Risk of the joke

If you tell a real clunker of a joke, it’s embarrassing. Jokes are, in part, a way to show off how clever you are, and if a joke bombs it reflects poorly on you. Embarrassment is generally a pretty big cost (people hate it). So why doesn’t this inhibit people more? Why isn’t the risk of joke failure more discouraging?

I think the risk is generally lower than it seems and depends on the audience. A small group of acquaintances will likely laugh a little to be polite, even if the joke wasn’t good. So risk of major embarrassment there is low. If you tell a joke to close friends or family members, they are more likely to tell you your joke is terrible if it is. But that shows closeness. It’s also an opportunity to show that you are a good sport. So risk of major embarrassment is low.

The biggest risk seems to be in more public settings, where a bystander effect can take place. If a speaker at a conference tells a bad joke, we all might be thinking that someone should laugh to save the person embarrassment, but it’s very easy to just hope other people will do it. Still, there is always opportunity for the person to show that they are a good sport, by joking about the joke bombing. That can be even more awkward, though, as it’s possible people won’t laugh at the joke about the joke failure. Even in this setting, with potential bystander effects, I think total joke failure (silent room) is sufficiently rare relative to the payoff of a good joke that most people deem it worth the risk.

I wonder, though, if people tend to overestimate their own ability to be funny, which is the reason that most people, even when in a public speaking role, take joke risks.

Perhaps the more important factor is this. Telling a joke is generally a very pro-social act. So even if you lose witty points, you likely still gain some points in the potential ally category, as you show you don’t take yourself to seriously.


Lack of Li’l Sebastians

Horses were very valuable to people as transportation. They are large, strong, fast, and just the right shape to be ridden. However, they could not fill this niche for very long. People eventually created superior mechanical horses (cars, trains).

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Horses are cute and make people feel loved. So they had potential to fill the pet niche. However, dogs outcompete them for that role. Horses are too big for most people’s homes and land, and are expensive to feed. Their size was an advantage when they were giving people rides, but is a big disadvantage as a pet. Also, horses are not as good as dogs at showering people with over-the-top displays of affection. So, purposeless horses got turned into food for animals that are better suited for this niche.

The love of Li’l Sebastian reflects our dream for a world where a species can rapidly evolve from one human-useful niche (ride-givers) to another (pet).

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This post is about what kids for cash, the treatment of Brendan Dassey as shown in Making a Murderer, and the war on drugs have in common.

Kids for cash

Briefly, the kids for cash scandal involved Wilkes-Barre, PA Judge Mark Ciavarella, who gave kids long sentences at youth detention centers for very minor crimes. He had a financial relationship with two of these centers, which he did not disclose. So it appeared that he was profiting from giving kids harsh sentences. Pretty scandalous.

There is a documentary about this titled Kids for Cash. The documentary was not what I expected. What it shows is that Ciavarella wanted his identity to be about how tough on kids he was. He was campaigning on the idea that he wouldn’t give kids a second chance. If they got in trouble at school he would give them the toughest punishment allowable by law. He was elected. He then followed through on his campaign promises. He ended up getting re-elected. These are 10 year terms. So he was Judge for 10 years and citizens chose to re-elect him. For much of his time as Judge, he was not receiving kickbacks from youth detention centers. He campaigned as a tough-on-crime judge. He was elected as a tough-on-crime judge. He was giving out harsh sentences to kids who got in trouble at school, just like he said he would.

So it seems to me that he basically gave the people what they wanted, in terms of how he dealt with teens who got into trouble. Had he also not been getting kickbacks for it, would the public have really cared about these harsh sentences? They didn’t seem to when they voted for him and re-elected him.

War on drugs

Mass incarceration was a direct result of getting tough on crime, and especially getting tough on non-violent crime like recreational drug use. This is what the public demanded. Back in the 1980s, it was hard to find anyone who was arguing that recreational drug use should be legal (except for some libertarians, like Ron Paul, who weren’t taken seriously). Recreational drug use is very popular. If you are going to prosecute something that is very popular, you are going to flood the criminal justice system with those cases. What will then happen to people who cannot afford attorneys?

Well, if you give that last question some thought, you’d probably guess that state appointed defense attorneys would have huge incentive to get their clients to accept plea deals. What is the alternative? Can we really afford to pay for everyone to get a good defense, if we are going to prosecute so many non-violent offenses? Of course not. So that is exactly what happened. We wanted a war on drugs. We wanted to get tough on crime. So everyone started taking plea deals.

Brendan Dassey

If you’ve seen Making a Murder (the Netflix documentary), you were probably most outraged by how Brendan Dassey was treated. His defense attorney, before having ever spoken to him, announced to the press that he was guilty. He argued that Brendan should be given a lenient sentence, however, because he was influenced by his older cousin. The documentary series goes on to show how police and Dassey’s attorney worked very hard to get a confession out of him and get him to plead guilty. This, even though it was extremely clear that Dassey’s version of what happened did not match the physical evidence.


People seem to want judges to be tough on crime. In Philadelphia and New York City, there have been a half dozen or so years of stop-and-frisk policy, which has resulted in large numbers of people being charged with relatively minor offenses like drug or weapons possession. Being tough on these crimes ensures that the criminal justice system cannot handle the case load without having a very high proportion of cases having plea agreements. This leads to strong incentives for attorneys to get their clients to plead guilty. When the public finds out about some of the more outrageous cases of innocent people whose lives were ruined because they were talked into pleading guilty, they get outraged. And yet, there seems to be no way to have it both ways. If you support the drug war and tough on crime politics, you end up with a bunch of Brendan Dassey’s. There is no world where you can criminalize popular things that people enjoy and have every person who is charged with a crime get a good defense. For the past few decades, people have chosen get tough over everything else. The consequences of that are real, and sometimes briefly visible in particular cases that get exposure. Unfortunately, I do not think people see the connection.

On cold days, I (sometimes) go to the gym (ok, not that often) and run on the treadmill. At the gym above the treadmills are many televisions, each on a different cable channel.

One thing that has stood out to me is how much airtime MSNBC devotes to showing black men committing crimes or black men fighting each other in prison.

Fox News, on the other hand, seems to stay on message (conservative, mostly white, mostly men talking about how dangerous Bernie and Hillary are, how worried we should be about terrorists, etc).

One could argue that MSNBC is reinforcing harmful stereotypes about black people. As Michelle Alexander put it in The New Jim Crow: “black men today are stigmatized by mass incarceration – and the social construction of the “criminalblackman” – whether they have ever been to prison or not.” This is MSNBC we are talking about – the network known for promoting a liberal worldview during its nightly news programming. It would be like if Fox News devoted a lot of airtime to exposing white collar criminals or to hard working, church going, undocumented immigrants.

It could be that people in charge of Fox News decided to make it a network that promotes a conservative / Republican viewpoint at all times, and the people in charge of MSNBC do not have the same type of commitment (they are the network of Morning Joe after all).

I don’t know if MSNBC has mostly liberal viewers during the day when they aren’t featuring their liberal news programming. But I couldn’t help but wonder about how many of the people who are cheering on Rachel Maddow in the evening are also being entertained by the images of black men committing crimes and getting locked up. Of course, there might be very little overlap between the two groups of viewers. It is just a thought I had while running. It’s probably unfair and too cynical. Probably. I think.


  • While I don’t go to the gym at the same time or even same days every week, I certainly don’t cover the whole span of a day. So my sample might not be representative. I don’t feel like devoting the time to determining if my observations hold up to careful measure. I therefore acknowledge that these ‘patterns’ I see might be coincidence.
  • I am not saying what MSNBC or Fox News should do.

Privilege as criticism

If you are someone who uses the word privilege to criticize people, here is a way to test whether you have been doing it well.

Not doing it well

If just about anything a rich person says could get them criticized by you for their privilege, then you are criticizing them for being well off, not for being ignorant of the advantages they had in life. Examples:

Statement: “I was curious if I could care about (money) on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t”

Criticism: “That’s because you are in such a privileged position that you don’t need to care about money — you already have it!”

Statement: “I decided to take a high paying job”

Criticism: “This is a great example of privilege. S/he just gets to casually choose whether or not to take a high paying job”

Statement: “I decided to devote my life to charitable causes”

Criticism: “Of course you can choose to devote you life to charity, because you are so privileged that you don’t have to worry about bills”

Doing it well

Reserves privilege criticisms for (born) privileged people who are very judgmental of people who had far fewer advantages who haven’t been as successful, seemingly unaware that their advantages likely played at least some role in their success.


I know there are other types of privilege besides money. For example, if a white person living in a suburban neighborhood said that they are happy with the policing in their neighborhood, I don’t think that warrants privilege criticism. But, if they say something like, “I don’t know what these black people are complaining about, I have always found the police to be helpful,” that statement suggests ignorance of other peoples situations due to living in a privilege bubble.


Why changing your mind is (usually) bad

I’ve written before about how I don’t really see changing your mind as a good thing. To me, it usually means that you made the mistake of having an opinion before you had sufficient information. Rational people shouldn’t be changing their minds often, because about most (policy) things they shouldn’t have an opinion.

To make this more concrete, I think it’s useful to think further about what an opinion is or should be. You can imagine two dimensions: how confident you are and how big of an advantage one thing has over another. For example, if an event occurred 4 times in 5 experiments, my best guess might be that the true success probability is 0.8. If, instead, an event occurred 4000 times in 5000 experiments, my best guess might be that the true success probably is 0.8, but I’d be a lot more confident about it.

If you’re going to think about ‘Bayesian updating,’ you shouldn’t just think about a point estimate, you should also think about uncertainty (something like a credible interval). Updates would tend to look like “I am a little less uncertain now” rather than “I changed my mind!” Typically, changing your mind just means you either ignored or previously underestimated uncertainty.

Most things about which there is a lot of debate will tend to not have much very good data supporting one side over the other. And yet, most people seem to have strong opinions. This leads to my next point

Many light bulbs without dimmers

Most political issues tend to have pros and cons that are pretty easy to see if you really try. Generally, things like: compassion versus tough love; privacy versus security; inflexibility versus discretion; etc.

However, almost all debates involve people arguing passionately for one side against people arguing passionately for the other side, without really acknowledging the trade-offs with either. These debates, where no one admits there are tradeoffs, do tend to lead to compromise.

I sometimes picture an alternative world, where everyone acknowledges the tradeoffs and a compromise is reached by discussing the tradeoffs and making a judgment on how best to weigh them.

It’s like trying to achieve a certain degree of brightness. In one room we have many light bulbs, some at full brightness and some off. In another room we have the same number of light bulbs, but they are all dimmed. Both rooms might be equally bright. Humans never seem to achieve the desired brightness with a dimmer.


I love watching people take care of their lawns. Today I saw people with leaf blowers. Grass basically says “I don’t want these leaves on me” and the humans race over and groom it. When grass turns brownish it’s saying “I’m thirsty” and the humans water it. When it gets long people cut it.

In Sapiens, Harari asked “how did wheat convince homo sapiens to exchange a rather good life for a more miserable existence?” In that case, the explanation, while also awesome to think about, is pretty easy to understand. In the case of grass it seems more complicated.

I enjoyed the 99pi episode on lawns. Lawns were really great for signaling wealth because it showed that you were rich enough to own land that you didn’t put to food producing use. It would be like if today rich people bought or built big factories but didn’t have them make anything.

Once lawns became extremely popular (and industrialized, to an extent), it was no longer just for the elites. So their social status purpose morphed. Currently, lawns seem to signal how good of a neighbor you are. If lawns were easy to take care of, by having one we wouldn’t be signaling to our neighbors that we are the kind of people who care for things.

However, it’s not quite as simple as: if I care for my lawn it shows I care about things and I’m a good neighbor; if I don’t care for my lawn then I don’t have pride in myself or my neighborhood. Some people pay lawn care companies to take care of their lawn. By having others do the work, you aren’t quite as strongly showing that you will work hard and get your hands dirty to do your part to make the neighborhood beautiful. You do, however, show that you have enough money to hire people to care for your lawn. Thus, one could argue that you are signaling that you are so important that you don’t have the time to do the yard work yourself, but you still care enough about how the neighborhood looks that you’ll pay to have it done. On the other hand, a person who is rich enough to pay someone to take care of their yard, but instead does the work themself, shows their neighbors that they’re ‘down to earth’ (not above physical labor).

Getting back to how grass gets us to care for it. If it was extremely easy to keep green, it probably wouldn’t have had so much evolutionary success. Being a bit of a diva can be an advantage. Dogs used a totally different strategy to get humans to care for them. Dogs just flood people with flattery. They basically say “oh my god, you are so great! I can hardly contain myself. I can’t believe someone as great as you exists.” Every inch of their body is used to make the dog’s caretaker feel important (waging tail, happy dog sounds, rolling / running around, jumping up the owner’s legs, etc). I love that there can be such different strategies to make humans do reproductive work for other organisms.