Review of Brand et al. — MetaPsychology

Overall Comments

Very interesting paper, and very interesting method, one which seems easy to integrate into current Bayesian modeling practice.

It took me a while to figure out what you meant by posterior passing. It might be worthwhile explaining the method more simply in the abstract; “posterior passing, where posterior found in a past analysis is used as the Bayesian prior for the subsequent analysis.” This seems simpler to me. Others may disagree.

Methodological Comments

1) If the simulation was an attempt to replicate the various methods, why is the study size fixed for the NHST methods? The parameter passing method allows the Bayesian approach to take advantage of prior data, but the way in which prior data is incorporated in NHST is at least partially via power calculations; they should vary the sample size based on the previously observed effect size.

2) If the intent is for posterior passing to be used in place of meta-analysis, shouldn’t the analysis of frequentist methods include a meta-analysis of the results from the 80 trials, to compare to the result found with prior-passing?

3) You note the importance of file-drawer bias. Would it be possible to run the analysis of the posterior-passing method only allowing passing of results when they are above some threshold, to account for this?

General conceptual introduction and attempt to improve science overall:

The presentation in the paper mentions that “the attempts of advocates of Bayesian methods of data analysis to introduce these methods to psychologists… have been without widespread success or response from the field.” To remedy this, some model of how it might change is necessary, and that model should explain the observation.

One plausible explanation is offered earlier in the review; “due to incentives for high numbers of publications, poorer methods that 65 produced false positives persisted and proliferated.” Another plausible explanation is that newer methods are more complex, and people prefer not to learn new methods.

Ideally, at least a comment should explain how the proposal would address the presented problems — the answer to which eludes me. Perhaps embracing the proposed method needs to be a standard for the method to fix the problem of people incentivized to use simpler/easier to cheat methods, in which case how and why would people start to use it?

Alternatively, the background should be cut significantly, and the problem presented should be more closely restricted to “what method would reduce false positive rates and incorporate / replace reproducibility?” (This seems to be what was actually done.)

My 2018 Predictions

(Initial Version from Jan 1 — Scott finally posted his predictions on Feb 6, so here I am again on Feb 6th with updates, see lower.)

A hazy future means high uncertainty gets quantified!

Just to clarify what I’m doing here, I’m using my best guesses and knowledge to make predictions about a set of future events. This follows the urgings of Eliezer Yudkowsky, and the example of Scott over at SSC, who does this yearly — and it follows in the footsteps of my participation in the Good Judgement Project.

I’m picking these because they seem to be important things potentially happening in the coming year, not because I have specific domain knowledge. I’m happy to find and hear from people who are more accurate and have better judgement than myself, and can prove it with a public track record — and I know several — because I can learn from them. So If you don’t think I have any basis for these predictions, you may be right, but I am a #superforecaster with a track record. And I challenge those with more knowledge, or claims that they could make guesses as well as I can, to try it and see.

All that said, I’m starting with the things I don’t think Scott over at SSC will predict, then I’ll log my predictions on his list once it’s out. That prevents me from cherry picking easy things to predict, or focusing on ones I have more than normal insight into.

US Politics

Interestingly, these are all gonna be correlated in a way the scoring won’t account for. Still, for predictions, it’s put up or shut up.
(I’m waiting for Scott to list what 2018 Election categories he’s predicting. For now;)

Democrats take the senate: 45%
(The seats up for grabs are largely Democrat controlled — hard to make inroads.)

The Republicans will maintain control of the House of Representatives in 2018 elections: 45% 
(Last year I said 40% — this is what the prediction markets now say, but I’m updating. I’m skeptical that Trump’s unpopularity convinces the heartland to vote dem, or stay home. But this is a low confidence prediction, made early.)

Republicans win House of Representatives special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district: 60%

Trump’s approval rating, based on the RCP average, will be over 40% / 45% at some point in 2018: 60% / 25%

Previous-year long-term predictions:

There will be a Republican primary challenger getting >10% of the primary vote in 2020 (conditional on Trump running) — 70%

The stock market will go down under President Trump (Conditional on him having a 4 year term, Inauguration-Inauguration) — 60%

New long-term predictions:

The retrospective consensus of economists about the 2017 tax bill will be;
…didn’t increase GDP growth more than 0.2%: 95%

…that, after accounting for growth, it increased the 10-year deficit
more than $1tr / $1.2tr / $1.5tr, respectively: 90% / 70% / 40%

The House will vote to impeach Trump before the end of his current term: 65% (50% vote needed)

Conditional on impeachment, the senate will convict: 20% (67% vote needed)


I SUCK AT THIS, as the past two years should make clear. (And if you think you can do better, why aren’t you rich? (Alfred, you don’t need to respond, I know.)) But I still think there’s a real chance that the bubbles pop — and even if they don’t, I expect the pace of growth to slow once the regular capital markets have put in their money.

Bitcoin Crashes — “loses more than 50% of peak value”;

Off-the cuff probability distribution: 10% — BTC investment (not use) spreads until much of public holds at these high prices before crashing 
60% — not very soon, but w/in 2–3 years 
15% — Crash During 2018 
15% — (Mid-December 2017) was the top.

I’m on the record already;
Conditional on the crash occurring? 1 year later, I’d predict bitcoin is smaller than at least 2 alternatives, and less than 25% of total cryptocoin market cap, with 80% confidence. (1 altcoin, 33%, 90% conf.)

Global Catastrophic Risks

AI Progress indicators –

AI wins a Real Time Strategy game (RTS — Starcraft, etc.) in full-mode against the best human players before end of;
Within Byun Hyun Woo’s Lifetime: 98% (He claims it won’t, here. Only this low because he might die in the next couple years.)

Scott’s Prediction Topics (His Numbers)

1. Donald Trump remains president at end of year: 98% (95%)
2. Democrats take control of the House in midterms: 55% (80%)
3. Democrats take control of the Senate in midterms: 45% (50%)
4. Mueller’s investigation gets cancelled (eg Trump fires him): 20% (50%) [I assume almost immediately being relaunched by appointing him an independent counsel or equivalent after firing doesn’t count. If it does, I probably agree with Scott.]
5. Mueller does not indict Trump: 80% (70%) [I can’t see him indicting Trump. I think there will be a report with arguably indictable offenses, but even so it very well may come out in 2019.]
6. PredictIt shows Bernie Sanders having highest chance to be Dem nominee at end of year: 60% (60%) [Biden and Warren are more viable choices, and Bernie is really old. But this is predicting the prediction, so I’m less certain about this than I am that he won’t be the nominee.]
7. PredictIt shows Donald Trump having highest chance to be GOP nominee at end of year: 95% (95%)
9. Some sort of major immigration reform legislation gets passed: 80% (70%)
10. No major health-care reform legislation gets passed: 90% (95%)
11. No large-scale deportation of Dreamers: 95% (90%)
12. US government shuts down again sometime in 2018: 60% (50%)
13. Trump’s approval rating lower than 50% at end of year: 95% (90%)
14. …lower than 40%: 60% (50%)
15. GLAAD poll suggesting that LGBQ acceptance is down will mostly not be borne out by further research: 70% (80%) [This is WAY outside my wheelhouse, here.]

16. Dow does not fall more than 10% from max at any point in 2018: 45% (50%)
17. Bitcoin is higher than $5,000 at end of year: 90% (95%)
18. Bitcoin is higher than $10,000 at end of year: 70% (80%)
19. Bitcoin is lower than $20,000 at end of year: 80% (70%)
20. Ethereum is lower than Bitcoin at end of year: 50% (95%)
21. Luna has a functioning product by end of year: N/A (90%) [I don’t know what this is.]
22. Falcon Heavy first launch not successful: N/A — Just saw this. (70%)
23. Falcon Heavy eventually launched successfully in 2018: N/A — Just saw this. (80%) 
24. SpaceX does not attempt its lunar tourism mission by end of year: 95% (95%) [??]
25. Sci-Hub is still relatively easily accessible from within US at end of year (even typing in IP directly is relatively easy): 95% (95%) [??]
26. Nothing particularly bad (beyond the level of an funny/weird news story) happens because of ability to edit videos this year: 80% (90%) [But I’m putting a major fake news controversy as bad. Unsure Scott agrees.]
27. A member of the general public can ride-share a self-driving car without a human backup driver in at least one US city by the end of the year: 60% (80%)

28. Reddit does not ban r/the_donald by the end of the year: 90% (90%)
29. None of his enemies manage to find a good way to shut up/discredit Jordan Peterson: 70% (70%) [??]

{I don’t follow these.}

PERSONAL (Not Scott’s, but adapted):
47. I move by end of July: 95%
50. I go to Oxford as a visiting researcher: 65%
51. I do a postdoc at Oxford: 30%
53. I get at least one article published in a newspaper or decently large website (not Ribbonfarm or Kol Habirah): 20%
55. I weigh more than 160lb at year end: 50%
63. My paper with Scott G. goes on Arxiv/published: 90%
64. My paper with Abram/Osonde goes on Arxiv/published: 50%

2017 Prediction Accuracy

(This is preliminary, since a few of the data points aren’t in, and I need to check what Scott over at SSC says on a few prediction resolutions which I left to his judgement.)

Brier Score: 0.108
Log Score: -0.348

As with last year, I was slightly under-confident based on the results, but I got lucky on a few of these. (Of course I did, that’s the way predictions under uncertainty work!)

Of [50–60%) predictions, I got 2 right and 3 wrong, for a score of 40%
Of [60–70%) predictions, I got 8 right and 3 wrong, for a score of 73%
Of [70–80%) predictions, I got 6 right and 2 wrong, for a score of 75%
Of [80–90%) predictions, I got 11 right and 1 wrong, for a score of 92%
Of [90–95%) predictions, I got 9 right and 0 wrong, for a score of 100%
Of [95–99%) predictions, I got 11 right and 0 wrong, for a score of 100%
Of [99+%] predictions, I got 4 right and 0 wrong, for a score of 100%

GDP Growth: (I’m using 2.2% — the number isn’t anywhere near final, but it’s good enough to score these with.)

< 4% — 90%
lower than in 2015: 60%

No: <2% — 40%
<0% — 5%

Yes: Dow Jones will not fall > 10% this year: 80%

Domestic US Politics:

Yes: Repeal of Obamacare, including the individual mandate OR minimum coverage rules — 80% (End of year:I got lucky on this one — the December tax bill repealed the mandate.)

No: Conditional on above, Republicans have replacement policies already passed — 5% (End of year: I think I was overconfident here, but I was right.)

International Relations:

These are basically just Slatestarcodex 2016 Predictions, 2017 redux: (Numbers to show which were skipped.)

Yes — 1. US will not get involved in any new major war with death toll of > 100 US soldiers: 90%
Yes — 2. North Korea’s government will survive the year without large civil war/revolt: 98%
Yes — 4. No terrorist attack in the USA will kill > 100 people: 95%
Yes — 5. …in any First World country: 80%
Yes — 7. Israel will not get in a large-scale war (ie >100 Israeli deaths) with any Arab state: 95%
Yes — 9. No interesting progress with Gaza or peace negotiations in general this year: 95%
Yes — 13. ISIS will control less territory than it does right now: 90%
Yes — 15. No major civil war in Middle Eastern country not currently experiencing one: 65% (End of year: Iran’s getting hot, though…)
Yes — 18. No country currently in Euro or EU announces plan to leave: 95%
Yes — 35. No major war in Asia (with >100 Chinese, Japanese, South Korean, and American deaths combined) over tiny stupid islands: 99%
Yes — 45. SpaceX successfully launches a reused rocket: 80%
Yes — 48. No major earthquake (>100 deaths) in US: 99%
Yes — 49. No major earthquake (>10000 deaths) in the world: 80%


Yes — Bitcoin will end the year higher than $1000: 40% (Begin year note: But last year I was surprised — maybe I’m not well calibrated here. Or maybe something about markets, irrationality, and solvency. End year Note: No, I’m badly calibrated.

Yes — Lightning Networks / Segwit will be deployed: 65%

No — There will be a major bug found and exploited in LN/Segwit: 60%

Yes — Ethereum will be above $10: 70%

Yes — Ethereum will be above $20: 30%

Yes — Z-Cash will be above $50 (Price on 1/3): 25%

Yes — Z-Cash Market Cap will be above $18m (Value on 1/3): 75%

Yes — There will be no war involving more than one of the US, Russia, China, or any member of the EU on different sides started in 2017 (Measure: Total eventual casualties above 100) — 98%

Longer Term Predictions — No Scores:

There will be no war involving more than one of the US, Russia, China, or any member of the EU on different sides started before 2020 (Measure: Total eventual casualties above 100) — 95%

The Republicans will maintain control of the House of Representatives in 2018 elections: 40%

There will be a Republican primary challenger getting >10% of the primary vote in 2020 (conditional on Trump running) — 70%

The stock market will go down under President Trump (Conditional on him having a 4 year term, Inauguration-Inauguration) — 60%

Slatestarcodex 2017 Predictions:

(Added 1/9/2017. I have left out ones I already forecast above, from last year. His estimate in Parentheses)

Yes — 5. Assad will remain President of Syria: 90% (80%)
Yes — 7. No major intifada in Israel this year (ie > 250 Israeli deaths, but not in Cast Lead style war): 70% (80%)
Yes — 9. No Cast Lead style bombing/invasion of Gaza this year: 75% (90%)
(?) Waiting for SSC Judgement, but yes — 10. Situation in Israel looks more worse than better: 85% (70%)
Yes — 11. Syria’s civil war will not end this year: 80% (60%)
Yes — 13. ISIS will not continue to exist as a state entity in Iraq/Syria: 65% (50%) (Wikipedia: “it controlled no meaningful territory by November 2017”)
Who Knows — 15. Libya to remain a mess: Unclearly defined — 50% to 100% (80%)
I was right, but unclear score — 16. Ukraine will neither break into all-out war or get neatly resolved: [No guess — unsure if a cemented status quo with recognition is “resolved” — which seems likely.] (80%)
Yes — 17. No major revolt (greater than or equal to Tiananmen Square) against Chinese Communist Party: 99% [ China doesn’t let things get to that point any more. They intervene before it can get that large; it’s either toppled gov’t, or nothing like this.] (95%)
Yes — 19. No exchange of fire over tiny stupid islands: 80% (90%)
(?) — 20. No announcement of genetically engineered human baby or credible plan for such: 90% I don’t follow this, so I’m mostly relying on Scott’s estimate (90%)
No — 21. EMDrive is launched into space and testing is successfully begun: 50% [No date announced, and there is a launch backlog for cubesats in the US. These things don’t happen quickly.] (70%)
Yes — 22. A significant number of skeptics will not become convinced EMDrive works: 95% — if it launches, this will become clear quickly. (80%)
Yes — 23. A significant number of believers will not become convinced EMDrive doesn’t work. [If it launches, it’s game over.] Conditional: 10% if launched before November, 90% if not. (60%)
No — 26. Keith Ellison chosen as new DNC chair: 80% (70%)

Yes — 27. No country currently in Euro or EU announces new plan to leave: [Exclusing England, which has no actual plan, 90%](80%)
Yes — 28. France does not declare plan to leave EU: 97% (95%)
Yes — 29. Germany does not declare plan to leave EU: 99% (99%)
Yes — 30. No agreement reached on “two-speed EU”: 90% (80%)
Yes — 31. The UK triggers Article 50: 80% (90%)
Yes — 32. Marine Le Pen is not elected President of France: [Conditional on her running] 50% (60%)
Yes — 33. Angela Merkel is re-elected Chancellor of Germany: 70% (60%)
Yes — 34. Theresa May remains PM of Britain: 80% (80%)
(?) Yes — 35. Fewer refugees admitted 2017 than 2016: [to Europe? Unsure. But the flow is slowing, it seems. 95% (95%)

Yes— 37. Oil will end the year higher than $50 a barrel: [Brent? I guess.] 70% (60%) (It dropped, but then came back.)
No — 38. …but lower than $60 a barrel: 50% (60%)
Yes — 39. Dow Jones will not fall > 10% this year: 60% (50%)
Yes — 40. Shanghai index will not fall > 10% this year: 65% (50%)

Yes — 41. Donald Trump remains President at the end of 2017: 95% (90%)
Yes — 42. No serious impeachment proceedings are active against Trump: 90% (80%)
No — 43. Construction on Mexican border wall (beyond existing barriers) begins: 50% (80%)
Yes — 44. Trump administration does not initiate extra prosecution of Hillary Clinton: 95% (90%)
No — 45. US GDP growth lower than in 2016: 50% (60%)
No — 46. US unemployment to be higher at end of year than beginning: 40% (60%)
Yes— 47. US does not withdraw from large trade org like WTO or NAFTA: 80% (90%)
Yes— 48. US does not publicly and explicitly disavow One China policy: 80% (95%)
Yes— 49. No race riot killing > 5 people: 80% (95%)
No — 50. US lifts at least half of existing sanctions on Russia: [How do you measure half? Also, congress does this, not president. So…] 60%[?] (70%)
Yes — 51. Donald Trump’s approval rating at the end of 2017 is lower than fifty percent: 90% (80%)
Yes — 52. …lower than forty percent: [It’s only 41% now, and they typically drop — and the big exception is G.W.B., after 9/11.] 75% (60%)

And I’m not predicting his blog traffic or his life. But…
(?) 60. Less Wrong renaissance attempt will seem less (rather than more) successful by end of this year: [I’m a bit hopeful — but I’ll follow his judgement on what happened…] 80% (90%)

(?) Bonus: Scott’s accuracy / calibration will be about as good as it was last year, not materially worse [I’m gonna eyeball this one, I can’t think of a good metric.]: 90%

Evidence as Rhetoric — Normative or Positive?

I recently saw an interesting and disturbing paper, “Reframing Evidence Synthesis As Rhetorical Action in the Policy Making Drama.” To vastly simplify and rephrase, they note that rational updating based on evidence is corrupted by policymakers presentation of filtered evidence. Because of this, policy discussion based on evidence is rhetoric, not logic — and it should be viewed in those terms. You might guess from the title that I agree this is a correct description of policy making, but an incorrect and damaging way to make policy.

I want to lay that argument out more fully, including a discussion of bounded rationality, the norms of policymaking, signalling via advocacy of evidence, and the ways in which this problematic norm should be fixed — but for now I think my point is clear.

A Short Explanation of Blame and Causation

The patient, Bob, died due to severe internal bleeding, loss of consciousness following a blunt force trauma. Bob died because he was hit by a car when he ran over the bridge from behind a wall into the cross-street. John was guilty of negligent homicide because he was drunk when he hit Bob while driving. John ran over Bob because when Bob ran into the street, he couldn’t hit the brakes in time.

Multiple Choice Questions:

  1. Why did Bob die?
    A) The laws of physics
    B) John’s wife left him and he’s been depressed
    C) Policy makers have failed to expedite to adoption of self-driving cars
    D) It was karma for ignoring a drowning child in the river
  2. Why did the writer propose different explanations for Bob’s death?
    A) To illustrate the meaningless of causation in a complex world
    B) He wasn’t sure which was correct
    C) He was being paid by the word
    D) Meaning is tied to purely subjective interpretation, so any one explanation can be correct for the reader

So how do explanations compete for the title of “cause” in informal discussion? It should be clear that “cause” is a meaningful term; we can define it rigorously, but its meaning depends on context. Medically, the first sentence is sufficient; “almost all transportation fatalities… result from blunt force trauma.” This is a form of disguised query, and once we know the goal of the discussion, whether legal, moral, or religious, we can attribute cause. The cause is unclear only because informal discussion and made-up context-less quotations don’t have clear definitions of goals or model levels.

But dependence on goals or model levels needn’t make causes unclear; context and thought can reveal that the author wished to illustrate the reasonableness of varying explanations. If the question is legal, the correct model is different than if the question is religious, or medical.

Blame is not a useful concept in most discussions. Instead, the question is what causal mechanism is relevant for imposing the desired state of the world. If you can get regulators to approve model cars, answer C is relevant, and if you can change human biology, answer A becomes critical instead.

What question we are trying to answer itself the disguised query in many discussions; we incorrectly assume the meaning of cause in a given situation is a single similarity cluster. Instead, the meaning of cause is a set of different causal models depending on the purpose of discussion. In John’s trial, all four of the answers to the first question are irrelevant to the jury’s deliberations of guilt. In rehabilitating John, his depression and his feelings about Bob and the drowning child may be critical. In each case, there is a concrete decision to be made. In one case, the implications of physics on medicine is irrelevant, legal culpability is critical. In the other, technological policy is irrelevant, but self-imposed moral blame is critical.

And hopefully that explanation dissolves the earlier questions.

Goodhart’s law, Changing Wikipedia, and the Hawthorne Effect

I’ve been interested in Goodhart’s law for a long time, and in the past couple years even wrote a few articles about it. So I’ve left a column on Tweetdeck running with a search for Goodhart’s law, to see how it is used and discussed.

If you’re not familiar, the popular paraphrase of Goodhart’s law is “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” This quote bothered me for a long time, since it is a significant generalization of Goodhart’s original phrasing, “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” This was confusing until I saw a tweet saying that the popular paraphrase is known as “Strathern’s Variation,” and I found that others had noted the same thing. This prompted me to investigate.

Digging through the Wikipedia edit history, I found a reference to Strathern that had since been edited out, citing a 2007 publication, “Wireless Communications: The Future.” This wasn’t available online, and I was fairly sure I had seen the quote before then anyways. Digging, I found the origninal source; a 1997 paper by Strathern. So on August 4th, I edited Wikipedia to include the fact that the frequently quoted paraphrase of Goodhart’s law is actually hers, and added a link.

From August 1st-4th, I count 14 mentions of the term “Goodharts Law” on Twitter. That’s probably par for the course; it gets mentioned around 100 times a month. But before August, I can find 1 time that Strathern has been mentioned referring to the quote this year — the one prompting my investigation — as opposed to 3 in the month ending September 2nd — and another several dozen in the week since due to bots retweeting a Techcrunch article that leads with the quote. This isn’t yet statistically significant, but it’s an interesting impact to notice.

The problem with writing this article, then, is that it brings further attention to the issue — and that highlights the difference between Goodhart’s law and the Hawthorne Effect, an earlier and simpler claim that paying attention affects measurement. The appearance of the article potentially warps how well my measure represents the effect of the original edit, but it’s not placing any pressure on the measure.

Yes, it’s true — people use the Internet!

Imagine I told you the following statistics;

  • From 2013 to 2014, the total percent of high school class reunions organized online jumped from 47 percent to 76 percent. In 2015, this figure rose to 90 percent. While falling to 43 percent in 2016, it rose again to 83 percent of cases as of September 2017.
  • More than four in 10 class reunion attendees in the United States in the past 15 years either maintained a social media account where they posted material about reunions or interacted with classmates; in recent years, an active online presence has been almost universal among reunion planners and attendees.
  • In 129 cases surveyed, we found zero high school class reunions were planned in person. Of the 129 cases, 101 showed a pattern of often downloading and sharing information online and, in a smaller number of cases, engaging in online conversations about class reunions.
  • Instead, planners were sometimes in touch via Twitter or other messaging platforms. High schools in many cases offered support online, and staff communicated with the planners. Many attendees were not graduates of the schools in question, but instead were later revealed to have close ties with those who were.

Would you be surprised?

I hope not.

You might wonder why anyone bothered asking the question, given that internet usage and social media is universal nowadays.

OK, now look at a slightly different analysis, by the New America Foundation ;

  • “From 2013 to 2014, the total percent of… extremists who radicalized online jumped from 47 percent to 76 percent. In 2015, this figure rose to 90 percent. While falling to 43 percent in 2016, it rose again to 83 percent of cases as of September 2017.”
  • “Today’s extremists in the United States radicalize online, and the internet knows no visa requirements. More than four in 10 jihadists in the United States since 9/11 either maintained a social media account where they posted jihadist material or interacted with extremists via encrypted communications; in recent years, an active online presence has been almost universal among American jihadists.”
  • “A key characteristic that ties together American militants drawn to the Syrian conflict is that they are active in online jihadist circles. Of the 129 individuals, 101 showed a pattern of often downloading and sharing jihadist propaganda online and, in a smaller number of cases, engaging in online conversations with militants abroad.”
  • “ ISIS and its affiliates have also reached out via online communication to encourage and enable attacks. There are attacks by individuals and small groups of individuals who do not have any known link to ISIS, its affiliates or its online networks, yet who are inspired by ISIS and its cause to commit acts of violence.”

Does it matter that Jihadis use the internet? Yes. But we can stop pretending to be surprised that they have taken to using a nearly universal tool. Instead, we can treat the internet the way we do any other domain; it can be used for good and bad things, and it’s unlikely that you can do much about the latter without affecting the former.

Celebrating the Civil War?

We sometimes celebrate the outcomes of a war, a righteous victory, or perhaps a lamented defeat of something we stand for. That’s fine — but it is solemn, solemn rather than celebratory. Look at Independence days around the world; people celebrate their freedom, their independence, and give thanks and appreciation to those that made it possible. Sometimes, they erect statues in thanks to those who fought for something the value — honoring the sacrifice. But they don’t celebrate the war that was necessary for it to occur.

Human beings do not celebrate war. We do not celebrate sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. War is tragedy, and if you celebrate it, you’re fundamentally confused about the value of human life. Celebrating the (perhaps necessary) death and destruction of war is unacceptable. Doing so would either be a sick “celebration” of death, or the result of a confusion reflecting a lack of thought and reflection on what is being celebrated.

When someone says they celebrate the south or their southern heritage, that’s wonderful. There is a rich culture and a history of excellence of various types worthy of celebration. But if they want to celebrate the Civil War or erect statues to the “heroes” of the Confederacy I am compelled to ask: what exactly are they celebrating?

Purim 5776 D’var Torah

Note: This is for a very different audience than most of what I post here. If you follow me, you probably won’t have any idea what I’m talking about — sorry!

The megillah identifies its main characters, Esther, Mordechai, Haman, and Achashverosh — but they undergo opposite identification processes throughout the story.

For some reason we start the megillah with Achashverosh, and it’s critical at the very outset to know that his mission is to be Molech, to assert his identity and rulership. This mission is eventually successful, culminating in his dethroning of his appointed head of staff, followed by an assertion of direct power in the form of taxing the people. Similarly, Haman is so egocentric that he wagers his title and his position —one to which everyone must accede, even a lowly-seeming Jew named Mordechai. He fails while trying to assert himself and his identity, brought down by a plan intended to finally force his nemesis to honor him; he is obviously humiliated by needing to honor this lowly Jew instead.

That Jew, Mordechai, is identified only by his tribe and the fact that he was sent away when the Jews were exiled. In Shoshanas Yaakov, he is identified even more plainly, only as “HaYehudi.” He seemed so unimportant that, as the Megillah states, it would be an embarrassment for Haman to stoop to the level of acting against him directly! (It is only via our tradition that we know he was a member of the Sanhedrin, already an important leader of the Jews.)

And Esther — she was not only nearly anonymous at first, with no parents and only a seemingly lowly uncle, but she then hides her identity further. She is demure through most of the Megillah, to the point that after she acts, she cannot simply tell the King what is wrong, but must act out an extended charade to get to the point. But in the end, we note that the entire Jewish people act on her behalf — she is Esther Ba’adi, Esther for us!

The difference here is between those who act to reinforce their own identities, and those for whom identity is forced upon them. Our identity is our core component. Our very da’as is dependent on it — da’as tov ve’rah, da’as our religion, da’as our ability to relate to others. On Purim, we attempt to remove that Da’as — we drink to erase identity, to erase thought, to erase deliberation.

Esther, the most anonymous member of our story, is the one who eventually takes charge, thus seizing a place for herself as… nothing. Her position is unchanged, still in thrall to the King, having only further surrendered her identity, becoming a Queen instead of a wife. Her legacy, though, is a holiday enshrining her sacrifice. She becomes the focus, the hero.

How? Only by initially being willing to hide her identity can she take a place as Queen. At that point, Esther could easily have built an identity as Queen, the apex of power for a woman in her day, instead of hiding who she was. She could have decided for herself the reason Hashem placed her there— ensuring that she would later be unable to act for the Jews when needed. Instead, when she acts, it is by asserting her identity as a Jew, the least specific identifier available. As the gemara in Megillah clarifies, that is the point of her actions — she doesn’t pre-specify a plan, or what it will mean, what will happen to her. She simply waits to see what part of her almost erased identity is necessary for her to act.

On Purim, we need to step back from the elaborate identities we construct for ourselves.

Identity as a constraint

Identity constrains us, makes us need to justify ourselves and act according to what is expected. Paul Graham uses this to argue against identifying with a specific programming language, religion, or political party. (I’d only endorse avoiding two of those.)

Why? “People can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan.” He correctly notes that “you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn’t engage the identities of any of the participants.”

Most of us can’t dispassionately evaluate the relative merits of the Chareidi and Dati communities, though we know we should admit that “Yisroel Kedoshim Heim.” Instead, if “our” group has done something wrong, or is non-ideal in some aspect of their behavior, we feel the instinctive need to justify “ourselves.” Worse, we uncritically accept the norms of a group, even ones that are detrimental. We allow the positive aspects of the identity drown out the fact that other groups, other Jews, have valuable contributions.

Not all identity is bad, of course. Self-abnegation and nullification of who we are is not a Jewish path; we find meaning and Kedusha through engagement with the world, not withdrawal. Obviously, self-identifying as someone who Davens 3 times a day, or as someone who learns Shabbos afternoon, is wonderful if it helps us maintain the habit. Despite that, even these purely positive traits are harmful when we use this identity to denigrate others, or view them as inferior. We can use the positive, and still appreciate that it doesn’t need to help us exclude others.

Our Avodah on Purim is to allow us to reconstruct who we are, to replace our narrow constructed identities with more universal ones that allow us to unify, to capitalize on opportunities. We should not let identities get in our way of participating in the Revach v’Hatzalah that will be provided for our people. At the very least, our role can be to support others, just like the Jews that have so little identity that they are mentioned in the Megillah only as fasting in support of Esther (and eventually, as looting the homes of anti-semites who attack.) Instead of our solidly constructed, narrow towers of identity, we have a chance to redefine ourselves humbly. If we are successful, who can know what out fate will bring? We may discover that, by allowing ourselves to be more accepting and more open to opportunity, we gain the ability to capitalize on an “Eis C’Zos, when Hashem provides a moment of golden opportunity.

The practical take-away of this message, however, goes beyond our personal Avodah while drunk on Purim. Which Jews were targeted by Haman? “M’naar v’ad Zakein, Taf v’nashim.” Haman viewed us, correctly, as a nation that was “M’fuzar u’Meforad Bein Ha’Amim” split into ever smaller categories. Even our Avodas Hashem is segmented! We are Chassidim or Misnagdim, Ashenazim or Sefardim. We are people who daven at a Teen Minyan, a Young Marrieds Minyan, a Hashkama Minyan, a Main Minyan, or otherwise.

On Purim, however, we are told explicitly by the Gemara that the Pirsumei Nisa should be accomplish with many Jews. The Mishna Berura poskins l’halacha that we need to find a Megilla reading that’s large, containing many Jews. “B’rov Am Hadras Melech” — all together, undivided by our identities. We leave this unified public reading to spend the day delivering gifts, to encourage bonds of friendship, and to provide for our nation’s poor, allowing them to join in the celebration. Only then can we drink, to further unify our nation, and to erase that which separates us.

Unity, one Gemara notes, has historically protected Jews even when they were idol worshippers. On the day identified as “like Purim,” we open by asking permission to pray with those that are sinful, to exclude no-one. This diversity we are told to display is clearly a way to oppose narrow identities, to require inclusivity. The Megillah is clear on this point as well; Purim is a time when K’lal Yisroel comes together to allow individuals to accomplish miracles, hidden though they may be. Unity allowed us to accept the Torah originally, and our continued re-acceptance on Purim is strengthened, not weakened, by inclusivity.

Dynamic Evolution of Chaos in Politics

There is a tension I have noticed between stability, instability, growth, and political movements. Basically, there is a cycle where stability leads to desire for less control, less control leads to growth, justifying further reduction in control, which eventually leads to instability.

It’s certainly not original, but I wanted to write it down so I could get ideas about who explained it already — or who explained where it does or does not apply, and why.


A basic and well discussed example is modern financial markets. Regulation strangles growth, so in good times there is a constant push to reduce regulation. Reduced regulation allows new approaches which are exciting and profitable. The reduction in regulation also allows developments that reduce stability, eventually leading to a moderate or large collapse — which leads to a push for more regulation — as we saw in 2008 and onward.

But let’s start with a slightly less obvious example of this; the 1970s London real estate bubble. From that case study, we have a simple timeline.

External shocks led a slightly under-regulated bubble to collapse. They were lucky the external shocks came when they did to pop the bubble — without them, bubbles inflate until they burst under their own pressure. And that’s what happened in 2007–8; the US housing market started to climb above trend around 2000, when the dot-com bubble popped, and people sought a “less risky” place to put their money. This continued until it spurred a housing-backed derivatives industry that accelerated the process until the financial bubble was large enough that upon popping, the housing price collapse was almost unimportant.


This is worse for governments as a whole. There is a tension between chaos and stability, and between growth and collapse — and it’s possible to reach any point in that space, with sufficient cleverness and/or mismanagement.

Looking at Russia, we saw a relatively rapid (20-year) shift from the top right in the 1980s, to the bottom left now. China’s cultural revolution managed to move from the bottom right to the top left. The transition from top to bottom is usually more sudden; the Arab Spring has numerous examples. The United States has been moving steadily from the bottom left to the top middle over the past century, sacrificing growth for stability.

I think that’s the missing dimension; wealth creates a desire to push upward, towards more stability. Poverty creates the need to move rightward, towards higher growth. These are not directly in conflict — but the pursuit of stability is easiest at the cost of growth, and the pursuit of growth is easiest at the cost of reducing or eliminating structures that enforce stability. Fukuyama’s end of history is democratic liberal capitalism, which marries political stability with market chaos, and allows growth alongside stability. China’s alternative, capitalism with Chinese characteristics, is similar, without the ability for the populace to control the government.

The Chinese model and democracies have common failures; poverty undermines the stability, and if growth is insufficient, or insufficiently widespread, then the populace revolts — either via election, or via Tienanmen. Increasing authoritarianism is the short term “solution” in both cases, leading to a vicious cycle of decreased growth and increasing rigidity. If increased stability occurs alongside poverty, there is a push for revolution. If increased stability maintains widespread wealth, it is stable.

There are two ways which historically undermine widespread growth in stable systems; corruption, regulatory capture, and monopolistic wealth extraction, or economic instability and collapse.

I have more to write on this, but I should probably find out where I’m wrong or covering well-covered ground first.