A Policy for Biting Bullets

I.

The CFAR Handbook has a really interesting chapter on policy-level decision-making (pages 170-173). It’s excellent, grounds much of this post, and comes with some classic Calvin & Hobbes comics; I recommend it. If you’re too lazy for that, I’ll summarize with a question: What should you do when you’ve made a plan, and then there’s a delay, and you really don’t want to do the thing you’ve planned anymore? The handbook starts with two basic perspectives:

“Look,” says the first perspective. “You’ve got to have follow-through.
You’ve got to be able to keep promises to yourself. If a little thing like a few
hours’ delay is enough to throw you off your game, there’s practically no point
in making plans at all. Sometimes, you have to let past you have the steering
wheel, even when you don’t feel like it anymore, because otherwise you’ll
never finish anything that takes sustained effort or motivation or attention.”

“Look,” says the second perspective. “There’s nothing to be gained from
locking yourself in boxes. Present you has the most information and context;
past you was just guessing at what you would want in this moment. Forcing
yourself to do stuff out of some misguided sense of consistency or guilt or
whatever is how people end up halfway through a law degree they never
actually wanted. You have to be able to update on new information and
adapt to new circumstances.”

Policy-level decision-making is the handbook’s suggested way to thread this needle:

[W]hat policy, if I followed it every time I had to make a decision like this, would strike the right balance? How do I want to trade off between follow-through and following my feelings, or between staying safe and seizing rare opportunities?

It’s obviously more work to come up with a policy than to just make the decision in the moment, but for those cases when you feel torn between the two basic perspectives, policy-level decision-making seems like a good way to resolve the tension.

II.

There is a peculiar manoeuvre in philosophy, as in life, called “biting the bullet”. Biting the bullet in life is to accept and then do something painful or unpleasant because you don’t think you have any better alternatives to get the thing you want. Want to swim in the ocean, but it’s the middle of winter? You’re going to have to “bite the bullet” and get in even though the water will be freezing cold.

Biting the bullet in philosophy is analogous; it means to accept weird, unpleasant, and frequently counter-intuitive implications of a theory or argument because the theory or argument is otherwise valuable or believed to be true. If you think that simple utilitarianism is the correct ethical theory, then you have to deal with the transplant problem, where you have the option to kill one random healthy person and use their organs to save five others. Really basic utilitarianism suggests this is a moral necessity, because five lives are more valuable than one life. One way to deal with this apparently appalling rule is to “bite the bullet”; accept and actually argue that we should kill people for their organs.

Bringing this back to policy-level decision-making: I realized recently that I don’t have a policy for biting bullets, in philosophy or in life.

In life, a policy for biting bullets is probably useful, and I’m sure there’s an important blog post to be written there, but at least personally I don’t feel the lack of policy too painfully. If there’s a thing I want and something in the way, then it’s a pretty standard (though frequently subconscious) cost-benefit analysis based on how much I want the thing and how much pain or work is in the way. If the analysis comes out right, I’ll “bite the bullet” and do the thing.

Philosophy, however, is a different matter. Not only have I realized that I am biting bullets in philosophy somewhat inconsistently, I also notice that it’s been the source of many times where I’ve agonized at length over an argument or philosophical point. I think a policy for biting philosophical bullets would help me be more consistent in my philosophy, and also save me a bit of sanity on occasion.

III.

So what’s a good policy for biting philosophical bullets? As a starting point, let’s copy the handbook and articulate the most basic (and extreme) perspectives:

“Look,” says the first perspective. “Philosophy is fundamentally grounded in our intuitions. You’ve got to be consistent with those, in the same way that any theory of physics has to be consistent with our empirical observations. If a philosophical theory asks you to deny an intuition, then that theory can’t be ultimately true; it might still be a useful approximation, but nothing more. And anyway it’s a slippery slope; if you accept biting bullets as a valid epistemic move, then every theory becomes equally valid because every objection can be ‘bitten’ away.”

“Look,” says the second perspective. “Our intuitions are basically garbage; you can’t expect them to be internally consistent, let alone universally correct. Humans are flawed, complicated creatures mostly built on hard-wired heuristics derived from a million years living on the savanna. A philosophical theory should be free to get rid of as many of these outdated intuitions as it needs to. After all, this is one of the ways we grow as people, by replacing our moral intuitions when persuaded by good arguments.”

Obviously both of these positions are somewhat exaggerated, but they do raise strong points. We don’t want a policy that lets us bite any old bullet, since that would significantly weaken our epistemology, but at the same time we do want to be able to bite some bullets or else we end up held captive by our often-flawed intuitions. But then how do we decide which bullets to bite?

IV.

Instinctively, there are two sides to the question of biting any particular philosophical bullet: the argument, and the intuition. In a sense, the stronger of the two wins; a strong argument countered by a weak intuition suggests biting the bullet (the argument wins), whereas a weak argument faced with a strong intuition suggests the opposite (the intuition wins). This is a nice model, but only succeeds in pushing the question down a layer: what do we mean by “strong” and “weak”, and how do we compare strengths between such disparate objects as arguments and intuitions? What I really want is Google’s unit conversion feature to be able to tell me “your intuition for atheism is worth 3.547 teleological arguments”. Alas, real life is somewhat messier than that.

“Strong” and “weak” for an intuition may be hard to precisely pin down with language, but at the very least I have a clear felt sense for what it means that an intuition is strong or weak, and I suspect this is common. Somewhat surprisingly, it is how to consider “strong” and “weak” with respect to arguments that seems to give more trouble. Assuming of course that the argument is logically valid (and that the empirical facts are well-specified), what makes a philosophical argument “stronger” seems to boil all the way down to intuitions again: a stronger philosophical argument is backed by more and/or stronger intuitions.

But if it’s true that argument strength is ultimately just intuition strength, then our policy for biting bullets can be summarized as “choose whichever side has the stronger intuitions”. This defeats the whole purpose of the exercise, since the previous times I’ve found myself agonizing over biting a bullet was precisely because the intuitions on both sides were already well-balanced; if there was a clear winner, I wouldn’t have had to work so hard to choose.

Perhaps this is a fundamental truth, that choosing to bite a bullet (or not) has to be a hard choice by definition. Or perhaps there is some other clever policy for biting bullets that I just haven’t managed to think of today. I’m certainly open to new suggestions.

V.

All of this talk of biting hard things has reminded me of a poem, so I’ll leave you with these two stanzas from Lewis Carroll’s You Are Old, Father William:

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak
    For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak—
    Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
    And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
    Has lasted the rest of my life.”

An Exercise in Pessimism and Paranoia

When I consider the world at large, there are three interrelated futures which terrify me.

Fear #1 is the culture war. Per the law of cultural proximity and musical outgroups, I expect this conflict to get worse in the near future as battle lines are more firmly drawn, and neutrality becomes increasingly impossible (I gave a few possibilities at the end of Musical Outgroups, but I’m now leaning more firmly towards “the smaller tribes being squeezed out of existence between dominant Blue and Red cultural forces”). We can already see this happening in recent events like protesters threatening passersby they assume are neutral.

Fear #2 is The Second American Civil War. David Shor makes a compelling case that post-Biden, the Republican party will end up with a multi-term lock on the presidency and the senate. A government consistently elected by a violently-hated minority (see fear #1) seems like a recipe for disaster. We’ve only had one term of Trump so far, and already witness renewed talk of Californian secession, and protester-led self-governing zones springing up and then fading away.

Fear #3 is World War 3. (Huh; fear #2 is the second civil war and fear #3 is the third world war. That’s numerically convenient). With America in turmoil, and civil war as a possible future, the age of Pax Americana (general world peace through American military dominance) has started to draw to a close. China and Russia are already starting to flex their muscles by snipping off bits of territory. They’re currently relying more on American being distracted than on an actual power shift, but that could change very rapidly if America descends into a genuine constitutional crisis or civil war.

I sincerely hope this is just my imagination running away with me, and none of this comes true.

Postel’s Principle as Moral Aphorism

[All the usual disclaimers. Wanders dangerously close to moral relativism.]

I.

Postel’s Principle (also known as the Robustness Principle) is an obscure little guideline somewhat popular among computer programmers, in particularly those working on network protocols. The original goes like this:

Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.

My parents were both computer programmers, as am I, and my first job as a programmer was working on network protocols, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I ran across this principle a long, long time ago. I suspect I heard it while still a teenager, before finishing high school, but I honestly don’t remember. Suffice to say that it’s been kicking around my brain for a long time.

As a rule of thumb in computer programming, Postel’s Principle has some basic advantages. You should be conservative in what you do because producing output that isn’t strictly compliant with the specification risks other programs being unable to read your data. Conversely, you should be liberal in what you accept because other programs might occasionally produce non-compliant data, and ideally your program should be robust and keep working in the face of data that isn’t quite 100% right.

While in recent years the long-term effects of Postel’s Principle on software ecosystems have led to some pushback, I’m more interested in the fact that Postel’s Principle seems to apply as well just as well as a moral aphorism as it does in programming. Context matters a lot when reading, so here’s a list of other aphorisms and popular moral phrases to get your brain in the right frame:

  • What would Jesus do?
  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
  • Be conservative in what you do, and liberal in what you expect from others.

II.

I am, by nature, a fairly conservative person. I’m also, whether by nature or past experience, somewhat socially subordinate; I’m usually much happier in a secondary position than in any role of real authority, and my self-image tends to be fairly fragile. The manosphere would happily write me off as a “beta male”, and I’m sure Jordan Peterson would have something weird to say about lobsters and serotonin.

This combination of personality traits makes Postel’s Principle a natural fit for defining my own behaviour. Rather than trying to seriously enforce my own worldview or argue aggressively for my own preferences, I endeavour not to make waves. The more people who like me, the more secure my situation, and the surest way to get people to like me is to follow Postel’s Principle: be conservative in my own actions (or else I might do something they disapprove of or dislike), and be liberal in what I accept from others (being judgemental is a sure way to lose friends).

[People who know me IRL will point out that in fact I am pretty judgemental a lot of the time. But I try and restrict my judginess (judgmentality? judgementalism?) to matters of objective efficiency, where empirical reality will back me up, and avoid any kind of value-based judgement. E.g. I will judge you for being an ineffective, inconsistent feminist, but never for holding or not holding feminist values.]

Unfortunately, of course, the world is a mind-boggling huge place with an annoyingly large number of people, each of whom has their own slightly different set of moral intuitions. There is clearly no set of behaviours I could perform that will satisfy all of them, so I focus on applying Postel’s Principle to the much smaller set of people who are in my “social bubble” (in the pre-COVID sense). If I’m not likely to interact with you soon, or on a regular basis, then I’m relatively free to ignore your opinion.

Talking about the “set” of people on whom to apply Postel’s Principle provides a nice segue into the formal definitions that are implicit in the English aphorism. For my own behaviour, it makes sense to think of it like the intersection operation in set theory, or the universal quantifier in predicate logic: something is only morally permissible for me if it is permissible for all of the people I am likely to interact with regularly. Conversely, of course, the values I must accept without judgment are the union of the values of the people I know; it is morally permissible if it is permissible for any of the people I am likely to interact with regularly.

III.

Since the set of actions that are considered morally permissible for me are defined effectively by my social circle, it becomes of some importance to intentionally manage my social circle. It would be untenable to make such different friends and colleagues that the intersection of their acceptable actions shrinks to nothing. In that situation I would be forced to make a choice (since inaction is of course its own kind of action) and jettison one group of friends in order to open up behavioural manoeuvring space again.

Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that people change their moral stances, especially when under pressure from other people who I may not be interacting with directly. Even if I have a stable social circle and behavioural manoeuvring space today, tomorrow one of my friends could decide they’re suddenly a radical Islamist and force me with a choice. While in some sense “difficult”, many of these choices end up being rather easy; I have no interest in radical Islam, and so ultimately how close I was to this friend relative to the rest of my social circle matters only in the very extreme case where they were literally my only acquaintance worth speaking of.

Again unfortunately, it sometimes happens that large groups of people change their moral stances all at once. Memes spread incredibly fast, and a small undercurrent of change can rapidly become a torrent when one person in a position of power or status chooses a side. This sort of situation also forces me with a choice, and often a much more difficult one. Apart from the necessity of weighing and balancing friend groups against each other, there’s also a predictive aspect. If I expect a given moral meme to become dominant over the next decade, it seems prudent to be “on the right side of history” regardless of the present impact on my social circle.

Being forced to choose between two social groups with incompatible moral stances is, unsurprisingly, stressful. Social alienation is a painful process, as can attest any Amish person who has been shunned. However what may be worse than any clean break is the moment just before, trying to walk the knife edge of barely-overlapping morals in the desperate hope that the centre can hold.

IV. (PostScript)

I wrote this focused mostly on myself. Having finished, I cannot help but wonder how much an approximation of Postel’s Principle guides the moral principles of most people, whether they would acknowledge it or not. Even people who claim to derive their morality from first principles often end up with something surprisingly close to their local social consensus.

The Manual Economy

[An attempt at fiction in the style of Scott Alexander. With bits of Lewis Carroll and Douglas Adams thrown in for good measure.]

The hallucination started out so normally, I completely forgot that I was tripping.

I was at the dentist, and I had just had my teeth cleaned. You know the drill, the hygienist goes through your teeth with this little spray nozzle that gets into all the cracks and cavities you pretend don’t exist when you’ve got a brush in there. Then they make you hold some disgusting not-quite-mint not-quite-water in your mouth, and swish, and spit. And spit. And spit. And after about the third blessed mouthful of real water, you can vaguely taste something other than not-quite-mint, until your salivary glands give up the ghost entirely and your mouth turns into the Sahara desert.

As I said, it was weirdly normal for a trip. I’d been expecting unicorns, or aliens, or a sky made up of funky colours and mystical cactus people who could factor large numbers. But I was at the dentist. If I’d wanted a trip to the dentist, I would have just gone to the dentist. It would have been cheaper, and probably better for my teeth.

The entire dental experience was so totally normal I completely forgot I was tripping until I went to pay, and I couldn’t find my credit card. Or any cash. My wallet had a driver’s license and various other identification cards, but no payment at all. The receptionist smiled at me politely.

“Is everything alright? Can I help you”?

I winced. “I’m sorry, I seem to have misplaced all my money, I’m not going to be able to pay my bill today”.

There was a confused pause. A giant hand walked past waving an umbrella and whistling show tunes. The receptionist winked at me with both eyes at once. I suddenly knew, somehow, that I didn’t need to pay, so I turned and walked out the door. Across the street was a bank, so I floated forward until I was inside.

The bank, like the dentist, seemed totally normal. There were no lines, but that was expected for mid-afternoon on a Tuesday. I rolled over to one of the tellers.

“Excuse me”, I said, “I seem to have lost my credit card, can you help me”?

There was another confused pause. The bank teller turned into a giant hand and flew away. The entire bank building sort of dissolved as the buildings on either side squeezed together to fill up the space. I ended up on the sidewalk outside a Starbucks.

I didn’t even like Starbucks.

Sitting outside the Starbucks was a homeless person whose baseball cap kept flickering as if it couldn’t make up its mind. First it was on their head, but then *pop*, it was on the sidewalk in front of them with a few coins in it, and then *pop*, it was gone entirely. And then it was suddenly on their head again. After a few seconds of this my own head started to hurt, so I stared at the sidewalk extra hard until the homeless person turned into a giant hand, and the baseball cap was arrested for multiplying entities beyond necessity.

The hand spoke to me. “Now look what you’ve done! It’s hard enough to coordinate this economy without some yokel trying to physically instantiate all of the mechanisms”!

There was a third confused pause, but this time the hand just sat there looking disgruntled until I finally echoed its statement back as a question. “You… coordinate the entire economy”?

“Yes of course I do”, the hand replied, “somebody has to do it or this whole place would fall apart. How else does food get to everyone who needs it, let alone all the other goods and services”!

I blinked. “So, you’re, literally, the invisible hand of the market”?

“Well I was“, the hand said waspishly. “But do I look invisible to you”?

“Oh, sorry about that”, I apologized. “So my money and credit card, and the bank and everything? They all disappeared because they’re… you? Or manifestations of you, or something”?

The hand glared at me. “I’m a hand”, it said, waving at itself sarcastically. “It seems awfully rude of you to talk to me about manifestations. Until you came along, I had no need of them at all”! It huffed. “Now here I am, trying to coordinate an economy the size of a planet, and instead of being a magical omniscient force I’m trapped in a giant disembodied appendage. What am even I supposed to do with all of these fingers”?

I giggled. “I dunno, you could say that the economy just went… digital“.

The hand rolled its eyes, but I had a lot more ready.

“Oh come on, you’ve got to hand me that one. No? You’re not going to clap back? Well come on then, let me give you a hand coming up with a response. I’m pretty handy with this sort of thing, in fact…”

Ten minutes later, I finally ran out of steam with a complicated pun about greased palms and coconut oil, that even I admitted was a stretch. At this point, the hand had finally had enough.

“Look”, it said, “maybe in your universe the economy is coordinated by these magical distributed pieces of paper and electronic numbers, and nobody has ultimate responsibility for the economy. But in this universe, none of that exists; the buck stops with me. I’ve been listening to you make hand puns for ten minutes, and in that time the entire economy has ground to a halt because I haven’t been there to ensure the right transactions occur at the right time. In some sense I don’t just coordinate the economy – I am the economy”.

I shook my head. “That can’t be right”, I said, “the economy isn’t made up of pieces of paper and numbers, the economy is all of the real things that get moved around because of that coordination. Just because you took a few minutes off to…”, I giggled again, “manifest, as a giant hand, farms are still growing food, factories are still producing goods, the economy is still going! Transport truck drivers didn’t all go on strike because you took a small break”!

“That’s exactly my point!” said the hand. “Truck drivers were on strike when you started your little game, but that strike required coordinated action which I provided. When I started slacking off all those truck drivers got bored and left the picket line to follow their individual inclinations, and now it’s chaos”!

At this point I could feel the drugs starting to wear off, but the hand was still going.

“They’re not striking, or trucking, or anything useful at all! The entire economy is crumbling like the twin towers after that so-called plane crash!”

The bank reappeared beside the Starbucks, and the entire row of buildings shifted down to accommodate.

“It’s all the governments fault, them and their secret mind control beams out to steal your thoughts!”

The not-invisible giant hand shrank in size until it was a normal hand, attached to a normal homeless person, still talking about the implications of omniscient economic coordination and various other conspiracy theories. My teeth started to hurt.

I’ve written this trip report in an attempt to jog my own memory. Something that the hand said during our conversation really resonated with me, and I just know the next Nobel prize in economics is mine if I can only remember what it was…

I just can’t put my finger on it.

“I Was Wrong” on Reopening Ottawa

Roughly two weeks ago I wrote a post Against Reopening Ottawa. Since then, my predictions have turned out to be mostly wrong.

First, here’s same the chart I published at the time showing a moving average of new cases in Ottawa:

And now here’s the same chart updated as of the data available today from Ottawa Public Health:

At first glance I sort of feel vindicated, since I predicted cases would keep going up, and they definitely did. But pretty much all of the particulars of my predictions were wrong. In relation to Ottawa cases, my three predictions were:

  • Based on the original data I inferred a steady doubling time of two weeks; actual new cases went up way faster than that, and then flattened completely, and now seem to be decreasing again.
  • I predicted a brief slowdown in new cases starting around July 21st, due to Ottawa’s mandatory mask bylaw going into effect on July 7th. If you squint a little it kinda looks like that part might have been right, but on closer inspection it isn’t. The timing is off (the graph flattens well before masks would have an impact, and starts decreasing well after) and the sharp drop in new cases is so recent that it’s liable to disappear in the next few days anyway (Ottawa reports cases by first symptom where possible, so each new day’s data tends to backfill more cases over the last week or so).
  • I predicted that starting August 3rd or shortly after, cases would spike again due to stage 3 of reopening. This one isn’t right or wrong yet as we haven’t gotten there, but I’d no longer make the same prediction today.

I also made some less rigorous province-level predictions that turned out to be (mostly) wrong:

  • Ontario did see a brief more general increase in cases after my post, but that has stopped, and if you zoom out cases still seem to be trending clearly downward everywhere but Ottawa. I’ll give myself a win for predicting that Peel and other previous hot spots were mostly under control at that point, but Ottawa is now one of the regions with the most reported daily cases, making it an outlier, not a pack leader.
  • British Columbia cases have continued to pick up again, but apparently in the same ways as Ontario; they have one region that’s become a hot spot and everywhere else is well under control. The main difference is that BC’s infections are so low to begin with that their hot spot is swamping their general numbers and making it look like the whole province is in trouble.
  • Alberta I admit I don’t really understand. Their data seems to have done the same thing as Ottawa: a sharp increase followed by an immediate flattening. But they only have two major population centres (Edmonton and Calgary) and neither city on its own shows this pattern. If anybody has a better understanding, please leave a comment.

Finally, there’s a few other miscellaneous points I wanted to make:

  • As I mentioned parenthetically above, Ottawa reports cases by date of first symptom where possible (or even date of infection, if the source is known), which means that new cases reported on a given day are almost always backdated by a few days and up to two weeks. Thus we should expect the last week or so of numbers to show up as lower than they will be in the final tally. This is why I’m not convinced by the magnitude of the recent “dip” in new cases in my chart above, and explains why what was a gradual uptick in my previous post turned into a sudden spike. It does also vindicate me “reading too much into the graph”, although I didn’t realize this at the time so I can’t take credit for it.
  • Ottawa Public Health addressed the recent spike shortly after I published my last post, claiming that it was unrelated to reopening and more related to private parties and lack of distancing in private spaces (in particular among younger age groups). This seems like a generally plausible explanation, and I don’t have any better guesses that explain the weird shape of the data. There’s been so much garbage floating around from the WHO and the CDC, it’s nice to get evidence that my local health authorities actually know more than I do about COVID.

Link #96 – Debate

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Musical Outgroups

[Content warning: Politics. Something I will regret writing.]

A lot of this extends from Scott Alexander’s I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup, but if you don’t want to read the whole thing I’ll quote a few key definitions up front. Specifically:

The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.

The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country”.

(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk – but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time)

And then the kicker:

And my hypothesis, stated plainly, is that if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.

Scott’s post was written in 2017, which now feels like a very different time. I’m not good at fancy metaphors and stories like Scott, so instead of gently guiding you to my point I’m just going to say it: I don’t think the definitions of these tribes, or the description of the Red Tribe as an outgroup of the Blue Tribe, is correct anymore. Things are different here in 2020.

After four years of Trump as president, the Red Tribe has changed in a couple of important ways: it’s gotten smaller, and it’s gotten weirder. A lot of moderate Republicans and previously-Red-Tribe folks have been disgusted by Trump, and while it might be a stretch to say they’ve completely crossed the floor, it’s hard to call them Red Tribe anymore. As a result, the folks that remain in the Red Tribe have consolidated around increasingly explicit anti-science beliefs and other strongly polarized and “fringe-feeling” positions.

That combination of being both smaller, and weirder or more “fringe-feeling”, is really important, because all of a sudden the Red Tribe doesn’t make a good outgroup for the Blue Tribe: it’s not close enough, and it’s not dangerous enough. To quote Scott again:

Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other”. Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

(Tangential note that this is mostly what I was trying to express with my Law of Cultural Proximity.)

Now clearly this process isn’t finished yet, and it may still reverse: the Red Tribe remains a decently large percentage of the American population, so it remains a strong political force capable of opposing Blue Tribe values. But from the position of somebody already living in a Blue Tribe bubble, the Red Tribe suddenly starts to feel too “distant and exotic” to be a proper outgroup. A game of Musical Outgroups begins: the Blue Tribe needs to find a new outgroup.

Again following the narcissism of small differences, the obvious candidate for a new Blue Tribe outgroup is of course the still-half-formed Grey Tribe. But unfortunately the Grey Tribe really is only half-formed, and until recently there was a pretty healthy spread of people across the Blue-Grey spectrum. Categories are fundamentally human constructions (see e.g. The Categories Were Made for Man, Not Man For The Categories), so the Blue Tribe isn’t interested in picking out only the folks who satisfy some platonic ideal of Grey-Tribe-ness as their outgroup; they’re just going to slap a line somewhere in the middle of the Blue-Grey spectrum and call it a day. Besides the obvious Silicon Valley Grey-Tribe tech-bros, who else is on the far side of that line? Neoliberals.

In the new American order, the tribal landscape is more fragmented than before. The Red and Blue Tribes have both become smaller and more politically extreme versions of their 2017 selves. Three new tribes are being forcefully ejected into the wilderness as a result. The Red Tribe is purging itself of compassionate conservatives and the not-explicitly-antiscience; think Ross Douthat and Mitt Romney; I’ll call these the Pink Tribe. The Blue Tribe is purging itself of the previously-defined Grey Tribe, as well as a moderately large contingent of non-Grey neoliberals typified by people like Hillary Clinton; I’ll call them the Purple Tribe.

What comes next is hard to predict. Pink and Purple seem like natural allies, and I can see the Grey Tribe joining that alliance for pragmatic “enemy-of-my-enemy” reasons. But the two-party system throws a real wrench into things. Perhaps, if the Red Tribe continues to shrink and lose cultural relevance, the two-party divide will pivot (as it has before) to be a Blue-Tribe vs Pink-Purple-Grey-Tribe division. On the other hand, if the Red Tribe begins to recover post-Trump, or if Pink, Purple, and Grey can’t find enough common ground, then I can see the smaller tribes being squeezed out of existence between dominant Blue and Red cultural forces.

Against Reopening Ottawa

I.

This is not the COVID post I thought I would be writing a few weeks ago. I honestly didn’t think I’d be writing a COVID post at all.

A few weeks ago, most of Canada seemed to be under control. There were a few hot spots left in e.g. Southern Ontario, but almost any other graph you looked at showed a nice, clean downward trend. How quickly things change. I live in Ottawa, so I’m going to focus there. This data comes directly from Ottawa Public Health (though the graph is mine):

You can see things getting consistently better in May, staying quite steady throughout June, and then starting to creep back up around the beginning of July.

This is a huge problem.

It may seem like I’m exaggerating slightly – after all, Ottawa (a city of 1 million people) went from roughly 4 new cases a day, to roughly 8 new cases a day, over the span of two weeks. That hardly seems comparable to the huge surges being seen in the southern United States or other problem areas. Ottawa’s health care system and hospitals have plenty of capacity. Our testing turn-around time remains under 48h, and our testing throughput remains high. We have a mandatory mask bylaw in place. There seem to be a lot of things going right.

In point of fact there are a lot of things going right – I’d still rather be in Ottawa than in any part of the US. But just because some things are going well, doesn’t mean we’re not still in trouble. Going from 4 to 8 new cases a day is an increase, and any increase is really bad news.

II.

At the risk of rehashing a topic everybody is sick of at this point: virus spread is modelled exponentially (this exponent is the “R0” everybody keeps talking about). R0 isn’t a magical fixed value; when something changes (e.g. people start wearing masks) then R0 for the virus changes too. When R0 is less than one, the virus gradually fades out of the population, as was happening in Ottawa in May. When R0 is exactly one, then the number of new cases stays flat, as was happening in June. When R0 is greater than one, the virus starts picking up steam and spreading again.

R0 in Ottawa is, clearly, greater than one at this point, and has been since roughly the beginning of July (or maybe a little later, depending on how much you’re willing to smooth the graph). This isn’t a big deal for today – we can still handle 8 new cases a day, or 10, or 12. But the thing about positive exponential growth is that it keeps going up, faster, and faster, and faster. As a very rough approximation, let’s assume that the last two weeks are representative of R0 in Ottawa right now, and that our new cases continue to double every two weeks. That would mean that August 1st we’d be dealing with 16 new cases per day. Not too bad. By the end of August, 64 new cases a day – bad (until very recently we had fewer than 60 active cases total), but still manageable. By the end of September though… 250 cases a day, which is probably more than we can handle. And so on. If the trend continued through to Christmas (which is, granted, very unlikely) then we’d be looking at roughly 16000 new cases a day.

Now there’s a lot of reasons we’re very unlikely to hit 250 cases a day, let alone 16000. If new cases increased that much I assume the city would re-institute some kind of lockdown, and at that kind of load other factors like herd immunity would start kicking in as well. But when cases are already increasing it seems like a really bad time to start reopening even more. And yet…

III.

The general consensus seems to be that there’s a minimum of two weeks of lag between the development of actual cases, and reporting. This time accounts for how long it takes somebody who’s been exposed to incubate the virus, develop symptoms and go get tested. Of course in some places where testing is overloaded, the delay can be much more than that, but Ottawa is not overloaded, so let’s assume two weeks.

Ottawa officially entered “phase 2” of our reopening on June 12th, though in practice most businesses were not ready on the day of, and reopened piecemeal over the following week; let’s take an average reopening date of June 15th. Two weeks after that brings us to June 29th, which is, (surprise!), right at the beginning of our uptick in cases. This is a bit of evidence that our “phase 2” reopening was in fact too much; R0 is now back above one, and the virus is spreading.

In worse news, despite phase 2 already being too much, Ottawa officially entered “phase 3” of our reopening yesterday (July 17th). Not only does this seem like a bad idea in general given that R0 is already back above one, but phase 3 includes a huge swath of very risky activities whose impact on R0 will almost certainly be far greater than the impact of phase 2: indoor service at restaurants and bars, movie theatres, museums, etc. As with phase 2, a lot of businesses weren’t ready day of; if we take an actual phase 3 reopening date of July 20th, and add two weeks, it’s easy to see an even bigger spike of cases coming down the pipe, starting around August 3rd. (August 3rd is a statutory holiday here, so in practice I expect the data might not show up until a few days later.)

The one bright spot in all this is that Ottawa made masks mandatory while indoors, starting July 7th. That will presumably have a big impact on transmission rates, and was less than two weeks ago, so we won’t see it in the data yet. Hopefully new cases start to drop again around July 21st (two weeks after mandatory masks), and if we’re very lucky then that decrease will entirely counter-act the increase from both stage 2 and stage 3 reopenings. But that seems like a lot to ask, especially since many people were already voluntarily wearing masks even before the mandate. Only time will tell.

Ultimately, I predict continued increases in Ottawa until around July 21st, at which point the trend will reverse due to mandatory masks, and we see decreases again until August 3rd or shortly afterwards. Then we’ll see the impact of phase 3 reopening, but I can only imagine that it’s going to be bad. I suspect by late August it will be clear that phase 3 is unsustainable and will have to be rolled back. I only hope we don’t learn that lesson too much the hard way.

IV.

[This section is more of an appendix of other little things I didn’t fit in the main post.]

Somebody I discussed this with argued that I’m reading too much into the graph I presented. The data from end of June up to July 9th actually looks well in line with the rest of June, and the growth after that point could very well just be random variance as was likely the case with the brief spike from June 7th to 13th. I suppose this is possible, though it feels unlikely to me. Time will tell, if cases continue to rise or not.

Alberta and BC (two other provinces) are also seeing recent spikes in cases after reopening, though oddly Ontario (the province that Ottawa is actually in) has not. I haven’t dug into the regional data to back this up, but I imagine it’s because the Peel region and the other “hot spots” I referenced earlier are finally under control and decreasing rapidly, which is balancing out the gradual increase in Ottawa and other places. Again, time will tell. I expect we’re already at the bottom of that particular wave, so Ontario-wide cases should start ticking up again (slowly) this week.