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Here are the podcasts I’m tracking at the moment, with a link to a notable recent episode.

EconTalk – Lengthy interviews with experts on economics and social science. e.g. Acemoglu on Why Nations Fail

In Our Time – Panel discussions on random topics from history and science. e.g. Voltaire’s Candide

Planet Money – News coverage of economics that presents complex ideas quite simply. e.g. Cage Match: Coin Vs. Bill

Surprisingly Free – Interviews with experts on the internet and new technologies in general. e.g. Naomi Cahn on the digital afterlife

This American Life – Stories from Americans on random topics from current affairs to childhood memories. The best show of its kind. e.g. Retraction

More or Less – Entertaining investigations into numbers that appear in the media from Tim Harford. e.g. Austerity, border queues and bank holidays

Savage Love – Relationship and sex advice show. Equal parts entertaining, useful and disgusting. e.g. Savage Love Episode 287

While we are talking about  it, I also use BeyondPod to keep the episodes on my phone up to date! Podcasts are good for commuting and exercising, if you’re not yet hooked on them.

Before we had evolutionary psychology, ‘homo hypocritus‘, the subconscious and the modular mind people were still keenly observing human behaviour. Some were extremely insightful in noting our foibles, lies, hypocrisies and true motivations even if they couldn’t develop a unifying theory by which to explain them.

One of the wisest observers of human behaviour was the French writer La Rochefoucauld. If you haven’t yet read his maxims, you are in for a real treat. Below are some of the most cynical and enduring observations.

  • What we term virtues are often but a mass of various actions and divers interests, which fortune or our own industry manage to arrange; and it is not always from valour or from chastity that men are brave, and women chaste.
  • Hypocrisy is an homage that vice pays to virtue.
  • Nobody deserves to be praised for goodness unless he is strong enough to be bad, for any other goodness is usually merely inertia or lack of will-power.
  • There is great skill in knowing how to conceal one’s skill.
  • We always like those who admire us; we do not always like those whom we admire.
  • How can we expect others to keep our secrets if we cannot keep them ourselves?
  • We are eager to believe that others are flawed because we are eager to believe in what we wish for.
  • We often forgive those who bore us, but we cannot forgive those whom we bore.
  • We confess to little faults only to persuade ourselves we have no great ones.
  • Mediocre minds usually dismiss anything which reaches beyond their own understanding.
  • Nothing prevents us being natural so much as the desire to appear so.
  • In friendship and in love, one is often happier because of what one does not know than what one knows.
  • Hardly any man is clever enough to know all the evil he does.
  • In all professions we affect a part and an appearance to seem what we wish to be. Thus the world is merely composed of actors.
  • In the human heart there is a perpetual generation of passions, such that the ruin of one is almost always the foundation of another.
  • We should not be upset that others hide the truth from us, when we hide it so often from ourselves.
  • We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.
  • Philosophy triumphs easily over past and future evils; but present evils triumph over it. (A nod to construal level theory.)
  • Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.
  • The evil that we do does not attract to us so much persecution and hatred as our good qualities.
  • If we had no faults, we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.
  • Self-interest speaks all sorts of tongues and plays all sorts of characters, even that of disinterestedness.
  • To succeed in the world we do everything we can to appear successful already.
  • Sincerity is an openness of heart; we find it in very few people; what we usually see is only an artful dissimulation to win the confidence of others.
  • If we judge love by the majority of its results, it resembles hatred more than friendship.
  • The love of justice is simply in the majority of men the fear of suffering injustice.
  • Friendship is only a reciprocal conciliation of interests, and an exchange of good offices; it is a species of commerce out of which self-love always expects to gain something.
  • It is more disgraceful to distrust than to be deceived by our friends.
  • Everyone complains about his memory, and no one complains about his judgment.
  • In the adversity of our best friends we often find something that is not exactly displeasing.
  • Nothing is given so profusely as advice.
  • The truest way to be deceived is to think oneself more knowing than others.
  • When not prompted by vanity, we say little.
  • Usually we only praise to be praised.
  • The refusal of praise is only the wish to be praised twice.
  • The art of using moderate abilities to advantage wins praise, and often acquires more reputation than actual brilliancy.
  • The desire to appear clever often prevents one from being so.

Below is a scene from the movie Schindler’s List. It is one of the most haunting exchanges I have ever seen on the screen.

We all find ourselves in the same circumstance as Schindler: confronting unending opportunities to save lives at low cost. Indeed it is easier for us to save lives than it was for Schindler. None of us faces the risk of arrest and execution by the SS.

We may not weep for those we fail to save because we never see them, but they are just as real.

255. EXT. COURTYARD – BRINNLITZ CAMP – NIGHT. 255.

Schindler and Emilie emerge from his quarters, each carrying a small suitcase. In the dark, some distance away from his
Mercedes, stand all twelve hundred workers. As Schindler and his
wife cross the courtyard to the car, Stern and Levartov approach.
The rabbi hands him some papers.

LEVARTOV
We’ve written a letter trying to explain
things. In case you’re captured. Every
workers has signed it.

Schindler sees a list of signatures beginning below the
typewritten text and continuing for several pages. He pockets
it, this new list of names.

SCHINDLER
Thank you.

Stern steps forward and places a ring in Schindler’s hand. It’s
a gold band, like a wedding ring. Schindler notices an
inscription inside it.

STERN
It’s Hebrew. It says, ‘Whoever saves
one life, saves the world.’

Schindler slips the ring onto a finger, admires it a moment, nods
his thanks, then seems to withdraw.

SCHINDLER
(to himself)
I could’ve got more out …

Stern isn’t sure he heard right. Schindler steps away from him,
from his wife, from the car, from the workers.

SCHINDLER
(to himself)
I could’ve got more … if I’d just … I don’t
know, if I’d just … I could’ve got more…

STERN
Oskar, there are twelve hundred people who
are alive because of you. Look at them.

He can’t.

SCHINDLER
If I’d made more money …I threw away
so much money, you have no idea.
If I’d just …

STERN
There will be generations because of
what you did.

SCHINDLER
I didn’t do enough.

STERN
You did so much.

Schindler starts to lose it, the tears coming. Stern, too. The
look on Schindler’s face as his eyes sweep across the faces of
the workers is one of apology, begging them to forgive him for
not doing more.

SCHINDLER
This car. Goeth would’ve bought this car.
Why did I keep the car? Ten people,
right there, ten more I could’ve got.
(looking around)
This pin -

He rips the elaborate Hakenkreus, the swastika, from his lapel
and holds it out to Stern pathetically.
SCHINDLER
Two people. This is gold. Two more people.
He would’ve given me two for it. At least one.
He would’ve given me one. One more. One
more person. A person, Stern. For this.
One more. I could’ve gotten one more person
I didn’t.

He completely breaks down, weeping convulsively, the emotion he’s
been holding in for years spilling out, the guilt consuming him.

SCHINDLER
They killed so many people …
(Stern, weeping too,
embraces him)
They killed so many people …

From above, from a watchtower, Stern can be seen down below,
trying to comfort Schindler. Eventually, they separate, and
Schindler and Emilie climb into the Mercedes. It slowly pulls
out through the gates of the camp. And drives away.

I have recently been working through the HBO series Six Feet Under and highly recommend you do the same. It is the best television I have watched since The Sopranos and deals with issues in ways that cut closer for me as a middle class white geek than a show about the mafia really could. Fear of death, belonging, duty, regret, self-knowledge; it’s all excellent.

It takes advantage of two techniques I have rarely seen used elsewhere. We often see imagined conversations between the main characters of the show and dead or absent people from their lives. We are also frequently treated to actions the characters imagine performing – typically crazy-brave ones – before cutting back to reality where they do something different. It is not always obvious to the viewer whether you are in their imagination or reality, which keeps you on your toes.

This technique is highly effective at giving us insight into the characters without requiring overacting, or contrived conversations between them. It makes the show more like a book, where it is easier for the author to let us into the mind’s eye of their characters. It is so effective I wonder why it isn’t more often used.

Dreams are frequently appropriated for this purpose, but they are only part of our internal lives and to my mind a more random and less insightful part. Conversations in our head and things we imagine and fantasise about doing make up a huge share of our internal world and memories, and say a great deal about us because they are entirely our own invention. Their absence from movies and television is unfortunate.

Here are two beautiful pieces of online art.

The first requires a reasonable computer, an up to date browser and will appeal to fans of the Arcade Fire. I won’t give away any more.

The second uses crowd-sourced frames to recreate a classic video clip. Bravo!

I wrote this for the Alternative Law Journal some time ago:

As I was watching the film Avatar and the cinemagoers around me were cheering on the Na’vi heroes in their fight against human invaders, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us would actually want to live alongside such an uncompromising society. Why is the audience intended to admire the Na’vi’s complete self-satisfaction and unwillingness to deal with humans despite the fact that it is Na’vi isolationism and idealism as much as human avarice which drive the two groups into conflict?

Thinking about it I realised it is hardly an isolated case. In our stories we love idealistic heroes to fight for what they believe in against all odds. But if we were to encounter such uncompromising characters in our families or offices they would strike us as unreasonable lunatics. I am reminded of what Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen, was reported to have thought we would call an archetypical, vengeance-fuelled vigilante like Batman in the real world: ‘in short, a nutcase’.

Why is it that rather than celebrate the values of conflict resolution, tolerance and deal-making, which make our advanced societies function so effectively, our favourite stories continue to be about zero-sum conflicts that are impossible to resolve peaceably? From afar, the kind of conflict found in Avatar seems noble. We can easily imagine one side to be all good and the other all bad. There is no need to dwell on the suffering of those extras who die in battle or the problems that go unsolved back on Earth for want of ‘unobtainium’. A quick cut to the next scene is always just seconds away! But in real life, conflict is painful and messy and something we work hard to avoid.

In fact we are so used to finding compromises in our everyday lives that to make his conflict story hang together, writer and director James Cameron is forced to pile absurdity upon absurdity: an intelligent species totally disinterested in trade with aliens and the magical technology they bring; a business that sees fighting interstellar war as a cheaper way to access ‘unobtainium’ than a peace treaty; a race of people willing to reveal all their secrets to conspicuous spies, but unwilling to negotiate or make concessions to humans even in the face of a catastrophic defeat. The crazy plot twists used to make compromise impossible result in a world unlike anything on Earth and as a result the movie is unable to teach us anything useful about how we ought to live.

Finally, we are led to a deus ex machina moment in which the megafauna of Pandora rise up to repel the human colonisers. To my knowledge, a revolt of Gaia is beyond the powers of the hunter gatherer tribes today struggling to coexist with industrial society, so I’m not sure what they can hope to take away from Avatar. The apparent moral of Avatar, ‘fight hard if you’re in the right and Gaia will provide’, is one only someone very isolated from the real challenges of hunter gatherers could put forward. Why does popular fiction so often favour staunch idealism over the central wisdom embodied in modern political systems and their laws: ‘dealism’? We could tell stories of the countless political compromises reached through well-functioning democratic institutions. We could tell the stories of all the terrible wars that never happened because of careful diplomacy. We could tell the story of the merchant who buys low and sells high, leaving everyone they deal with a little better off. These are the everyday tales which make modern society so great to live in. But will any such movie gross a billion dollars in the near future? I suspect not.

An Australian movie with a very similar plot to Avatar is The Castle, in which the Kerrigan family fights the compulsory acquisition of their home for the expansion of Melbourne Airport. Audiences were predictably united in their support for the charming Kerrigan family in their struggle against big business. In real life, I suspect the public would be strongly divided on the fairness of the acquisition, especially if sticking up for the Kerrigan family meant airport delays and fewer discount airlines. We would want to find a deal which left both the Kerrigans better off and allowed for a larger airport by offering them more and more compensation until they voluntarily moved.

Why split our values like this, some for our stories and others for our own lives? I suspect the answer lies in what we subconsciously want our taste in fiction to say about us. Celebrating the Na’vi allows us to signal how much we value loyalty and justice. Denigrating Melbourne Airport allows us to show our suspicion of greedy and powerful people. In real life, when defending our stated values requires that we make serious sacrifices whether or not we are likely to win, we sensibly value the opportunity to compromise. But when a fictional character will do all the fighting for you, why compromise on anything? Though popular fiction will never say it, we know the best fight is not that won by the righteous but the one nobody needed fight in the first place.

A while back I noted that we naturally trust fiction more than fact, even though fiction can be contrived to say any nonsense an author might want it to say. Robin Hanson today describes how Lord of the Flies grossly misrepresents ‘state of nature’ humans in order to glorify our own civilization:

“This famous novel [Lord of the Flies] suggests that only our “civilized” rules and culture keeps up from the fate of our “savage” ancestors, who were violent dominating rule-less animals.  But though this may be true regarding our distant primate ancestors of six or more million years ago, it is quite unfair slander regarding our face-painting forager ancestors of ten thousand or more years ago.

While our kids are segregated into schools where light monitoring lets them terrorize each other and form dominance hierarchies, forager kids are mixed among forager adults, who enforce their strong social norms against violence and domination.  At school, our kids are rated and ranked far more often than most adults will tolerate, even though this actually slows their learning!”

I particularly liked this (hopefully true) story from the comments:

“When my oldest son was subjected to this book in high school, he got in quite a bit of hot water with the teacher when he responded to a question about what Lord of The Flies tells us about human nature with the observation that as a work of fiction it could say anything at all that the author chose to make up, and therefore it may tell us nothing.”

Parents: warn your kids to beware English teachers, who would try to teach them to value fiction as the equal of fact.

Research confirms our intuition that, regrettably, fiction is more persuasive than non-fiction:

…the dramatic narrative reduced reactance by fostering parasocial interaction with characters and decreasing perceptions of persuasive intent. Also as expected, identification with characters in the narrative reduced counterarguing and increased perceived vulnerability to unplanned pregnancy – although the latter occurred only at the delayed post-test 2 weeks after exposure. Unexpectedly, transportation into the dramatic narrative was associated with greater counterarguing. Taken together, this research demonstrates that investigating narrative influence from the perspective of overcoming resistance is a useful approach.

If we were more rational the opposite would of course be true:

In the ancestral environment, there were no moving pictures; what you saw with your own eyes was true.  A momentary glimpse of a single word can prime us and make compatible thoughts more available, with demonstrated strong influence on probability estimates.  How much havoc do you think a two-hour movie can wreak on your judgement?  It will be hard enough to undo the damage by deliberate concentration – why invite the vampire into your house?  In Chess or Go, every wasted move is a loss; in rationality, any non-evidential influence is (on average) entropic. … Remembered fictions rush in and do your thinking for you; they substitute for seeing – the deadliest convenience of all.

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Robert WiblinHi! I am a young Australian man ostensibly interested in the truth and maximising the total number of preferences that are ever satisfied, weighted by their intensity. I also enjoy reading and writing about the topics listed above. If you share my interests, friend me on , , or or subscribe to my RSS feed .

All opinions expressed here are at most mine alone, and have nothing to do with any past, present, future or far future employers.

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