Where to hide stuff in your home

From a conversation with a burglar, Where to hide stuff in your home, Part 1 and Part 2. Of course the thing that most of us worry about losing these days is our data. I have an external hard drive stashed in the guts of my sofa connected to my computer by a cable that runs along the same route as the 12+ other cables plugged into my computer. They can steal my computer (upgrade opportunity!), but I’ve got all my data. On the other hand, when my friends had their house broken into recently, the thief ignored their brand new 24” iMac (easy to carry under one arm!) in favor of rifling through their bedroom drawers for jewelry.

Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Twelve virtues of rationality

“It is especially important to eat math and science which impinges upon rationality: Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory, decision theory. But these cannot be the only fields you study. The Art must have a purpose other than itself, or it collapses into infinite recursion.”

— From Eliezer Yudkowsky’s twelve virtues of rationality (check out #12 — it makes no rational fucking sense!).

Why don’t people boo more at the opera?

Why don’t people boo more at the opera? Tyler Cowen thinks he knows: “When these high-status people are slighted, as they might be by a bad performance, their privately optimal response is to ignore the slight. Reacting to the slight suggests that they have let it bother them …” I’d think it has everything to do with herd mentality and accepted tradition, which could just as easily have gotten started randomly (and which a couple of spontaneous instances of booing could turn around).

Not your grandpa’s bank run

The thing that’s hanging over this economy, threatening to turn it into Great Depression Deux, is the term “bank run.” Simon Johnson explains that the FDIC makes an old-school bank run unlikely. But: “Sadly, it turns out we haven’t outgrown runs. Rather, we have learned since mid-2007 that other kinds of runs — let’s call them wholesale or professional investor runs — are not only possible but also increasingly likely in the United States.” (Tho keep in mind that Johnson is of a particularly pessimistic mind about the current crisis, and this feeds into that perspective.)

Not the end of philosophy

As Republicans go, David Brooks is one of the most reasonable and thoughtful writers we have. However, this week he dropped a real howler. The title is, The End of Philosophy, and it goes downhill from there. The gist goes thus:

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know. Moral judgments are like that.

Brooks goes on to cite some basic evolutionary theory (as if he’d only just discovered it) to support his claim, and at some length concludes that it is all very well and good for us to be guided by instinct as we make moral decisions. My reaction to this argument, generally made by people much less intelligent then Brooks, can best be expressed by an interpretative dance. But my camera has been acting a little buggy, so let me try to put it into words.

I’m struck by the similarity to the analogy Franklin Einspruch made between food and art. Yes, you know whether something tastes good without having to think about it. But deciding whether a piece of art is good is quite a different process, informed however subtly by whatever art education and exposure to other work one has had. It may seem instinctual, but that instinct is honed by a lifetime of experience. (I recommend reading Franklin’s post and the 114 comments that followed over three days. My own response is mostly in comment #74.)

Finding a similarity between taste in food and a taste in art may be flawed, but to extend it to a taste in ethics is just absurd. Brooks cleverly gets us nodding along in the second paragraph by observing that those who study ethics are no more likely to behave ethically than the rest of us. Fine and dandy, but the academic study of the philosophy of ethics is something quite apart from the process we all go through, as we mature, of deciding how we shall govern ourselves in life.

I think that Julian Savulescu on the ‘Yuk’ Factor, a recent episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast (pardon the British spelling of the word “yuck”), directly refutes Brooks’ line of thinking. We have innate tendencies, and we have ethical principles adopted from our parents, and we have the capacity as intelligent humans to think through and decide whether we want to adopt these tendencies and principles. For example, as Savulescu points out, homophobia and racism may well be based on innate evolutionary instincts (for sure they are often learned from parents).

Yet many intelligent people are able to reason through to the conclusion that homophobia and racism are completely indefensible moral positions. Thus our rational, philosophical, thoughtful self trains our ethical instinct — trains the yuck factor, as it were. Brooks is correct that we make snap judgments as we go about our daily lives, but he is profoundly and disappointingly incorrect to think that moral reasoning and yes, even philosophizing, do not enter into the picture of developing our ethics.