Sunday, September 26, 2021

Saturday, September 25, 2021


How did this toad get up to the top of our gate? (Upper center of pulled-out photo.) And we don't live near any water, either.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Pet Shop Boys 1

This is not the best PSB's song, nor my favorite, but the way he says "party animal" just makes me laugh every time. Lyrics

Thursday, September 23, 2021


When EK was growing up, I did my best to play good music - The Beatles, Pet Shop Boys*, Wilco, etc**. But I never played Styx, who were huge when I was growing up. I didn't realize that they were still around for decades! Unbeknownst to me, EK discovered them and is a fan of their 2015 concept album about a mission to Mars.

I thought of them again yesterday when I saw Neil deGrasse Tyson said Come Sail Away (about alien abduction!) would be his one song. 👍

*Ach! I've never blogged about Pet Shop Boys!

**That is such a white, Midwest, middle-class list! 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Go Along to Get Along (with cruelty)

One of the cruelest and most shocking things ever done to me was by someone who wanted to avoid disagreeing with one of his teammates**. This was followed by extensive rationalizations ("explain away," below). 

, the latest book by Daniel Kahneman (with Oliver Sibony and Casss Sunstein) explains how this happens. Excerpt (see also Chapter 8):

Most organizations prefer consensus and harmony over dissent and conflict. The procedures in place often seem expressly designed to minimize the frequency of exposure to actual disagreements and, when such disagreements happen, to explain them away. 

Nathan Kuncel, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota and a leading researcher on the prediction of performance, shared with us a story that illustrates this problem. Kuncel was helping a school's admission's office review its decision process. First a person read an application file, rated it, and then handed it off with ratings to a second reader, who then also rated it. Kuncel suggested - for reasons that will become obvious throughout this book - that it would be preferable to mask the first reader's ratings so as to not influence the second reader. The schools reply, "We used to do that, but it resulted in so many disagreements that we switched to the current system." This school is not the only organization that considers conflict avoidance at least as important as making the right decision.

**The other event in contention for cruelest was done by one person who wanted a lot more money and one person who wanted a lot more fame. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Why it is good to have health insurance.

As of September 20, this is the cost (so far) of falling eight months ago: $529,250.21

Monday, September 20, 2021

Latest Adventure: Acupuncture

Someone I respect, following advice from a reputable doctor, had a good experience with acupuncture in dealing with recalcitrant pain. Here is my experience from last Tuesday as it happened, followed by my analysis:

Following significant discussion, the practitioner had me on a table with my shoes and socks off. She started sticking needles in my right foot. I could definitely feel the needles going in, and they were left in.

After maybe five needles, she asked how my left (worse) hand was. I said it was maybe 30% better. Five or so needles later, she asked again, and I said no change. After the next round, I said (with significant surprise) that my left hand now hurt less than my right hand. She then followed the same process in the left foot, with similar results in the right hand.

Next, she asked where there was still pain, and proceeded to stick needles in the base of my thumbs. I said my hands no longer had sharp pain, but instead feeling like they were recovering from an injury (more of a dull ache). At this point she stopped and said the needles would stay in for 30 minutes.

I meditated for that half hour, occasionally checking in on my hands. They seemed to get more painful as the time went on. When she came back in, she said the relief could last days or maybe just a few hours, and to come back for three more treatments within two weeks. 

By the time I put my socks and shoes on and got to the front desk, my hands felt as painful as when I came into the office. My hands were worse than normal the rest of the day, although somewhat better than normal the next day. 

What I think happened: a combination of protection from pain, placebo effect, and response bias.

In retrospect, my body was under attack. It does not seem unreasonable that my brain reacted by saying, "Tell them what they want to hear! Give them whatever they want! Just get them to stop stabbing!" This would explain why some of the perceived relief went away once she stopped putting in new needles, and why the rest quickly faded after the needles were removed.

Needle-less to say, I won't be going back.

PS: I have nothing against the placebo effect! We should not be snobs against anything that gives anyone relief.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Motivated Reasoning

Part of my attempt to avoid being in a bubble is listening to the libertarian EconTalk. A recent episode tries to "debunk" the idea that Scandinavia countries have better social and economic policies than the United States. They argue that if you make various adjustments, economic mobility is no different in Denmark than in the U.S. 

But I honestly don't remember anyone ever arguing for Scandinavian policies explicitly for mobility sake. Why would that matter?

The main reason to have Scandinavian policies is that it would make people happier. These countries (despite having terrible winter weather and almost no daylight then) are clearly happier than the U.S. The EconTalk host, though, just dismisses happiness research out of hand. Nice.

Maybe look at life expectancy, as it is hard to say you're better off dead. People in Denmark live three years longer than the U.S.; Sweden four years longer. 

What really gets me, however, is child poverty. One in every seven children live in poverty in the United States; this is not the case elsewhere. (For more, please see Why Does the Richest Country in the World Have So Many Poor Kids?)

So my question to the economists is: Would you rather your next child (or grandchild) be born at random into circumstances in the United States or Scandinavia? (John Rawls Veil of Ignorance, discussed here.) That should be your judgement of a country's social and economic policies. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Boycott SeaWorld and Their People

As readers know, I focus on chickens for various reasons. Luckily, few people actually like factory farms and slaughterhouses. Basically no one wants to see them.

But SeaWorld is also a torture factory, but for whales, dolphins, and other aquatic animals (more, from a specific former trainer). Yet people actively pay to go there, actively supporting this cruelty. 

We should, obviously, boycott SeaWorld. But we should also shun people who work there, as well as former employees who have not publicly spoken out against the company's practices.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Why I am not a utilitarian (repost from 2019)

Imagine the worst possible suffering. The person suffering, when they are able to form a conscious thought, actively wants to die. The worst torture ever conceived. On a suffering scale, make that a 1,000 out of 1,000.

Now imagine the briefest, mildest unpleasant experience. Not even a stubbed toe – maybe just a brief muscle spasm that you barely notice. Make that a 0.0001 on the suffering scale.

Is there any circumstance under which you would choose to save 10,000,001 individuals from the brief muscle spasm instead of saving the one person from torture?

And yet, that is what a strict utilitarian calculus would require – prevent the most total suffering.

The short takeaway is that I don't see that morality can be based on a simple summing across individuals (apologies to Parfit).

This is relevant in many situations, not the least of which is how we think about insects.

I agree with Dr. Greger that talking about insects with the general public is so strategically misguided that it causes actual harm. But I also think that it is philosophically mistaken as well.

I would be very comfortable betting my life that insects do not have subjective conscious experiences. Not to get into the weeds, but I believe people too easily conflate behavior with consciousness. The ability to sense things – "sentience" in its broadest meaning – exists all the way down to single-cell organisms (Carl Sagan once told me this is why "sentience" per se couldn't be the basis of morality). But the ability to sense things is not the same as being conscious.

To me, all the evidence indicates that the ability to have conscious, subjective experiences – to be able to actually suffer – derives from and requires significant neural complexity (sorry Chalmers). And once the appropriate level of complexity is reached, further complexity can lead to a greater capacity for consciousness. That is, the ability to feel feelings is not binary, but analog. 

(For much much more, please see this. I don't fully agree, but it is the most honest and thorough treatment of consciousness I've ever come across. Those two links – Antonio Damasio's theory of consciousness and OPP's investigation into consciousness -- are probably the two most important links to me for the idea of consciousness.)

So even if insects can have any subjective experience, their most intense sensation would be the palest hint of a feeling – a tiny fraction of the worst suffering we can experience.

Just as no number of people having a brief muscle spasm could rise to the level of concern of one person being tortured, no number of insects being made to experience their "worst" suffering rises to the level of concern of a single person suffering anywhere near their worst.

Note: I'm not saying I have a coherent replacement for utilitarianism. I realize the contradictions in this view. One obvious contradiction: just as I would save one person from being tortured instead of sparing a trillion people from experiencing a muscle spasm, I would be inclined to save multiple people from suffering at level 999 vs one person at level 1,000.

I can imagine myself being convinced that the latter is wrong; i.e., that I should always care about relieving the worst-off suffering. I currently find it difficult to imagine being convinced to care about insects, especially in a world with so many individuals clearly suffering so intensely.

Finally, I realize the above seems to contradict my concern for chickens. The reason isn't a love for chickens, but rather, marginal impact.

I could be convinced that I should do something with my life that would help individuals who are suffering worse than chickens – individuals who wouldn't be helped if not for my specific efforts. But I've not yet come across that argument.

Loads of people care about mammals and loads more care about humans. But few people care about chickens, even though the average chicken is basically tortured. Even assuming chickens have a lower capacity to suffer than a cow, I'd rather be reincarnated as an average steer than your average chicken. (I'd easily choose being reincarnated as a bug over either of those options!) Yet most of our dietary advocacy leads to more chickens suffering.

I could be wrong – I've changed my mind before.




Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Many (not all) things have gotten better.

Yes, "CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. The Black-white education gap. The conservative descent into Trumpism." -- all very, very bad.

But many important things have gotten significantly better, Including income.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Asymmetrical warfare in politics

Garrett M. Graff:
I'm always struck by how much media coverage and Democratic politics is aimed expressly at not offending Republicans, while so much of Republican politics is expressly about offending Democrats and the media. It's the worst—and most self-destructive—asymmetric political warfare.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Don't make estimates. Don't listen to estimates.

"Professional forecasters offer highly variable predictions about likely sales of new product, likely growth in the unemployment rate, the likelihood of bankruptcy for troubled companies, and justified everything else. Not only do they disagree with each other, but they also disagree with themselves. For example when the same software developers were asked on two separate days to estimate the completion time for the same task, they hours they projected differed by 71% on average."

-Noise, by Danny Kahneman et al