Sunday, July 21, 2019

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Creating Real Change

"We cannot hope to make mankind less inconsistent, but we can work together to make a world less cruel. We need to ask always what's the best real possibility, not what's the ultimate ideal imagining."
-Adam Gopnik, A Thousand Small Sanities

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Grow Up

Having finished Ezra Klein's interview with George Will, I have only one question:

Why does anyone worship "The Founders"?

Yes, I believe the American Revolution was a mistake. And I'm not arguing that anyone at the time should have held out for a Constitution that abolished slavery, gave women the vote, enshrined equal marriage, etc. That wasn't going to happen then.

But this is 2019. We know more now. We know better now. We don't think that fully half the population should be subjugated. We don't think anyone should own another human being.

So why do we defer anything at all to what these white dudes "intended" hundreds of years ago? We need to grow up and live here, now. Make the country and world better than it is, not try to revert to what it was.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Life on Earth Is in No Danger

People love apocalyptic rhetoric about climate change - we're going to destroy the Earth, make it "uninhabitable," etc.

Keep in mind that there has been life on this planet for billions of years. During the Eocene -- just a blink of an eye ago, in geologic terms -- the Earth was 14 degrees C warmer than it is now.

Oh, and more than 99% of all species that have ever existed went extinct before humans started using fire.

I know it is easier to talk big about topics over which we have no control. But IMO, we should focus on actually making a difference.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Infinite vs Reality

Years ago, I had an extended conversation (over the course of many months) with someone who thought they wanted to do the most good. At first, they were persuaded by One Step's reasoning. But then they argued there were more fish. Then that there were more insects. Then that there were more future lives. 

Eventually, this person gave their money to support Christian missionaries. They argued that since the payoff of saving a soul was infinite, no matter how unlikely it was that the Christian missionary was right, and no matter how much actual harm missionaries do in this world, the expected value of their donation was still infinite. (And they chose Christianity because it was the most popular religion, making it more likely to be "right.")

From my perspective, a significant number of utilitarians follow a similar line of reasoning, but I no longer believe this is sound. But it took experiencing a lot of agony to get over the alure of abstract math in favor of concrete reality.

Friday, July 12, 2019


Ran into a neighbor I rarely see. He talked about how his family doesn't eat beef anymore, "because it isn't healthy." He said something about not wanting cows to be killed, and then added, "You'd prefer we not kill anything, huh."

I replied, "Everyone dies. What matters is how much they suffer while alive."

Him: "Umh." Long pause. "Huh. Yeah." Could really see the gears turning.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

How to tell if someone is smarter than you

Great article. Excerpt:
Someone who is hardworking, well-connected, emotionally stable, charismatic, fearless, brave, extroverted, and socially popular may not have high intelligence. These attributes tend to advance people’s careers, but they should not be taken as signs that they are smart. And the biggest decoy of all is confidence. 
...This is one of the reasons why so many incompetent men become leaders. Men aren’t necessarily smarter than women, but we mistake their confidence for competence. We are fooled by people–usually men–who have managed to fool themselves into thinking that they are smarter than they actually are. There is, indeed, a sad truth to faking it till you make it. But any society is better off if the people who succeed are genuinely smart rather than able to fake it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Status Quo Bias

There are few things that make me angrier than well-off straight white (generally men) insisting that we shouldn't do something because there might be "unforeseen consequences." For example -- arguments that we shouldn't use CRISPR to exterminate disease-carrying mosquitos. Or we better not even talk about geoengineering regarding climate change.

(The latter is particularly absurd, given that people claim global warming is an "existential threat" but heaven forbid we talk about any possible fixes beyond our preferred solution. "Better for everyone to die than even talk about the sky being less blue!" Jeebus.) 

It is amazing that so many people can just assume the status quo is basically fine, when in reality there is so very much unfathomable suffering in the world.

Imagine if the person you loved most had cancer. Would you argue that they shouldn't get treatment because we can't possibly know every possible outcome? "Oh, maybe their compromised immune system will lead to a new infection that will spread to others."

But that is what these Luddites are basically saying: "FU to everyone suffering now and in the future. You can rot because I saw some scary scifi movie once."

Here's a hint: You are not the world.

Monday, May 20, 2019

That Is Saying Something

If I had to do a karaoke song (and I never would), it might be this one.

Herb is everywhere

I've never known a Nobel Laureate, but Anne did - she worked with the late Herb Simon at Carnegie Mellon.

Last night, I was listening to a podcast and Herb Simon came up, which I mentioned to Anne. Not five minutes later, Anne, who is reading Life 3.0, came across a section about Herb.

We talk about this more here, but the most important takeaway from Herb's work is that people don't make optimal decisions. We don't have enough time or rationality to fully and dispassionately analyze every choice that faces us. Rather, people make decisions that match with their gut, then they come up with a rationalization. This is why making the full case for veganism leads to more chickens suffering. Even making the chicken-only case can have a bigger impact on the consumption of red meat. This is why we have to be so strategic in our thinking, and not just give in to what is easiest and most personally emotionally satisfying.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Three Things

Comment read online:
Liberals thought we won the Civil War. Conservatives are still fighting it.

An outstanding article by Robert Wright.

How the world works, by Kevin Drum.