Why Evernote won’t die

Evernote is interesting. It’s a bad product. It’s UI is both non-functional and ugly. It’s expensive and makes it difficult to cancel a subscription. It’s advertising is lacklustre and generic. I would expect it to have been wiped out. Instead, instead it has millions of users. Why? Maybe it’s because a monopoly position is difficult to upend? Problem is, it really doesn’t look like Evernote has a hard monopoly. It’s software. Barriers to entry are low, anyone can make a note-taking app, regulation is non-existent and there are no network effects or other enablers of natural monopoly which lock in customers or limit competition. Even the sunk costs of having your notes in Evernote isn’t really a sunk costs as notes can be transferred across platforms. Why then are there no good alternatives smashing Evernote into the ground? I think it’s because making a better Evernote is easy but making a much better Evernote is very, very hard and as Peter Thiel said, new products can’t be just a bit better than what’s out there, they have to be drastically better. Anything less and customers have too little incentive to switch. Anything less and your growth cure isn’t steep enough to overtake the big players before they wise up and eat you alive.

Pocket represents a revolutionary improvement on evernotes web-clipping feature and for the “save interesting articles to read later, share with friends and archive to look back on in years time” use case it’s a revolutionary improvement on Evernote. For the “Writing stuff down and organising it so that you can actually find it later” use case, Evernote’s competitors are better, but not better enough. Bear is good, but it’s fundamentally the same idea and flow with only UI tweaks setting it apart. Ditto for simpleNote and the like. I think a good note-taking app is a startup idea worth exploring further, especially given the size and stagnation of the market. I’m not sure entering a crowded market is a good thing but hey, neither is entering one where no one wants to be

A better solution to gender pronoun disagreement

Person A wants to be addressed by the pronoun Z and feels disrespected if they are not.

Person B want to address A by the pronoun Y and feels disrespected if forced to do otherwise.

When I wrote about David Mackereth, I said that resolving these kind of disagreements is very difficult. Giving it some more thought, I think it’s actually quite easy. There’s a means of addressing people which conflicts with neither Person A or Person B’s preferences: calling a person by their name. Instead of using the gender pronoun Y, person B can simply call A by their name.

It’s interesting how seemingly difficult problems often have obvious solutions.

Against the American Conservative, The Sun and The Daily Mail on David Mackereth

A refutation of:

The articles above assume that the DWP’s decision to deny David Mackereth employment was unjust and constitutes an unacceptable restriction of speech. I’m not so sure.

Some restrictions on speech are acceptable. Let’s say a hard right white nationalist who refuses to refer to black people by any other word than n***** applies to a government job that requires interacting with citizens. Few of us would have a problem with them being rejected on the grounds that civil servants must refer to people in a respectful manner. The principle at work here is that while the government should not deny a person a job on the basis of their beliefs, it can and should deny employment to people who are unable to do a job, regardless of whether their inability is down to their beliefs or some other reason. Just as denying a pacifist a position in a frontline military unit is acceptable, so the white nationalists inability to respectfully interact with black people makes them unable to do the job, justifying the decision to not employ them. It is a restriction of speech, but one that is justified as the intent is not to silence but to hire the best person for the job.

Moving to the case of David Mackereth, the first question is whether his inability to use a persons chosen gender pronouns renders him unable to do his job. This boils down to whether we expect government employees to use people’s preferred gender pronouns. That boils down to where we draw the line of what constitutes disrespect. That line is devilishly tricky to draw because it is heavily based on cultural norms as opposed to universal, rational moral principles. Act’s which may constitute an offence grave enough for murder in one culture mean nothing in another. That’s why I’m not going to try and directly argue whether or not using someone’s chosen pronoun is a reasonable expectation or requirement for respect. I don’t think that argument is necessarily possible to make, it may well be a matter of axiomatic intuitions, or can be made in a reasonable amount of time. Instead, I’ll try and present another case. How you feel about it should tell you a lot about how you should feel about the case of Dr Mackereth.

Lets say there’s transgender hard left activist who, believing that gender is an oppressive construct which should be destroyed, refuses to use people’s given pronouns and instead refers to everyone as “ze”. They apply for the same position in the DWP and are rejected because they refuse to refer to people by their chosen gender. Would this also constitute an unacceptable restriction on free speech? There are three positions you can take

  1. Civil servants should refer to anyone however they want (Both Dr Mackereth and the activist can get a job)
  2. Civil servants should be required to refer to people by their chosen pronoun (Neither Dr Mackereth nor the activist can get a job)
  3. Civil servants should refer to strigh/cisgender people by their chosen pronoun, but have no obligation to refer to non-cisgender people by their chosen pronoun. (Dr Mackereth can get a job, the activist cannot)

If you believe 1 or 2, your beliefs are consistent and, while I may disagree with them, they are not in my eyes immoral.  If you believe 3, which I assume is the position these publications would take, I think there’s a burden you have to meet to justify the double standard. I don’t think these articles, nor any other I’ve seen, have attempted to do so.

Obvious improvements #1: The state, not firms, should pay for maternity leave

Image result for crying baby

In the status quo, employers have to give maternity leave. They also have to pay workers while they are on leave. The latter is bad.

  • It disincentivises hiring young women. Losing a worker for months is already costly. Having to pay them while they’re away is even more costly.
  • It allocates the burden of supporting young mothers unequally. In a just society, we all have an equal responsibility to support those who deserve help. Maternity pay disproportionately and unfairly falls on employers more likely to employ young women. This allocation is unjust.
  • It allocates the benefits of maternity leave unequally. In a just society, all women would have the same allowance for maternity leave. In an employer funded system, women on maternity leave who’s employers go bankrupt loose their pay. This is morally arbitrary and unfair.

Full government funding is a better alternative.

  • It disincentivises hiring young women less. Employers still risk loosing a worker for months, but no longer have to pay them during the absence.
  • It allocates the burden of supporting young mothers equally. Tax is paid by all employers equally. A tax funded system of maternity pay ensures all employers share the burden of supporting young mothers equally.
  • It allocates the benefits of maternity leave equally. As long as the state is solvent, all mothers get their maternity pay regardless of the financial solvency of their employers.

 

 

Politicians are not optimized for persuasiveness

I once heard someone say that politicians are optimized for persuasiveness. This isn’t true. In a first past the post system like the UK or US, you don’t have to be electable to get into office. If you have good ties in a party you can get a seat in a constituency which is overwhelmingly likely to vote for your side. Manage this and you are essential guaranteed to win every election. From then onward, your ability to gain power is less a matter of getting normal people to like and vote for you and more a matter of your ability to manage patronage networks and relationships with important people within the party. They’re the ones who decide who gets a minister/committee post, not the voters.

Many people were surprised that Donald Trump, a sleazy businessman, could win the US primary, let alone the election. It’s not that surprising when you remember that the people he was competing against were career politicians selected for patronage management, not public speaking.

Theodicy

I’ve head people say that the existence of evil proves there is no God.

The conclusion is good. The argument is not.

Evil may serve a purpose. Some virtues are exist in opposition to suffering and evil. Courage, struggle, bravery, martyrdom. A world without evil could be a world without virtue, a world without sacrifice. For some, that is worse than any hell.

Evil may be a necessary consequence of free will.

Evil may be an illusion. It could be that suffering minds are transported to a heaven the moment their suffering becomes such that they would rather cease existing, their physical bodies taken over by a philosophical zombie.

As SSC said, it could be that God creates all possible universes where goodness outweighs badness. Most are perfect. Some are farther from perfection. Some lie just over the knife edge, just the point at which their non-existence would be better than their existence.

Against singular conceptions of the good

The most popular theories of ethics tend to have a singular conception of the good. They say there is one thing, and one thing alone, which determines whether an action/person/system is just.

  • Utilitarianism:  pleasure maximization.
  • Libertarianism: non-coercion (by other humans)
  • Deontology: the decision making process, not the real world outcomes of that process
  • Egalitarianism:  equality
  • Rawls: The difference principle. (In reality the idea that justice is the overriding concern of society rather than other things like not starving to death)

All these theories are wrong. They run counter to our moral intuitions in obvious ways.

Utilitarianism says an action or outcome is good insofar as it maximizes utility, usually meaning pleasure. This does not match our intuitions. Most of us would trade off some pleasure for some amount of knowledge, freedom or justice. Utilitarianism has only two defenses to this. First, ever expanding definitions of utility. This fails because as the definition of utility moves towards “things we like”, utilitarianism nears the trivially true claim that we should maximize good things and minimize bad things. Second, to claim that we value other goods solely because they give us utility. This is unfalsifiable and hence unacceptable.

Deontology says only the process matters, not the outcome. Lying is wrong regardless of the consequence. Rape is always bad. It fails because, while the process does matter to us, the outcome does too. Murder is wrong but murdering one person to save a whole galaxy worth of lives seems right. Lying is wrong but lying to the Gestapo to save a Jewish familly is less wrong. Caring about process alone means that your moral reasoning is detached from reality. Our intuitions aren’t.

Egalitarianism thinks that equality is all that matters yet a world of starving slaves seems worse than a world split between millionaires and billionaires.

Rawls thinks maximizing the minimum is our duty. I’ve already written about this. He’s wrong. Trading a universe of happy, meaningful lives where a few starve for a universe where everyone starves but slightly less is not right, nor a world any of us would choose if placed behind the veil of ignorance.

All of these theories are based on a singular conception of the good. They all claim that we value only one moral good, absolutely and to the exclusion of all others. We don’t. We value many moral goods and to different extents in different circumstances. Our ethical universe is not simple. It is complex. Our morality is not the product of a single value but of a complex optimization process which maximize for many different things. Refusing to see this is putting a square peg in a round hole. It’s refusing to look at the difficult question of how we trade off competing values and instead denying that such trade-offs exist.

Simplicity is not truth. Morality is not monolithic. Any theory or philosopher who says otherwise is wrong.