Morning Ed: Society {2017.01.015.Th}

Avi Woolf looks at Richard Cory, Cool Runnings, social envy, and personal virtue.

As American soap operas wane, telenovas are thriving.

There are not many surprises here, but it’s interesting all the same. (I would not have expected Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory to be a ruralian show, though.)

This sounds like a pretty cool idea for a basketball league.

Facebook can tell when you’re in a relationship, but can’t tell that the guy whose birthday it’s reminding you of died six years ago…

Kevin Simler on the intersection between status and cooperation.

Some librarians created fake patrons to protect books from cruel, cruel (and allegedly misguided) data.

According to Nir Eyal, Microsoft’s biggest strength in productivity software is habit, and they’re losing it. If GoogleDocs would create an independent app and up their game somewhat, I’d consider making the switch. Just not there yet.


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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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62 thoughts on “Morning Ed: Society {2017.01.015.Th}

  1. Conservatives really need to stop referring to every movie they like as conservative and every movie they do not like as liberal. Cool Runnings was a semi-amusing underdog family film by Disney based very loosely on something that really happened but given some shifts in facts to make an actual story.

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    • I thought the problem was that there was plenty of conservative movies out there and complainers just don’t count anything because it’s not virtually a campaign ad?

      As far as Cool Running goes, though, I’m not seeing what Avi does. But I haven’t seen the movie in a while.

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      • I’m seeing what Avi sees – a sports movie about personal triumph while not necessarily ‘winning’ in the traditional sense – I’m just not seeing it as rare or even unique as Avi does.

        Rudy. Rocky (the 1st one, natch) (and probably the most famous example). Most of Bull Durham. Even Major League gets retconned in the sequel that Cleveland gets swept in the league championship series immediately after the one game division tiebreaker game (when those where still a thing) (or rather, the only thing)

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          • Just because the values they’re teaching are really old and have been supplanted by modern values doesn’t make endorsements of the old values “Conservative”.

            No, wait. That might, actually, be one of the things that makes particular values “Conservative” ones.

            We’re going to need to go to the judges.

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            • Here’s something to consider; the Robinson poem subverts an idea, but the Simon and Garfunkel song subverts Robinson… what I gather from the movie is that it vectors off from SnG yet again.

              By the time we get to the movie, I’m not sure we’re talking about “converative” ideas at all. But then, I’ve never been one who thought that the vernacular idea of a conservative is one who defends last year’s bad ideas as a particularly useful definition of anything.

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          • Will Truman: But isn’t the triumph despite losing thing the cinematic equivalence of a participation trophy?

            Maybe, but any participation trophy aspect I think involves more external validation with visible talismans than is warranted – as opposed to the internal journey of self validation. And maybe Cool Runnings sort of fits that bill, with an overflow of external validation*, as does Rudy (Rocky doesn’t, until, again, retconned in the sequels)

            But also maybe Field of Dreams fits the participation trophy paradigm better than anything else I can think of offhand – and that one is explicitly an ‘anti-conservative’ movie.

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          • It looks to me like Woolf is claiming “winning isn’t everything” as a conservative value. This seems very weird to me, if we are talking in the context of modern American politics. Does he think that liberals are teaching their kids that winning isn’t everything: it is the only thing?

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          • “[I]sn’t the triumph despite losing thing the cinematic equivalence of a participation trophy?”

            If the story were about winning the sportsball game, sure it would be. But very few sports movies are actually about winning the sportsball game.

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        • Hell, are there any sports movies that are about winning in the end? Except for histories like the Miracle on Ice or USA vs. England 1950.
          Tin Cup lost. So did Geena Davis. Even Stallone and Pele would have been slaughtered if they hadn’t Escaped To Victory…

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  2. Avi: Yah, this country long ago strayed from any real religious belief, at least in the liberal areas. There are consequences for that-it helped glue society together. As a non believer, who would have been ostracized in that world, I’m glad we’ve moved past it, but it did work.

    “Many of us are constantly measuring ourselves exclusively against the people with more than us, all the while ignoring or not caring about what we already have or even what we can get.” I’ve never understood this. Sure, I can say I’d love to be the guy with more money, but I’m pretty damn fortunate. I live in the West (the 1% of the globe) and live in America (even with all it’s problems, it’s still a damn good place to live). Things got better when I stopped giving a damn what other people thought of me and I stopped giving a damn about them and what they had that I didn’t.

    Librarians: “The inspector general’s report said creation of a fake library card “amounts to the creation of a false public record.” Bingo. That’s likely a crime, and there is no excuse for it. Yes, data needs to be tempered with judgement, but when/if your superior (the city mngt) over rules you, you get in line….or leave. They, not the librarians, are responsible for the people’s money.

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    • Gaming a system is often a useful way to call attention to a shortcoming. If it wasn’t done for personal gain, I’d discipline people, but as lightly as possible.

      Although (and I may have missed this as I skimmed the piece), did anyone write a letter to TPTB about thr shortcoming?

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    • Avi: Yah, this country long ago strayed from any real religious belief, at least in the liberal areas. There are consequences for that-it helped glue society together. As a non believer, who would have been ostracized in that world, I’m glad we’ve moved past it, but it did work.

      When was this? If we are talking about the Massachusetts Bay Colony, then you have a point, though the Massachusetts Bay Colony was more religiously diverse than is popularly imagined. If you mean anything more recent then that, then I suspect you of romanticizing the past. The notion that everyone–or at least every respectable person–was a church-goer has rarely been true. Perhaps briefly following World War II, but I am skeptical even of that.

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    • when/if your superior (the city mngt) over rules you, you get in line

      Ah, you are a romantic! Also, very fortunate never to have worked in a job where you had to game the system to make it work.

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  3. I had to smile a bit at Avi Woolf’s column.

    It hit all the right social justice/ religious leftist notes, except seemed like it was merely a preamble, an opening flourish of a symphony that never materialized.

    He states that “we should” inculcate a society of values that rejects materialism and wealth acquisition.
    But then, oddly, he trails off.

    Left unsaid are all the questions sensible people might ask.

    Who is this “we” and how do we do this inculcating?

    What are the implications of creating so cohesive a society that can curb the most primal urge human beings have?

    What would be the relationship of the individual to this group, how would the balance between group norms and individual agency be managed?

    What would our civic institutions- churches, governments, organizations- look like in such a world?

    I would probe deeper and follow him over to the Buckley Club, but I think I got my fill of that stuff back when its founder was alive.

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  4. Libraries: It would have been interesting to see some of the titles that were checked out to keep them from getting chucked. Libraries are physical buildings and have limited space, budgets, etc. But a lot of librarians are absolutely loathe to throw out any book, no matter how outdated, or even if it was last checked out in 1953. I do think that there are a lot of valuable books that are going to be checked out less frequently that need to be saved from culling software though. The Main Branch of the SF public library has a room in the back where they store these books. But that is only an option in large cities probably with good library budgets. One of the things SF really does well is spending on their public libraries. The main branch is open 60 hours a week. Most branches are open seven days a week.

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    • Many public libraries have gone through a great de-bookification over the past ten years or so. Not completely, of course, but physical books have been greatly de-emphasized among the services the library provides. My local branch was remodeled a few years ago. The bookshelves were ripped out and replaced with fewer and lower shelves: fewer because they now devote more space to stuff other than books, and lower because the fashion today is for open sight lines.

      I would guess that the book capacity was about halved. The thing is, the book inventory was reduced more than that. These fewer, lower shelves have plenty of space for more books.

      There is a balance to be struck between the library as the repository of knowledge and the library as a provider of services. Clearly if it doesn’t provide services people want, it will become irrelevant. But this can go the other way, too. If it moves into the same niche as Starbucks, it becomes pertinent to ask why tax dollars are supporting it.

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      • I guess that the good thing about living in a liberal city with a good amount of money is that they can do both. The San Francisco public libraries have not taken out shelves as far as I can tell, they also have shelves for movies and music with good selections in a wide variety of genres.* You can also check out a laptop for in-library use.

        But they also have ads that state “Because X number of Americans connect to the Internet here.”

        The thing in a lot of big cities of course is that a lot of homeless people, especially in bad weather, tend to stay in the libraries from opening to closing time. I’ve seen fights break out between homeless people at the main branch. A few years ago there was an article about librarians becoming de facto social workers and dealing with homelessness and mental health issues of patrons.

        *I once got into an argument with someone because her system was not wealthy enough to provide books, CDs, and movies so she argued libraries should only be about books.

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        • I occasionally visit the main branch of the Baltimore public library system. I haven’t noticed any de-bookification there. But main branches of old, established city libraries are kind of a special case. I suspect that the neighborhood branches would show signs, but I haven’t looked. I’ll have to take a look sometime.

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    • I forgot the name of the blog but two librarians from Michigan had a hilarious blog of really out of date or obscure books that they found on the library shelves during book culling. They even got interviewed on the Jimmy Kimmel show because of it.

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      • Near me here in LA is The Last Bookstore, a unique used bookstore/ art space.

        They have a huge upstairs space where they keep thousands of old books, and I can spend hours getting lost there.

        But as much as I love old books, I have to confess that about 90% of what has ever been printed is crap.
        I want to partake of the romantic allure of the printed word, but like spoken words, some are not necessary to be kept.

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        • Even if the book was not crap when it was written, it could become outdated because of new discoveries in the area. A book about the Maya written before the Mayan writing was decoded is useless. Even less obscure history becomes outdated because more archives are opened.

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      • There was a book published in the late 16th century that I looked for for about ten or fifteen years. It somehow escaped the academic series that claimed to have reprinted every book printed in English from that era. I finally found it at the Philadelphia Free Library. This was when they were starting to put their catalogs online, and there it was. I figured it would be in the special collections, if the entry wasn’t simply in error. When I went there, it turned out to be in their general collection. This is a “fill out a slip and wait twenty minutes for the book” sort of library, so it wasn’t out in the open stacks, but still… It was in a modern library binding, but clearly the actual pages were the original. Not being a fool, a returned later with a pocket full of quarters and photocopied the whole thing. Then I went and searched out a real librarian and explained to him what they had.

        I was dating an academic librarian at the time. She figured that it probably was rebound at the same time as they were recataloging. The two might have been connected, with the cataloging project causing someone to actually look at it, and send it for a new binding. Then when it came back, it looked just like any other book in a library binding and ended up in the general collection.

        If this system had culled books based on check-out data, it undoubtedly would have been shredded long before I got to it.

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  5. Additional thoughts on libraries:

    Over the summer, workmen removed most of the remaining books from
    our Science and Engineering Library at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Roughly 80,000 books, worth between $2-$6 million were destroyed or shipped off campus to distant storage facilities

    Seems apropos…

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  6. Man, so much to go over about the Avi point and the comments about it here.

    Thing 1

    I confess, I can’t quite tell is Avi is being purposefully naive as a kind of narrative device here, or if he truly doesn’t understand that it’s a cliche to envy the rich, famous, and powerful this trappings, even when they have obviously unhappy lives. It shows up everywhere in American literature from Irving to Melville to Twain to Fitzgerald. Our most talked about (and profitable) television programming — realty shows– today are based entirely on this premise. Both Robinson’s poem and Simon’s song are expressions of the American (and anti-British) ideals that the man of lowly birth is as good or better than the man of lineage, and that it is folly to forget such.

    Thing 2

    @will-truman

    I thought the problem was that there was plenty of conservative movies out there and complainers just don’t count anything because it’s not virtually a campaign ad?

    Not quite. The point is that most good art, including movies, is both/neither conservative or liberal. To grade movies, music, literature, etc. on the sole calculus of whether of not it falls entirely into “correct” political ideas isn’t a request for better art. It’s one for less interesting propaganda.

    Thing 3

    But also maybe Field of Dreams fits the participation trophy paradigm better than anything else I can think of offhand – and that one is explicitly an ‘anti-conservative’ movie.

    That Field of Dreams — a movie whose overarching message is about the importance of family, tradition, and small town, middle American values — is somehow “anti-conservative” is exactly what I’m talking about above. It might be the single most conservative sports movie of all time. But hey, we were just talking about participation trophies and no one wins a championship in FOD, so let’s call it liberal propaganda.

    Thing 4

    All of this is what I mean when I caution Will to be careful of pointing at movie characters and calling them conservative ,something I do every time we resist this stuff.

    If you see a movie villain who is a greedy Wall Street-er, or a man who dumps chemical in the town water supply, or a bigot, or an Army general who would rather shoot Americans than the enemy, etc., and you complain that Hollywood always makes conservatives into villains, then you’re saying something quite horrible about conservatives.

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    • Not quite. The point is that most good art, including movies, is both/neither conservative or liberal. To grade movies, music, literature, etc. on the sole calculus of whether of not it falls entirely into “correct” political ideas isn’t a request for better art. It’s one for less interesting propaganda.

      Killjoy. But seriously, I am not quite sure how appropriating something that is clearly not propaganda (ie Cool Runnings) doesn’t at least contraindicate what you’re talking about: the demand for ideological fealty and/or propaganda, in art. It may be a case of trying to bundle ideology in with quality (“I like this because it is conservative”), but (a) I’m not sure that’s bad provided that it’s not the sole metric, and (b) there’s not enough context to make that determination (other than that he was only recently introduced to Hank Williams and this piece, I’m not sure what else Woolf likes in terms of entertainment.

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      • @tod-kelly

        There are very few people that can make good/entertaining art in the service of political propaganda. Maybe I am biased but I find that people on the left are usually better at this than people on the right.

        Brecht made great art. All of his art is supposed to be Communist Propaganda. Brecht used and further developed whole techniques that were meant to spur on thought. Do you know the modern obsession with spoilers? Brecht would tell you what was happening before it happened. This is because he wanted audiences to focus on why and how something happened instead of what happened.

        But Brecht was also a product of 1920s Germany and filled his plays with sex and violence and witty lines. He wrote the lyrics to Mack the Knife (the original lyrics are much darker than the Bobby Darin standard), Moon Over Alabama (which most people think of as a Doors’ song), and other great songs like the Ballad of Easy Living (“What good is Bohemia if you are merely poor?”) or Hossanah Rockefeller (“Hosannah Rockefeller, Hossanah Henry Ford, Hosannah Sex Appeal when wealthy men get bored….”) Hosannah Rockefeller’s chorus goes on to talk about crimes against the masses and the rich in their palaces.

        Conservatives never seem good at this kind of wit. It is hard when you are afraid to write a song about a murderous pimp and then have that pimp saved from a hanging at the end and knighted by Queen Victoria.

        Here is Nick Cave singing a better translation of Mack the Knife:

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        • It depends on who the audience is, and what the goal is. Hard-charging political stuff has a lower bar to clear with people that agree with it than people that don’t. If Boston Legal weren’t as thoroughly entertaining as it was, I would have dropped it. On the other hand, most of the audience (I assume) agreed with its priors and the parts that seemed tedious and obnoxious to me were actually a positive of the show for them.

          Now, ideally speaking, I’d personally prefer shows represent both sides of the equation. Even if it tilts in one direction, to at least give the other side a fair hearing. The Practice (BL’s predecessor) did this at times, as did The Good Wife. But stuff that leans mostly or exclusively to one side can be done. Whether it qualifies as “propaganda” (or simply “hard-charging political”) is often going to be in the eye of the beholder. To the extent that it serves no purpose other than the inform the debate, then… that’s actually pretty rare on television or in fiction.

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          • FWIW, Boston Legal and LA Law, and Grey’s Anatomy, and Dallas, and all those other prime time soap operas that center around high-income/prestige professions where everyone suffers are just different versions of Richard Cory.

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            • Well, Boston Legal was awfully flippant to be in the ballpark of Richard Cory. One never got the impression that the characters would go home and kill themselves, nor were they characters in search for greater meaning.

              Grey’s Anatomy is also kind of iffy, especially since the characters start off as grunts. You could possibly make a case for it later in the show when they become attendings. Though if that’s what you’re looking for, the GA spinoff Private Practice really does fit the bill.

              Can’t speak to LA Law or Dallas.

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      • There are two ways you can approach art with political values in hand, and I confess one I quite like while the other I find most noxious.

        Approach One:

        I just saw Cool Running, and in that movie one of the characters emphasizes an embracing of the spiritual over the material. As a conservative, this spoke to me and it might to you as well, because I believe at it’s best conservatism should yada yada yada.

        Approach Two:

        I just saw Cool Running, which is a movie about sports where the protagonist doesn’t win. Even if that has nothing to do wth participation trophies, it reminds me of participation trophies, so this is obvious Hollywood liberal propaganda. Being a good conservative, I won’t ever watch this or any other movie with John Candy in it ever, and it you are really a true conservative yada yada yada.

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        • How is the embracing of the spiritual over the material a peculiarly conservative value? Lots of liberals talk the same talk. When I see this my take is that the speaker defines “conservative values” as “stuff I like.” This is great if the point is to vilify Those People, who must logically must only believe in “stuff I hate.” But as a way to understand the actual world, it is lacking.

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    • That Field of Dreams — a movie whose overarching message is about the importance of family, tradition, and small town, middle American values — is somehow “anti-conservative” is exactly what I’m talking about above. It might be the single most conservative sports movie of all time. But hey, we were just talking about participation trophies and no one wins a championship in FOD, so let’s call it liberal propaganda.

      The good guys were literal hippies. (and ‘woke’ before there was a term for it). The bad guys were either book banning conservative caricatures (when that was an exclusive thing of the right) or people telling the hippies to stop being such hippies.

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      • Here’s the movie’s climatic soliloquy, delivered by a character who is saved from the trappings of modernism, academic elitism, and East Coast Big Urban City living by being brought back to his Midwestern small town roots, both geographically and culturally.

        People will come, Ray.

        They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. “Of course, we won’t mind if you have a look around,” you’ll say. “It’s only twenty dollars per person.” They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it; for it is money they have and peace they lack.

        And they’ll walk out to the bleachers, and sit in shirt-sleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.

        People will come, Ray.

        The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Ohhhhhhhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.

        Tell me that’s not the heart of American Conservatism, pure and bottled.

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        • Unless, of course, we decide approach it from the standpoint that none of those are things conservatives truly value, but that punching hippies most definitely is. Because if that’s all conservatism is, than your point is well taken.

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          • Well, that’s part of it. And there are some conservatives, still, who aspire to that vision of what people both should be and could be, that vision of what our society should be and can be.

            I think another part of American Conservatism is an insistence that our institutions — governmental and social — be both worthy of respect and be given the respect that they deserve. True American Conservatives have their work cut out for them right now and may well face a bigger challenge than do American Liberals.

            The hippie-punchers are partisans. They have appropriated the term “conservatism” as a label for their political preferences. But don’t let the label do your thinking for you. Not all Republicans are actually conservatives. Not all Democrats are actually liberals.

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        • The heart of American conservatism is profiting off nostalgia?

          I guess so. The GOP does seem to yearn for a (pretty imaginary) version of the 1950s culture and 1850s government, so….

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  7. [cw: nerdtastic wankery]

    On the “Minimum Viable Superorganism” thing:

    Now this is important: we have to assume that these individuals are entirely self-interested — that they don’t fundamentally care about the superorganism (or any other individuals) unless it’s somehow in their own interests. If we develop an architecture that doesn’t serve its members’ self-interest, it will inevitably break down as individuals realize they’re better off not participating. On the other hand, if we develop an architecture that succeeds in benefitting all or most of its members, there’s almost no end to what we’ll be able to accomplish.

    I wonder, though, why we have to assume this? I understand game theory, modeling, and multi-agent systems. That said, I’m also reading Marsha Linehan’s stuff now (cuz I’m crazy), and she (among other things) explores a psychological model of personhood that does not model people a “fitness maximizing agents,” but instead as a sum of their social relationships.

    Which after all, we are indeed biological organisms with “selfish genes” — about which, most of the “social technology” style models popular among the Ribbonfarm (and adjacent) crowd is usually warmed over Dawkins applied to the social realm. This covers pretty much all of “intellectual” neo-reaction and the adjacent thought-space.

    Anyway, selfish genes. Sure. Fine. However, we are also social animals, and our psycho-social reality is exists on a level quite separate from genetics. In other words, local-optimization/fitness-exploration at one level and time scale is quite different from that at another level and time scale. There is enough “systems-level” difference between them that they can co-exist as models.

    In other words, I quite like the “sum of social relations” model of personhood. It is at least as valid as the “independent agent” model, which pervades most of this game-theoretic insight-porn.

    Anyway, game-theory-shmame-theory. This stuff flimsy.

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    • v,
      We don’t have to assume it at all. But then you lack an explanation for a good deal of things, including why we’ve managed to create increasingly larger structures of people.

      Is Marsha saying that humans have gotten better over time?? (not a bad argument to make. save it for the no-homo crowd, I’m sure they’ll love it.)

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      • I wouldn’t say that humans have gotten “better” over time. We’ve just figured out ways of maximizing individual utility that also have side benefits, and despite what Rand-slanderers think, we do like seeing things get better for everyone…just so long as we’re at the top of “everyone”.

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        • DD,
          Yeah, yeah, that’s why we’ve deliberately bred homosexuality into the genepool (alphas — guys with about the least amount of homosexuality possible, tend to start major fights with each other leading to fragmentation).

          (The Powers that Be, the remnants of the people at the top, are sociopaths, sadists and paranoiacs. But you knew that).

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    • People are always rational.

      People always act to maximize utility.

      People are not you.

      These three maxims are vital to hold as true if you want to understand why people act the way that they do.

      Because they are rational, they do what seems to make sense. Because they act to maximize utility, they’ll do what gives them the best return on their effort. Because they are not you, their ideas of “makes sense” and “best return” may seem extremely weird.

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