In the Golden Age, being a slob wasn't as easy

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen wonders why opera singing has declined. Two of his possible explanations are worthy of comment:

2. The best voices grow up watching TV, rather than reading Romain Rolland and Thomas Mann. The Zeitgeist makes them dull.

4. The best voices came from Germany and Italy and Austria, and World War II destroyed the musical and vocal training networks of those countries.

My only comment about 4 is that it's an interesting idea. I don't know enough about the history of opera to comment in a credible way beyond that. I'd be interested to learn.

Explanation 2 is one we've heard before in many different contexts. The modern age breeds mainly slobs. It's true that there's a lot of garbage in culture these days, but this is a function of technology and not of newly-created interest in crap. If there had been the technology to broadcast Friends back in the heyday of opera, opera would have started suffering immediately.

Back in the golden age of opera there were fewer entertainment options for people. Now there's television, movies, movies on television (DVDs), the internet, etc. It makes sense that with more options the former only option's share of the pie would decline.

He's smarter than I am, so I'm sure he knows this.

Busy, busy, busy

Rumor has it that MSS is about to fly a vehicle Any Day Now(tm). So instead of helping get DR up and running, I am going nuts getting XA0.1 up and running.

Why Not Haiti?

Tonight American Idol is making a big spectacle of their own special desires to "Give Back." One of the beneficiaries of their charity is going to be Africa. The other beneficiary will be gulf coast areas still recovering from Katrina.

While I am not generally (and by that I mean not at all) a big adherent of altruistic endeavors I have to wonder why help Africa, or more specifically why not Haiti?

It seems like there is always a big drive to fix Africa, and it is a big place with many problems. However I think it makes a certain amount of sense to focus on your neighbors first. Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world and it is really close by.

For that matter why don't we hear about more charity programs to help Mexico? I just cannot help but wonder if there happens to be some underlying politics out there in big money charity land that make some potential recipients more appealing than others.

If I Carried a Gun

If I carried a gun in my car* and was pulled over I would most likely be arrested unless I had received permission from the government to carry it.

If I carried a gun and it was seen at my job, I would be instantly fired by most of the employers I have ever had. My current employer does not have an explicit policy on the subject so I do not care to speculate how they would react. However, I do not expect it would be positive.

That instant firing for gun possession whether I possessed it with government permission or not would make it very difficult for me to get employed elsewhere especially at larger companies with specific anti-gun policies.

If I carried a gun to school, I could and would likely be expelled at every institution I have ever attended.

If I were arrested for possessing a gun without government permission, it is possible that I would loose my massage license and thus my livelihood. **

If I was seen with a gun at my church I believe I would get permanently banned from membership (they have strong feelings on gun control).

If I had a gun in my apartment and the apartment management found out about it I would be kicked out for breaking my lease agreement. Which would negatively effect my capacity to get future agreements with other apartment communities.

Given my current circumstances the only way I could own a gun without getting in a lot of trouble if I got caught with it is if I had an official license in the state of Texas to carry a concealed weapon, kept it in my car and never took it out (it could possibly come with me if it were very well concealed and then only in a very few circumstances), and parked my vehicle somewhere outside the property of my apartment complex on the property of someone who had no problem with the presence of the gun in my car.

I am currently an apartment-dweller in Austin, TX.

*FYI having a license to carry a gun is not required in Texas if it stays in your home or car to use for defense. However you will still likely be arrested if you have it in your car and cannot show a concealed carry permit.

**From the Texas department of health, Massage Licensee, Ethical Requirements: (q) A licensee shall be subject to disciplinary action by the department if the licensee is issued a public letter of reprimand, is assessed a civil penalty by a court, or has an administrative penalty imposed by the attorney general's office under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, §56.31.

Simple Approximations to a Fractal World

In an insightful comment on the post below, tireless commentor Constant elucidated a helpful way of thinking about moral rules:

The picture that results is of a set of limits, or metaphorically speaking a set of fences that you are not to cross, not to trespass. It is not a set of valuations assigned to every possible thing you might do. . . . morality is a set of fences where, if you cross them, you will be violating morality and will be in the wrong, but if you do not cross them, then you are fine. . . .

This also explains why the rules are easy to understand and to state, and why they have exceptions. They’re easy to understand because they need to be easily knowable by everyone. Simple rules are like straight fences. Rules aren’t actually visible, they’re in the mind and not in the physical world as actual fences. And similarly, if you were constructing invisible fences, the best sort of fence you could construct would be a straight fence, because it’s a lot easier to guess where all the different parts of an invisible straight fence are than it is to guess where all the different parts of a crazy curvy fence. All you have to do is bump against the straight fence at two points and then you’ve pretty much got the layout in your head, because two points define a line. But two points do not define a crazy curve. Analogously, the rules need to be simple. Rules, like invisible fences, need to be as simple as possible most of the time.

The way I would phrase this is that the terrain of ethics is fractal, and deciding whether something is right or wrong is analogous to deciding whether a point lies on the inside or the outside the fractal's boundary. When you're far from its boundary that's an easy call to make: you can approximate the boundary with a simple curve such as an ellipse and use that rough heuristic to make the judgement. But because the boundary exhibits ever-finer levels of "roughness" as you look more closely at it, you need ever-more nuanced approximations the closer the point is to the actual boundary. A hypothetical example that seems to show that a proposed ethical rule gets the wrong answer in some cases is merely a way of showing that a proposed approximation passes through the boundary.

There is no easy way to decide every case a priori, simply because in order to do so we'd need to know the complete perimiter, which, having finite minds, we can never do in practice. This is why anyone who claims to be able to decide all possible ethical questions based on a few simple and self-evident axioms is selling snake oil: There's no such complete set of axioms, and the best we can hope for is an approximation that serves us well in all the sorts of cases we've tested it against up to now. Rules are, in a sense, made to be broken -- and then reshaped anew. But equally important for beings with finite minds, our decisions come more quickly and easily the simpler our approximation is, which is why we should seek for rules that are (in the words of some German wiseguy) as simple as possible -- but not simpler.


I only just now got around to reading Will Wilkinson's magisterial Cato Policy Analysis paper on happiness research, and am sorry I waited almost a whole week. It hits all the big points, bringing together a wide array of research with keen philosophical insight to make sense of what happiness research does and doesn't tell us. If you have even the slightest interest in the subject and haven't read it, I strongly suggest you do so. The methodological critiques Will makes are all quite sensible, but probably the most forceful point in the paper is that the lazy assumption made by many happiness researchers that economic growth is at best neutral and at worst inimical to human happiness is utterly unsupported by the best available data and could not be further from the truth. After reading this, any serious utilitarian who doesn't place economic growth at or near the top of their policy priorities will have a lot of explaining to do.

(For more happiness policy goodness, check the latest roundtable at Cato Unbound.)