This 42nd Weekly Link Roundup is the answer to life, the universe, and everything. But it’s also an essay that contains links to articles on the web that I found worth reading. Remember, I don’t necessarily agree with everything said by these links; I just post what I find to be interesting and well-written. (If you want to know whether I support a particular opinion you see, feel free to ask.)
- Eight Short Stories on Excuses: “In all these stories, the first party wants to credibly pre-commit to a rule, but also has incentives to forgive other people’s deviations from the rule. The second party breaks the rules, but comes up with an excuse for why its infraction should be forgiven. The first party’s response is based not only on whether the person’s excuse is believable, not even on whether the person’s excuse is morally valid, but on whether the excuse can be accepted without straining the credibility of their previous pre-commitment. The general principle is that by accepting an excuse, a rule-maker is also committing themselves to accepting all equally good excuses in the future.”
- The ‘Interpreter’ in Your Head Spins Stories to Make Sense of the World: “We humans think we make all our decisions to act consciously and willfully. We all feel we are wonderfully unified, coherent mental machines and that our underlying brain structure must reflect this overpowering sense. It doesn’t. No command center keeps all other brain systems hopping to the instructions of a five-star general. The brain has millions of local processors making important decisions. There is no one boss in the brain. You are certainly not the boss of your brain. Have you ever succeeded in telling your brain to shut up already and go to sleep?”
- Inflation Lessons [NYTimes]: “One of the themes I’ve hit on many times is the fact that the crisis and slump have been a testing ground for economic doctrines. People came into this mess with very different views about how the economy works, and the crisis in effect provided natural experiments that tested those views. Most notably, what we got was a test of demand-side versus supply-side stories about the nature of depressions. [...] How could you tell which story was right? One answer was to look at the behavior of interest rates; the other was to look at inflation. For if you believed a demand-side story, you would also believe that even a large monetary expansion would have little inflationary effect; if you believed a supply-side story, you would expect lots of inflation from too much money chasing a reduced supply of goods. And indeed, people on the right have been forecasting runaway inflation for years now. Yet the predicted inflation keeps not coming.”
- Good Cop, Bad Cop – Atheist Activism: “here’s a lively debate in the godless movement about how we should be going about the business of atheist, agnostic, skeptical, humanist, and other godless activism. Some, like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, favor a more passionate, confrontational approach, speaking directly and without mincing words about the absurdities and contradictions and troubling manifestations of religion and religious institutions. Others, like Michael Shermer, prefer a more respectful, more sympathetic, less confrontational approach towards religion and religious beliefs. Here’s what I want to know: Why is this an either/or question?”
- Do Drones Change Americans Views on the Use of Force?: “These results suggest that drones may well alter how Americans think about using military force. The effect of military casualties found here implies that drone technology could make it much easier, and perhaps tempting, for Presidents to use them in conflicts overseas. The smaller effect of mission success means that even the prospect of failure may serve as only a small brake on such impulses. Civilian deaths, though, may well moderate support for drone strikes.”
- Why Are Believers Willfully Ignorant About Atheists?: “Yes, atheists think that morality and virtue, love and friendship, reason and grief, are physical phenomena with no supernatural component. We don’t understand exactly how this works — humanity is very much in the early stages of figuring out consciousness — but an overwhelming body of evidence strongly points to that conclusion, and atheists understand and accept that. Whatever consciousness is, it is almost certainly a construct of the brain. And we think social experiences, such as morality, virtue, love, grief, are emotions and mental constructs, which evolved in us to help us survive and flourish as a social species. But that is not the same as saying they are false. It is not the same as saying they are illusions. It is not the same as saying they have no meaning.”
- Richard Dawkins’s Uncut ‘The Genius of Darwin’ Interviews: Peter Singer: Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer discuss atheism and practical ethics, focusing heavily on vegetarianism, veganism, and speciesism.
- Death Star? No Thank You.: “I wish to address the most important policy question of the millenium: should we build a Death Star? Seth Masket and Jamelle Bouie highlight the military downside of the Death Star, suggesting that more people might rebel against the wholesale genocide of the Empire, and that the Death Star would be the prime target of any rebellion. I have two thoughts to add. First, the Death Star is a bit misunderstood. It is primarily a tool of domestic politics rather than warfare, and should be compared to alternative means of suppressing the population of a galaxy. Second, as a weapon of war, it should be compared to alternative uses of scarce defense resources. Understood properly, the Death Star is not worth it.”
- Relativity and Conformity: “There are many ways of living socially, and many moral systems that foster social and cooperative behaviour – none perfect, but some better than others in certain environments. That’s the crux of moral ecology, a theory I’m elaborating in my PhD thesis. [...] Thus moral ecology, in a sense, is a form of relativism. I’m arguing that different cultures (or, more accurately, cultures living in different environments) can and should employ different moral systems. The monism at the core, however, is that all these systems serve the same ultimate end: fostering social and cooperative behaviour within that group.”
- Reagan Was a Keynesian [NYTimes]: “I find it especially instructive to look at spending levels three years into each man’s administration — that is, in the first quarter of 1984 in Reagan’s case, and in the first quarter of 2012 in Mr. Obama’s — compared with four years earlier, which in each case more or less corresponds to the start of an economic crisis. Under one president, real per capita government spending at that point was 14.4 percent higher than four years previously; under the other, less than half as much, just 6.4 percent. O.K., by now many readers have probably figured out the trick here: Reagan, not Obama, was the big spender.”
- Stacking Habits: How to Create New Habits That Stick: “I’ve known about this approach to tackling tasks you’re not too thrilled about having to do for a while now. If you’ve not heard of it before, the logic is if you tell yourself you’re only going to exercise [...] for five minutes, your brain doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on. Nobody can argue with “only five minutes”—including your brain—so it lets you have it. Of course, what then usually happens is five minutes into your task, you really start to get into it. You realise it isn’t nearly as hard as you had pegged it to be (as putting something off for a long time will naturally make your brain perceive it to be more difficult than it actually is), and so you continue on.”
- Five Delusions About Our Broken Politics: “Finding an American who does not think our politics are dysfunctional is much harder these days than finding Waldo. [...] Congress rarely enjoys a high approval rating, even when things are operating well[. ...] The partisan and ideological polarization from which we now suffer comes at a time when critical problems cry out for resolution, making for a particularly toxic mix. It is not going to be easy to find structural fixes to our problems because many of them flow from an increasingly corrosive culture, not just from institutional breakdowns. We have many ideas for significant reforms and other changes, but before we can consider remedies for our political dysfunction, we need to rid ourselves of much seductive wishful thinking. Here are five bromides to avoid.”
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