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January 28th 2015 20:54
I know nothing at all about economics, but wanted to note down some ideas anyway.

* It’s possible for someone to be wealthy but unhappy, and it’s possible for someone to be poor but have a great standard of living. Therefore, the concepts of “wealthy” and “poor” are in many contexts separable from ideas of happiness and standard of living.

* Say I earn $10 a week and a loaf of bread is $5. At the end of the year, my salary is raised to $20, but the price of bread also goes up to $10. Arguably, I am as wealthy as I was before, because there’s been no increase in my purchasing power.

So there’s at least two ways for me to become wealthy -- if my salary goes up and the cost of bread stays the same, or if my salary stays the same and (through technological innovation or lucky weather conditions or improved agricultural methods or whatever) the cost of bread goes down.

And there’s also a third way to become wealthy -- if my purchasing power increases relative to everyone else’s. The concept of “wealthy”, like many adjectives (“long”, “cold”, “heavy”) doesn’t have an absolute standard, but only really has meaning when there's comparison with something else.

For anyone to be "wealthy" at all, you need poor people.

* The country as a whole...

Think of an economy as all the actual money in a country. Call this "economic evaluation 1".

If you put more money in (through tourism or export or investment), that doesn’t necessarily increase wealth. If the country’s salary goes up, but the cost of bread also goes up, then it’s a zero sum game. And sometimes putting more money in itself causes the cost of bread to rise.

Why? Well, there’s no guarantee that costs will rise, but sometimes they do. Sometimes bread-sellers think, “Everyone’s got more money. Let’s raise prices. They can afford it.” Or sometimes introducing more money leads to more demand for labour, which in turn raises salaries, which in turn costs companies more, which in turn makes them raise prices.

* But you don’t have to think about an economy as money only -- there are also the assets. You could put a dollar value on all the loaves of bread and also all the people who bake the bread, and treat it all as part of the economic value of a country. Call this "economic evaluation 2".

How to increase a country’s wealth when evaluated in this sense? Well, for the concept of wealth to be meaningful, now you have to think about what the country can buy in other countries, or have to think about its relative purchasing power.

Putting more money in -- digging it from the ground, increasing the population and "human assets", exporting, attracting tourism and investment -- all these things increase the wealth of the country as a whole assuming the price of bread remains the same elsewhere.

The trick is: what if all the third-world countries increase the price of their bread? It’s a zero sum game again -- purchasing power doesn’t increase.

* How do you increase the wealth of the world as a whole?

From the point of view of "evaluation 2" (which is putting a price tag on all assets), applying the word "wealthy" to the world as a whole doesn't make sense, because you can't talk about purchasing power in some other world.

From another point of view ("evaluation 1", thinking just about money) the only real way for wealth to increase, assuming the amount of money stays the same, is for the price of bread to drop. You can't increase wealth by printing money, because that simply leads to raising the price of bread.

So, it's only really through technological innovation that the world as a whole gets wealthier.

Of course, it’s quite arguable that wealth is the wrong question in the first place, and governments should focus on happiness and standard of living.

If the entire world were in some Star Trek future, where everyone could use matter replication devices to make whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, who would care about purchasing power?



-- Friday 30 January 2015: Here's a pun so hideously bad I couldn't not make it. People think that exercise leads to weight loss, just as people think that investment leads to wealth increase. But the fact is that exercise causes hunger, and so you end up eating more than you normally would. Ie, both exercise and investment often result in inflation.


Executing the innocent

December 27th 2014 02:13
Assume that "justice" in a particular case requires death, and consider these two claims:

-- Claim 1: "I would rather let 100,000 criminals escape the death they deserve than execute one innocent person." Under peacetime conditions, innocent life is just that valuable.

-- Claim 2: "I would rather execute 100,000 innocent people than let one criminal escape justice." It's alright to break a few eggs.


Quick thoughts:

-- As a society, what we tend to dispute is the initial assumption -- the circumstances where a death penalty is ever required. That is, we dispute it morally (in terms of being obligated to kill people) and we dispute it practically (in terms of whatever real-world effects -- deterrence, symbolic expression of a country's values, etc -- that punishment is supposed to achieve).

-- But even among people who believe that a death penalty is sometimes required (morally, practically, economically, whatever), there will be many who will favour claim 1 over claim 2.

-- However, I'd suggest: if you believe in the death penalty and don't subscribe to either claim 1 or claim 2, there's no rational way to set the in-between number-- there's no rational way to say how much you ought to value innocent life.

-- Problems of this form are quite common, of course -- looking for black and white in grey (or trying to resolve "sorites" paradoxes). If you don't believe an embryo counts as a "human being", but believe that a birthed baby does, perhaps there's no rational way to decide at what point an embryo changes into "human", but rather, in the real world, it comes down to whims, chance, rhetoric and votes.


Community standards vary over time. The value of life, innocent or otherwise, changes over time.

Is the criminal justice system too lax or too strict? I personally believe that the problem is not ultimately a philosophical one, nor one regarding which most people could hold a rational or well-founded opinion.


Real-world argument

December 26th 2014 02:03
You leave a pencil balanced vertically, standing on the kitchen table. You go to the bathroom, and when you return you find that the pencil is now lying on its side.

There are infinite imaginable explanations, and the same goes for science generally -- any set of facts is compatible with infinite theories. Maybe an alien time-travelled from the future to knock the pencil over.

Depending on what you already believe in and what you think is likely/unlikely, you’ll incline to some hypotheses over others.


A woman is dead, and the police accuse the husband. They say he had means, motive, access and no alibi. But in response the defence presents an alternative theory: this was the woman's second marriage, and her ex-husband has a criminal record and was known to have threatened her during the previous week.

Now, logically speaking, if I don’t contradict any of the facts you rely upon, but instead simply meet your hypothesis with one of my own, then I don’t in the slightest undermine your case. The two hypotheses pass each other like ships in the night. But the matter is different practically speaking. The jury now have two stories they can pick from; doubt is created. And if I can flesh out my story more than you can flesh out yours, then my picture becomes more rhetorically compelling.

This could be, of course, a pattern for science generally -- that it proceeds not by one theory defeating another logically, definitively, but by wholesale shifts in thinking.


Our car breaks down on an isolated road. It’s four hours’ walk to the nearest town. I suggest we wait, on the basis that someone else is likely to drive past in the next four hours, so we might as well shelter and save the energy. But you’re all for walking: you prefer the sureness of reaching the town over the gamble of waiting for a stranger who might or might not be helpful.

What to do? Your argument doesn’t defeat mine definitively, but it mitigates its force. It’s true that it’s difficult to assess probabilities -- probability of car coming, probability of stranger being helpful, etc.


The structure of real-life argument is messy; there are often no conclusive refutations; it’s seldom like a logician’s proof by deduction.

In response to one claim, there might be a number of alternative hypotheses or counterarguments, with unclear probabilities complicating the picture. And there will be more hypotheses and counterarguments in reply to these, and so on.

To step back, take in the entirety of the picture, and say where the “weight” of the argument lies -- whether for or against the initial claim -- this can very often be not rationally possible.

And yet, very often, the real world also compels one to make a choice regardless, or else not choosing is as good as choosing.


Heads or tails

December 22nd 2014 23:27
A problem I'm worrying at. Forgive me if this is old news to you; I'm sure it's the sort of problem many people have thought about already.

So, someone presents you with a gamble: heads, you win $15; tails, you lose $10. Should you take the bet

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Does art matter more than life?

December 20th 2014 19:56
An extract from A Conversation of the Quai Voltaire by Lee Langley:

“He held out his hand and touched the blue tracery beneath the skin

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Marina Abramovic: Rhythm 0

December 20th 2014 10:27

End of a wedding

December 9th 2014 02:24
So it’s the midnight rubble at the end of a wedding. Bride and groom have long gone. Staff are sweeping up mess and stacking furniture. Audiovisual people are dismantling the stage. A few guests loiter, mostly close family of the couple, removing decorations.

Myself and the other videographer have packed the bags and are ready to head out, when he discovers that he’s one memory card short. He counts the cards he has and counts them again. He deduces that the missing card was the main wide-angle during the ceremony and also contains speeches from the reception. The bride is his client and also a good friend of his. The card came from his camera. The responsibility is squarely his

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Heat of the moment

December 4th 2014 18:38
Should you kill your boss? On the one hand, he deserves it, and killing him would be pleasurable, and his death would be a lesson to bad bosses everywhere. On the other hand, you might get caught… and also, believe it or not, murder goes against your religious beliefs (though you might be willing to make exceptions).

You somehow express all the pros and cons in a common currency, perhaps by looking at each factor and asking yourself which you prefer to which; and on that basis you assign values and weightings. You think and think. And, sitting in your office cubicle, you conclude that murdering him is the wrong decision

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November 1st 2014 20:19
There’s some food stuck in a bowl, so you leave it overnight to soak. It scrubs out more easily in the morning.

Why is that? I’ve got no idea. I believe it works, but I don’t know why. I’m assuming it’s to do with liquidity -- that swirling water molecules are abrading food particles

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Making black blacker

October 3rd 2014 01:06
One problem I have with the movie Lovely Bones is that the villain is not just a villain -- he's a monster. He's murdered many children. He does this compulsively.

What's going on is that the author(s) quite consciously want to make black blacker and white whiter. It's the same with children's literature and with any propaganda -- Soviet anti-capitalism films, Allied anti-Nazi films. Not only do you want to maximise the evil of your foe, but you want to demonise them, place them beyond understanding. Don't confuse your audience. Your enemy eats babies

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