I found Trump’s long lost sister on the train 

7th Treatise On The Nature of Meaning and Beauty in the World

Screenshot 2017-04-20 18.57.12

No more than a shadow in a mirror; a mirror which is in fact no more than a mere window; a window which is just a collection of moving atoms; atoms which are themselves no more than moving particles. The mere shadow itself was only a photon variation. There’s nothing redeeming about it all. “But look at the beauty of the thing throwing the shadow!” She may be beautiful, this strange illusion of solidity, but it’s only illusion that gives it beauty. Only illusion gives meaning and that’s all that meaning is. We have nothing else. Mock these trivial lines as much as you please, but you’re not mocking me. You’re objecting to pixels and particles.

Nothing to Tell, But Something to Show

Sorry for the prolonged silence, but nothing interesting and novel enough to say. Hence, in lieu of thoughts, some images. I still have this picture book to “sell” (it’s for free actually):

Screenshot 2016-05-11 18.23.53

Available here:

http://www.blurb.com/ebooks/reader.html?e=389677

and here:

https://itunes.apple.com/be/book/portraits-and-profiles/id645974194?mt=11

An Almost Interesting Moral Question

berlin holocaust memorial

So we were in Berlin last weekend, and we passed the Holocaust Memorial next to the Reichstag. Our 5 year old son was intrigued by the structure and went ahead of us and entered it. He then started to use it as a playground, a maze, to play hide-and-seek. Of course, I wasn’t seeking. He still had a lot of fun, but I had mixed feelings, as you can probably understand.

On the one hand, he was showing a lack of respect for the dead. This – given his age – is understandable though still jarring. I felt ashamed of him and of myself for allowing him to do what he did. On the other hand, maybe his display of innocence and vitality was an appropriate antidote to the burden of national guilt and cosmic morbidity expressed by the memorial (which is beautiful by the way).

National guilt is a concept that is becoming less and less relevant, although you sense that Germany still suffers from it. In addition, the morbidity of holocaust remembrance, although it expresses a fitting form of respect for the dead, is also in a sense an expression of respect for the perpetrators. It makes the perpetrators more important than they should be. Perhaps the Nazis were just a bunch of ridiculous losers which should be laughed at instead of morbidly feared.

Why Your Blog Is a Failure

failure

Of course, I should say “my blog”, but if we assume, unscientifically, that my experience is shared by many other bloggers then some of you may find my answers to the question in the title somewhat useful.

Almost nobody reads my blog these days. I’ve gone from a high point of about 10,000 pageviews a day – a respectable and higher than average number – to 20 or so. (Hi mom!). Whereas failure or success are subjective notions and to some extent in the eye of the beholder, they are fairly objective at the margins. Krugman is an objectively successful blogger, and yours truly is a verifiable suck. (Much of it my own doing, I admit, but I won’t go into the specifics of my personal failure, thank you). Sure, you can call yourself a success with a tiny readership if all you want is to spread the news about your local soccer club, but let’s limit ourselves here to what we could call “serious” blogging, i.e. writing about important topics for a targeted and perhaps sizeable audience in order to change something in the world – or at least in a part of the world.

How can this go wrong, you ask? In many ways, I’m afraid.

It’s the math.

Since it’s so goddamn easy to start a blog – it literally takes only minutes and costs nothing but time – millions of people have done so. Result: there are too many blogs. Which means that you won’t show up on Google and potential readers won’t find you. The only way for googlers to find you is authoritative endorsement: other famous and credible bloggers who write about the same topics and who publish links to or perhaps even favorable comments about your writing. That, of course, is another problem.

It’s the lack of authoritative endorsement.

Even if people do find you in some way or other, they won’t be able to judge the quality of your work compared to that of the thousands of others blogging about the same thing, unless they read you and all the others carefully. Of course they don’t have time for that. They’ll only read you instead of all the others if some authority figure in the field signals to them that that is what they should do. But getting such a figure to give the right signal is hard, for the same mathematical reasons. You can try to identify these people and email them links to your posts in the hope of receiving their endorsement, but here the mathematics will trip you up again. There are very few authority figures, almost by definition, and they receive far too many endorsement requests from far too many bloggers. The chances of getting noticed by authority figures are probably even lower than the chances of spontaneous discovery by a larger public.

Furthermore, endorsement requests can make you look needy, and the need for endorsement is for many readers – including the potential endorsers – a signal that you’re not worth the trouble. People tend to assume that success is self-made and doesn’t require endorsement. If you need endorsement then that’s already a sign that there’s nothing to endorse.

It’s what you write about.

A major factor in determining readership size is the topic you write about. Some topics are more popular than others, and the things you are passionate about may only be interesting to relatively few people even if these things are objectively important to humanity as a whole. That’s OK as long as you redefine success. For instance, if you write about something like human rights – as I do – then you should realistically aim at a relatively small readership. People in general do not want to read about human rights when they can read about celebrities and royalty. You set yourself up for failure if you ignore this fact about humanity. If, on the other hand, you aim at a small readership but one that includes many of the people working in the field of human rights – academics, activists, politicians – then a small but targeted readership can be considered a success. If you can change how academic specialists in the field of human rights think about their subject, and if you can inform activists about how to be more successful in doing their work, then readership size is somewhat less important. This is true for a lot if not all of what we call “serious” blogging. This type of blogging is by definition specialized in the sense that it’s about one topic, and an important topic, and that it tries to go deep within that topic. It’s success for those types of blogs that I care about and success here is more about targeting the right people than the size of the audience.

It’s the metrics.

So it’s important to get over the fetish of readership numbers. They’re not that important for serious blogs, with possible exceptions for wide-ranging fields such as economics. And anyway, they’re notoriously difficult to measure. Pageviews don’t tell the whole story. A lot of the views you get may be just mistakes or people scraping images from your blog. And the rest of the views may last for a few seconds only (although in theory it’s possible to measure time spent on a site). Advertising income, if you have it, is also not a reliable indicator of readership. The only really useful indicator of readership is mentions of and links to you elsewhere on the internet. And especially from authority figures in the field. And that’s by definition anecdotal and impossible to measure. You’ll have to “feel” it.

It’s your style.

Suppose you have a serious blog with some level of specialization – “going deep” – and a targeted and authoritative readership that came to you by way of endorsement. You may still struggle to hold on to your audience. Even a group of specialists in the field of human rights want to have variety in what they read. Hammering on about the same thing over and over again, even if you make sense and develop good arguments, tends to become boring, even to specialists. And it’s not enough to include the occasional funny gif post as a form of comic relief. People can get that anywhere. You’ll have to find a good balance between being short and to the point on the one hand and original and deep on the other. That’s tough. People don’t go to blogs to read thousands of words (I know, I’ll wrap this up in a moment, I promise). Or to read what they already know. And remember, you’re targeting specialists and authority figures, so they know a lot and you’ll have to be original and profound.

An additional stylistic difficulty: you’re forced to write in English. No brainer. But English probably isn’t your mother tongue. Whereas English is relatively easy to learn if all you want is to communicate effectively, it’s incredible hard to write well in English. Trust me, I know. And I guess you can tell. People want to read good writing. So invest some effort in it.

It’s only blogging.

Finally: if you obsess about success or failure as a blogger, you’ve already lowered your ambitions. Try to be successful as a writer, an artist, politician or spouse. You may face some of the same difficulties but the payoff will be bigger.

What to do about the risk of failure?

If you still want to be a successful blogger after all this, then what should you do? Invest in your mastery of the English language. Continue to seek endorsements and get over your squeamishness about it. But don’t spam people. Limit your ambition and get over the pageviews. Try to get quality readers. Persevere: blogging is useful even if literally nobody reads you. You learn things by writing about them. You become a better writer and a smarter person. Also: be regular. People don’t like blogs that aren’t updated regularly (ahem). But don’t spend more than a couple of hours a day on it. Life’s too short, there’s too much good television and food. And your wife and offspring don’t care about your blog. The sun is shining and your body needs a run.

Which Changes in the Spatial Pattern of Human Rights Are Most Likely?

[The drought of my inspiration continues, I’m afraid, so here’s another golden oldie. Tyler Cowen linked to it on Marginal Revolution at the time I first published it some years ago, so it must be good. Argumentum ad verecundiam, I know.]

One result of human rights measurement is a spatial pattern of human rights, a pattern that of course changes over time: countries with lower or higher levels of respect for human rights show up on a world map and this world map shows a certain spatial pattern.

The current spatial pattern of human rights is, somewhat simplistically, like this: wealthy and developed “Western” countries, although by no means free from human rights violations, show on average higher levels of respect for human rights than most developing nations. This is no reason to distribute praise or blame: developed countries share responsibility for human rights violations in developing countries, and high levels of respect for certain human rights in developed countries may be partly a matter of luck or perhaps even the direct consequence of the exploitation of developing regions. It’s also the case that rights cost money, hence wealthier countries can be expected to show higher levels of respect for rights.

Just take it as a fact rather than a judgment, admittedly a stylized fact (one can argue that human rights are better protected in Italy than in the US even though the latter is much wealthier; the same is true if you compare Botswana en China). Here‘s an example of one human rights index that confirms this spatial pattern.

Given this current spatial pattern, what’s our best guess about the future? The dynamics of human rights are poorly understood: unfortunately, we don’t really know which actions or events are most likely to change levels of respect for human rights, at least not in the positive sense. We know that war, genocide, authoritarian rule and poverty bring levels down, but we don’t know quite as well how to bring levels up. We assume that different types of forces may play a role:

  • bottom-up forces such as popular revolts, changes in cultural practice etc.;
  • top-down forces such as coups d’états, government policies, national legislation, international law, international institutions etc.;
  • horizontal forces such as peer pressure among states, conditional bilateral development aid, pay-offs, military intervention, naming-and-shaming etc.

Incentives also play a role, and maybe even forces beyond human control such as climate, geography etc. However, the exact result and impact of these forces is unclear and controversial, so we don’t really know what to do and kinda grope in the dark hoping something is successful.

Given the fact that many people and many institutions actually try to do something in order to raise levels of respect for human rights, it’s indeed likely that some actions will be somewhat effective. Hence the spatial pattern of human rights may change in the future. Here are my guesses as to how it may change:

  1. Those areas of the world where respect for rights is already relatively high are most likely to see additional improvements. I agree that low hanging fruit is easiest to pick, and that is why we may see spectacular progress in some countries where respect is currently low: the removal of an oppressive regime can, in theory, bring rapid and large improvements in levels of respect, but in practice there are very few cases (often the overthrow of an oppressive regime is followed by civil war or a successor regime that is only slightly better or even worse). Conversely, sometimes high hanging fruit is, paradoxically, easier to pick. Countries with a reasonably high level of respect often have a history of struggle for rights as well as a culture of rights resulting from that struggle. Rights are part of the ethos of the common man. Remaining rights violations will therefore be more jarring, and existing institutions necessary to tackle them are in place. Another reason to believe that improvements in human rights will first take place in those countries that are already relatively good is the dynamic of bilateral aid: aid donors are likely to give more to countries that already have a certain level of respect, not just because donors like aid conditionality but also because of things such as the “bottomless pit syndrome”. Badly governed countries just take the aid and spend it for the rulers’ personal profit. Donors understandably don’t like this and therefore tend to give to countries that are better governed.
  2. Those areas of the world adjacent to areas where respect for rights is already relatively high are likely to see additional improvements. Countries tend to see rights violations in neighboring countries as more urgent than rights violations far away. The former violations can have spillover effects: a civil war in the country next door can cause refugee flows into your own country or other types of spillovers, hence you have an incentive to do something about the war. The same is true for other types of rights violations. Rights violations in a country far away don’t create the same incentives to act. Additionally, the EU and other regional organizations insist that candidate member countries – almost always adjacent countries – first respect human rights before they can become members. These candidate countries therefore have a powerful incentive to raise levels of respect, since membership is often profitable. And there are also other, non-spatial types of proximity among adjacent countries: they may share a language – or their languages may belong to the same family – or a religion. This kind of cultural proximity makes bilateral intervention more likely and more acceptable. If one of two adjacent countries has a high level of respect for human rights, it may find it easier to intervene in the other country in order to foster human rights. It may offer effective institutional assistance for instance, assistance that is more effective – because more acceptable and easier – than assistance from a country far away, “far away” both spatially and culturally. Another reason to believe that proximity plays a role: a country that exists in the proximity of other countries that perform better in the field of human rights is in direct competition with those other countries; competition for workers, international investment etc. Both workers and companies will prefer to invest in countries that are free. Hence the underperformers in a certain region will have the incentive to do better.

If these two claims are correct, then we’ll see increasing polarization among two groups of countries. Not the optimal outcome, but perhaps the most likely one. Time will tell.

More posts in this series are here.