Thursday, March 21, 2019

Death Valley (and Tulips)

Here are just a few pictures from our short trip to Las Vegas, along with a bonus picture from The Bellagio. As always, click for larger.

Friday, March 15, 2019


I'm re-listening to Ezra Klein's podcast with Julia Galef about rationality, having good-faith discussions, and being able to change your mind. Her argument that we should "keep our identity small" is, I think, a good one - once we are tied to a certain identity, it is hard to consider an opinion from someone on the "outside." And we often just blindly accept something said by someone with the same identity (an obvious problem within the vegan community).

There are many things about which I can imagine changing my mind: tax rates, size of government, role of religion, importance of military spending, the ethics of certain dietary choices, etc.

But the one area where I can't imagine changing my mind is that we should consider and/or treat certain people as less-than-fully-equal individuals. Sadly, prejudice and even hatred against minorities and the LGBTQ community is a bedrock for one of the major parties in the U.S.

This isn't because "some of my best friends are queer." Although I find libertarianism absurd as a political approach, I have always been a libertarian by nature. For as long as I can remember, I thought everyone should be allowed to do what they want, as long as they don't hurt anyone else and they are treating everyone else with equal respect.

I've read Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, in which he basically makes the utilitarian case for prejudice. He basically argues that separating the "in" group from "others" builds social connections and cohesion, giving individuals in the community more support and even meaning. To which I say:

Fuck that.

I am not saying he is wrong. I'm just saying that it is so easy for a straight white well-off male to put the interests of "the masses" over the interests of those who don't fit in.

Could lynching someone who is different in some way bring together and benefit the vast majority of the rest of the community? Does hatred of Mexicans (or gays, or "assertive" women) provide some people with meaning in their lives? It is theoretically possible. But this is simply not something I can imagine ever considering as an acceptable tradeoff.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Racism Is Strong in This One

Modern Republican priorities. Summary:
  • Cut Medicare spending $845 billion. (One small bright spot in this budget is that it shelves the GOP’s more unpopular goal of privatizing Medicare, so these cuts would be to provider reimbursements, which is why hospitals are so upset.)
  • Cut food stamps $220 billion.
  • Cut student loans $207 billion.
  • Cut Medicaid by $1.5 trillion—fully eviscerating the program.
  • Repeal Obamacare.
  • Another $1 trillion regressive tax cut.
Racism and prejudice are the only explanations for how Republicans are elected even as they continually vote to hurt the vast majority of people. We would rather slash Medicare and science than let "the other" have any opportunity or benefit.

We are too stupid to live.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring

School districts that educate predominantly white students receive $23 billion more in state and local funding than school districts that are predominantly non-white, despite the fact that they serve roughly the same number of students.

There have been 4,556 complaints of sexual abuse against unaccompanied minors in government custody received by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The word "vegan"

It is interesting how the word "vegan" doesn't seem to have such negative connotations in every country. But study after study has shown it to be a bad word in the U.S. From this 2017 post:

Research at the University of Arizona's Eller School found that the general public thinks that vegans are annoying (to put it mildly). This recent survey found that vegans are viewed more negatively than atheists, immigrants, homosexuals, and asexuals. The only group viewed more negatively than vegans were drug addicts. Labeling a product “vegan” causes its sales to drop by 70%.

July 2017 update: When Vegan Is a Dirty Word. August 2017 update: Meat-eaters are being put off going veggie because of certain aggressive vegans, says survey. More update: how horrible is this? October update: what vegans think of vegans. May 2018: “Vegan” is the single worst word you can possibly use to describe a product.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Real Threat

I understand that The Wall is just a racist scare tactic to make white people fear brown people. But if any of the chanters really cared about safety, they'd face facts.

People killed by gun last year:

Japan: 10
Sweden: 41
Switzerland: 47
UK: 50
Israel: 105
Australia: 207
Total Population: 246,959,950
Total Guns: 8,804,000
Total Gun Deaths: 460

United States...

Population: 329,093,106
Guns: 393,347,000
Gun Deaths: 39,773

Sunday, February 10, 2019


I thought we had seen enough nature documentaries such that I wouldn't be totally shocked anymore.

I was wrong.

Blue Planet II is simply mind-blowing. We're watching on Netflix.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

To Max Boot and "Fiscal Conservatives"

I just finished Max Boot's The Corrosion of Conservativism. I really enjoyed it except for the predictable chiding of "the left" for wanting the U.S. government to provide things that every other developed country already has (e.g., universal health care). Like that [explative] idiot Howard Schultz, whenever there is a proposal to actually help people, "reasonable" individuals feel the need to rant about how it is impossibly expensive.

Why is this criteria never applied to the right's priorities?

Ever since Reagan, there has never been a tax cut for the already rich or corporations already with record profits that the right hasn't pushed. But they never ever suggest these trillions of dollars in cuts have to be paid for. All that ever matters is giving the already rich even more money.

But in terms of priorities, consider that in just the next ~16 months, the U.S. government will spend a trillion dollars on the military. How is this making any of us any safer? How is it making the world a better place?

Spending way less on F-35s (or just about any other pork-barrel program) and more on actual foreign aid, foreign development, environmental protection / clean energy, and diplomacy would do immeasurably more for our security, freedom, and humanity's future.

Here's what I would ask of anyone who wants to label themselves a "sensible centrist." First, tell us what your priorities are and why. Then figure out how to pay for them. My priorities include freeing Americans from the horrors of the private health insurance market. We already pay more in public funds per person than most developed nations who already have universal health care. And we get far worse outcomes. I believe providing the basic right of health care to our citizens should be vastly more important than spending more than basically the rest of the world on "military might."

Boot claims to revere Eisenhower and claims to be an Eisenhower Republican. Ike warned all those decades ago:
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. 
"This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
It would be great if Boot, and others, recognized this is far, far truer today.

Regardless, Max, please note that it has only ever been Democrats like Clinton and Obama who have cut the deficit, and Reagan, W, Ryan, and Trump have only exploded it.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Why isn't this breakthrough huge news? From New Scientist

Fixing a flaw in photosynthesis could massively boost food production

By Michael Le Page

Intelligent design has triumphed where evolution has mostly failed. Biologists have boosted the biomass of tobacco by around 40 per cent by compensating for a fundamental flaw in photosynthesis.
The team is now working trying to introduce the same changes into food crops, starting with cowpeas and soybeans. “The funding agencies are really keen on getting this technology into the hands of the world’s poorest,” says team member Amanda Cavanagh at the University of Illinois in Urbana.
The key ingredients of life are molecules made of chains of carbon atoms. Plants assemble these chains from carbon atoms taken from the carbon dioxide molecules in the air.

Evolution’s greatest mistakes

But the enzyme that grabs hold of CO2 and adds it to a carbon chain often grabs hold of an oxygen molecule by mistake. This generates toxic molecules that plants have to expend energy to mop up. This fundamental flaw has been described as one of evolution’s greatest mistakes.
To be fair, it wasn’t a huge issue when photosynthesis first evolved, because there was little oxygen around. But as oxygen levels rose and CO2 levels declined over the aeons, it became a huge problem for plants. The grabbing of oxygen by mistake – called photorespiration – now happens so often it can reduce the efficiency of photosynthesis by as much as 50 per cent.
A few plants have evolved a solution: they concentrate CO2 inside them to reduce the odds of oxygen being grabbed by mistake. But most of the plants we eat, including almost all vegetables and fruits, and key crops such as wheat, rice and soybeans, can’t do this. Biologists have been trying to find a fix for decades.

Rerouting the process

Based on this work, Cavanagh and colleagues designed three alternative pathways for dealing with the toxic byproducts of photorespiration. “What we tried to do was to reroute the entire process,” she says.
They genetically engineered these pathways into tobacco, chosen because it’s an easy plant to modify and has a short life cycle. In field tests over two seasons, the biomass of the best performing plants was boosted by more than 40 per cent.
In 2016, another team boosted tobacco biomass by around 15 per cent by improving plants’ ability to cope with changing light levels. “The hope is that we can stack up these traits and get additive gains,” says Cavanagh.
But making fundamental improvements in photosynthesis might have some risks. In theory, upgraded crop plants that turn feral or interbreed with wild relatives could have a competitive advantage over most other plants.
But even if this trait does spread beyond farms it’s unlikely to cause serious problems, says plant geneticist Maureen Hanson of Cornell University.
“Enhanced growth of a weedy species is not likely to disturb ecology as much as we already disturb it through the environmental effects of traditional agriculture,” she says.
And in the wild plant growth is mainly limited by the availability of water, nitrogen and phosphorus, not by photosynthetic capacity, says Andreas Weber of the Institute for Plant Biochemistry in Duesseldorf, Germany. “I don’t think that the trait would provide a selective advantage to natural vegetation.”

Big boosts

The risks also have to be weighed against the benefits. Most efforts to improve crops produce only tiny yield increases. Big boosts are desperately needed to feed the world’s growing population while reducing greenhouse emissions via bioenergy and still leaving space for the wildlife we depend on.
Even if the most glaring flaws in photosynthesis were fixed, plants would still be far less efficient at capturing the sun’s energy than solar panels. That’s why many researchers are trying to develop artificial forms of photosynthesis.

Journal reference: ScienceDOI: 10.1126/science.aat9077

Sunday, January 13, 2019


It seems like there has always been an attitude of "Kids these days!" Looking through history, crotchety adults have complained about the spoiled, lazy, disrespectful kids with their music and crazy clothes and obscene dances and "fancy new technology" (radios, telephones, etc.).

So it is easy to dismiss the book The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt as yet another in the long series of adults whining about kids these days. Yet I found a lot of interesting and useful insights in the book.

Perhaps the most relevant for me is their discussion of "safetyism," the idea that kids need to be protected from everything. This resonated with me. When EK was four years old, my mom asked what values they had learned - EK answered "kindness and safety." I still have flashbacks of three times something really bad almost happened to EK.

Lukianoff and Haidt make the point that humans are antifragile - that we need to experience stress and be tested to get stronger. Not that everything that doesn't kill us makes us stronger, but that facing (reasonable) challenges is the only way we can grow and develop. "Luckily" for EK, they've had plenty of challenges (despite my best efforts). (We were just talking about how something that happened in 2007 had a very specific influence from then on.)

Where Lukianoff and Haidt lose me is their argument against looking at outcomes when working for social justice. Their example is that under Title IX, the University of Virginia made women's rowing a varsity sport to help offset the huge (men's) football program. Their argument is that if more males are interested in sport than females, why shouldn't there be more (school-sponsored) athletic opportunities for the boys?

But how can we know that there is an inherent difference in interest? Who makes those determinations? For as long as adults have complained about kids, white males have said that girls don't like math and are more concerned with "nurturing" than having a career. (And blacks don't care about school or are "natural athletes," etc. And not just from ignorant rednecks - Nobel laureates, too, like James Watson.)

I'm not a "blank-slater" - I don't think that every human is conceived and born with equal potential in all areas. It is theoretically possible that Larry Summers is factually correct that boys have a greater standard deviation in math ability (see this for more discussion; see this for a counterpoint). But my question is: how can we know? People treat a baby - a baby - differently if that baby is dressed in pink vs blue. The same baby!

Can we really think that being treated a certain way from day one doesn't have an impact on a child's interests and subsequent "strengths"? Can we really claim that anyone who is not a straight white male is not influenced by society's stereotypes of them? It just boggles my mind that anyone would think they can measure the "natural and inherent" inclinations and skills of anyone.

This, of course, brings up Sam Harris' egomania. He paints himself and his center-right straight male friends as the only ones willing to "speak the truth." One of his "only I'm brave enough to say" claims (in addition to his bewildering ongoing insistence to talk about race and IQ) is that James Damore was "right" in his Google memo that women just don't like working with computers, so tech firms should stop trying to hire women.

I think the evidence actually does not support Damore and Harris - listen to this for an explanation (video version), and see this for proof that it doesn't have to be this way.

But regardless, can he really say that no girl could ever have an interest in coding? Here's my question to Sam: would you really want your daughters to have to work with someone with Damore's attitude?

What continues to amaze me is that straight white males spend their time defending Charles Murray or complaining that male rowers at the University of Virginia aren't varsity athletes. Do they really think these are the main injustices that need to be addressed?

More importantly, can they not see that promoting the idea of "natural" and "inherent" differences between men and women or between races supports active discrimination (you don't have to watch many videos of Nazis and white supremacists before you hear one of them pointing to Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve as "scientific proof" of racist views). Questioning underlying societal assumptions, recognizing the power of nurture and stereotypes, and working for more equality in outcomes is better than supporting the straight-white-men in control status quo.

Sunday, January 6, 2019


Just as we don't celebrate specific days, I generally don't make resolutions. But on Pod Save America, Jon Lovett said he resolved to be more grateful and to get to a point where he doesn't have to tell himself to be grateful.

There is a phrase "the (wo)man of my dreams." But here is something I just realized today: Anne is not the woman of my dreams. Before I met Anne, my expectation of any relationship was that it would be constant "hard work," with the hope being that it would be 51% good. A dream would be maybe 70% good.

That is not the case.

Even after 26 years and many many stressors, I am still amazed that basically every day with Anne is easy and amazing and awesome. So much so that it actually seems unreasonable or even fantastical when viewed objectively.

But I'll take it.  👍

In Colorado, 2010. I just replaced that ~20-year-old sweatshirt yesterday.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

That's ... very specific

Sam Bee: "Everyone knows how I feel about guns. I hate them and want to melt them down into jewelry for transgender vegans."

Thursday, December 27, 2018

For the New Year: Why keep hoping and working

E found this song - how can you top the lyrics?



The reason that I'm not a nihilist
Is some day I wanna live like in Star Trek
And I know that we'll never build starships
Until we tackle poverty, war, and hardship
So we fight overnight and over lifetimes
Organize for that warp drive
And of course I realize
That we're a long way from it
But what better reason to start runnin'? [literally]

No friction; no flame
No struggle; no progress
No sweat
How many times do we have to win
'Til you realize that we are not lost yet?

There is no Superman in that phone booth
There is no rewarding our faith
There is no one who can save us
So it's a good thing we don't need to be saved

There are no starships in low earth orbit [yet]
No aliens to save us from ourselves
There is no voice willing to speak for us
So it's a good thing we know how to yell

There is no chosen one, no destiny, no fate
There is no such thing as magic
There is no light at the end of this tunnel

So it's a good thing we brought matches