 PM, June 23, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

As for the issues of legal disputes between people from different "anthrostates," he notes that it is similar to today's international laws, albeit he does not explain in detail how such things would be ruled. He mentions need for some external arbitration, but he is a bit sketchy about this (as he is with some other things, like I said, and like he admits himself as his stated aim is to encourage a discussion and break the dogma of "our current framework is the only possible").

At 7:16 AM, June 26, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tibor: The means was something to do with a "fail-safe" they plotted, perhaps early in the revolution, which prevent Mike from talking under certain conditions. Something about giving Mike a passcode and then swallowing a cyanide pill.

I remember that from reading through David's usenet posts a few years back, which had a more detailed explanation, but I can't remember the details.

At 12:14 PM, June 26, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Anonymous: Hmm, yes, I remember something roughly along those lines, but I am not sure whether that was really a cyanide pill or just something that would mute him and someone aware of this (such as Manny) could then unmute him again...

At 10:24 AM, June 28, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

The cyanide pill (I don't think it's quite that explicit—the term I remember is "final friend") was a way in which Manny, Wyoh or the Prof could suicide if necessary. The restriction on Mike was programming.

My theory is that Prof locks the other two out—makes Mike unable to communicate with them—then commits suicide.


At 4:22 AM, June 29, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

David: But is there a reason to expect the Professor to be able to do that? Manny could theoretically do something to Mike against Mike's will by rewiring some of the crucial hardware (Mike did not have the defensive mechanisms of HAL 9000 from Space Odyssey) . But the other two (people aware of Mike) are not techies and it is not clear that Mike would accept an order like that through the phone (or in Loglan) at that point. It seems to me one would have to mess with his hardware first and that only Manny can do - without leaving obvious traces of damage at least. Prof could perhaps plant an explosive on parts of Mike that he found out to be important (from talking to Mike) and make it look like a damage from the Terran attack. But as Manny says in the last chapter - all of Mike was later repaired and Manny would be probably able to find out problems in the hardware even if someone messed with that in a more subtle way. So Prof would have to have a way of convincing Mike to accept the order you mentioned...perhaps even convincing him that it is a good thing (although Mike was never all that interested doing the "good" thing, rather the "fun" thing) or tricking him (which would be possible when Mike was essentially a genius savant child at the beginning of the book...but less so at the end when he learned some "ways of the world").

Still, something like this is probably a more fun way of dealing with the Mike question than just making him disappear (on the other hand, the used approach generates far more fun fan interpretations :) )

At 12:54 PM, June 29, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

It's a long time since I read the book and I should go back and check. But my memory is that Mike had programmed himself to let any one of the three lock the others out in an emergency, in case one of them became a traitor.


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