Thursday, March 30, 2017

On Living in the Real World

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.                Carl Sagan
The dot in question
As usual, I’ve skipped past the obvious. I’ll be honest, I got some responses to my post about Virtual Reality that I did not anticipate, and I think they’re worth addressing in their own post.

Responses like “If billions retreat into virtual reality and stop reproducing, what does it matter?”, “Why is wireheading a bad thing?”, “Why do you care if people prefer not to live in the real world?”... And oh man, does that open a can of worms. I’ll do my best to answer, but be forewarned, I am not a trained philosopher, just a guy with a blog.

I’ll be the first to admit that I might have an unhealthy obsession with epistemic truths. I think it is fundamentally a mark of poor character to prefer a comforting lie to a hard truth, and I am (clearly) the kind of person who goes looking for these truths.

There’s a fuzzy concept I want to talk about, and that is meaning. Importance, emotional weight, and so on. I don’t tend to focus on abstractions very much, but examples abound. A dog is just an animal, until it’s your dog. It matters to you.

I worry that I’m doing a wretched job of explaining it. Words are just sounds, but a story has meaning. Here is my argument, shaky as it is: Humanity makes things have meaning. Mars is just a rock, but it means something to us, so it’s important. But Mars isn’t important by itself. If every human on earth was dead, Mars would no longer matter. Its existence, or non-existence, would have no meaning. There must be an observer to notice, or care.

I’m aware that I’m arguing in circles, trying to prove a tautology. I wonder if this is what faith feels like. I’m defining a concept based on the existence of humanity that is tied to the existence of humanity. Still, I can’t help but feel it. A brand-new city matters less than an old city, and even if it’s just in our heads, people have cared about old places for longer. The history matters.

In the end, it comes down to stories. A piece of metal becomes a crown, slab of rock becomes a gravestone, grain becomes a birthday cake. I have no way to satisfactorily prove this, except for my insistence. Cogito ergo sum.

This is somewhat related to the issue of consciousness. It is easy to imagine a frightfully intelligent machine, capable of performing complex tasks far above human cognition, and yet entirely lack a self. Arguing for anything even close to dualism makes me feel dirty, but there seems to be something to the human experience that is not mindless reaction, cold cognition, etc. The meat is alive, and aware. It knows itself.

The argument is wildly anthropocentric, but the universe means more with humans in it. If humans go to mars, live on mars, then mars will matter. And so on for the rest of the universe.

But if, instead, humanity retreats into a virtual world of its own creation, then that world will matter, but the real universe will never be able to. The Great Filter will get us, and humanity might live very happily in our virtual world on our one planet, until the sun swallows us up.

We’ve got all our eggs in one basket. If humanity is important, then it’s imperative that we avoid disaster and figure out a way to get ourselves in a position where one awful event won’t spell the end for us. (The precise natures of the possible disasters are varied, my Cassandra series, I hope, will eventually comprise a comprehensive list)

So that’s why I care. Because humanity matters. Going into a virtual world means never seeing the real one... which inevitably means the end of humanity, and the end of everything in the universe that matters.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Everything Wrong with College

You must never let schooling interfere with education                                            Grant Allen

College is an enormous waste of money and time.
It's not about money, it's about getting an education
I have spoken of this before, but if the opinions of my family and every hiring manager I've ever met are at all representative, this is a deeply unpopular conclusion.

This is, of course, not an original idea (I doubt I’ll get much further in this piece than summarizing Scott Alexander’s Against Tulip Subsidies), but I’ll do my best to persuade.  

If the opening quote didn’t set the tone clearly enough, I’ll be explicit: the educational system is fundamentally unconcerned with education. I recognize that saying it in this way carries a strong whiff of newspeak, so let’s approach it by means of a counter example: Medical School.

Medical School follows the basic trade school model, wherein the students are taught everything necessary to practice a craft. Medical schools are famously grueling, but in the end about 80% of them graduate and go on to become doctors. They also graduate with an average debt of over 160 thousand dollars, but we’ll get back to that.

But, ignoring the financial cost, medical schools are reasonably effective at creating doctors. Likewise, I assume, for Electrician/Welding/Mechanic/Air Conditioner Repair schools. If they didn’t teach a skill, no one would bother going. Let’s hold on to that thought, while we consider the high school diploma.

Please raise your hand if you know what, exactly, a high school diploma is supposed to teach. Because frankly, I don’t have any idea. I know there is a circular answer involving the completion of selected coursework and the passage of state-mandated exams, but I am completely and profoundly confused as to the purpose of it. I’m looking at lists of jobs and careers that don’t require a high school diploma, and a list of them that do, and I’m not seeing any indication that the knowledge learned in high school is at all relevant.

Obviously, the things taught — math, science, literature, history, etc. — have plenty of implicit value. But frankly, they aren’t something most people use on any regular basis, and certainly not at work. And while work is not the only aspect of life where people can benefit from education, it does seem like an important focus.

Now the purpose of education is a debated topic, to say the least. But from the broader economic standpoint, if the goal is to “provide for the fullest possible development of each learner for living morally, creatively, and productively in a democratic society”, it does not appear to be functioning as intended. (That quote comes from the ASCD)

Ignoring high school for a moment, it is a matter of historical record that university enrollment has increased dramatically. Charts like this one aren’t so surprising.
But more striking, I think, is this one:
Peak attendance was in 2009, but this second graph functions fine without it. The most important fact I took away from this chart is just how recent college education is. People went to college, sure, but it was only after the G.I. bill that enrollment really took off. One can, without too much oversimplification, label the baby boomers as the “first” modern college generation. And their children were even more serious about going to college, you can see the sharp uptick at around ’91 on the first graph. 

But, great, right? More people going to school, learning. All that jazz. Seems like a pretty fantastic thing, an unalloyed good, etc. If only it were true.

It’s not a pleasant conclusion to reach, and one that requires a bit of explanation. Which is why I started talking about high school. Consider this graph:
The number of high school graduates (as a percent of the population) has remained fairly stable since the 70s. They made a fuss last year, because we recently got a record high rate of graduates: 83%. And while I’m very happy for those students, it cannot be said that it constitutes significant improvement.

That’s obviously not ideal, but it looks very bad next to this:
The current national average spent per pupil is about 11 thousand dollars. Basically, that line just keeps going up diagonally. I have a more straightforward explanation for this: we hit peak graduation rate back in the 70s.

Now I don’t know all the details behind the various state examinations, but I would be incredibly surprised if they had gotten significantly more difficult since the 70s, especially in the face of No Child Left Behind and “teaching to the test”. The more reasonable assumption is that some (fixed?) percentage of people simply cannot handle the academic work needed to pass the test.

The problem is only exacerbated in college. Some non-trivial percentage of the people going to college are fundamentally incapable of producing college level work. This would not be as big of a problem, were it not for the fact that college degrees are becoming a necessary pre-requisite for any job.

The reason, if I had to guess, is that we’ve passed some sort of unfortunate societal tipping point. At some point, everyone needed a high school diploma, and if you didn’t have one, you were unemployable. Stanford professor David Larabee seems to think that the role of the educational system is to ensure class stratification, and learning is merely a side effect. He tracks history farther back than my graphs, but the results are the same. Apparently, high schools were originally the elite schools of the rich, while everyone else just went to primary school for a few years. Eventually people demanded parity and government-run high schools, and the rich subsequently decided they needed universities. And that same thing, I fear, is happening with college.

Ignoring the future non-existence of work for the time being, we’re shutting out some large percentage of people from jobs, simply based on the lack of a mostly useless degree (I’m being deliberately vague with these numbers, because I refuse to be derailed into a nature/nurture/IQ debate). This would be a horrific shame, even if it didn’t leave people destitute and suck up many years of their lives.

I’m not going to provide a graph, because it’s not news to anyone that a college education has become exponentially more expensive. It’s hard for any of my contemporaries to imagine, but a few short decades ago, you really could pay for college with a summer job. Today, students graduate with an average debt of over 30 thousand dollars. I’m trying not to let my emotions leak excessively onto the page, but this is really fucking upsetting on several levels, so it’s worth taking the time to figure out how we got to our current financial situation. Unfortunately, I think I know: government subsidies.

The problem is, in any (relatively) free capitalist system, the market will try to correct itself. When the government spent millions of dollars to send the G.I.s to university, they added an outside incentive into the system. It has only gotten worse since then, as the number of universities has increased dramatically, both as a response to student demand and the existence of free government money.

This is not a unique viewpoint, but the concern isn’t merely academic, the 1.4 trillion dollars of student loan debt accounts for more than 7% of the national GDP. It cannot continue. This is another unfortunate case of unintended consequences, and we are all (literally) paying for it.

Please don’t take this as a denigration of education. Far from it, I think learning is an important lifelong activity, and that people’s lives are immeasurably enriched through it. But in a world where everyone has access to Wikipedia, and you can learn advanced calculus on YouTube, the argument for formal education becomes much weaker. And while there are plenty of individual exceptions, it’s not abnormal to see people party through college, coast on an easy degree (buoyed by grade inflation), and then get a normal job in a field unrelated to their studies.

Looking at it from this perspective, it’s hard to see it working any other way. The students get money from the government (or from their parents or loans), and the universities get money from the students. Under such a system, the incentive on the university side is to keep the students as happy as possible. Everything else is just a way to improve the college’s perceived value, allowing them to charge higher tuitions, enroll more students, and get more money.

Clearly, the individual actors in this situation (the professors, the students, etc.) are not consciously behaving in this way. It’s Moloch, or, more specifically, a coordination failure inherent to the system. The momentum may have started by a desire for social stratification, or an excessive influx of money, but regardless it is now barreling forward on its own. And that’s how you end up with doctors being forced to endure 14 years of schooling. Hard to open a little family practice and provide cheap care when you’re 160 thousand dollars in debt.

Understanding the full scope of the problem is necessary, otherwise you get very well-meaning people endorsing free college for everyone. Which is a nice plan for making college more affordable, but only exacerbates the problem in the long term (and ensures that the bachelor’s degree will carry as much weight as a high school diploma). I’m not usually one to advocate for a freer market, but you can’t just ignore the disconnect by fiat. We’ve produced more college degrees (and Doctoral degrees, for that matter) than the market requires. It’s a classic bubble, and I don’t know what society will look like when it bursts.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

On Being a Cassandra: Virtual Reality

Previous Cassandra posts: A.I. — Global Warming — Antibiotics — Pandemic

Today's terrifying existential threat looks like this:
The headset, not the guy.
That's right, the threat is that you will look like a doofus. Truly blood-chilling.

But give me a chance to lay out my latest chicken-little argument, and soon you too can recoil at the thought of virtual reality.

Now while some mainstream publications have difficulty looking past the obvious initial problems of motion sickness and tripping on wires, my focus is on a more insidious problem.

Fair warning, this is more or less uncharted territory, and I’m going to be drawing from speculative fiction. Many of the ideas in here have been laid out better in “The Unincorporated Man” and, to a lesser extent, in the various horror stories written around “Friendship is Optimal”.

Let’s start at the beginning, with what I’m going to call “Axiom 1”: the world sucks.

I know, I know, but really, it does. More specifically, it is… not optimized for human happiness. This is not a new idea, and anyone with a passing familiarity with Judeo-Christian mythology will recognize the parallels with the expulsion from the Garden of Eden:

Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
  It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
   By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.

Blame entropy, blame the devil, blame whatever, but the fact remains: the world has things in it that people wish weren’t so. Now philosophical views differ on the benefits of pain, suffering, and discomfort, but I’m going to just leave the existence of them as an established fact. Axiom 1.

Axiom 2, people prefer pleasure to pain. Not especially groundbreaking, but worth mentioning in this context. Willpower is a finite thing, and people often get caught in hedonistic wells and/or addiction spirals, where they actively seek positive stimuli such as food, sex, drugs, or feelings of personal accomplishment. Even pleasure with net negative externalities are difficult to avoid, just ask the next cigarette smoker you see if they’ve ever tried to quit.

Which leads us directly into Axiom 3: People will seek out pleasurable feelings. It’s just how our brains operate, since feeling good is how our body tells our brain to keep doing that thing, and pain is something we shouldn’t do. Humans are animals, and animals fundamentally follow their base urges and instincts. These are not all first order operations, plenty of people feel good helping others and contributing to society; Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is instructive here.

Invented worlds, i.e. worlds designed by humans to maximize human pleasure, lack many of the limitations of Axiom 1. They can be more exciting, more fulfilling, and just better than the real world.

Clearly there is already substantial addictive behavior regarding our use of electronics, and the effect is far more pronounced in children who are growing up without knowing anything else.

At present, the world as it stands now has no significant virtual competitor and, isolated examples aside, no one is forsaking this world for an artificial one. If the predictions in my previous posts on Artificial Intelligence hold up, we are looking at a society where the majority of people have nothing to do, and no way to meaningfully contribute. Best case scenario, assuming there are social services to provide physically for these people, they will be healthy, fed, and intensely bored. The real world will have little to offer them, outside of basic sustenance — Maslow is a cruel master, and man cannot live on bread alone.

Enter, Virtual Reality. A simulated world designed from the ground up to entertain and provide for human needs, intended to supplant and replace the increasingly inhospitable real world. A world far more pleasurable and exciting than our own. Axiom 2, people will prefer this world, and Axiom 3, they will seek it out. If the choice is between a boring world of basic subsistence where everything of consequence is done by machines, or an exciting virtual world where you can be important and valued, the choice will be an obvious one. We are beginning to see this trend already.

There is an obvious counterargument that I want to address. Namely, “People won’t do that. The real world is going to be better because it’s real”. Unfortunately, I have to disagree, and I’ve got the science to back me up.

There is a landmark book of psychology: Niko Tinburgen’s “The Study of Instinct” (1951). In it, among other things, he talks about the concept of supernormal stimulus. There are dozens of animal examples, of instinctual preferences and behaviors going off the rails, birds preferring to feed fake chicks with wider, redder mouths, instead of their own offspring. Butterflies preferring to mate with brightly colored fakes. There are others, many experiments have verified that there is no natural limit to instinctive behavior and preferences. This is also demonstrably true in human beings as well, with males consistently preferring breast shapes that are only possible with augmentation, to say nothing about facebook, junk food, pornography, opioids, and other deliberately designed super-stimuli.

To put it bluntly, there are no guardrails. Humans do have higher cognitive abilities, so all hope is not lost, but most of the time when instinct and reason fight, reason loses. People eat more candy out of closer bowls, and it is really difficult to eat just one chip. It is not so farfetched to imagine an advanced VR system that connects directly to the sensory sections of the brain, wireheading a generation.
In this case, the worry is that we’d put ourselves into the pods voluntarily, Adolus Huxley-style. I can imagine the blue pill being a very popular option, when the choice is between a pleasurable, super-stimulating human-designed Matrix and a painful world where humanity is all but obsolete. The question isn’t “How many will plug in?” but “How many will be left?”

Monday, March 20, 2017

On the Void

I’m sorry. 

I don’t do this on purpose. I’d like to write about nice things, positive things. I wish people could read my blog and come away happy, entertained, and enlightened.

But I can’t. 
Thank you DeviantArt
There’s a famous quote by Fredrick Nietzsche. In English it’s usually translated as: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” 

I’m not sure it applies here. Maybe it does.

One of the more interesting things about depression is the way it changes how you think. Everything spirals back around to feeling bad. Because (in a non-existential sense), experiencing happiness is entirely dependent on the chemicals in your brain. If your brain can’t (or won’t) release the right chemicals, then no matter what happens, you won’t be happy.

This tends to manifest as a search for the grey lining of every silver cloud. It’s easier and more comfortable to feel bad about something concrete, than to focus on the void itself.

These days, there are lot of things to feel bad about. I wrote about this a bit in an earlier post, but there was something almost empowering by the widespread depression and anguish following Trump’s victory. But because when you spend your life expecting the worst thing to happen, even if you don’t like the thing, you’re ready for it. The crisis becomes manageable. You can make a plan and follow through

One of the main treatments for depression is cognitive behavioral therapy, which assumes that depression is as much a consequence of negative thought patterns as it is a physical condition. Which is very likely true, the brain is a powerful organ, as the placebo effect clearly demonstrates. By replacing negative thought patterns with positive ones, people can break out of the depressive spiral.
This comes up when you Google "depressive spiral". It's a little on the nose.
But a counterpoint, and this is going to sound like an unhealthy embrace of depressive thinking, but why? Not just “why bother?” but “why do this thing?”. I’ve talked about the optimism bias several times, but it bears repeating. “Normal” thoughts and thought patterns are consistently and provably wrong, people live their lives with a surplus of optimism, constantly biasing thoughts and behaviors to place themselves in the best possible light, and generally assuming things will all work out ok, even in bad situations.

Frankly, it makes me very frustrated. And maybe I’ve stared too long into the void, but I don’t want to be that way. If things are bad, I want to believe things are bad. The world doesn’t hinge on my beliefs, but as my Cassandra posts so distressingly explain, there are many reasons to feel pessimistic. The world just isn’t a happy place right now, and while I wish it were otherwise, I have to tell the truth.

Edit: An addendum. The author is not wallowing in a depressive spiral. This is meant as a partial defense of coping mechanisms and thought patterns wrought by depression, and should not be taken as an endorsement of depression. It is extraordinarily difficult to live life without some delusions of optimism, and it is extremely unwise to try. If you or a loved one are suffering from depression, you should know that they have fantastic chemicals that will really help. Please do what is necessary to acquire them. Thank you.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

On Being a Cassandra: Pandemic

C’est les microbes qui auront le dernier mot.
Louis Pasteur

Previous Cassandra Posts: A.I.Global WarmingAntibiotics

Continuing on my public health kick on the heels of my antibiotics-themed Cassandra post, I’d like to talk about another terrifying future threat:
Probably not
Now, apologies if I start shamelessly channeling Richard Preston, but it’s important to remember that diseases are one of the built-in controls on population growth. In many ways, disease acts on animal populations the same way predators do.

The point to keep in mind is that diseases are natural. And as the population density increases, so does the density of diseases, and the higher the chance for the disease to spread. Obviously humans are not the only animal whose numbers are similarly controlled, Hoof and Mouth disease in bovids comes to mind. I’m sure epidemiologists know more.

I’m assuming everyone is at least somewhat familiar with the history of the bubonic plague, aka “The Black Death”, but on the off chance that you’re not: in the mid 1300s, the plague spread throughout Asia and Europe, killing anywhere from 75 to 200 million people. Records are inconsistent both because it was 700 years ago, causes of death were harder to ascertain (or deliberately misrepresented to avoid quarantine), and the fact that over one third of the population was killed off (with some estimates as high as 60%).
There's a lot of bad-ass Black Death imagery to choose from
This is a staggering statistic to imagine, and really makes the people who thought the plague was god’s wrath and/or the end of the world seem a lot more reasonable.

The other important thing to remember is that disease and plague were a fact of life. If it wasn’t the black death, it was smallpox, and if it wasn’t smallpox, it was cholera. Or a hemorrhagic fever. Or any number of things. The black death was not the first and although the peak was in the mid to late 1300s, outbreaks (of varying sizes) continued to occur in Europe until the late 1800s, and still occur in many places around the world.

Obviously, the death tolls are not what they once were, even the worst modern outbreaks tend not to claim more than a few hundred lives at a time. Mainly because we’re better at quarantine, killing the fleas and rats that carry it, and we have various treatments for curing and preventing it. (Though, tying back into “On Being a Cassandra: Antibiotics”, there is serious public health concern about the possible spreading of an antibiotic-resistant bubonic plague. Luckily, at present only a few antibiotic-resistant strains have been observed.)

But while exotic tropical diseases like Dengue and Ebola are certainly exciting, from an epidemiology standpoint, they’re not the plague you should be most worried about. What you should be worried about is influenza.
JPEG artifacts are not a symptom of influenza
Now, there’s usually quite a bit of a fuss each year about bird flu, or swine flu, which I imagine is fairly puzzling to people who associate the flu with spending a few days feeling shitty in bed. So, let’s talk about the 1918 flu pandemic

In the span of a year, 500 million people were infected, and somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of them died. This amounted to about a 3-4% reduction in the worldwide population, and was at least three times the number of people who died in WWI.

Obviously, most flu strains are nowhere near as virulent as that one, and the flu is “incentivized” not to be that dangerous, as killing the host makes transmission more difficult. But, there is no reason why this year’s flu was not as dangerous, other than the fact that most flus aren’t that dangerous. That’s why the public health officials get so spooked when the latest H1N1 strain appears and kills a few thousand people, because a sufficiently virulent strain could do much worse damage. Also to note, the flu vaccine is not particularly effective against these pandemic flus, as they tend to be new and unaccounted for mutations.

Regardless of which disease you choose to concern yourself with, the simple fact is that our society is massively overdue for a pandemic. Our population is incredibly high, and incredibly dense in most places, with a shocking amount of interconnectedness (due to people traveling around via trains and planes). Not only is our society due for a pandemic, we are drastically unprepared for it. This is more than simple alarmism, according to the report I just linked: “the commission's own modeling suggests that we are more likely than not to see at least one pandemic over the next 100 years, and there is at least a 20 percent chance of seeing four or more.”

Nor are natural pandemics the only concern, just recently Bill Gates addressed the Munich Security Conference, warning of the risk posed by bio-terrorism. But whether natural or unnatural, if you’re looking for more things to worry about, don’t hesitate to add pandemics to your list.

P.S. Quarantine may be ineffective with certain dangerous diseases, as they are capable of drastically altering human behavior. See this study for more information.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Trump: Still Bad

Breaking news! Stop the presses!

Well, maybe not exactly. I wanted to review some of the points I made in “Don’t Be a Reactionary”, and talk about some of the unproductive mental habits that I’ve seen among family and friends the last few months.

Namely, there appears to be a near constant outpouring of outrage and shock, occurring whenever Trump/his people/the Republicans do anything. And I’m begging you, I’m pleading you, stop being surprised.

What's he grumpy about now? Who knows!

Or at least stop acting surprised. The reversal of the Obama mandate banning bathroom discrimination for transsexuals is a recent example, though I could name a dozen others. We’d be here all day. The important point is, this is not an unexpected outcome. You should expect him to take easy steps to undo anything democrats like and republicans hate, especially when there is no cost to do so. It’s a popular move that endears him to his base, and any public denouncements or protests just reinforce the divisive narrative.

As a mental exercise, I’d like my liberal readers to flex their pessimism muscles, and imagine bad political events that might happen, but haven’t happened (yet). Though many of these policies are in motion already (defunding planned parenthood, re-privatizing prisons, etc), it should not be too impossible to come up with some (realistic) things that have not yet happened. I’ve got a couple: passing laws to deliberately weaken environmental standards, starting a war with some middle eastern country, and formally withdrawing from the UN. I’m sure you can come up with more, especially if you take a few minutes to really think about it.

Now while most things you’ve just imagined are bad, or at least highly disagreeable, none of them should come as a true surprise. You should expect him to nominate pro-life justices, you should expect his appointees to do their best dismantle their various organizations, and you should expect him to act in ways consistent with what we’ve already seen. You can still be outraged, but please stop acting like every action is unforeseen and unprecedented (I’m knocking down a strawman here, but the point stands). It’s unproductive.

I read another blog post recently, and I’m going to quote most of it here, because it is highly relevant to the situation at hand:
The Angry Identitarian Left is the way it is, in part, because its practices are optimized specifically for college campus activism.

Within a university, the world is controlled by a nigh-omnipotent authority.  If you are a student, it is probable that the authority basically likes you and wants you to succeed; even if the administrators find you annoying, they fundamentally regard you as community members who should be receiving a good education, not as vermin or monsters or fifth-columnists.  If you are a leftist or liberal, it is probable that the authority basically shares your fundamental values; the administrators are basically you, thirty years down the pike.  But the authority is lazy and venal and (especially) worried about disruptions and embarrassments.  By default, you will be denied a lot of the political things you want, because that’s the easiest and cheapest thing, because the most convenient way to keep donors happy usually involves sweeping problems under the rug and not shelling out money.

Under these circumstances, the most flexible strategic plan seems to involve a two-pronged social assault, with the prongs consisting of “moral suasion” and “extortion.”  You speak with as much holiness and self-righteousness as you can muster, in hopes that you can guilt the administrators into acknowledging the merit of your points, which has a good chance of working because deep down the administrators probably do see the merit of your points.  (They really, genuinely don’t want to be racist or sexist either!)  And you make yourself as annoying and obstreperous as you can, with the implicit promise that you’ll stop as soon as you get what you want, in hopes that appeasing you becomes the easy way out.

There’s not much to be gained by persuading anyone of anything, or by looking to compromise with anyone, because there’s not really any principled opposition with whom to engage.  There’s also no real downside to using nasty rhetoric and dirty tactics.  In the wider world, that shit causes people to hate and fear you, it alienates potential allies and cements the resolve of your enemies…but within the college, you have no genuine enemies and you don’t have much use for allies.  All that matters is whether you can break through the sloth and self-interestedness of the decision-makers. 
And this, despite being an over-generalization, is the problem with your outrage and protests. Every half-baked protest and social disruption turns people away from the cause. This is not to say that you can’t be upset (I thoroughly enjoyed this article about “Bluexit”), but you need to think really hard before you act. If you’re protesting because it feels good to be an activist, good to be surrounded by other people who are morally indignant, and satisfying to preach from the moral high ground, I can say with certainty that you’re not helping.

If your protest would scare an uninformed bystander, or if it would not persuade someone on the fence, don’t do it. Trump’s administration is not and will not be swayed by protests, they see them as a sign that they are on the right track, and large scale civil disruptions make people long for a militarized police force. The Left needs a new playbook, and quickly.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

On Being a Cassandra: Antibiotics

Just a quick aside, before I get seriously into today’s unfounded alarmism and moping about the future, I want to thank everyone who has been reading so far. Without all of you, this would be entirely pointless. On this note, if you enjoy the blog, please do share any articles on your social media platform of choice.

Previous Cassandra series posts: A.I.Global Warming

At the risk of cliché, it’s hard to overstate the importance of antibiotics. While it’s unimaginable to us, the children of the golden age, the medical advances we take for granted, such as organ transplants, surgery, and safe childbirth are all possible only because of antibiotics.

I’m not recusing myself from that group, if this NYT article is to be believed, 11% of skin infections were fatal back before antibiotics. Which doesn’t seem realistic to me, but I don’t have the standing to refute the datum. Maybe they just mean serious infections, not my acne and cat scratches, otherwise I’ve really beaten the odds.

At any rate, without antibiotics, many surgeries have a decent chance of being life threatening. Even with sterile conditions, you’re still making a big hole for bacteria to get in, with antibiotics consistently used during surgery to prevent infection. And even that’s not enough, the World Health Organization estimates that “Of every 100 hospitalized patients at any given time, seven in developed and 15 in developing countries will acquire at least one HAI [Health-care Associated Infection].”

I guess I kind of skipped over the major problem on this one, so let me rectify that: we are running out of antibiotics. Not just for the “MSRA” staph infections that occasionally make the news every now and then, but in general. We’ve already seen bacteria that are immune to every antibiotic we have, and the others are continually growing and refining themselves, actively working to develop resistances to treatment. Not only do bacteria acquire resistances through ordinary mutation, but they can also acquire resistances through plasmids. Essentially, a bacterium that develops resistance can spread it to other unrelated species of bacteria, making the development of any resistance a highly undesirable outcome from our perspective.

Like in any evolutionary arms race, bacteria that develop resistances are more successful. It takes constant progress on our end to maintain our superiority. At the moment, this is not happening, and scientists are predicting the practical end of antibiotics within a few decades.
It is difficult to justify investment in new antibiotics when they quickly stop being useful

One of the glaring problems is that the bacteria are developing resistance more quickly. Quicker than we can develop new drugs, at least. The reasons for this are likely due to the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, a topic for which a comprehensive accounting is beyond the scope of this short essay. One salient fact: the vast majority of antibiotics used are given to animals in their food, in order to keep them healthy in the foul conditions of factory farms. Use of antibiotics in this way also raises the percentage of body fat in the animals. Similar results occur when antibiotics are (over)used with children. Additionally, an estimated 50% of all antibiotics administered to people are used unnecessarily, to treat colds and flus. Suffice it to say, we are ever the architects of our own demise.

What will the future look like? The past, likely enough. Diseases once untreatable (Tuberculosis, Gonorrhea, Cholera, E coli, etc.) will be untreatable once again. I want to stress that this is not speculative, it is already occurring around the world. Species of gram negative bacteria have been the first to develop resistance to all known antibiotics, but more will inevitably follow. Our children will die from infections that our parents shrugged off, and, in one more way, the world will be darker and more dangerous.

Monday, March 6, 2017

On Hypocrisy

I wanted to take a moment for introspection.

I've been toying with the idea of writing a statement of purpose, a manifesto of sorts detailing why I'm writing, what I'm saying, and how I hope it benefits people and the world at large.

I don't think I can. At least, not without this preface. If it seems like I'm dawdling on purpose, trying to avoid saying whatever it is I'm about to say, then you're absolutely correct.

The problem with writing is that it's fundamentally narcissistic. All writing, with the possible exception of private diaries, is performative; it is meant to be read. Moreover, it's a one-way conversation — just the author talking at you, hoping and assuming his words have value.

I say all this, because I had a ready excuse for why perhaps my writing was worthwhile, or at least a germ of an idea. If I were to state it explicitly, it would be writing for the greater good, to educate, inform, and to provide a moralistic and humanist perspective.

This is, of course, hypocritical bullshit. I read a study recently that explained the process, and laid bare any pretense I could have mustered. I will quote from the abstract:
"Why do people express moral outrage? While this sentiment often stems from a perceived violation of some moral principle, we test the counter-intuitive possibility that moral outrage at third-party transgressions is sometimes a means of reducing guilt over one’s own moral failings and restoring a moral identity."
If this doesn't sum up nearly every single one of my posts to date, I'd be surprised. ( has a more detailed write-up of their findings that is not hidden behind a paywall)
Another dramatic gesture
In this case, the hypocrite is coming from inside the house.

I talk a big game about the sanctity of life, the virtues of compassion, the importance and moral weight of human existence, and other things. Unfortunately, it's all lies.

Not the moral principles themselves, as I'm pretty sure those are true, but in terms of any actual implementation. I say it, but it's clear that I don't mean it. I don't donate my time or money to charity, I don't help the less fortunate — heck, I'm not even usually kind or well-mannered. In short, I repeatedly and consistently act as if I am the only person in the world who matters. My "interest" in Effective Altruism seems purely theoretical.

Even this public flagellation reeks of false piety. Circling back to our narcissistic beginning, this is no less a demonstration of the same problem I'm moping about. I certainly don't blame any readers for giving up on this, my weakest post yet. If I wasn't actively writing it, I would have closed the tab long ago.

The only question I have at this point is: Is there a way to talk about the moral component of social issues without being a hypocrite? Is the selfish behavior inviolably baked into my/our brains? Does being thinking meat mean that we are inevitably shackled to biology, with our feelings and emotions directly regulated by chemical reactions? (this is not a new concern of mine. See: "On the Darkest Timeline: An Ode to Meat")

I can see the wall coming up, there's only so far to go on this topic; there's not a lot of subtlety to the philosophy of materialism. Issue of my personal hypocrisy aside, if our minds are intractably linked to the randomly designed meat that makes up our bodies, then that does not bode well for our future chances. If minds can even be considered to exist independent of our biological prisons (which is not at all certain), the link between them can hardly be beneficial.

Animals (of which humans are no exception) are obsessed with meeting their selfish needs: the four "F"s of biology. Very very little of what we think and do is unconnected to this. I just wish there was another way.

I don't have a pithy end-cap, a call to action, or even a real conclusion. I can't pull myself out of my own navel, and I've wasted enough of your time for one day. Try to be better, since clearly, I won't be.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

On Being a Cassandra: Global Warming

Welcome back. Today we're continuing my more casual "Cassandra" series, where I ramble ineptly about various bad things that I'm worried about.

About a week ago, it was actually very nice outside. High 60s (18-19C), sunny. It reminded me of being back in LA, it was just lovely weather.

It was also the middle of February. Rarely is global warming so obvious. "Climate change" is a far better term, but Global Warming has a lot better branding. I'd also like to sidestep the human causes of climate change, as much as possible. Real quick: yes: the climate is changing, yes: CO2 resulting from human activity contributes, and yes: we've lost the possibility of a normal resolution to climate change (we passed the tipping point sometime during the most recent Bush administration).

Unfortunately, due to co-opting by various left-leaning environmental groups (not to mention the natural tendency of republicans to support business), climate science and science in general has become another casualty in the culture war (at least in the United States). So it goes.

What's more interesting is what's going to happen, assuming any of the predictions hold up. To my conservative and/or skeptic readers, please imagine as merely an outline of the (obviously incorrect and exaggerated) beliefs of the scientific community. Everyone else is strongly encouraged to take the following at face value (as I do).

Let's start with the physics. It will be warmer. Pretty ground breaking revelation, right? Well, kind of. This is a highly imperfect metaphor but imagine a still swimming pool as the atmosphere. As you add energy to it (say, by jumping in it), the pool will wiggle and ripple.

It turns out that the kind of energy doesn't matter as much as you might think. Hurricanes, and other tropical cyclones are created when warm ocean water evaporates (the circular winds come from the angular momentum of the earth's rotation). The warmer the water, the more energy the cyclone has.
This hurricane's name is Fran 
But, back to our swimming pool. Odds are, now that you've jumped in it, the water is moving around in an unpredictable and chaotic manner. And, the more energy added to the pool, the bigger the waves (waves are just energy moving through the medium). But it's fundamentally turbulent, there's plenty of quiet spots, places where the waves bunch together, and all sorts of things. But, as a rule, as you add more energy, the more waves you will get (even if the individual waves cannot be tracked with any accuracy).

So it is with the atmosphere. The more energy is added to it (this time in the form of heat), the more chaotic and turbulent it will become. This means that, though places will be warmer on average, some places will warm quicker, some may cool faster, some may change, and some may remain the same. This is normal for large chaotic systems. So what we're going to see is not just warmer weather (though we will and are seeing that), but more volatile weather. Cold waves, as well as heat waves. Stronger and more energetic storms. Places turning into deserts. Deserts turning into places. Deserts turning into even worse deserts, coral bleaching/loss of rainforest, and so on. Any prediction on the behavior of individual places is likely speculation, but the general behavior of the system (and the root causes) are obvious and knowable.

And that's... kind of bad. Not as bad of a problem as A.I. but still pretty bad. Not ideal, at any rate. But this problem is tiny compared to the problem of rising sea levels. There's a lot of ice on the planet, enough to raise the sea level 60ft (18.2m) or more if it were to melt. But that's hundreds of years out, and it's silly to plan for things hundreds of years in the future (this is sarcasm).

Luckily for people who need shorter term consequences to see the shape of problems, 60 feet sea level rise is not necessary for us to see calamity like we've never seen before (the panic in the Wikipedia article is palpable). A rise in sea level of less than a foot in the Bay of Bengal would be sufficient to create over 7 million climate refugees. Judging by how well we're dealing with the current refugee crisis (as touched on in "On France, Immigration, Islam, and Culture"), I'm not exactly optimistic of us handling another one very well. And this is not the only place impacted, obviously. Even the most wildly unsubstantiated optimistic estimates put the sea level rise at at least a foot (current estimates are somewhere on the order of 3 feet (1m) of sea level rise, though estimates in excess of 5ft are not unheard of). Coupled with the extreme storms from earlier, and you've got a pretty bad situation for any place near the coast.
IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
I'm not able to find good numbers on this (estimates vary wildly and tend to focus on the country running the study), but it's not unreasonable to assume that at least 10 or 20 million people will be effected due to sea level rise and climate change destroying arable land. The numbers could well be significantly higher on all of these estimates, and judging by the rate that scientists are needing to adjust their models (we keep warming faster than the models predict, which is bad), I would not assume the low end of these numbers.

Essentially, we are looking at one of the greatest displacements in human history, and we can expect it to begin within the next handful of decades. Hang on tight folks, because we're in for some chop.