Post expansions and elaborations

Why is art beautiful?

I can’t believe I didn’t say this in the original post. What originally gave me the idea for the article was this:, a fascinating website that lets you visualize song lyrics pictorially, almost like a on a canvas. It is generated by an algorithm that graphs out repeating lyrics.

Play around with it for a while. It’s crazy to think that musicians are generating these patterns without realizing it. But we enjoy it as it manifests in music.

This helps me clarify the dichotomy I made between total repetition and total randomness. Few songs are just the same word repeated over and over again, like Nyan Cat. Likewise, few artists refuse to reuse the same word ever, like Aesop Rock. Most artists repeat words enough to make a song catchy, but not enough that it gets repetitive. Both extremes – total repetition and total randomness, are more boring than the middle.

My reference to Nyan Cat and Aesop Rock is mostly facetious. Nyan Cat repeats the same lyric, but in different intonations. In a more sophisticated way, Aesop Rock rarely uses the same word twice, with exceptions like “is” or “and,” or when a lyric is a big deal – however, he still employs repetition. Rhyme, alliteration, and assonance are other valid forms of repetition.

You are listening to a song. You hear 3 low notes, followed by 1 loud high note. Have you ever been in a situation where 3 bad things happened to you, and then one good thing? It sounds kind of stupid to make that comparison. Clearly, a burst of notes doesn’t map on to an experience so easily as that. But that’s why songs are more complicated than 4 notes.

My more general idea is that patterns are generalizable. That is to say, just as musical patterns can be translated to pictorial patterns, so too can they resonate in the sense of invoking narrative patterns. To bring more fidelity to my view: musical notes can remind us of narrative action, including stories from our life, but not necessarily any specific story. Our brains tend to aggregate and clump things together in ways we don’t understand. Artistic patterns reach at those “broader” truths.

Platitude Conspiracies

This article is kind of forgettable, not very epiphany-inducing. I criticize vague language, then try to psychoanalyze social justice warriors. The most interesting thing in this article is the counterintuitive concept of “desired problems,” but I don’t think I describe my idea perfectly. I figured out a better way to articulate it.

There is an idea called the “just world hypothesis.” This describes a mindset that confuses what should be the case with what is the case. On many occasions, I have heard people argue in this fashion. They confuse “I think this is true” with “I’d like that this be true.”

The just world hypothesis is a compelling fallacy. But its flip side is, I believe, more common. If this isn’t coined yet, I’d like to coin it: the “unjust world hypothesis.” Under this mindset, you take for granted that the wold is unjust, at least in ways that make sense to you.

The unjust world hypothesis is intensified by ideologies. For example, if your politics demonizes or scapegoats a certain group or organization, you will imagine they are acting unjustly without evidence, just because that makes sense to you.

It’s probably better to err on the side of imagining things are bad, but this can lead to a subtly paranoid kind of politics. There are enough real problems, we don’t need to imagine them.

A subtler form this takes is that people get certain facts right, but imagine that the cause is worse than it actually is. A person can think, depending on their personality, that a problem is either less nuanced, more conspiratorial, or even more nuanced than it actually is.

For example, my economics teacher asked the class about the cause of the gender wage gap. I told him that the main cause is probably the more than 10 percentage point difference in labor force participation between males and females. He responded, in unmistaken terms, that even controlling for factors like labor force participation, the “wage gap” remains, and so it can only be explained by discrimination. I did not want to tell the economist in front of his class that he was factually wrong about economic data.


This post talks about a bunch of concepts that, although adjacent in my brain, I’d been struggling to connect for a while. Ostensibly, the ideas here are those that remind me about the self-reinforcing and arbitrary nature of fame. Enduring popularity is a slave to whatever happened to become successful at the right place at the right time. Particularly across history. If people were talking about you on the brink of the industrial revolution, you’re golden. The names from history that you remember are not representative of their actual impact, or even their proportional fame during their life – but who’s name was lucky enough to be repeated in the right place or for specific purposes. It’s the difference between important enough, and almost important enough for a mention in the right history textbook. That all sounds like a platitude, but it erases the mystique around names from history.

Hoard of leftovers: the age of the activist

I like this article, but I want to add to it. I think, by focusing on narrow examples of the “hoard of leftovers” idea, I may not have conveyed the breadth and utility of it.

The idea in the article is an answer to the question, “why is X so bad?” or “why does X even exist?” for any X. You have to think about the competition used to derive X.

I should clarify what I mean by “competition.” If you ask, “why are these Google search results so bad?” you have to consider the competition between all of the websites that want to be picked by Google. Competitions are everywhere, which makes this so broadly important.

In any competition, there are really just two factors that determine the quality of the winner:

  1. The ability of the game to pick the best entree as the winner
  2. The quality of the entrees.

Sometimes, #1 is lacking. This is what you get when you have bad ranking algorithms. (Or, when the judge picks intentionally bad entrees out of some ulterior motive).

Before the Internet, #2 was not a very confusing problem. This is because we understood that some competitions were bigger than others. A local race with 10 people would probably not have as skilled of a winner as the Boston Marathon. Because larger competitions drew from a large pool of talent, we equated “size” with “quality of entrees.”

The Internet has upset this by making any competition appear like a large competition. Even when there is no reason to suspect good entrees, we will be fooled by the ability of the Internet to cast a wide net. Any competition is giant when you scrape the bottom of the barrel. But then the quality of the entrees is bad.

Welfare and automation

In this article, I jokingly make the case for paying people to exercise. My arguments aren’t bad, but my proposal is clearly pretty incompletely formed.

The UBI topic gets a lot of discussion, especially recently. There are many popular UBI proposals, all substantially different, and I can’t help but notice that they’re all bad.

For example, universal basic income itself has a vastly superior alternative: a negative income tax. Million Friedman actually did not advocate for UBI, he advocated fro a NIT. You may want to tell me that they’re the same thing, but this isn’t the case. UBI creates an artificially inflated size of government, by taxing away money and then “giving it back.” I became so frustrated that I created this diagram to compare the systems:

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The shaded areas represent government intervention (sometimes arbitrarily cut off on the right side)

Now, my economist mind has always wanted to re-design UBI (and, by extension, re-design welfare in general).

If you are a libertarian, you may be content to just say that we should have no welfare. Good luck with that; that’s not the world we live in. If you reject any proposal to make government more effective, on the grounds that anything short of elimination is not libertarian enough, they you will be stuck with the old, badly designed systems. In other words, your ideological purity-testing is preventing you from having ideas. Your failure to be pragmatic and make incremental gains is hurting even your own goals.

With welfare a fact of government (and perhaps an unavoidable byproduct of democracy), I’d prefer an obvious and mathematically efficient income redistribution program to what we have: an amorphous blob comprised of dozens of independently and sloppily designed handouts.

I’ve been changing my mind about a UBI/NIT redesign for a while, as I consider new problems and ways to perfect it. I have finally reached a point where I am very confident with my proposal. I do not believe I will change my mind again. Here it is:

  • Implement a negative income tax
  • This will replace all existing welfare programs
    • The rollout will be gradual. First, every person will have to choose between being eligible for existing welfare programs, or being eligible for the NIT. If you choose one, you waive eligibility for the other. We then observe adoption rates. If things go well, we fully eliminate other welfare programs, and make the NIT the only choice.
  • The amount is calculated as the difference between $1000 a month and 50% of your income, for people earning less than $2000 a month
    • For example, if my income is $1200 per month, 50% of that is $600, and $1000 – $600 is $400, so that is the amount I will be receiving per month. (These are the numbers for workers making federal minimum wage)
    • Stated as an equation, it is: $1000 – (income * 0.5) / month. (Yes, an NIT requires a bit more math than UBI. “Oh no, I’m allergic to math!” Stop being an idiot. It’s not funny. This is basic algebra)
    • If you think the $1200 figure is too small/too large, you can simply adjust that figure.
  • Not everyone is eligible for the program. In order to qualify for the negative income tax, you must spend 30 hours a week or more on some “productive activity” – examples include:
    • Work
    • Volunteering/community service
    • Exercise and other competitive pastimes
    • Parenting (each family can claim a combined max of 30 hours a week from this one)
    • Training programs
  • You automatically become eligible if you are disabled or elderly. This replaces social security and disability benefits.
  • For elderly individuals, the NIT may not be enough. Therefore: implement a requirement that every person puts a percent of their income into an annuity
    • This will replace the payroll tax
    • The annuity is private. In other words, this is a plan to privatize social security
    • You will be eligible to receive money back from the annuity after you reach a certain age, or, for a few months after you loose your job. This will replace unemployment benefits
    • Importantly: the amount you earn from the annuity will count as a form of income, and the amount you receive from the NIT will scale accordingly. Therefore, the annuity requirement will save the government money on the NIT for seniors


My two most popular posts are:

Third Order Thinking (or: is a whale a fish?)


Robin Hanson explains human signaling

There is concept that ties both of these together: leveling.

This concept originates from gambling. You can ask yourself a series of questions. How good are your cards? How good are your opponents’ cards? How good does your opponent think your cards are? How good do your opponents think you think their cards are? How good do you think your opponents think you think their cards are? And so on. You want to be exactly one “level” ahead of your opponents.

This concept maps onto status:

Level 1: “Please don’t hurt me”

Level 2: “I am powerful”

Level 3: “I have nothing to prove”

I have an example (bear with me) from Minecraft:

Many years ago, I was playing on a PvP Minecraft faction server. In Minecraft, the most powerful type of armor is diamond armor, which takes a long time to obtain because of the rarity of diamonds. I would estimate that, on this particular sever 85% of players in the central hub had no armor (because they had recently died), 10% had some mishmash of intermediate armor grades (leather or iron), and 5% had full diamond armor.

I ran a powerful faction with few members. Every single member had diamond armor. For a while, you would see diamond armor on everyone. But then an interesting thing happened. People began taking off their armor. Not wearing armor became a status symbol. It was expected just that you had a full suit of diamond armor, so you had nothing to prove. To be vulnerable was to say, “no one is going to mess with me.”

It is also, strangely, a sign of friendship. My faction base was heavily fortified, and therefore safe from enemies. To not wear armor was to say, “I trust you guys.” To make yourself vulnerable is an expression of both strength and kinship.

One of my friends in the faction made a bold move. He started wearing died wool armor. Armor that has zero protective capacity, he wore it for purely aesthetic reasons. It was clear to me that this was the most high-status clothing in the game. It was no joke to obtain (I didn’t even know you COULD make died wool “armor”), but created no stats boost. Its value was the admiration of other players, owing to the fact that he went to effort only to loose all protection.

Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 5.32.54 PM
In this pose, one’s chest is exposed, and therefore vulnerable. A display of lack of defense is a confidence signal.

We can see a similar phenomenon with supposedly self-sacrificing behaviors, such virtue signaling or giving to charity. We observe this hierarchy:

  1. Poverty
  2. Means
  3. Piety

Piety makes you think of religion, but you could also be thinking of celebrity fashion statements of intentionally rugged clothing. Even minimalism is a level-3 status symbol; the poor cannot afford empty space.

This all leads to an unusual situation: in certain situations, and lacking context, level 3 will superficially resemble level 1.

From the Internet, here’s some things that are classy if you’re rich and trashy if you’re poor:

Giving your many kids weird names and having them raised by someone else (who then work at a family owned business), gambling and doing cocaine in sex clubs before going to rehab, smoking cigars, having many cars parked in front of your house, not having a job and living in Florida, day drinking, having a tan, taking checks from the government before declaring bankruptcy, and inbreeding.

What does this remind you of? First, second, and third order thinking. If you haven’t read that article, you should.