Is Twitter’s success due to seeming a bit dumb?

Twitter and email have a lot in common: they’re both ways to communicate over the Internet, they both center around sending primarily textual messages but support including other media, and they’re both used by hundreds of millions of people every day.

But they have one huge difference: Twitter is owned by a single company, and has caused that company to be worth about twelve billion dollars.[FN: 12.65 billion as of this writing, but what’s a few hundred million dollars among friends?] Email, on the other hand, isn’t owned by anyone and thus isn’t directly making anyone money. (That’s not to say, of course, that companies aren’t making money off email services (Gmail, Outlook, et cetera)—of course they are. It’s just to say that these companies are making money off their implementation of email, but not off email itself.)

Another way to come at this distinction is by focusing on exclusivity. If I wanted to start a Gmail competitor tomorrow, my very first users could send emails to every Gmail user (and everyone else with an email address). But if I wanted to start a Twitter clone tomorrow, my first user could only tweet to themselves—they wouldn’t have access to Twitter users unless and until Twitter decided to let them.

All of this is a long way of saying that Twitter is a company, while email is a protocol. Why?

I have a theory. But before I get there, I want to talk a bit about one popular explanation that I think misses the mark. Continue reading “Is Twitter’s success due to seeming a bit dumb?”

All else being equal

Our culture has moved, without anyone really talking about it, from a culture in which “all else is never equal” to one in which “all else is always equal”—and it’s really harmed our equality. Let me unpack that a bit.

It used to be that there were many, many gradations between individuals. Take academics: one person might have A’s, another B’s, and another C’s. Similarly, personality might vary a lot—one person might be brainy and lazy, another contentious and methodical.

In that world, it’s easy to ignore more minor differences. Sure, the boss might rather hire a friend’s child, or someone of the right race, or with the right politics—and, all else being equal, I’m sure they would make decisions on that basis. But having the right family/race/politics wasn’t enough to overcome the difference between being an A student and a B student; even if certain characteristics were advantageous when all else was equal, all else was so rarely equal that it didn’t much matter.

But what happens when all else is equal, at least a much larger fraction of the time? What happens when a there are 72 validictorians in a high school and 222 in a district?
Continue reading “All else being equal”

The fairness of baskets

Whenever I think of fairness, I am reminded of an old fable I grew up with. In this story, the inhabitants in a small village is complaining of how hard their lives are and how unfortunate they are. Seeing their misery, the leader of this village tells everyone, “Write all your problems on little slips of paper; be sure to leave nothing out. When you are done, put your slips into a basket and hang your up in the tall tree that grows in the town square.” No one was sure how this would help, but they trusted their leader, so each stayed up late into the night writing every problem and complaint they could think of on scraps of paper and hanging them high in the tree. The next morning, the leader tells his village, “Go, look through all the baskets. Find whichever basket you like—whichever has the fewest problems. Come back to me, and I will use my magic to replace your problems with the ones in the basket you choose.” At first, everyone rushed to the tree, scrambling to find the lightest baskets. But no one returned right away; instead, every person looked through each basket, trying hard to find one lighter than his own. After many minutes of searching, all the villagers came back, one by one, with his or her own basket of problems. As it turned out, each person was just as troubled as her neighbors; at least they had some idea of how to deal with their own problems. And thus the villagers learned an important lesson in being grateful for what they had instead of envying the lives of others.[FN: In the true spirit of folklore, the origins of this story have proven difficult to track down. However, the story itself is quite widespread.]

Whenever I hear this story, the alleged moral of this story—that we ought all to be grateful for our blessings and think carefully before envying others—seems a bit premature.

Instead, I am struck by how remarkably fair this village is: each person, after careful consideration, really did choose his or her own basket. Imagine the results if a similar exercise were attempted in our own society: Some baskets would be weighed down with problems like “I may not be able to afford both medicine for my wife and enough food for my children,” “No matter how much money I earn, I still feel like a failure,” or “My daughter is addicted to heroin and I don’t know how to help her.”

Other baskets would have light worries: “If I do not get a promotion, I may not be able to afford a new car this year,” “I worry that I will have to settle for my third-choice medical school,” or “My girlfriend might break up with me on our first anniversary.” I doubt any baskets would be empty, but at the same time I have no doubt that some baskets would be snatched up very quickly while others would be avoided at all costs.

The village in this fable comes very close to perfect fairness under my conception of fairness. I would add only one additional point: each basket should also contain the positive elements of theperson’s life and personality, not just the problems and issues. Each basket would then be a complete record of a life, of all that is good and bad about that life. Anyone who is willing to trade baskets would therefore willing to trade lives. Trading baskets would then be trading lives in a very real sense. To take on someone else’s problems, her personality and all else that she put into her basket would, in a real sense, be to become that person.

With this extended version of the basket, one person would accept another’s basket if and only if the second person was happier than the first. This may not be immediately apparent; some might argue “I will take her basket because, even though she is no happier than I am, she is unhappy only because of some quirk of her personality. If I had her life, I would be much happier.” We can see, however, that this view is mistaken. If the speaker truly had the other person’s life, he would also have had her genetic code and her upbringing. In short, he would have her personality and, whatever quirk that caused her to be unhappy despite her “objective” wellbeing would also apply to him. He should, therefore, want her life only if, all things considered, she truly is happier than he is.

I like using this “basket test” to think about fairness, both in my life and the world.

Although the basket test provides a clear view on what fairness is, we should also be clear on what it is not. Specifically, we must be careful to distinguish fairness from two related concepts: equality and procedural fairness. Equality is, itself, a difficult concept and I offer no solid definition of equality here. However, I maintain that a fair distribution need not be an equal one, in any meaningful sense. If I am just as happy with my life as another person, then I view the world as having treated us fairly even if we have different income, different number of friends, different health, etc. Indeed, we may fail to be equal under every metric and still have been treated fairly.

Similarly, fairness is no guarantee of procedural fairness. By “procedural fairness”, I mean the fairness of using an unbiased procedure for distribution. For example, giving candy to whichever of two children won a coin toss would be procedurally fair but (assuming both are equal beforehand) giving candy to only one of the kids would be an unfair outcome under the basket test. Similarly, deciding that the first child would get half the candy if he won the toss while the second would get all if he won would be procedurally unfair. But if the first child won and the result was a fair distribution—that is, a distribution that left both kids equally happy—then the outcome is fair under the basket test in spite of the procedural unfairness.

The basket test for fairness matches well with commonplace intuitions about fairness. Consider Elaine and Charlie, two college classmates each of whom works equally hard, is equally intelligent and graduates with similar academic records. Imagine that Elaine secures a job earning much more than the job Charlie obtains and Charlie argues that life is unfair between the two of them. How might Elaine respond? If Charlie works for a non-profit and finds his work challenging and fulfilling while she works for a company and finds her work dull and unimportant, she might argue that this negates any unfairness between them. Indeed, if they are equally happy, Charlie has no valid grounds for complaint; if his job makes him happier than Elaine’s does, despite the difference in pay, then life may even be unfair in Charlie’s favor.

Even if they both work in similar jobs, but Charlie remains as happy despite his lower pay (perhaps because his employer is located such that he does not need to battle as much traffic on his commute), again there seems to be no valid ground for complaint. So far, our intuitions about fairness coincide with the basket conception and with the notion that happiness equality is important evidence of fairness.

What if the two work for the same company, performing equally well under the same conditions but receiving different pay? At first, receiving different pay for the same work in the same conditions may seem obviously unfair. Even if some quirk of Charlie’s personality leads him to be just as happy as Elaine, intuition suggests that he has clearly been treated unfairly.

However, this intuition is only clear in the passive voice; Charlie has been treated unfairly, but by whom? The company, which is paying one employee more for the same quality work and the same effort, is acting unfairly. But life as a whole, at least by my lights, has not treated Charlie any worse than Elaine. True, he had the poor fortune to be paid less than her through no fault of his own.

But he also had the good fortune to be born with the genes and raised in an environment that left him equipped with a personality that finds just as much happiness in his lower pay as Elaine finds in her higher pay. And, of course, Charlie can hardly claim to have deserved the genes or environment he was lucky enough to enjoy. From the perspective of life-long, total luck, Charlie and Elaine seem equally lucky. Both, through different paths, ended up just as happy, and neither would trade overall baskets with one another.

Elaine may have grounds to complain that her upbringing unfairly disadvantaged her against Charlie, and Charlie may be right to complain that the company is not treating him fairly. But neither, by my intuition, has ground to complain that life, as a whole, has treated them unfairly—at least not with respect to one another. This intuition thus matches the idea that no unfairness exists where the two individuals are equally happy; that is, even in this case, intuition and the basket test align.

This illuminates an important point: lifetime fairness can result from a sum of unfair events. Elaine might rightly be able to complain of the unfairness of several facts: that Charlie grew up with parents who taught him to take happiness from the relationships he forges instead of measuring his success by the money he earns, that he was lucky enough to find a good deal on his apartment, that he has a strong circle of friends and that his family money meant that he has no outstanding student loans.

In each of these areas, Charlie was luckier than Elaine; if she could trade the “how our parents raised us to think about success” slip of paper within his life-basket or the “strength of our friendships” slip of paper, she surely would. Thus, each of these areas represents genuine unfairness between Charlie and Elaine in that specific area.

However, Charlie may also be able to point to areas where he would like to trade slips of paper with Elaine. As already noted, Elaine is paid more than Charlie; perhaps she has also found a more satisfying romantic partner and has a better relationship with her siblings. If Charlie could trade the “pay” or the “romantic partner” papers with Elaine, he would; these areas are unfair in Elaine’s favor.

Yet the fact that so many areas of their lives are unfair does not imply that their lives as a whole are unfair. Charlie might acknowledge that there are several slips of paper he would like to trade with Elaine, but also realize there are many he would be refuse trade. If, on the whole, he realizes that he would be no happier with the total basket of her life, then he would not want to trade baskets. He may recognize that there are many ways in which his life is unfairly worse than hers is while also recognizing that there are other ways in which his life is unfairly better. In a sense, these unfairnesses may “cancel out” and result in their two lives being, in aggregate, fair. (The unfairnesses might not cancel out, of course; looking at everything in the life basket, Charlie might prefer Elaine’s basket. The mere fact that some aspects of life are unfair in his favor does not prove that Elaine is not better off than Charlie. The point, however, is that Charlie will want to switch baskets if and only if Elaine is happier than him; unfairness in some areas of life is no guarantee of lower total happiness.)

But maybe my intuitions aren’t as common as I think. How about it: Does the basket test match your intuitions about total lifetime fairness?

Knowing what you can afford

Part of the idea behind this site is that many more people could afford to prefer not to—to opt out of the wealth-and-power competition of modern American life and thus gain a real measure of freedom—if only they were willing to give up some of the status games of conventional living. But to make that preferring-not-to choice, you’ve got to know what you have. Knowing what you have has a philosophical component (more about that in a later post) but it also has a brass-tacks, financial-knowledged component: In a very literal sense, can you afford the freedom that comes from preferring not to?

Here is some info and to help answer that question:

The cost of a good life

The first order of business is to figure out what it really takes to live a decent life. Of course, some people are really struggling—maybe you’re one of them. But our culture makes it all too easy to feel like you’re “just getting by” when you’re actually very well off by any objective set of criteria. Continue reading “Knowing what you can afford”

Ghost needs comments

I have been seriously considering switching this blog from the blogging platform WordPress to the Ghost platform. Ghost has a number of advantages over WordPress: it’s faster, more modern, more customizable, and less dependent on third-party plugins (which can break or stop being updated.) Plus, learning to customize it would involve learning more Javascript—something I want to do anyway—instead of learning more PHP—something I have no desire to do.

However, Ghost has a very serious flaw, a flaw so big that it’s put me off the platform entirely (at least for now): Ghost doesn’t support comments.

This is not an oversight, or a feature that they haven’t gotten around to. It’s a conscious decision. Ghost has a “wishlist” page where users can request new features be added, and other users can vote. As of this writing, the top thirty-two ideas are all either “started”, “planned”, or “under review”—all thirty-two ideas except comments, that is. Even though support for comments is the fifth most requested feature, it is not a feature that the Ghost team plans to implement any time soon.

John O’Nolan, the founder of Ghost has this to say:

At present we have no plans to add native commenting to Ghost. There are tons of options out there from Disqus, Livefyre, Facebook, Google Plus and IntenseDebate to name just a few. All of them have already built very comprehensive products which are used by most of the biggest sites in the world.

Definitely still interested in hearing comments about any other use-cases, though!

That is, he thinks that users should just use Disqus, Facebook comments, or one of the other third-party services that host comments. I have no intention of doing so, but don’t have any illusions that the decision of a single blogger is likely to change their mind about supporting comments. Instead, I’m going to focus on the last sentence: he’s “interested in hearing comments about any other use cases.”

I’m going to take John up on this offer. But I’m going to argue that not only is there a use case for Ghost that would benefit from comments, actually all three of the most common use cases for Ghost would benefit from comment support. In fact, I believe that the lack of comment support is the single largest factor holding Ghost back.

Continue reading “Ghost needs comments”

Public shaming isn’t as bad as it seems

Megan McArdle recently wrote an article titled We Live in Fear of the Online Mobs, in which she argues:

James Damore, the author of the notorious Google memo, has had his 15 minutes of fame. In six months, few of us will be able to remember his name. But Google will remember — not the company, but the search engine. For the rest of his life, every time he meets someone new or applies for a job, the first thing they will learn about him, and probably the only thing, is that he wrote a document that caused an internet uproar.

The internet did not invent the public relations disaster, or the summary firing to make said disaster go away. What the internet changed is the scale of the disasters, and the number of people who are vulnerable to them, and the cold implacable permanence of the wreckage they leave behind….

[After] the memo became public, the internet erupted against the author, quite publicly executing his economic and social prospects. I doubt Damore will ever again be employable at anything resembling his old salary and status. (Unless maybe a supporter hires him to make a political statement.)

I think McCardle vastly overestimates how economically damaging online mobs are. I think that people are very afraid of online mobs—just like people are afraid of terrorists or shark attacks. But I also think that, as with terrorists or shark attacks, people are more afraid of mobs than the statistics justify. And, as with those other dangers, it’s important to remember how low the risk is, so that we don’t overreact and adopt cures that are worse than the disease. (Which is not to say that we shouldn’t look for cure that aren’t worse that the disease in any of those areas, to the extent that we can find them.)[FN: I hope it goes without saying that I am not drawing any sort of moral equivalence between terrorists, sharks, and/or online mobs.]

* * *

Lets start with the specific case McCardle highlighted. Is it true that Damore’s economic prospects were severely harmed by his encounter with an online mob?

Note: I am very specifically staying out of the merits of the Damore issue. I kind of wish McCardle had picked a different example, but she picked that one, so I’ll stick with it. I do have Thoughts about the whole Google memo situation, but it’s a big topic and not one I’m interested in getting into right now. Right now, I’m limiting my discussion to a narrow topic: given that Damore was fired and faced the controversy that he faced, will his economic prospects be significantly harmed?

No.

It’s obviously too soon to be sure about the long-term outcome, but so far his supporters have already raised (as of this writing) $53,356 to make up for any immediate harm. He recieved multipe job offers within days of his firing. He has parlayed his 15 minutes of fame into a fair amount of media exposure and association with prominent political figures. In short, he seems to be doing just fine.

Now, maybe all this falls into the category that McArdle parenthetically dismisses by saying that he’ll never get as good a job “(unless maybe a supporter hires him to make a political statement.)” But so what if he gets hired to make a political point? The harm he’s experiencing is that he’s not getting hired by people who want to avoid making a political point. Politically motivated money spends just the same as any other money; the overall point is that economically speaking Damore doesn’t seem to have been harmed by the internet mob.

* * *

Well, ok, maybe McArdle was wrong about that Google guy, but surely she’s right that in general being targeted by a rabid online mob is very economically harmful? After all, most people who are targeted by online mobs don’t have supporters who raise tens of thousands of dollars on their behalf.

Again, I disagree.

I think people who are targeted by online mobs mostly fall into one of two logical categories. First, they might be like the Google guy, and do something that is very controversial. In that case, they will have supporters (or else there would be no controversy). And, in general, these supporters will help them out enough that the controversy won’t be (economically) crushing.

Damore obviously falls into this category. So do Monica Lewinsky and Anita Hill—both of whom were vilified but both of whom seem to be doing fine these days. Sure, not everyone has fund raisers, but in general being on one side of a highly charged controversy is not a death sentence; you have lots of enemies, but you also have lots of friends.

The other alternative is that the target of the online mob does something that isn’t controversial—it’s just criticized. In that situation, the target doesn’t get any support at all.

Yet I still don’t think being the target of an online mob in that situation is all that economically damaging. If the event isn’t controversial, then there’s no ongoing debate to keep people interested, and the short attention span of Twitter all but guarantees that the target will be left alone soon—and will be able to recover in short order.

Here, my go-to example is Justine Sacco. Sacco is the lead example in Jon Ronson’s excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson writes about how Sacco became the target of an online mob based on a joke she made on Twitter. She was promptly fired from her public relations job, and received basically no support at all. Even now, Googling her name brings up story after story about her twitter joke.

And yet those stories also reveal that she’s doing pretty well these days. Despite headlines like What Happened To Justine Sacco, The Woman Whose Life Was Ruined By An AIDS Joke She Made On Twitter?, it hardly seems like her life was “ruined” at all. Here’s how that article put it:

Her tweet had been taken out of her little bubble and robbed of its context, [but] was it really worth ruining her life over?

Fortunately, while it took a very long time, Sacco did eventually pick herself back up, but not before some setbacks. After spending some time working in Ethiopia, she took a job as the PR person for Hot or Not, and after doing so, [the person who started the online mob] struck again. “How perfect!” he wrote. “Two lousy has-beens, gunning for a comeback together.”

But the story has a happy — and just — ending. Not long after [that guy] mocked Sacco again, he got a taste of his own medicine when an ironic tweet of his own was taken out of context, and he (and his editors) ended up getting hundreds of emails demanding that he be fired. Ultimately, he would not only apologize to Sacco for ruining her life, but they actually ended up going out to dinner together and becoming good friends.

In fact, Biddle suggested in his apology that no one is more qualified as a PR person than Sacco. “She has the expertise of ten lifetimes when it comes to dealing with bad press. She survived a genuine personal crisis. She’s unkillable, and smart, and she will tell you to shut up, idiot, it can’t get any worse.”

Sacco eventually found a good job in a PR firm that she loves, although she wouldn’t identify where she works to the Times because, as she told Ronson, “Anything that puts the spotlight on me is a negative.”

Consistent with its headline, that story really plays up the “ruining her life” angle. But did it really? That article was written less than five years after the initial tweet, and Sacco had already had her new good job for quite some time. (She actually got a job after just a year). So, in just a few years, she’d recovered completely and, in the long run, seems to be in a similar economic position to where she was before the mob.

Now, the fact that Justine Sacco didn’t suffer long-run economic consequences from her mobbing run is not proof that others don’t. But it is pretty indicative. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed presumably chose her as its lead example for a reason—if there were others who suffered worse consequences, it stands to reason that they would have been the lead example. Plus, a bit of Googling hasn’t revealed any proof of people who were economically crushed by twitter mobs. (And that’s coming from an Internet that provides example after example of 20 lottery winners who lost every penny and the like!)

It’s always hard to prove a negative, but given the lack of evidence and the inherently public nature of public shaming, I’m convinced that the odds of it being significantly economically harmful are very low.

* * *

Does all this mean that I’m prepared to embrace public shaming as a harmless feature of modern life? Not at all.

As you may have noticed, I’ve qualified all of the above by limiting the discussion to economic harms. Public shaming can obviously be deeply unpleasant, even traumatic. What’s more, it frequently seems mean, guided by some of the worst human instincts.

Even worse, I suspect it is anti-correlated with the truth. In an ideal world, we’d debate ideas in a way that brings us closer to the truth—sure, people can make arguments for both good ideas and for bad ideas, but the good ideas have a natural advantage and will hopefully win over time.

At best, public shaming lacks this feature: whether a public shaming campaign is successful depends not on the truth of the issues under debate, but on the social capital, personal connections, and wealth of the people involved. A public shaming campaign against the Koch brothers or George Sorros will have almost no effect; a shaming campaign against someone like Sacco with a stable family and enough savings to travel to Ethiopia for a while will have a minor, temporary effect; and a public shaming campaign aginst poor teenager suffering from mental health issues could lead to depression or suicide. I have no interest in promoting a weapon that can be used so much more effectively against the powerless than against the powerful.

If I’m still against public shaming, why does it matter that the economic consequences aren’t as bad as McArdle and others seem to think? Simply because people are afraid. People really do “live in fear” as McArdle put it; they do think that an online mob can “ruin their life.” This is probably mistaken; an online mob can make life tough for a while, but any targets will likely either have some supporters or will be able to bounce back fairly quickly. Without minimizing the very real suffering online mobs can cause, I want to urge everyone to be just a bit less afraid.

Contra Yudkowsky on Quidditch—and a meta point

This post is a bit inside baseball for the rationalist community, but I promise to provide enough context for everyone else to follow the argument.

Eliezer Yudkowsky is wrong about Quidditch. He’s wrong on an object level. He’s wrong on a meta level. And the way he’s wrong on the meta level perfectly encapsulates a frequent rationalist failure mode.

Let’s back up and take in some context: Eliezer Yudkowsky is one of the most prominent members of the rationalist community and did quite a bit of blogging/writing at Less Wrong on the ways to become more rational. Among many other posts, he wrote rationality is systematized winning, which argued that “if the ‘irrational’ agent is outcompeting you on a systematic and predictable basis, then it is time to reconsider what you think is ‘rational'”.

By this standard, what Yudkowsky has to say about Quidditch isn’t rational—that is, Yudkowsky uses a flawed system, and the flaws in that system resulted in bad predictions—and will continue to lead to the same error in future predictions.

So, what did Yudkowsky say about Quidditch as depicted in the Harry Potter books? In writing Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Yudkowsky repeatedly returns to the “irrationality” of Quidditch as it is portrayed in the cannon Harry Potter books.[FN: Note that, in this post, I am attributing views expressed by a character in HPMoR to the author of HPMoR. I don’t endorse that as a general practice. In general, the author of a work of fiction need not, and likely does not, endorse the views of characters in that work. However, based on the totality of Yudkowsky’s writings, I strongly believe that he does endorse Harry Potter’s views of Quidditch. If anyone disagrees, I’m happy to debate the issue in the comments.]

Yudkowsky has Harry express his views early on. Harry has the following exchange with Ron:

“Catching the Snitch is worth one hundred and fifty points? ”

“Yeah -”

“How many ten-point goals does one side usually score not counting the Snitch?”

“Um, maybe fifteen or twenty in professional games -”

“That’s just wrong. That violates every possible rule of game design. Look, the rest of this game sounds like it might make sense, sort of, for a sport I mean, but you’re basically saying that catching the Snitch overwhelms almost any ordinary point spread. The two Seekers are up there flying around looking for the Snitch and usually not interacting with anyone else, spotting the Snitch first is going to be mostly luck -“

“It’s not luck!” protested Ron. “You’ve got to keep your eyes moving in the right pattern -”

“That’s not interactive, there’s no back-and-forth with the other player and how much fun is it to watch someone incredibly good at moving their eyes? And then whichever Seeker gets lucky swoops in and grabs the Snitch and makes everyone else’s work moot. It’s like someone took a real game and grafted on this pointless extra position so that you could be the Most Important Player without needing to really get involved or learn the rest of it. Who was the first Seeker, the King’s idiot son who wanted to play Quidditch but couldn’t understand the rules?” Actually, now that Harry thought about it, that seemed like a surprisingly good hypothesis. Put him on a broomstick and tell him to catch the shiny thing…

Ron’s face pulled into a scowl. “If you don’t like Quidditch, you don’t have to make fun of it!”

“If you can’t criticise, you can’t optimise. I’m suggesting how to improve the game. And it’s very simple. Get rid of the Snitch.”

So, within seconds of learning the rules, Harry has diagnosed a key flaw in Quidditch. And this isn’t a passing observation; he returns to this issue over and over again. He even uses it as a sort of shorthand for rational thinking as a whole; for example, Harry praises another character by saying, “he’s the only other person I know who notices stuff like the Snitch ruining Quidditch.”

But Harry is wrong. Continue reading “Contra Yudkowsky on Quidditch—and a meta point”

The courage to stand up and do the wrong thing

There’s a story about Justice Hugo Black that I really like.[FN: I can’t find the source for this story online; if anyone knows it, please let me know and I’ll edit it in. All quotes below are from memory and thus are likely not exact.] For context, you should know that Justice Black was famously principled—respected, even by his ideological opponents on the Supreme Court, for his intellectual consistency.

With that context, a journalist interviewing Justice Black late in his life asked, “Justice Black, while serving on the Supreme Court, did you ever reach an unprincipled decision? And do you regret it?”

Without hesitation, Justice Black answered, “I did, and I don’t regret it. The Court had just decided Brown v. Board, which struck down school segregation for a very principled reason—the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to provide ‘equal protection of the laws’ to all people, and segregated public schools were inherently unequal. But right after Brown, we were confronted with a problem: What about public schools in Washington D.C.?”

“The Fourteenth Amendment only applies to states, so the principled answer would be to say that Brown v. Board did not apply to D.C. But that would have been a terrible outcome—we would have looked like huge hypocrites, saying that all schools should be integrated except for the one set of schools that our kids (and the kids of other politicians) would go to. It would have looked awful, and it would have been a huge setback for civil rights.”

“So, as a companion case to Brown, we unanimously decided Bolling v. Sharpe, which held that D.C. schools must be integrated. We didn’t have equal protection to truly justify our decision, and so we reached for a justification involving due process instead—and ended up with a decision that legal scholars describe as ‘very difficult to reconcile with the text of the Constitution.'”

“In short, we reached an unprincipled decision, and I don’t regret it at all.”

I admire Justice Black for his votes in Brown and Bolling and for his honesty in acknowledging that Bolling was not a principled decision.

* * *

I’ve been thinking a lot about this Justice Black story lately, because I think it captures something essential. It genuinely is important to have principles, and to stand on principle. It’s also, however, important to make exceptions to those principles, and not to follow them off a cliff.

Perhaps most important, though, is to honestly acknowledge that you are betraying your principle, that you are making an unprincipled exception. When you’re open about that, you can weigh up the costs and benefits of making the exception. You can, like Justice Black, decide that the unprincipled exception is worth it in these special circumstances—while acknowledging that making the exception one time weakens the principle going forward, and that this is a real cost.

Doing that, however, is really hard. It hurts to acknowledge that you’re breaking your own principles, that you are making an exception, that you’re weakening the principle that’s dear to you. It’s much easier—and certainly much more psychologically comfortable—to twist and bend your principle until you can come up with some justification for why your actions fit with that principle. To come up with some sort of story—some lie—about how you’re really following your principle after all.

The problem with that comfortable lie, however, is that it weakens the principle far more than making an honest unprincipled exception would have. Instead of a firm principle with one (or a few) unprincipled exceptions, you’re left with a twisted principle, and one that is probably even more flexible in the future.

All this has gotten pretty abstract, so let me bring it back to a concrete example. Here’s the example that got me thinking about all this. Continue reading “The courage to stand up and do the wrong thing”

A flaw in the way smart people think about robots and job loss


People talk about robots coming for their jobs quite a bit. It’s a big topic, and I have thoughts about a few different aspects of it. But, for today, I want to focus on a particular logical error I see smart people making all the time.

Thinking about robots replacing people one at a time

Consider this quote from Matt Levine:

If you are a human employed at an investment bank and worried that robots are coming for your job, I recommend that story about UBS AG’s forays into artificial intelligence, which I found extremely soothing. There are two products involved. One is a boring office-automation thingy, which “scans for emails sent by clients detailing how they want to divide large block trades up between funds” and then does the dividing, “doing a task that would normally take a person about 45 minutes in only about two minutes.” Yeah look no one is losing their job over that; that is a pure win for the junior person who would otherwise have been doing that allocating.

Now, Matt Levine is a smart guy, and his posts are often very insightful (seriously, read his blog). But this last sentence is a perfect example of the flawed thinking I have in mind. The implied claim is that if a robot can’t replace 100% of a particular job (or at least a very large fraction of that job), then “no one is losing their job” because of that robot.

And that’s just not how it works. Continue reading “A flaw in the way smart people think about robots and job loss”

Meta-Contrarian Typography, part 2

I hope that my last post convinced you to use two spaces after periods in your finished work product—which aids in clarity and makes your writing much more skimmable. But in case you aren’t convinced, I want to make a weaker point—and one that I feel more strongly about.

Even if you don’t think your finished product should use wide sentence spacing, you should still draft with two spaces between your sentences.

Why should you draft with a different number of spaces than you ultimately display? For two reasons: First, there’s a good chance that you should be writing in a plaintext editor. For one thing, separation of presentation and content is a basic principle of visual design, especially on the web. Even for print media, there are real advantages to using a plaintext editor that separates your content from presentation (like LaTex) instead of a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get editor (like Word).

The full argument for plaintext editors could easily be its own post (or several different posts), but here’s the short version: First, it lets you write in a distraction-free writing environment, including one of the many minimalist text editors. All of these editors keep the presentation and styling elements entirely out of the way, letting you focus entirely on the content when you’re first writing. And then they make it easy to go back and apply powerful styling techniques later on.

That segues nicely into the second advantage of writing in a plaintext editor. When you do turn to formatting your text, you can apply more powerful formatting techniques, without the constraints imposed by Word or other word processors. Word tends to be “opinionated”—that is, it imposes lots of views about how your text should be presented. If you agree with those views, fine, but if you don’t … well, it can be hard or impossible to change them.

Finally, first drafting your writing in a plaintext editor makes your writing more flexible and modular. As anyone who’s ever written a document in Word, and then tried to convert that document into a Pages file, a PDF, an email, or an HTML file can tell you, formatting can easily be lost or garbled in the conversion process. (And let’s not even get started on the bad-old-days problem of Word versus WordPerfect.) But with plaintext, you can easily export the text to whatever format you want, and then apply format-appropriate styling once you’ve exported the text.

Let’s take writing a resume as an example. Continue reading “Meta-Contrarian Typography, part 2”