Monday, February 6, 2023

Meaning Monday: Simplicity (1/2)

Dan Bern "King of the World" Hilarious

In an effort to bring a bit more structure to the blog, most Mondays are going to be shorter but important lessons I've learned.

"It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied"

That is horseshit - horseshit I used to believe.

You deserve to be satisfied - content and happy. Full stop. Nothing offsets that, and efforts to persuade you otherwise are simply distractions.

How to be happy is a different question.

Bonus: Where we have freedom (2/2)

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies are growth and our freedom.”

-Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottlieb

I am liking this book more than I expected.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

80,000 Hours

 Beth Orton She Cries Your Name

Cottonwood Canyon Road, Grand Staircase Escalante, Utah.
Is it better with the picture at the top, or should it stay below?

A former colleague of mine once commented that it would take 80,000 Hours to read all the posts, articles, comments, and books posted by Effective Altruists. I actually think this is an understatement; I'm pretty sure that the Effective Altruist Forum, Less Wrong, Astral Codex Ten, and related sites and subreddits have far more than 40 hours worth of content posted every week. 

I'm not joking. Just perusing these sites makes me shudder. 

In addition to everyone wanting to have their say, the pattern seems to be to try to win arguments through sheer volume. Anyone who writes a brief piece is just swamped by those who seem to have nothing else to do but typee-typee.

Please understand, I'm not badmouthing anyone. There are a lot of smart and passionate people who really want to make the world a better place. But there are also a lot of people there trying to prove how smart they are (how high their expected value is), along with many unhinged individuals

So, noting that I am not well-read on the topic, I did find this article by Carla Cremer to be worth a skim: How effective altruists ignored risk. (That article led me to Ineffective altruism: Some doubts about effective altruism. Yikes.) A few excerpts:

Longtermism and expected value calculations merely provided room for the measure of goodness to wiggle and shape-shift. Futurism gives rationalization air to breathe because it decouples arguments from verification. You might, by chance, be right on how some intervention today affects humans 300 years from now. But if you were wrong, you’ll never know — and neither will your donors. For all their love of Bayesian inference, their endless gesturing at moral uncertainty, and their norms of superficially signposting epistemic humility, EAs became more willing to venture into a far future where they were far more likely to end up in a space so vast and unconstrained that the only feedback to update against was themselves....

It should be the burden of institutions, not individuals, to face and manage the uncertainty of the world. Risk reduction in a complex world will never be done by people cosplaying perfect Bayesians. Good reasoning is not about eradicating biases, but about understanding which decision-making procedures can find a place and function for our biases. There is no harm in being wrong: It’s a feature, not a bug, in a decision procedure that balances your bias against an opposing bias. Under the right conditions, individual inaccuracy can contribute to collective accuracy.

I will not blame EAs for having been wrong about the trustworthiness of Bankman-Fried, but I will blame them for refusing to put enough effort into constructing an environment in which they could be wrong safely. Blame lies in the audacity to take large risks on behalf of others, while at the same time rejecting institutional designs that let ideas fail gently.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Costs and Benefits

Song (repeat): Wilco "You Never Know
"Come on, children, you’re acting like children
"Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world"

As you know, I'm not a fan of the hyperbolic and dishonest rhetoric of the climate crazies. It is truly immoral how people who should know better are traumatizing a huge swath of sensitive young people. There is simply no reason to contend that we're all going to die in the world of tomorrow. And it isn't about rich white people - it is all about those currently living in poverty. But you don't hear economic development being pushed to help those people; just the opposite.

I bring all this up because I found someone with an actual track record of thinking about the future making note that there are actually benefits to increased CO2 concentration (example*) to go along with the well-publicized costs: Externalities, Population, and Climate. (Follow-up. More detail on uncertainty.)

Not necessary to read if you already accept that things aren't apocalyptic. Just nice to know there are others out there trying to view the future with some balance.

*We consistently find a large CO₂ fertilization effect: a 1 ppm increase in CO₂ equates to a 0.4%, 0.6%, 1% yield increase for corn, soybeans, and wheat, respectively. In a thought exercise, we apply the CO₂ fertilization effect we estimated in our sample from 2015-2021 backwards to 1940, and, assuming no other limiting factors, find that CO₂ was the dominant driver of yield growth—with implications for estimates of future climate change damages.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Filosophy Friday: Acts and Omissions

"'You can't save everybody' is the best that we can do."

Initial digression: Regarding Mighty Mites, I would like to point out that the EA Forum chose to feature that post in their weekly email. They very assiduously ignored and voted down my "Against Longtermism" post (as I was assured they would) and then voted up and decided to promote a post that says we're all murderers for washing. Thanks to all of you who contacted me regarding the post - you helped me feel sane.

"You know what this makes me worry about? Mites."
Photo by Kevin Drum.

I know some hard-core philosophers like to claim there is no difference between acts and omissions. E.g., letting someone die (or stay in a cage) when you could have saved them is the same as killing them (imprisoning them) because you chose to make a decision that led to that outcome.

As you might imagine, I have some thoughts.

Imagine you care very much about the suffering in the world and, unlike me, have made good decisions and put yourself in a position where you can save the lives of animals (or free them from miserable lives in cages). Say it takes four hours of work to save an animal. There are far, far more animals at stake than you could possibly save even if you worked every hour of the rest of your life.

So the bottom line of the hard-core consequentialist is that every four hours you aren't working is the same as actively choosing to kill an individual animal. 

Does this seem realistic in any way?

If you work the extra four hours to save Gwendeline the Duck, does that mean you don't care about Richie the Rabbit, who you could have theoretically saved with the four hours you spent exercising, reading, or spending time with loved ones?

At some point, we have to realize that we have to draw a line - a line that allows us to have a reasonable life that can make our personal universe pleasant. We are not responsible for the cruelty caused by the initial conditions of the wider universe, but we do have some "control" [sic] over our personal universe.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

“Mixes humor with thoughtful insight ... a fast and entertaining read that still has me thinking.”

Emmylou Harris "May This Be Love"
Musically, probably not what you're expecting.

An Amazon review of Losing My Religions:

Matt Ball mixes humor with thoughtful insight on a variety of topics, including challenging relationships, religion, travel, illness, and climate change. This was a fast and entertaining read that still has me thinking. Music lovers will appreciate all of the references to song lyrics, too.

Please write a review when you can. Thanks!

This picture has no meaning.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Bonus: External Agitators or Self-Sabotage?

Decades ago (sorry for the vague memory) some animal exploiter tried to convince an unstable person to plan a (thwarted) terrorist attack in order to make animal advocates look bad.

This comes to mind whenever I see people supposedly concerned with making the world a better place doing things beyond absurd. I wonder: are they infiltrators trying to discredit actual dedicated advocates? Or are they simply unhinged people without any connection to reality? 

However, in this case, not only is the person posting unhinged theories  - both wild animals and non-sentient organisms - but whoever compiles the "best of" Effective Altruism for the weekly newsletter also chose to promote this insane post. 

Our is a world where countless fully-conscious human beings are actually and acutely suffering - including many individuals who are being actively tortured. Parents losing their five-year-old after a two-year battle with childhood leukemia. A teenager paralyzed by crushing anxiety. A new mother killed by a drunk driver, leaving behind a howlingly-despairing husband and infant. A political prisoner driven mad in solitary confinement.

And in this world, the Effective Altruism community is literally promoting concern for insentient invisible mites that literally feed on us. 


The Path to Internet Fame (2 of 2)

Green Day "Too Dumb to Die"
Takes ~30 seconds to get to actual song.
Dr. Who version. (We never got into Dr. Who - don't hate me!)

It is clear that a key way to become famous these days is to play to a sense of victimhood. The largest insatiable audience seems to be white males who lack success in some field (especially with women; please see this Atlantic article for more). 

Jordan Peterson is a vile example, but Bryan Caplan is the one I find more frustrating. He is clearly intelligent and only reacting to the fact that one of his pals was attacked by lunatics calling themselves feminists.

Obviously, I have great sympathy. As documented in Losing My Religions, crazed vegans have made my professional life miserable for decades. But that doesn't mean I write books saying "Don't be a vegan" or write endless columns about the persecution of non-vegans. Just because there are asshole vegans doesn't mean the cruelty of factory farms isn't a serious problem. 

It is simply sad the extent folks like Caplan will go to try to argue men have it worse off than women. Have they seen the world? What percentage of Presidents have been women? Vice Presidents? Senators? Justices? Legislators? Heads of Fortune 500 companies? (8.8%) Billionaires? (<10%) And women control less than 1% of global wealth

But yeah, the odds are stacked against men. 🙄

PS: Over on Substack, I came across a young blond philosopher named Matt. It appears that he has little to no luck with women, and he spends his time writing endless posts to prove he is smarter than anyone else. Like looking in a time-machine's mirror.  😬

Blurbs and Blurb (1 of 2)

 Song: Liz Story Wedding Rain
I saw Liz perform this live in the year 7 BA (1985).
Anne and I had snow, not rain:

The happiest I've ever been in snow.

Written to Anne and me:

“Enjoyed getting to know you both today, about 2/3 done [with Losing]. Appreciate that it's an easy read but also introduces important topics. You can look forward to follow-up questions.”

I know the general advice is to get big names to endorse your book, but do readers really think these celebrities mean what say on book covers?

On a podcast, pretty famous author and professor Paul Bloom said that getting endorsements was the worst part of writing a book. This past weekend, I saw a big-time name endorsing an obscure (and mediocre**) book as an "instant legend" and an "instant classic." Really?

Back when I was minorly (in)famous, I was asked to blub books. The conventional wisdom is that you say something nice regardless of the book because 1. You don't want to be seen as a jerk to other writers, and 2. A nice blurb makes you (the blurber) look good to anyone just browsing. Ugh.

Nick Offerman turns this on its head, with one book featuring an endorsement from God and an attack from Stalin or Hitler (I can't remember). And on Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, he has an endorsement from "A badger," and the very funny Sarah Vowell saying, "Um, no thanks." 

Also, some people don't want to put their names to what they've said about Losing My Religions because they don't want to seem to endorse all the ideas and/or they're afraid of the vegan (or climate change) mob coming after them.

**NSFW: OK, maybe less than mediocre: 

"Fin and Carol lost their virginity to each other some two decades earlier when they were both fifteen. ... When he and Carold had sex Finn felt like he was diving into the deepest, clearest water. Becoming the water. When he climaxed, he became the entire ocean."


Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Some people are so self-centered it is stunning (1 of 2)

Don McLean "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)"
Sad song, great video.


As insinuated in Losing My Religions, I am a fan of Vincent van Gogh's paintings. (Although I did not mention my favorite painting of his, so you can see it below, plus another.) 

Many decades ago, before I met Anne but when Prozac was starting to become a cultural phenomenon, I remember an essay in Time magazine that bemoaned the mere existence of antidepressants. The author said that if Prozac had existed in Van Gogh's time, we would have been denied all of his amazing paintings.

Even at the time, I was appalled - utterly horrified - by this incredibly selfish and cruel point of view. How dare anyone want another human being to suffer immensely so that they could enjoy a certain work of art? Would this commentator be willing to torture their child so that future generations could enjoy a piece of music or a certain film?

Not to be a broken record: while I regret many things in my life, pushing hard for people to take suffering seriously is not one of them.

Wheatfield under Thunderclouds. Maybe Van Gogh's last and one we have framed.

Wheatfield with Crows, my favorite painting and probably Vincent's last.
We had this dry-mounted but not framed until it was destroyed in the last move.

Tuesday TV Tip: Travelers (two of two)

Everything But The Girl - Missing (Todd Terry Remix)
(Original - a bit less drum-machine)
The key line is me when Anne is away.

Honestly, a lot of what we enjoy on TV are things people have heard about - Succession, Picard, Barry, Andor, Killing Eve (minus season 4), Parks & Recreation. 

But Travelers (on Netflix - thanks Mary!) is an excellent science fiction show that I only heard of by accident. Not a horrible scifi idea*, fortified with well-written, interesting characters. There are some gruesome scenes, but overall not a depressing show.

*OK, the underlying plot is pretty absurd, but not as bad as some... and the rest is good. Also: the two-parter toward the end of season two might be kinda triggering after the events of 2020....  

Anne type-typing on her dissertation, 1992.
Yes, that is a modem on the Macintosh SE.

Monday, January 30, 2023

“It makes me laugh, want to travel, and most importantly, makes me think!” (1 of 2)

Barenaked Ladies If I had a million dollars.
“But not a real green dress, that's cruel.”

Latest review: 

I am really enjoying the book!  It makes me laugh, want to travel, and most importantly, makes me think! I am looking forward to reading your blog, as well. 

All three of your books have helped me to be a more relaxed, more accepting, and happier vegan. Thanks for helping me to see that the most important thing is to reduce as much suffering as possible and not to obtain some ideal of vegan perfection.  And thanks for all that you do for the animals!

Please write a review when you can. Thanks!

"If I had a million dollars, I'd buy your love."
If you've read the book, check this out. (But not you, snoogums.)

The Mind Is Fragile, Projection Issue (2/2)

Dan Bern, "Jerusalem."
Funny and relevant to the below, the "Everybody's waiting..." section.

As a counterpoint to the above "makes me laugh" review:

In the "Robot Overlords" chapter in Losing My Religions, I mention someone who stopped donating to animal advocacy and instead gave his money to promoting Christianity (infinite expected value). I didn't mention that he had also gone through a kick where he tried to convince me to put all my money into silver - he had all the charts and facts to "prove" this was the best course of action.

Well, sir....

So last week, out of the blue after many years, I hear from him again. He's writing to tell me that he left his cult and is now into Effective Altruism and chanting. But mostly, he wanted to tell me that I'm "sick" and "need help" because I "want robots to kill all humans."


The coincidence is that Anne and I had just been discussing a book I was once asked to blurb. In it, animals can talk to each other, and one says, "Kill all humans." (That line was the main, but not only, reason I didn't blurb the book.)

Anyway, I'm sad but not surprised that veganism and effective altruism attracts so many mentally unstable people. I'm also sad that people can't consider, let alone discuss, ideas without massive mischaracterizations and accusations of genocide. I guess I have a slight understanding of what Peter Singer goes through. 

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Technology by Douglas Adams (1/2)

Fountains of Wayne "Stacy's Mom"
I, of course, like to walk around singing it as "EK's Mom..."

Douglas Adams, cited here:

  • Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  • Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  • Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

By Stephan Pastis, born exactly two weeks after I was.
Cut from Losing My Religions

How "AI" might actually change your life (2/2)

Radiohead "Airbag" from OK Computer

There was a pretty bad typo in yesterday's post. Sorry - fixed now.

First, we should stop using the word "intelligence" in almost every current case. These are algorithms, not independent minds exploring whatever they want. A computer can brute-force chess and Go solutions but that program isn't going to make your marriage any better. A large language model like ChatGPT can mine what humans have already written and mindlessly create new sentences based on that database, but that program isn't going to provide a new philosophical insight (e.g., Animal Liberation). (Please listen to this Ezra Klein show for more, and check out this take by Robert Wright. More: How AI will be stifled by policy. And if you think AI is going to kill us all, this is a good skeptic's take.)


Here is an example of advanced computer programming that could actually save your life:

AI has designed bacteria-killing proteins from scratch – and they work

If this is true -- and New Scientist has been known to exaggerate, and many scientific claims have not panned out -- it would be huge.

"No computer will replace me!"