The content on this blog is my personal opinion and does not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the US Navy in any way.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Gun Control Hypocrisy

Charges of hypocrisy on the part of both sides of the gun control debate are quite common (just like every other political debate, frankly). 

The typical version that gets used on gun control advocates is to call anyone who supports gun control and is still willing to rely on support from armed guards or police for their security a hypocrite. After all, shouldn't they be more worried about the potential consequences of having more guns around than they are about the increased risk that would come from not having the security?

Of course, I'd argue that most gun control advocates have less of a problem than one would expect with a limited number of guns being in the hands of people who are very well trained. This is generally the purpose of the restrictions they argue for, after all. Only a gun control advocate who believed guns have no benefits at all could be a hypocrite in this way - and most of the ones who believe that strongly won't be using armed guards anyway.

Then the version that gets used on gun rights advocates is that many of them perfectly willing to create gun-free zones if it benefits their security, as in stories like the one from this blog post. Shouldn't they feel that allowing everyone around them to carry guns would only make them and everyone else around them safer?

I've never heard a gun rights advocate defend that idea, but I'm sure one probably could try to argue that there are situations where the objective is the security of a specific person that demand more caution than should be the norm. I'm curious if anyone has a better idea, though.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Evidence of Regression

The one detail that stayed with me from this article is how the owners of the old castle it refers to were able to tell that hard times had once fallen on its inhabitants in the distant past because they could see the point in the walls where the stonework became much less professional and well-made.

Out of all the different ways we could talk about how society can go backwards as well as forwards, it's quite a little thing, but somehow I feel like that sort of concrete example really makes the point more memorable than anything else might.

And while the article doesn't specifically call it out, there's another point that comes to mind - along with the loss of knowledge about how the successes of a previous era were created often comes the loss of knowledge about why we fought for them in the first place. Many of the things we regard as integral to modern society only became that way because there were people that advocated for them. It's a point we'd do well to remember as we criticize that same advocacy today.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Capitalist Influence

It's probably a bit uncharitable of me to lead with an oversimplified summary (probably a strawman, at that) of the editorials I read in the Wall Street Journal... but somehow, all I could think of when I was reading this one was to wonder how on earth we're supposed to create a capitalist society that can't be negatively influenced by people who have money.

To be entirely fair, some of what they're talking about does involve removing government regulations that make it easier for small shareholders of companies to make resolutions and influence the company that they own stock in. If companies want to change the rules about who can ask for changes and what sort of changes they can ask for, I don't think I care all that much.

Where things get a bit stranger is where the editorial starts talking about how index funds often own more stock than other stockholders, and that this gives their managers and proxies power to introduce resolutions and changes but doesn't require them to listen to the investors that are actually paying for the fund to have all that stock. This, apparently, means that some of those funds might start acting in ways that are more in line with the whims or specific interests of those managers and proxies rather than the investors themselves. Given my liberal distrust for the notion that capitalism always produces the best result for the individual consumer, this comes as absolutely no surprise to me, although somehow it's only apparent to the writers of this editorial once those whims and interests line up with liberal talking points instead of conservative interests.

What I don't understand, then, is how a proper small-government conservative or libertarian is supposed to justify government rules that would limit how fund managers would use that influence. As I understand their position regarding the free market, if I don't like the way a trading company is managing my money, the proper recourse is to find a different one, not have the government make a rule about exactly what benefits the trading company in question is allowed to ask for. Of course, I don't mind the idea of the government creating such rules, but then, I'd also define what is in the investors' best interest somewhat more broadly than this editorial wants to.

In the end, this editorial just seems to be annoyed that some investors have the power to force companies to manage their people and operations in a specific way. Unfortunately for them, the only way to stop that is a government powerful enough to make rules about how investors and trading companies can use their money, and I don't think they'll like that precedent any more than they like the current state of affairs.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Partisan Positions

Reading lines like this one from a FiveThirtyEight article is a great way to lose one's faith in humanity:

"As ever, don’t underestimate the intractability of people who have dug into their partisan trenches."

Not that it's even remotely surprising that the Russia investigation is causing both sides to dig in and stay there. Irritating and depressing, sure, but not surprising. There's not a whole lot that can be done about it, as far as I can tell, beyond hoping that whatever final report Mueller comes out with has enough evidence and solid reasoning supporting either complete exoneration or damning guilt to break through our tendency to focus only on what we want to hear.

... Of course, I tend to believe that reality is never quite so nice as to sit all the way out at an extreme for us, so I'm not exactly hoping for that. I don't think there's any chance we get anything other than a rather nuanced report, which will give both sides more than enough ammunition to keep sniping at each other. I guess we'll see when the investigation ends.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Time-Tested Solutions

I suppose I shouldn't make too much of a habit of putting Elon Musk down, but his contribution to the recent cave rescue in Thailand hits a lot of the same points that I had problems with the last time I mentioned him in my blog. Nor am I the only one who thinks so, given the editorial I found about it.

To be entirely fair, I don't have a problem with the attempt to provide a mini-sub. When you're in a desperate situation, any idea is worth at least considering, and Musk deserves a lot of credit for being willing to put his ideas forward and to put so much of his own time and money behind them. That's something that a lot of people won't do even when they should, and so that deserves a lot of praise.

However, I do feel like any experienced innovator or inventor should realize that not all their ideas will necessarily work straight off. Some of Musk's reactions to being told that the mini-sub wasn't suitable for the cave rescue don't exactly give me the impression he knows that. In fact, they look like the sort of defensive reactions I'd expect out of someone who is too distracted by a shiny new idea to stop and think critically about it. That's considerably less good, because those shiny new ideas aren't always going to be what works best.

Let me use an example: I've been playing a particularly challenging platforming game lately, one that often requires me to figure out how to jump and move in order to get through the various levels. Sometimes, it's greatly to my benefit to take a step back and try a different path through the level when the one I'm trying is failing repeatedly; I've discovered quite a few better options by experimenting a bit when my first attempt isn't working. But it's also often true that I'm already on the right course, and simply need to practice with my current solution until I can execute it with the required speed and precision; spending extra time to experiment with other options is wasted time and effort in those situations.

A lot of innovators like Musk are very good at the first option, but not so good at the latter. I'm not sure I'd call knowing when each option is best a different kind of ingenuity or creativity, as the editorial I linked does... but it is still its own form of wisdom, and it is still quite necessary in order for us to build a better world. So while I'll take people who are too aggressive about experimentation and innovation over people who aren't aggressive enough, given my choice I want people who can strike the right balance between new ideas and time-tested ones.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Silent Evidence

On one hand, I'm happy to see some debate partners that previously would have just kept throwing anecdotes at me actually try to use data to support their points.

On the other hand, they still haven't quite grasped that proving a point can be a bit more complicated than lining up all the evidence they need to support it.

Don't get me wrong; failing to have enough evidence to prove that something can be true is still more likely to sink a given argument than almost anything else, and I certainly don't want anyone to think it's not worth their time to try. My goal in mentioning the above point is to remind people that a good argument has to account for all of the available evidence; using specific examples to prove a point only works if we have a good reason to believe those specific examples properly represent the entire body of evidence available. If there's silent evidence out there - something that's not being spotted because of poor sampling or confirmation bias - even a point that seems quite well supported can turn out to be quite wrong.

Some of the skeptic blogs I follow call this problem the toupee fallacy, after the specific example of trying to prove all toupees look fake by pointing out all the fake toupees one sees. It's fairly obvious that more realistic toupees will be excluded from those examples by default, since they won't be easily spotted, which creates the false impression that most toupees are fake. 

The best way I know to avoid this problem is to carefully think about what counter arguments can be made against your argument, and actively look for evidence that might disprove your argument as well as evidence that can be used to prove it correct.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Other People's Troubles

It's good to be reminded every once in a while that it's difficult for us to know what the other people around us are going through, or why they're going through it, or what will best help them get through it.

One of the best ways to avoid falling victim to any assumptions, particularly when one would prefer to believe that the people around them are just idiots, is to ask myself whether I've done anything similar, and if so to ask myself why I did that something similar and what reasons I had. Even if I haven't done anything similar, trying to think of reasons why I might do something similar can have the same effect. Doing this often enough will make it a more natural pattern of thought - I'm not quite there yet, myself, but I'd like to be.

I think that sort of empathy is an important habit to get into. There are situations where it still needs to be tempered with pragmatism, certainly. But when the only consequence it's going to have is whether you are viewing the others around you in a positive light or a negative light, I think the former is a much better way to be.