Thu Jul 13 13:34:31 EDT 2017

Politics / Democracy

Some links about politics and democracy in the United States.

  • The problem with democracy is voters

    Democracy for Realist by Christopher H. Achen & Larry M. Bartels
    Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government
    Why almost everything you think about democracy is wrong.

    Even voters who pay close attention to politics are prone - in fact, more prone - to biased or blinkered decision-making. The reason is simple: Most people make political decisions on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not an honest examination of reality.
    ...
    So much of politics, not surprisingly, turns out to be about expressive behavior rather than instrumental behavior - in other words, people making decisions based on momentary feeling and not on some sound understanding of how those decisions will improve or hurt their life.
    ...
    I think it's hard to see how the public as a whole would steer the country in any particular direction. Usually when we think about public input, we think about public input in response to particular kinds of choices that have been framed by political elites of one kind or the other, whether they're party leaders or elected officials.
    ...
    History clearly demonstrates that democracies need parties to organize and simplify the political world. But parties don't make the fundamental problems of democratic control disappear; they just submerge them more or less successfully. When professional politicians are reasonably enlightened and skillful and the rules and political culture let them do their job, democracy will usually work pretty well. When not, not.
    ...
    If you think about democracy in the terms we prefer, you might say the biggest limitation at the moment is that we don't know how to incorporate the role of political elites in a constructive way into the governing process or to somehow make it possible to ensure that they're working on behalf of the interests of ordinary people.
    ...
    It seems clear to us that a lot of the actual ways in which people of ordinary education or ordinary means or just not much power, the ways in which they are disadvantaged are often occurring at the level of policymaking rather than at the level of elections themselves. The financial sector, for instance, is having a lot of policy success in Washington, in ways that ordinary people, if they really understood what was happening, would not approve. But they don't follow it closely enough, they don't understand, and the policy process is tilted toward moneyed interests that ordinary people have no chance.

  • I was a lobbyist for more than 6 years. I quit.

    My conscience could't take it anymore. "The hypocrisy from both sides is staggering."

    Today, most lobbyists are engaged in a system of bribery but it's the legal kind, the kind that runs rampant in the corridors of Washington. It's a system of sycophantic elected leaders expecting a campaign cash flow, and in return, industry, interest groups, and big labor are rewarded with what they want: legislation and rules that favor their constituencies.
    ...
    Know this: Lobbyists are not bad people. They're simply doing their jobs, and those jobs are not only legal but protected by the First Amendment. The political left loves to shit all over lobbyists, but they dial for dollars just like their Republican brethren. And as for the political right? Well, at least they make no bones about paying to play. It's "free speech by God. The Supreme Court makes it so!"

  • Alan Dershowitz pulverizes liberal anti-Trump Russia theories

    But Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, a liberal who voted for Hillary Clinton, believes Mueller's appointment will help Trump - not bring his downfall like so many Democrats want.

  • The Bullshitter-in-Chief

    Donald Trump's disregard for the truth is something more sinister than ordinary lying.

    As the Princeton University philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt put it in a famous essay, to lie presumes a kind of awareness of and interest in the truth - and the goal is to convince the audience that the false thing you are saying is in fact true. Trump, more often than not, isn't interested in convincing anyone of anything. He's a bullshitter who simply doesn't care.
    ...
    When Trump says something like he's just learned that Barack Obama ordered his phones wiretapped, he's not really trying to persuade people that this is true. It's a test to see who around him will debase themselves to repeat it blindly. There's no greater demonstration of devotion.


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Fri Jun 30 11:29:56 EDT 2017

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Is Demography Destiny For US GDP Growth?

    The future is still uncertain, of course. But to the extent that demography dictates economic growth, the case appears weak for predicting a significant acceleration in the macro trend. That doesn't preclude an encouraging pop in growth for a quarter or two every so often. But assuming that output will rise on a sustainable basis for the longer run is probably assuming too much.

  • Corporations in the Age of Inequality

    Inequality isn't just about individuals - it's risen between companies, too.

    In other words, the increasing inequality we've seen for individuals is mirrored by increasing inequality between firms. But the wage gap is not increasing as much inside firms, our research shows. This may tend to make inequality less visible, because people do not see it rising in their own workplace.
    ...
    What is clear is that over the past 35 years, firms have divided between winners and losers, and between those that rely heavily on knowledge workers and those that don't. Employees inside winning companies enjoy rising incomes and interesting cognitive challenges. Workers outside this charmed circle experience something quite different. For example, contract janitors no longer receive the benefits or pay premium tied to a job at a big company. Their wages have been squeezed as their employers routinely bid to retain outsourcing contracts, a process ensuring that labor costs remain low or go ever lower. Their earnings have also come under pressure as the pool of less-skilled job seekers has expanded, due to automation, trade, and the Great Recession. In the process, work has begun to mirror neighborhoods - sharply segregated along economic and educational lines.

  • An Index-Fund Evangelist Is Straying From His Gospel

    Burton Malkiel, 84, who long endorsed passive investing, has had a change of heart.

    Wealthfront stressed that it was not abandoning the essence of Mr. Malkiel's long-held belief in passive investing, and it calls its new approach PassivePlus. "Burt Malkiel is still the high priest of passive investing," said Jakub Jurek, vice president for research at Wealthfront. "To be absolutely clear, we're not stock pickers. There are decades of research on active investors, which show they underperform." At the same time, he said, "there are small adjustments you can make to improve after-tax returns."

    In addition to value and momentum factors, Wealthfront's approach embraces stocks with high dividend yields, low market beta and low volatility, all factors that "have proven robust across long time periods, geographies and asset classes," Mr. Jurek said. (Wealthfront excluded another widely cited factor, small market capitalization, because its investment universe is limited to large-cap issues.)

  • Amazon's New Customer

    This is the key to understanding the purchase of Whole Foods: from the outside it may seem that Amazon is buying a retailer. The truth, though, is that Amazon is buying a customer - the first-and-best customer that will instantly bring its grocery efforts to scale.

    Today, all of the logistics that go into a Whole Foods store are for the purpose of stocking physical shelves: the entire operation is integrated. What I expect Amazon to do over the next few years is transform the Whole Foods supply chain into a service architecture based on primitives: meat, fruit, vegetables, baked goods, non-perishables (Whole Foods' outsized reliance on store brands is something that I'm sure was very attractive to Amazon). What will make this massive investment worth it, though, is that there will be a guaranteed customer: Whole Foods Markets.

    In the long run, physical grocery stores will be only one of Amazon Grocery Services' customers: obviously a home delivery service will be another, and it will be far more efficient than a company like Instacart trying to layer on top of Whole Foods' current integrated model.

    I suspect Amazon's ambitions stretch further, though: Amazon Grocery Services will be well-placed to start supplying restaurants too, gaining Amazon access to another big cut of economic activity. It is the AWS model, which is to say it is the Amazon model, but like AWS, the key to profitability is having a first-and-best customer able to utilize the massive investment necessary to build the service out in the first place.

  • I Fought For a Better Israel Than This

    Fifty years ago I was a soldier during the Six-Day War. We saved our nation, but the occupation has cost us dearly in the long run.

    In 1967, I was proud to be an Israeli. That is still the case, but a lot more complicated. I am not as at peace with Israel today as I was then and I fear for the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic country, something that never even occurred to me at the time. In 1967, as a young soldier, I felt like I helped shape the future of my adopted country. I don't feel that way now. I feel unable to change its course and once again I wonder what kind of a future our children and grandchildren will have here. Israel has achieved much over the years, but the occupation has to stop before it conquers us all.

  • The Art and Science of Comedic Timing

    People who make their living by making people laugh have a much more nuanced appreciation of comic timing - as an art, rather than a science. Greg Dean, a Los Angeles comedian who has been performing and teaching stand-up for 40 years, said that when people talk about a comedian having great timing, they really mean that he or she has found a way to both lead and respond to the energy of the audience, like a drummer might with a dancer.


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Thu Jun 15 16:17:36 EDT 2017

Life on Earth

Some things to think about concerning life on earth and climate change.

  • The Oxygenation Catastrophe

    Approximately 2.3 billion years ago, Earth could have been easily mistaken for a hostile alien planet. Methane spewed into the atmosphere by constant volcanic activity, and fatal UV radiation bombarded the surface without the protection of an ozone layer. The primordial seas were blood red, a hue caused by the massive amounts of suspended iron in the water. It is beneath these red waves in which almost all life on the planet survived, most of which would require a microscope to view. Anaerobic single celled organisms were the dominant life form on earth at the time; they lived in the hostile chemical make up of the primordial sea without the need of oxygen. However just one of these single celled organisms may have caused the greatest extinction event on planet Earth: the Cyanobacteria.

    What was formerly known as blue-green algae, the Cyanobacteria are actually bacteria that have the unique ability of photosynthesis. This single-celled organism had emerged only a few hundred millions years before, at a time where all other organisms relied on methods of anaerobic respiration. By creating its own energy from the sun, this bacterium was able to generate up to 16 times more energy than its counterparts, which allowed it to outcompete and explode in reproduction. This seemingly innocent organism would spell doom for most of life on the planet, as photosynthesis produced free oxygen molecules as a byproduct.
    ...
    In a relatively short amount of time, Earth went from having very little oxygen to what may be the highest levels of atmospheric oxygen it has ever had. This event had wiped out most of life on the planet to which the oxygen was poisonous. Some of these anaerobic organisms were though to have survived by burrowing into the earth where oxygen levels were survivable. What may have the biggest change is that when oxygen accumulated in the methane rich atmosphere, the concentration of this greenhouse gas dwindled, causing temperature levels to drop. They dropped so low in fact, that this oxygen event is thought to have triggered the Huronian glaciation, the longest snowball Earth period.

  • Chemists may be zeroing in on chemical reactions that sparked the first life

    Chemical reactions on early Earth could have created all four building blocks of RNA molecules, triggering the beginning of life.

    Now, chemists have identified simple reactions that, using the raw materials on early Earth, can synthesize close cousins of all four building blocks. The resemblance isn't perfect, but it suggests scientists may be closing in on a plausible scenario for how life on Earth began.

  • Why Uncertainty About Climate Change Is What Scares Me Most

    If projections about the future of climate change are prone to considerable potential error, we must allow for that error to go in both directions. There is nothing necessarily reassuring about climate change uncertainty; those error bars encompass a space in which our worst nightmares find refuge.

    The moment we concede the uncertainty about climate change projections - magnitude, pace, impact - that Mr. Stephens asks of us, we are obligated to allow for the entire expanse of that potential error. That's what scares me most.


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Wed May 31 11:51:29 EDT 2017

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Researchers have ditched the autism-vaccine hypothesis. Here's what they think actually causes it.

    Genes and the microbiome are some of the most promising leads.

    Today, about one in 68 US children has autism -- a rate that's remained unchanged since at least 1990, though there's been a steady increase in awareness and diagnosis.
    ...
    But "of all the causes of autism, the thing we know with the greatest certainty is that it's a very genetic disorder," said UCSF geneticist and autism researcher Stephan Sanders. "If you look at a child with autism, then look at their siblings, you'll find the rate of autism is 10 times higher in those siblings than in the general population. This has been looked at in populations of millions."
    ...
    Overall, the evidence for these prenatal exposures is stronger than the evidence for the range of postnatal causes that may trigger autism, said Amaral.

  • Why You're Biased About Being Biased

    Such biases can still affect you even if you know all about them because they operate unconsciously. We judge whether we have a bias by examining our thoughts, and because we believe our thoughts are rational, we often think we're not biased when we are. Psychologists call this contradiction the "bias blind spot." Although we're quick to see biases in others, we have more trouble noticing them in ourselves.

    And the more we convince ourselves that we don't have certain biases, the more likely we are to exhibit them. If we believe we're good people, for example, we may stop trying to be better and may be more likely to act indecently. Similarly, if we think we're smart, we might skip studying for a test and give ignorant answers. In general, if we believe we're unbiased, we're giving ourselves permission to be biased.

  • Why We Believe -- Long After We Shouldn't

    Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in Skeptical Inquirer

    That's motivated cognition; people are emotionally motivated to reject findings that threaten their core beliefs or worldview.
    ...
    The key motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to change our minds, to admit mistakes, and to be unwilling to accept unwelcome scientific findings is cognitive dissonance -- the discomfort we feel when two cognitions, or cognition and behavior, contradict each other.
    ...
    Dissonance theory comprises three cognitive biases in particular:

    1. The bias that we, personally, don't have any biases-the belief that we perceive objects and events clearly, as they really are. Any opinion I hold must be reasonable; if it weren't, I wouldn't hold it.
    2. The bias that we are better, kinder, smarter, more moral, and nicer than average.
    3. The confirmation bias, the fact that we notice and remember information that confirms what we believe and ignore, forget,

  • How One Little Cable Company Exposed Telecom's Achilles' Heel

    Forget net neutrality--the real fight is over controlling price-gouging monopolies.

    Here's the reality: The details of the net neutrality rules adopted by the FCC in February 2015 were not important to AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Spectrum, or CenturyLink. What was important was the idea that any part of the government might have enforceable oversight over their data transmission services or charges. That's what they can't stand; that's what they would do anything to avoid. And that's what they are working to undo: the FCC's classification of them as "common carriers" under "Title II" of the Telecommunications Act.

  • The Inadequacies of the Invincible

    On the Failure of Stoic Ethics

    The rise of Stoicism is a sign of a civilization in decline. There is something decadent about a society trying to escape its own loss through a sour grapes philosophy. Let us face reality. The answer isn't in the flick of the mind. We could come together with our friends- decide what we require of each other - and turn back the tide of decline.

    This doesn't mean we shouldn't try to master our volatility when the chips are down or that powerful reactions to false beliefs are healthy. Our emotions can be off, ill-fitting to a situation. But perhaps all we need is a good night's rest, less junk food, some time with friends, and good exercise. All of these help us gain emotional stability better than the sphincter squeezing contortions of Stoic impulse control.

  • The Reactionary Temptation

    An open-minded inquiry into the close-minded ideology that is the most dominant political force of our time - and can no longer be ignored. By Andrew Sullivan

    Reactionism is not the same thing as conservatism. It's far more potent a brew. Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were. It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt. If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic. If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them. If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up. If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution. Though it took some time to reveal itself, today's Republican Party - from Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution to today's Age of Trump - is not a conservative party. It is a reactionary party that is now at the peak of its political power.


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Thu May 18 20:08:46 EDT 2017

Health Care Matters

Some interesting links related to health care in the U.S.

  • Mayo Clinic researchers demonstrate value of second opinions

    Many patients come to Mayo Clinic for a second opinion or diagnosis confirmation before treatment for a complex condition. In a new study, Mayo Clinic reports that as many as 88 percent of those patients go home with a new or refined diagnosis -- changing their care plan and potentially their lives. Conversely, only 12 percent receive confirmation that the original diagnosis was complete and correct.

  • The two major sources of our healthcare problem

    The first original sin appeared in the 1940s, when the government agreed to allow companies to deduct the cost of health insurance, but neglected to allow individuals to do the same. (I've discussed this in a number of posts over the years.) This made health insurance provided by employers much cheaper than health insurance purchased by individuals. Not only that, but it created a strong incentive for employers to offer health insurance which covered a whole lot of things; and why not, if the costs were uniquely deductible by companies?
    ...
    The second original sin, Cochrane argues, is that "Instead of straightforwardly raising taxes in a non-distortionary way (a VAT, say), and providing charity care or subsidies -- on budget, please, where we can see it -- our political system prefers to fund things by forcing cross subsidies. Medicare and medicaid don't pay what the service costs, because we don't want to admit just how expensive that service is. So, large hospitals make up the difference by overcharging you and me instead."

  • US healthcare: most people don't know what they're talking about

    In fact in the US case it's not even obesity, or indeed their greater pre-existing disease burden, that is doing most of the work in dragging their life expectancy down; it's accidental and violent deaths. It is tragic that the US is so dangerous, but it's not the fault of the healthcare system; indeed, it's an extra burden that US healthcare spending must bear. Just simply normalising for violent and accidental death puts the USA right to the top of the life expectancy rankings.
    ...
    Now this is not to say the US system works well. The fact that the US spends vastly more than everyone else, and only does a bit better, if that, makes the system pretty unimpressive. But it's important to understand why. The UK really does have "death panels" that refuse treatments because they're extremely costly relative to their tiny impact. The USA has a system where most people can buy--are even subsidised through the tax system to buy--insurance that is as extensive as they like, paying for ever more expensive and marginally beneficial therapies. Eventually you're spending a fifth of your GDP on it.

  • The secret monopoly behind America's outrageous drug prices

    The details of the PBM (pharmacy benefit managers) architecture are extraordinarily complicated, as Dayen's piece explains. But the basic idea is reasonably straightforward. PBMs date back to the 1960s, when they served as streamlined claims processors to intermediate between pharmacies and drug companies. As the industry grew, PBMs presented themselves as a way to keep drug prices low because they could "form large patient networks, and negotiate discounts from both drug companies and pharmacies, which would have no choice but to contract with them to access the network."

    Sounds reasonable enough. But over time, two big things changed: The health-care billing system got more and more hideously complex, and virtually all the PBMs were rolled up into three big companies -- ExpressScripts, CVS Caremark, and OptumRx, which now control a combined 75 to 80 percent of the market. As a result, the promised savings have not materialized. On the contrary, spending on prescription drugs exploded by 1,100 percent between 1987 and 2014, and all three companies -- which are each among the top 22 of the Fortune 500 -- rake in huge profits. Dayen reports that ExpressScripts' adjusted profit per prescription has increased by 500 percent since 2003.


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Sun Apr 30 20:43:06 EDT 2017

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • The Myth of a Superhuman AI

    by Kevin Kelly

    Yet buried in this scenario of a takeover of superhuman artificial intelligence are five assumptions which, when examined closely, are not based on any evidence. These claims might be true in the future, but there is no evidence to date to support them. The assumptions behind a superhuman intelligence arising soon are:

    1. Artificial intelligence is already getting smarter than us, at an exponential rate.
    2. We’ll make AIs into a general purpose intelligence, like our own.
    3. We can make human intelligence in silicon.
    4. Intelligence can be expanded without limit.
    5. Once we have exploding superintelligence it can solve most of our problems.

    In contradistinction to this orthodoxy, I find the following five heresies to have more evidence to support them.

    1. Intelligence is not a single dimension, so "smarter than humans" is a meaningless concept.
    2. Humans do not have general purpose minds, and neither will AIs.
    3. Emulation of human thinking in other media will be constrained by cost.
    4. Dimensions of intelligence are not infinite.
    5. Intelligences are only one factor in progress.

    If the expectation of a superhuman AI takeover is built on five key assumptions that have no basis in evidence, then this idea is more akin to a religious belief -- a myth.

  • How fascist is Donald Trump? There's actually a formula for that.

    Grading the billionaire on the 11 attributes of fascism.

    Add all this up, and you get 26 out of a possible 44 Benitos. In the fascist derby, Trump is a loser. Even Spain's Francisco Franco and Portugal's António de Oliveira Salazar might score higher. While there is a strong family resemblance, and with some features an uncanny likeness, Trump doesn't fit the profile so well on those points where the use of violence is required. Projecting an air of menace at rallies, uttering ambiguous calls for assassinations, tacitly endorsing the roughing-up of protesters, urging the killing of terrorists' families and whatever else Trump does -- while shocking by the standards of American politics -- fall far short of the genuinely murderous violence endorsed and unleashed by authentic fascists.

    Also see, Donald Trump isn't a fascist.

    A leading expert on 1930s-era politics explains that Trump is a right-wing populist, not a fascist -- and the distinction matters.

  • Scientists, Stop Thinking Explaining Science Will Fix Things

    Respondents who knew more about science generally, regardless of political leaning, were better able to identify the scientific consensus--in other words, the polarization disappeared. Yet, when the same people were asked for their own opinions about climate change, the polarization returned. It showed that even when people understand the scientific consensus, they may not accept it.

    The takeaway is clear: Increasing science literacy alone won't change minds. In fact, well-meaning attempts by scientists to inform the public might even backfire. Presenting facts that conflict with an individual's worldview, it turns out, can cause people to dig in further. Psychologists, aptly, dubbed this the "backfire effect."

  • David Chalmers Thinks the Hard Problem Is Really Hard

    Consciousness will still mystify us even if we scientifically solve it, philosopher predicts.

    John Horgan interviews philosopher David Chalmers

    I've always found him an admirably clear thinker, who doesn't oversell his ideas (unlike Daniel Dennett when he insists that consciousness is an "illusion").

  • Contra Tyler, on "Is rationality a religion?"

    Tyler Cowen called the rationality community a "religion" on Ezra Klein's podcast the other day.

    Julia Galef's quick reaction:

    Basically all humans are overconfident and have blind spots. And that includes self-described rationalists.

    But I see rationalists actively trying to compensate for those biases at least sometimes, and I see people in general do so almost never. For example, it's pretty common for rationalists to solicit criticism of their own ideas, or to acknowledge uncertainty in their claims.

    And another response to Tyler Cowen's comments to Ezra Klein from Bryan Caplan What's Wrong With the Rationality Community.

  • Disabled, or just desperate?

    Rural Americans turn to disability as jobs dry up

    Between 1996 and 2015, the number of working-age adults receiving disability climbed from 7.7 million to 13 million. The federal government this year will spend an estimated $192 billion on disability payments, more than the combined total for food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies and unemployment assistance.
    ...
    Across large swaths of the country, disability has become a force that has reshaped scores of mostly white, almost exclusively rural communities, where as many as one-third of working-age adults live on monthly disability checks, according to a Washington Post analysis of Social Security Administration statistics.

  • How America made Scandinavian social democracy possible

    The researchers suggest the migration flows, which were small relative to the native population of America but equivalent to about 25 per cent of the total population of Scandinavia, changed the character of Norwegian and Swedish society by removing the most ambitious and independently-minded people.

    In other words, Scandinavian social democracy might not be possible without America's historic willingness to absorb those who refused to follow the "Law of Jante".
    ...
    Had it not been for America's willingness to embrace enterprising nonconformist Scandinavians, "individualism" in Norway and Sweden would have been much greater and their particularly successful form of social democracy might never have been able to take root.


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Thu Apr 20 12:25:31 EDT 2017

Inequality Matters

Some web links on the topic of inequality.

  • It's Not Just Unfair: Inequality Is a Threat to Our Governance

    Book review: THE CRISIS OF THE MIDDLE-CLASS CONSTITUTION --
    Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic,

    In his fine book, both history and call to arms, Ganesh Sitaraman argues that the contemporary explosion of inequality will destroy the American Constitution, which is and was premised on the existence of a large and thriving middle class. He has done us all a great service, taking an issue of overwhelming public importance, delving into its history, helping understand how our forebears handled it and building a platform to think about it today.
    ...
    As recognized since ancient times, the coexistence of very rich and very poor leads to two possibilities, neither a happy one. The rich can rule alone, disenfranchising or even enslaving the poor, or the poor can rise up and confiscate the wealth of the rich. The rich tend to see themselves as better than the poor, a proclivity that is enhanced and even socially sanctioned in modern meritocracies. The poor, with little prospect of economic improvement and no access to political power, "might turn to a demagogue who would overthrow the government -- only to become a tyrant. Oligarchy or tyranny, economic inequality meant the end of the republic."

  • What Inequality Doesn't Mean

    Is inequality a death sentence for the American republic? Two recent books vigorously argue both sides of the case--with the naysayer pulling out ahead.

    Before accepting the conclusion(s), see the previous March 31 item What Do Economists Actually Know?

  • Stanford historian uncovers a grim correlation between violence and inequality over the millennia

    Professor Walter Scheidel examines the history of peace and economic inequality over the past 10,000 years.

    "It is almost universally true that violence has been necessary to ensure the redistribution of wealth at any point in time," said Scheidel, summarizing the thesis of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, his newly published book.

    Surveying long stretches of human history, Scheidel said that "the big equalizing moments in history may not have always had the same cause, but they shared one common root: massive and violent disruptions of the established order."


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Fri Mar 31 23:46:26 EDT 2017

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • What Do Economists Actually Know?

    Turns out, not as much as you -- and they -- would like to think.   by Russ Roberts

    But there is no way of knowing reliably if the consensus reflects the truth. It may rely instead on the underlying biases of the prosecutors and defendants in the intellectual trial of ideas. Or where they received their PhD degrees. Or the fashionability of certain positions over time as society changes. Unlike product markets where poorly made products are punished by low prices or fewer and fewer consumers, there are no clear feedback loops in the world of academic economics. You can say something that is wrong and the price you pay may be zero. In fact you may be rewarded.

    And that is because of what does not happen. There is never a clean empirical test that ultimately settles these issues. There is no reliable scientific experiment where each side is forced to make a prediction and the results settle the matter.
    ...
    Most economics claims are really not verifiable or replicable. (And if you are interested in the related crisis of statistical reliability and replicability in psychology and elsewhere, follow Brian Nosek on Twitter and listen to him here). Most economic claims rely on statistical techniques that try to simulate a laboratory experiment that holds all relevant factors constant. That is the hope. My claim is that in general, holding all relevant factors cannot be done in a way that is reliable or verifiable. And that is why so many empirical issues such as the minimum wage, immigration, fiscal policy, monetary policy and so on, have smart people on both sides of the issue each with their own sophisticated analysis to bolster their claim.
    ...
    I am arguing that the math and science of economic predictions and assessments are nothing like the math and science of space travel. Economics provides the illusion of science, the veneer of mathematical certainty.

  • The economics of beard popularity in the US

    In the early 20th century, beards once again began to be associated with anti-capitalist movements, and for nearly a century they were nowhere to be seen in corporate board rooms and many parts of society, being relegated to "fringe" sets.

    Then along came the tech boom, which made many scruffy outsiders in Silicon Valley rich and powerful members of the capitalist landscape. People like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Jack Dorsey redefined how we view powerful business heads and have helped usher in a new period of beard acceptance and popularity.

  • Mitt Romney's former policy director makes the case for the GOP's health bill

    Lanhee Chen explains why Republicans landed on this health care bill, and this process.

  • Breaking Faith -- Peter Beinart

    The culture war over religious morality has faded; in its place is something much worse.

    Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it's also making America's partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven't stopped viewing politics as a struggle between "us" and "them." Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.
    ...
    For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don't become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don't regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they're more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims.

  • The Unpersuadables

    Book Review: The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science by Will Storr.

    We would like to believe people are rational. We would like to believe that if they have formed a false belief based on inaccurate information and poor reasoning, they will change that belief when they are provided with accurate information and better reasoning. We are frequently disappointed.
    ...
    We can't even trust our memories. They are reconstructed every time we access them, and they can become distorted or contaminated with other memories. Psychological studies suggest that about 30% of our memories are false, including some of the ones we are most confident about.
    ...
    Cognitive dissonance is painful; confirmation bias is comforting. Experience is re-interpreted in such a way that it doesn't force us to rebuild our internal models of reality. We are all prejudiced, but we need prejudices to function efficiently. They serve as a practical starting point for our guesses about the world.

    We are subject to confirmation bias; we get a feel-good "neurochemical kiss" as a reward for confirming a brain model. Confirmation bias serves a purpose. If we had to fairly evaluate every new argument and every bit of new evidence from scratch and constantly rebuild our models, we would become hopelessly overwhelmed and unable to function.

  • Heterodox Academy

    We are a politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities.

    We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of "viewpoint diversity." When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

    To reverse this process, we have come together to advocate for a more intellectually diverse and heterodox academy.

  • Ping-Pong as the Fountain of Youth

    Ping-Pong, or table tennis as it is officially known, is one of the fastest racket sports, requiring muscular and cardiorespiratory endurance. Players need nimble footwork and upper body flexibility to return balls that can fly over 60 miles per hour, demanding faster response times than tennis or badminton.

  • What was the real paleo diet? Prehistoric plaque reveals what Neanderthals ate.

    If you are what you eat, Neanderthals might have been a diverse, flexible bunch ... just like their diets.

    Examining the contents of the calcified plaque of five Neanderthal specimens that range from 42,000 to 50,000 years old, researchers who study ancient DNA were able to determine their diet. And, it turns out, not all Neanderthals ate alike.

    Some dined on a lot of meat, eating the flesh of animals like woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep. But others may have been complete vegetarians, according to a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature. In the plaque of these Neanderthal vegetarians, researchers found no evidence of any meat. Instead, they say these individuals dined on mushrooms, pine nuts, and moss.

  • Hit Makers by Derek Thompson

    The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction

    Nothing "goes viral." If you think a popular movie, song, or app came out of nowhere to become a word-of-mouth success in today's crowded media environment, you're missing the real story. Each blockbuster has a secret history--of power, influence, dark broadcasters, and passionate cults that turn some new products into cultural phenomena. Even the most brilliant ideas wither in obscurity if they fail to connect with the right network, and the consumers that matter most aren't the early adopters, but rather their friends, followers, and imitators -- the audience of your audience.

  • Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

    by Tim Harford

    Messy: How To be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World celebrates the benefits that messiness has in our lives: why it's important, why we resist it, and why we should embrace it instead.


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Thu Mar 16 12:00:00 EDT 2017

Philosophy cynicism

Links reflecting my cynicism about philosophy.

  • Five part series about What Is Philosophy's Point? by John Horgan in Scientific American:
    1. Part 1 (Hint: It's Not Discovering Truth)

      Philosophy can still serve many purposes, even if it can't compete with science as a method of accumulating knowledge

    2. Part 2--Maybe It's a Martial Art

      Philosophers sometimes seem more concerned with winning than wisdom

    3. Part 3--Maybe It Should Stick to Ethics

      Philosophers keep giving us moral advice in spite of their doubts about all ethical systems

    4. Part 4--Maybe It's Poetry with No Rhyme and Lots of Reason

      The line between philosophy and the arts can get awfully blurry

    5. Part 5--A Call for "Negative Philosophy"

      Philosophy's chief value is countering our terrible tendency toward certitude

    Followed by: Philosophers Push Back

    Philosophers react to a science journalist's critique of their calling

  • Philosophers' biased judgments persist despite training, expertise and reflection.

    We examined the effects of framing and order of presentation on professional philosophers' judgments about a moral puzzle case (the "trolley problem") and a version of the Tversky & Kahneman "Asian disease" scenario. Professional philosophers exhibited substantial framing effects and order effects, and were no less subject to such effects than was a comparison group of non-philosopher academic participants. Framing and order effects were not reduced by a forced delay during which participants were encouraged to consider "different variants of the scenario or different ways of describing the case". Nor were framing and order effects lower among participants reporting familiarity with the trolley problem or with loss-aversion framing effects, nor among those reporting having had a stable opinion on the issues before participating the experiment, nor among those reporting expertise on the very issues in question. Thus, for these scenario types, neither framing effects nor order effects appear to be reduced even by high levels of academic expertise.

    Full paper (pdf).

  • Cheeseburger Ethics

    Are professional ethicists good people? According to our research, not especially. So what is the point of learning ethics?

    Ethicists do not appear to behave better. Never once have we found ethicists as a whole behaving better than our comparison groups of other professors, by any of our main planned measures. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse. (There are some mixed results for secondary measures.) For the most part, ethicists behave no differently from professors of any other sort -- logicians, chemists, historians, foreign-language instructors.

    Nonetheless, ethicists do embrace more stringent moral norms on some issues, especially vegetarianism and charitable donation. Our results on vegetarianism were particularly striking. In a survey of professors from five US states, we found that 60 per cent of ethicist respondents rated 'regularly eating the meat of mammals, such as beef or pork' somewhere on the 'morally bad' side of a nine-point scale ranging from 'very morally bad' to 'very morally good'. By contrast, only 19 per cent of non-philosophy professors rated it as bad. That's a pretty big difference of opinion! Non-ethicist philosophers were intermediate, at 45 per cent. But when asked later in the survey whether they had eaten the meat of a mammal at their last evening meal, we found no statistically significant difference in the groups' responses -- about 38 per cent of professors from all groups reported having done so (including 37 per cent of ethicists).

    ... We aspire to be about as morally good as our peers. If others cheat and get away with it, we want to do the same. We don't want to suffer for goodness while others laughingly gather the benefits of vice. If the morally good life is uncomfortable and unpleasant, if it involves repeated painful sacrifices that are not compensated in some way, sacrifices that others are not also making, then we don't want it.

    Can one blame physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson for Dismissing Philosophy As 'Useless'.


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Tue Feb 28 13:03:51 EST 2017

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds

    The vaunted human capacity for reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight.

    Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber's argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans' biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. Cooperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

  • The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

    Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains were designed not just to gather and hunt, but also to get ahead socially, often by devious means. The problem is that we like to pretend otherwise; we're afraid to acknowledge the extent of our own selfishness. And this makes it hard for us to think clearly about ourselves and our behavior.

    The Elephant in the Brain aims to fix this introspective blind spot by blasting floodlights into the dark corners of our minds. Only when everything is out in the open can we really begin to understand ourselves: Why do humans laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do people brag about travel? Why do we so often prefer to speak rather than listen?

    Like all psychology books, The Elephant in the Brain examines many quirks of human cognition. But this book also ventures where others fear to tread: into social critique. The authors show how hidden selfish motives lie at the very heart of venerated institutions like Art, Education, Charity, Medicine, Politics, and Religion.

    Acknowledging these hidden motives has the potential to upend the usual political debates and cast fatal doubt on many polite fictions. You won't see yourself -- or the world -- the same after confronting the elephant in the brain.

  • Most scientists 'can't replicate studies by their peers'

    Science is facing a "reproducibility crisis" where more than two-thirds of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist's experiments, research suggests.

    The reproducibility difficulties are not about fraud, according to Dame Ottoline Leyser, director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.

    That would be relatively easy to stamp out. Instead, she says: "It's about a culture that promotes impact over substance, flashy findings over the dull, confirmatory work that most of science is about."

    She says it's about the funding bodies that want to secure the biggest bang for their bucks, the peer review journals that vie to publish the most exciting breakthroughs, the institutes and universities that measure success in grants won and papers published and the ambition of the researchers themselves.

  • The Only Thing, Historically, That's Curbed Inequality: Catastrophe

    Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states--these are what reliably reduce economic disparities.

    The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this "Great Compression" (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.

  • Donald Trump Isn't Mentally Ill. He's Just Unpleasant, Psychiatrist Says

    "Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn't meet them," Frances wrote in a letter to the New York Times.

    Frances chaired the team that defined psychiatric disorders for the mental health profession -- the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (called DSM 4). The DSM V or 5 is the most recent edition.

    "He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn't make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder," Frances wrote.

    A personality disorder must lead to "clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning," the DSM IV says.

    "Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy," Frances wrote.

  • Things Every Hacker Once Knew

    Eric S. Raymond reminisces

    There are lots of references to Unix in here because I am mainly attempting to educate younger open-source hackers working on Unix-derived systems such as Linux and the BSDs. If those terms mean nothing to you, the rest of this document probably won't either.

  • Evaluating partisan gains from Congressional gerrymandering

    Using computer simulations to estimate the effect of gerrymandering in the U.S. House

    The analysis reveals that while Republican and Democratic gerrymandering affects the partisan outcomes of Congressional elections in some states, the net effect across the states is modest, creating no more than one new Republican seat in Congress. Therefore, the partisan composition of Congress can mostly be explained by non-partisan districting, suggesting that much of the electoral bias in Congressional elections is caused by factors other than partisan intent in the districting process.

  • The Motion Microscope

    'Motion microscope' reveals movements too small for the human eye

    By using an algorithm that magnifies minute changes in color and movement, researchers are able to extract basic vital signs like heart rate and breathing from any old video.
    You can even use these algorithms to listen in on someone's conversation by keeping an eye on the objects around them. MIT researchers recently published a study in which they extracted intelligible audio by analyzing the movements of a nearby bag of chips. By magnifying its movements, they were able to reconstruct the soundwaves that were causing it to flutter imperceptibly.

    Michael Rubinstein TED Talk
  • Psychiatrists Must Face Possibility That Medications Hurt More Than They Help

    Mental health has declined as prescriptions for antidepressants and other drugs keep surging

    It is time for mental-health practitioners in the U.S. and elsewhere to come to grips with the possibility that medications are doing more harm than good.

  • India's Secret to Low-Cost Health Care

    Harvard Business Review

    At a time when health care costs in the United States threaten to bankrupt the federal government, U.S. hospitals would do well to take a leaf or two from the book of Indian doctors and hospitals that are treating problems of the eye, heart, and kidney all the way to maternity care, orthopedics, and cancer for less than 5% to 10% of U.S. costs by using practices commonly associated with mass production and lean production.
    ...
    The nine Indian hospitals we studied are not cheap because their care is shoddy; in fact, most of them are accredited by the U.S.-based Joint Commission International or its Indian equivalent, the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals. Where available, data show that their medical outcomes are as good as or better than the average U.S. hospital.

  • Fasting diet 'regenerates diabetic pancreas'

    The pancreas can be triggered to regenerate itself through a type of fasting diet, say US researchers.

    Dr Valter Longo, from the University of Southern California, said: "Our conclusion is that by pushing the mice into an extreme state and then bringing them back - by starving them and then feeding them again - the cells in the pancreas are triggered to use some kind of developmental reprogramming that rebuilds the part of the organ that's no longer functioning."

    Rhonda Patrick related interview:
    Valter Longo, Ph.D. on Fasting-Mimicking Diet & Fasting for Longevity, Cancer & Multiple Sclerosis

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