Monday, March 30, 2015

Perniciously prevalent

I've never heard of it before, hesperophobia. I find that odd as the condition is so perniciously prevalent. From Urban Dictionary:

Fear or hatred of the West.

The word Hesperophobia was coined by political scientist Robert Conquest. Its roots are the Greek words hesperos, which means “the west” and phobos, which means “fear,” but which when used as an English suffix can also carry the meaning “hate”.

The fallacy of mood affiliation

From The fallacy of mood affiliation by Tyler Cowen.
It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood. I call this the “fallacy of mood affiliation,” and it is one of the most underreported fallacies in human reasoning. (In the context of economic growth debates, the underlying mood is often “optimism” or “pessimism” per se and then a bunch of ought-to-be-independent views fall out from the chosen mood.)

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Irish slavery in the Caribbean

Very interesting. It’s True: We’re Probably All a Little Irish—Especially in the Caribbean by Krystal D'Costa

Another example of forgotten history. I mentioned in a post a while back, Puritans in Nicaragua, the case of the Puritan colony established in the 1630s on an island off the coast of Nicaragua.

In this instance, D'Costa is talking about the British sale of Irish slaves to interests in the new world.

Following the Battle of Kinsdale, the Irish clan system was largely abolished and the English seized most of the land of Ulster. The 30,000-something prisoners of war were shipped off and sold as laborers to the colonies of the Caribbean and the United States.
The first Irish slaves were sold to a settlement on the Amazon River In South America in 1612. It would probably be more accurate to say that the first “recorded” sale of Irish slaves was in 1612, because the English, who were noted for their meticulous record keeping, simply did not keep track of things Irish, whether it be goods or people, unless such was being shipped to England.
The Proclamation of 1625 would make this a common practice. Irish political prisoners would be routinely packed up and sold off as laborers:
In 1629 a large group of Irish men and women were sent to Guiana, and by 1632, Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat in the West Indies. By 1637 a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves, which records show was a cause of concern to the English planters.
The Irish were desirable “slave stock” because they could be obtained for free and sold for a profit, whereas traders needed to pay to have Africans “caught,” minimizing their profit margins. And because they were cheaper in this sense, the Irish often suffered harsher punishments from their plantation masters. It is estimated that between 30,000 and 80,000 Irish were sold as laborers, contributing to a massive population reduction in Ireland. In 1652, Ireland’s population was 616,000, down from 1,466,000 in 1641. Of course, this change was not solely due to to the slave trade—famine, wars, and disease certainly played a role.
Reading Irish history is very hard, it is so steeped in tragedy and blood.

There is more on the Irish Slave trade at Daily Kos, The slaves that time forgot by bygjohnsit. It begins to answer a question I had about D'Costa's article. Are we talking about indentured servitude or slavery. It appears that the wrinkle is that the Irish suffered under a unique hybrid system. They were indeed commercially sold without consent to the plantation owners in the Caribbean, so in that sense, definitely slaves. On the other hand, it apparently was also the custom for that slavery to be time limited to 7-20 years which was the unusual feature.

In practice, it probably did not make much difference given that average life spans were on the order of 35-40 years. If you are sold at 20 for a duration of 20 years, you are a slave for the rest of your life.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

No Man is wise at all Times

Desiderius Erasmus in The Alchymyst, in Colloquies of Erasmus, Volume I.
No Man is wise at all Times, or is without his blind Side.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Competitive poetry

Shelley's Ozymandias has long been a favorite in my household. I have always enjoyed it and, rather unexpectedly, the kids have as well from quite an early age. I think it is the cadence and mystery.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
For all that, I did not know the background. From Wikipedia.
The banker and political writer Horace Smith spent the Christmas season of 1817–1818 with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley. At this time members of Shelley's literary circle would sometimes challenge each other to write competing sonnets on a common subject—Shelley, John Keats and Leigh Hunt wrote competing sonnets on the Nile around the same time. Shelley and Smith chose a passage from the Greek Historian Diodorus Siculus, which described a massive Egyptian statue and quoted its inscription: "King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work." In the poem Diodorus becomes "a traveller from an antique land".
Go to the Wikipedia link for Horace Smith's version.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The experienced man trembles exceedingly at heart on its approach

Pindar, Fragment 110; page 377.
γλυκύ δ᾽ἀπείρῳ πόλεμος.
πεπειραμένων δέ τις ταρβεῖ προσιόντα νιν καρδία περισσῶς.

War is sweet to those who have no experience of it,
but the experienced man trembles exceedingly at heart on its approach.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The abstraction of all time from their verses

The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote, and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy, -- with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had wellnigh thought and said.

A cognitively-gated community

From Don't Blame Students for Being Hypersensitive. Blame Colleges. by Phoebe Maltz Bovy.

Bovy's article addresses a passing faddish issue in our privileged universities, "safe spaces." That's not what caught my eye. At the end of her article, she has a turn of phrase that I think could be quite descriptive. What she says is:
It’s not that students demand that colleges provide a gated-community experience tailored to their every preference. Instead, the elite schools are selling that experience—and given the competitiveness of that marketplace, it’s hardly surprising that campus life sometimes crosses over into the ridiculous. Shulevitz blames the students, and surely they deserve some of it. But they’re demanding exactly the college experience that the brochures have promised them.
Regardless of the merits of that conclusion, and I think it probably has merit, I read her wording differently than was intended. My reading was a variant of confirmation bias and epistemic closure.

I read "a gated-community experience" as "a cognitively-gated community." I know that is neither what she said or meant, but that is what my subconscious read into it. I think that is a pretty reasonable description of some universities and some departments within other universities - a cognitively-gated community.

Monday, March 23, 2015

If we look only at individual cognitive biases, we'll be tempted to infer that stupidity is everywhere

I have long argued that every system needs variance in order to evolve. Epistemological systems need variance in cognitive capabilities, in ideology, in class, in culture, etc. There are a number of good reasons, I believe, for this need for variance. In When Biases Collide by Chris Dillow, the author suggests a less than obvious reason which I suspect has merit.

This is an example of how cognitive biases can cancel out to produce an accurate opinion


A new paper by Thomas Eisenbach and Martin Schmalz give us another example. Overconfidence, they say, might be used as a commitment device.

This is because many of us have time-inconsistent risk preferences: we don't worry about future risks until they are imminent, when we panic. For example, you might sign up for a charity parachute jump but then panic on the day. And actors and musicians feel stage fright just before they perform even though they chose to enter professions where they knew they'd have to go on stage. For retail investors, such preferences can be expensive. It can cause them to have heavy equity exposure in normal times, only to get cold feet when volatility increases, thus causing them to sell when prices are temporarily depressed.

Overconfidence, they say, can solve these problems. The investor who is overconfident about his abilities might think when shares fall "the market's being stupid; it'll come round to my way of thinking soon". This might be irrational overconfidence, but it saves him from the temptation to sell at the bottom. Similarly, the mediocre actor can overcome stage fright by telling himself that he's going to deliver a great performance.

I suspect that a lot of what we call rational behaviour is in fact the cancelling out of biases. This might occur within particular individuals, as in Mr Pearson's case. Or it might occur within groups. Maybe one reason why the stock market is (sometimes? often?) efficient isn't that all its participants are rational but rather that those who over-react offset those that under-react; experiments show that stupid traders can produce rational markets. There's (sometimes) wisdom in crowds and (often?) benefits to cognitive or ecological diversity because irrationalities can net out. This is why we often prefer committees to individual decision-making.

There's a political implication here. If we look only at individual cognitive biases, we'll be tempted to infer that stupidity is everywhere; after all, the list of such biases is a long one. This, though, is a mistake. We need the hard evidence of systematic error before we can infer that biases matter. And sometimes, this is lacking.
There has been a rash of books in the past decade decrying our cognitive biases, logical fallacies, empirical irrationalities, and persistent beliefs in factually disproved issues. Looking at the cumulative evidence in these books, you can only conclude that humanity has no future and little hope of progress, however progress might be defined. And yet progress we do.

My resolution to this paradox has been that our exercise of fallacies, biases, and erroneous beliefs are constrained by situational circumstances. For example, we might demonstrate a reliable risk aversion under routine circumstances but that we might consciously counteract that aversion under special circumstances.

Dillow offers another perspective that I find intriguing, i.e. that our plethora of biases, errors, and fallacies might balance each other out in the long run.

I discussed this long ago somewhere on this blog in terms of the programming attributes of heuristics and aphorisms. We have an array of risk aversion sayings (a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, better safe than sorry, look before you leap) but at the same time we have an array of other aphorisms which encourage risk taking (carpe diem, the gods help those who help themselves, better to ask forgiveness than ask permission, better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, etc.) My argument then was that 1) the richness of a language in such aphorisms likely has some impact, and 2) that the impact of such aphorisms (seen as cultural coding) was likely a product of the net deployment of such heuristics under particular circumstances.