Archive for March, 2010

I sometimes laugh at parts of books that really aren’t meant to be funny (I think).  I don’t even know if I find them funny, but something about it makes me laugh.

Two examples:

In the short story Beer at the Corner Bar from Hot Water Music by Charles Bukowski, Bukowski is at the bar.  He’d rather be left alone, but someone is trying to have a conversation with him.  Here’s how part of it goes:

“You from Los Angeles?” he asked.


“You think the Dodgers will make it this year?”


“You don’t like the Dodgers?”


“What do you like?”

“Boxing. Bullfighting.”

“Bullfighting’s cruel.”

“Yes, anything is cruel when you lose.”

“But the bull doesn’t stand a chance.”

“None of us do.”

I enjoyed the whole conversation, but I laughed out loud at that last line.

Another example is from the end of Sister Carrie.  The last two pages consist of Dreiser editorializing about Carrie’s life, how she always chases beauty and will never be satisfied.  Here’s how the story ends:

Oh, Carrie, Carrie! Oh, blind strivings of the human heart! Onward, onward, it saith, and where beauty leads, there it follows. Whether it be the tinkle of a lone sheep bell o’er some quiet landscape, or the glimmer of beauty in sylvan places, or the show of soul in some passing eye, the heart knows and makes answer, following. It is when the feet weary and hope seems vain that the heartaches and the longings arise. Know, then, that for you is neither surfeit nor content. In your rocking-chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.

I laughed when I read that last sentence.  I was on a train, smiling and laughing.  I read it a few times.  The sentence has a sad message, but I smiled and laughed.  Why?

I remember a post by Seth Roberts where he said “Laughter is a big and important part of life. Visible, common, highly desirable — yet mysterious.”

It does seem mysterious.  In the post Seth says “laughter is caused by sudden pleasure.”  I think that’s a sufficient but not necessary condition for laughter.  For example, sometimes people laugh when they feel uncomfortable, aren’t sure what to say, but want to break the silence (for example, during an awkward social interaction).  In that case, perhaps laughter is a way of releasing tension.

I’d say we laugh when:

  • we hear something that we think is funny
  • we see/hear something that we like but didn’t expect
  • as a social bonding mechanism (laugh with our peers to signal that we like them, share their values, etc)
  • we are uncomfortable with something that has been said, and don’t know how else to break the tension

The first two could be thought of as types of sudden unexpected pleasure.

related post here

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1 person dies every X minutes from cause Y

We hear that all the time.  Pick a cause of death and google “one person dies from [your cause here] every minutes”.   Let’s try melanoma.  In the United States, one person dies from melanoma every hour.   Ooh, that sounds scary.

But really, what does it mean?

Suppose 1 person per ten-thousand people dies from a particular disease per year.  Well, if there are 1 million people in the population, then, on average, one person dies every 53 minutes.   But, if there were 1 trillion people in the population, three people would die from this disease, on average, every second. In both cases, the mortality rate is the same, but the # dead per unit time statistic is much scarier sounding in the latter population.

Why use a statistic that isn’t population-size invariant?

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People are uncomfortable with change.  They tend to have emotional attachment to the status quo. Hence, there is a bias towards ideas that were introduced first.

Thankfully there is a pretty simple way to guard against this type of cognitive bias: a temporal reversal test (another rationality test).  If X is the status quo and you are uncomfortable with the proposed alternative Y, ask yourself how you would feel if Y was status quo and X was the new idea (i.e., reverse the order).

Here are some examples:

New technology

It is not uncommon for people to fear new technology.  For example, I’ve heard people express concerns about e-books and things like Kindle replacing paper books.  They have an attachment to paper books.  However, what if e-books had come first.  With e-books, you can have access to 100s of books via a lightweight electronic device; you can take notes on the pages; you can highlight passages; you can undo your highlights and notes; the condition of the book doesn’t decline.  Now, suppose e-books were all you ever knew.  And then someone came up with a new idea:  paper books!  Every book takes up physical space, weighs as much as your e-book reader, can get physically damaged, cannot undo any marks you make on it, etc.  Would you really think the paper book is a superior idea?

School year

If students had always went to school year-round (minus some vacation time), but now someone proposed giving students the summer off, would that become the new policy?


I’ve heard people say that they are not really interested in immortality, because all living things must die.  But what if immortality came first.  Would anyone really argue in favor of a finite lifespan?  Remember, we will never run out of fun.

If the multiverse were intelligently designed, I could see, perhaps, trusting nature.  But that’s not the case.  Nature gets a lot of things wrong.  So the “it’s natural” argument isn’t sufficient.


Eliezer Yudkowsky used cryonics as an example (link):

If you found yourself in a world where everyone was signed up for cryonics as a matter of routine – including everyone who works at your office – you wouldn’t be the first lonely dissenter to earn the incredulous stares of your coworkers by unchecking the box that kept you signed up for cryonics, in exchange for an extra $300 per year.

The point being that if cryonics were taken for granted, it would go on being taken for granted; it is only the state of non-cryonics that is unstable, subject to being disrupted by rational argument.


This is similar to the death example, but I’ve heard people say that pain and suffering can be good (makes you stronger, appreciate when you’re not suffering more, etc).  But if you reverse it, and the status quo didn’t include that suffering, would anyone prefer the suffering.  I don’t hear people wanting to get rid of anesthesia or machinery that reduces the need for physical labor (although I suspect people did argue against these when they were first introduced).

How aware are we of this bias?

I notice that religious folks tend to introduce their offspring to god at a young age.  Are they aware, at least subconsciously, that we are biased towards the ideas that are introduced first?  What if people learned about science, cognitive biases and rationality first, and then were introduced to god as an adult?  Would rates of religiosity decrease? (likely, given the heritability of religion)

We also make sure our kids know at a very young age that the United States is the greatest country in the history of greatest countries.

Parents tend to push their own political party on their kids at a young age.

It seems as if we exploit status quo bias when it comes to things that are important to us that are not easily supported with evidence.

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I am not in favor of giving teachers pay raises strictly based on years of experience and training/education, which I believe is the current standard (for public schools).  Ideally, salary would be proportional to quality for teachers and principals.  However, evaluating teachers and schools can be challenging.  For example, there are several major problems/challenges with using student test scores as the marker of success.

Problems with test score based evaluations:

1. teachers teach to the test; the focus would likely be on skills and memorization; this could lead to a more homogeneous and less creative group of students than is ideal for society

2. selection bias:  substantial variation in student quality across schools (by student quality here I mean independent from the effect of the school)

3.  incentive to cheat:  both teachers and administrators have incentive to cheat.  if the metric is a change score, then there is incentive to do poorly on the pre-test.

4.  at the state level there is incentive to make the test easier to show ‘improvement’ (e.g., link)

5.  kids are self-centered;  they have little personal incentive to try hard on these tests (when I was in school, I recall other students admitting that they were just going to randomly fill in dots, since they weren’t going to be graded on it)

Alternative proposal:

I’m going to ignore the logistics of this (how to pay for it, how to implement it, etc) for now.  Think of it as something more like a thought experiment.

Suppose we have a lot of fairly small schools, so that parents could choose between about 3 local schools (without having to travel long distances).  Parents would have a choice of which school to send their kids to.  A lottery would be used for schools that got more applicants than they could admit.

Similarly, within a school parents could choose between approximately 3 teachers.  A lottery would be used if a teach got too many applicants.  (note that this is a very different model than we see in public schools now, where parents are discouraged from asking for a specific teacher)

Ideally, these schools would all serve a single community, and therefore eliminates problem #2 above.

Schools would be  judged primarily based on how many people wanted to go to that school.  That is, schools would be judged based on demand for that school.  I think it’s likely that demand would be correlated with quality (a school with a good local reputation would most desirable).  It would be difficult to game this system (eliminating concerns #2 and 3).  If a school was getting very few applicants, that would be a reason to consider hiring a new principal.

Teachers would be judged primarily based on demand as well.  A teacher with a good reputation would get the most applicants.  This would likely be correlated with quality.

In addition, the schools would likely reflect local preferences.  If a community preferred skills and memorization to creativity, they’d send their kids to teachers and schools with those values.  I could easily see different types of schools emerging in a single community, reflecting diverse preferences of parents.

One possible concern is that teachers and schools that were more generous with their grades (e.g., pass everybody) would be more popular.  I’m not sure if that’s a problem, however.  It would reflect the preferences of the community.   In addition, the diploma would eventually be devalued (if these students were not having success post-high school).

Another possible problem is the small sample size.  Suppose all of the local schools were excellent.  Even if one had much lower demand than the others, that might not be reason to make major changes.  So, having both a relative metric (like demand) and an absolute metric might be necessary.  The same issue exists for teachers (i.e., a high demand teacher still might be bad, if all teachers in that grade are bad; a low demand teacher still might be good, if all teachers in that grade are good).

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Every chapter in Sister Carrie has a title.  All of them are interesting. They give a hint at what’s to come, but in most cases the meaning only becomes clear after you read the chapter.  I actually looked forward to reading the name of the next chapter.

Here are the first 10 chapter titles:


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I don’t see why free will and determinism wouldn’t be compatible.  At the moment I make a choice, I’m picking the option that I prefer.  Does it matter if what led me to that preference was entirely determined by prior occurrences?

Let’s think about what it would mean to not have free will.  Suppose I preferred option A, but just before I make the decision some external force affects my neurons and causes me to prefer option B. Well, at the moment I chose B, that was my preference.  That scenario is not inconsistent with free will or determinism (the external force is just part of the prior chain of events).

I think what people mean by free will is that they could have made a different decision.  Sure, they could have, if things had been different.  That is what they mean.  And that is free will…and determinism.

I pretty much agree with Katja Grace:

…you feel like your actions are neither determined nor random. You choose them.

And that is precisely why they are determined. They are determined by you. And you already exist to the finest detail at the time you are making the decision. If you made choices (or some element of them) not controlled by your personality, experience, thoughts and anything else that comes under the heading of ‘the state of your brain as a result of genetics and your prior environments’, they would be random, which still isn’t free will…

The narrator of Dostoyevsky‘s Notes from Underground was disturbed by determinism:

If, for instance, some day they calculate and prove to me that I made a long nose at someone because I could not help making a long nose at him and that I had to do it in that particular way, what FREEDOM is left me..? Then I should be able to calculate my whole life for thirty years beforehand. In short, if this could be arranged there would be nothing left for us to do;

Just because someone with perfect knowledge could accurately predict what you would do, that doesn’t mean you don’t have freedom. If what you did wasn’t predictable (i.e. included some random elements), how would that give you any more freedom (you have no control over the randomness)?

I liked this paragraph on free will from the book Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser:

Our civilization is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer wholly guided by instinct; scarcely human, in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason.  On the tiger no responsibility rests.  We see him aligned by nature with the forces of life — he is born into their keeping and without thought he is protected.  We see man far removed from the lairs of the jungles, his innate instincts dulled by too near an approach to free-will, his free-will not sufficiently developed to replace his instincts and afford him perfect guidance.  He is becoming too wise to hearken always to instincts and desires; he is still too weak to always prevail against them.  As a beast, the forces of life aligned him with them; as a man, he has not yet wholly learned to align himself with the forces.  In this intermediate stage he wavers — neither drawn in harmony with nature by his instincts nor yet wisely putting himself into harmony by his own free-will.  He is even as a wisp in the wind, moved by every breath of passion acting now by his will and now by his instincts, erring with one, only to retrieve by the other, falling by one, only to rise by the other — a creature of incalculable variability.

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Placebos don’t work if you know they’re placebos.  Thankfully, there is a placebo for everyone!

Prescription drugs

If you trust Western medicine, you can take prescription drugs.  For example, if you have mild or moderate depression symptoms, you can take anti-depressants.  These drugs can’t seem to beat sugar pills in clinical trials (i.e., both the drugs and sugar pills ‘work’ equally well; link and link).

Over-the-counter medicine

If your child has a cold, you can give them over-the-counter cold medication.   The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that over-the-counter cough and cold medications not be given to infants and children younger than 2 years because of the risk of life-threatening side effects. Also, several studies show that cold and cough products don’t work in children younger than 6 years and can have potentially serious side effects.

In a recent survey over 60% of parents said that these cold medicines are somewhat or very effective at relieving cold symptoms (link).


If you don’t trust drug companies, you might seek out alternative treatments.  Homeopathy involves putting stuff in water, then diluting it repeatedly until all that is left is water.  Not surprisingly, homeopathic remedies (also known as expensive water) don’t outperform placebos (link).


If you’re into Chinese medicine, you might try acupuncture.  It’s harder to have a blinded study with acupuncture placebos, but some studies have used sham acupuncture (needles not inserted all the way and in non-traditional spots) as the control.  For example, a study of lower back pain found acupuncture and sham acupuncture worked equally well, and both beat conventional therapy (link).  It’s a little unclear if acupuncture is just a placebo (link), so let’s put it in the ‘maybe’ category.


I’ve heard plenty of people say that God saved them.  If God doesn’t exist, then this is another example of a placebo.  I’ll leave this one for you to decide.

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