Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Car Shoving

This morning, we had a very pretty snow; light powdery flakes that coat the trees and ground with a beautiful white dusting. It was the kind of snow that skiers love, the kind that anything will glide effortlessly over. About 9:00, I bundled up and went out for a walk to enjoy the scenery.

I quickly saw that what is good for skiing is terrible for driving. There were three pileups blocking the road outside my apartment. Nobody was getting anywhere. The rather steep hills had been turned into pure ice, and people were either sliding around or 'parked' at all kinds of angles on the side of the road. There were people attempting to drive around who should not have left their parking space, people who had no clue how to drive in snow and/or were driving crappy cars with bald tires. Some people had been stuck there since 6:30. It was a complete Charlie Foxtrot.

I joined a group of guys who were trying to clear up the mess near the entrance to the road. We told people coming in about the road conditions, trying to get them to turn around while they still could. For the cars on the road, we pushed them to get them started off the ice, and to help them steer around the other cars. Often this required telling people to put the car in neutral and coast backwards down the hill while we shoved the car away from the parked cars. Sometimes we were able to get a car out of the road and on its way, but for many of the ones near the bottom of the hill we had to just shove them off to the side to get them out of the road.

The de facto leader of the group was a charismatic young black guy who was clearly skilled, smart, aware of the situation, and knew how to handle winter conditions. Often he would offer to drive people's cars for them, using his skills to glide them down the hill and away from trouble. The thing that amazed me was the trouble he had getting people to listen to him. He would explain to people, repeatedly, that they had no chance of getting up the hill unless they had a 4-wheel drive and knew how to use it. He told them how he had personally seen 20 cars fail to make the hill. And people would repeatedly ignore him, try the hill, fail, get stuck or start sliding around, and have to rely on us to get them out of the road or back down the hill. Some people refused to cooperate, and we basically had to ignore them and route people around them.

We, and the other groups spontaneously forming at other parts of the road, did a decent job of clearing enough people out of the middle of the road to prevent it from getting completely stuck. But the situation was not really resolved until around 10:30, when the police came, parked their cars across the street to prevent anyone from entering it, and started ordering everyone to park legally on the curb or get off the road. I left then, after helping a couple last people on their way. Presumably the road has been cleared, plowed and salted by now.

At the start of my walk, I had been a bit chilly despite all the layers. But while moving cars, I was comfortable, even a bit warm toward then end. When I got back to my apartment around 11, I discovered that my t-shirt was completely soaked through with sweat. Right now, my thermostat claims that it is 46 degrees in my apartment, but I am sitting writing this in pajama bottoms and a (different) t-shirt, barely feeling cold at all.

So, the things I was reminded of this morning were:
1) People do not appreciate the usefulness of friction until it goes away.
2) Spontaneous social order can be a very helpful way of rapidly solving problems if enough people cooperate, and our society has amazing reserves of public-spiritedness.
3) In order to permanently fix things, you still need the men with uniforms and tasers on their hips, especially if there are people who will not cooperate with the spontaneous order.
4) Shoving cars around for an hour and a half is an excellent workout.
5) The human body is capable of amazing feats of thermoregulation if properly trained.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Media Musings

Recently, I rewatched Raiders of the Lost Ark and realized how dated and silly it is. Many flaws that I had never noticed before jumped out at me; as I watched the movie I kept thinking things like "I have personally filmed a better fight scene than this" and "Wait, they did not have rocket propelled grenades in 1936."

But the main thing that annoyed me was the sexist portrayal of Indy's friend Marion. She spends most of the movie whining and being useless, and the way that the story was written so she is always wearing cocktail dresses was nothing more than pointless fan service.

I was thinking "our society has definitely come a long way in the past 30 years". But then I watched Stardust, a 2007 movie of the same genre, and realized that it is even more sexist than the Indy movie.

All of the women in Stardust are either evil witches or easy fantasy girlfriends. None of them have any character at all; they are just cardboard villains for the hero to fight or they fall in love with men for no reason at all while being completely useless. At least Marion managed to machine-gun some Nazis while Indy was getting beaten up by the mechanic, and almost tricked her way out of captivity, but the star girl in Stardust does absolutely nothing interesting or heroic.

Compared to an Indy movie, Stardust and many modern movies like it are a reversion to simplistic and childish fairy tales, complete with the mindless wish-fulfillment and casual sexism of Medieval stories.

I realized that about 60% of all of the TV and movie time I have watched over the past two years was a Joss Whedon production. All of the characters in his works are interesting and real, especially the women. They are real people doing real or heroic things. The women in Stargate SG:1 and Farscape are portrayed almost as well. Those shows plus Whedon works are almost all the TV and movies I have watched in the past two years. This has distorted my perceptions of modern media. I was assuming that most stuff nowadays was similar, but it is not.

There is a media analysis tool known as the Bechdel Test. To pass the test:
  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.
Shockingly few movies can pass this test, and the percentage has not really gone up over time. Learning about it and thinking about it was one of the main things that made me realize how the media and stories that shape our culture seem to systematically exclude women.

It is not hard to pass the Bechdel Test and/or to have strong and competent female characters, as many of my favorite shows demonstrate. You don't have to be a media genius like Whedon to pull it off. Even if you are making a show that is a mindless heroic fantasy adventure, you can just randomly make some of the characters women. This is the approach taken by the Avengers cartoon. All of its female characters are basically just men with a different shape, but at least they are competent and heroic and are not defined by their romantic relationships with the male characters.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Confusing Social Norms

Last week, Tyler Cowen posted a link to the following article, and gave the link the title "Markets in Everything: educate your nanny". It describes people hiring professional chefs to teach their nannies how to cook better food for their children:

> Founded by two veterans of the private-chef world ..., marc&mark teaches nannies of affluent parents how to prepare healthful, organic meals that don't come frozen or under plastic wrap. "Some of these nannies already do the cooking in the family, but they're throwing chicken fingers in the oven, or worse, the microwave — they're doing the bare minimum," Mr. Leandro said.


The article did not really surprise me or cause much reaction in me. My thoughts were a mix of "This is interesting.", "I am glad that more people are learning how to cook good food.", and "It is kind of sad that the average person in our culture is so bad at cooking that this is necessary."

But apparently a lot of people got offended by the article:

"Pundits across the spectrum were enraged this week by a consulting firm that teaches nannies to cook quinoa"


I would never have predicted that people would be upset about this, and I still do not really understand the reaction. A rich couple spends a good chunk of money to teach useful skills to their nanny, and people are reacting as if they had done something morally wrong.

This does not appear to be a case of envy. People do not seem to react as badly to other forms of conspicuous consumption, like living in big fancy houses in the best neighborhoods. I suppose that people are upset about the rich people ordering the nanny around and making her change. They seem to resent the 'abuse of power'.

But this makes no sense to me. The nanny was putting their child's health at risk by feeding the kid junk food. If people clearly do not know what they are doing, then you should teach them how to do things better. The only other alternative is to fire the unskilled person and try to hire someone better, which would be a lot worse for the people who do not know what they are doing.

The articles discussing the reaction to this news seem to assume that it is natural to be upset, and then go on to explain why people should not be upset. I need someone to explain to me exactly why people would get upset about this in the first place.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Lego in Asia

I have read two articles recently about the growing success of Lego in Asia. The Lego company is learning that they can make massive amounts of money by convincing Asian tiger moms that Legos will be good for their childrens' intellectual development:

Short overview from The Economist

Longer New Yorker article

I wish them great success in their venture; it will improve the world in many ways if millions of Asian children are allowed to play with Legos rather than being forced into piano lessons.

Learning about this development has had a surprisingly powerful effect on me, and it is interesting to analyze why. First, it is a reminder of how fascinating and interconnected the world is. Who would have guessed 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago, that a Danish toy company would be exporting its expensive and high-end products to millions of Chinese families?

But more importantly, it is a very powerful reminder of how rich and modern Asia has become. When I was growing up and learning about the world, about 20 years ago, I learned that Asia was a vast hive of farms and sweatshops full of people who lived in grinding poverty and an existence that was little better than medieval standards of living. This was mostly accurate.

I knew from an early age that Japan was a relatively rich and modern country, but I also knew that their culture was very different from that of American and European countries. Despite their wealth and prosperity, they were 'not like us' in a lot of important ways. And as other Asian countries got richer, they seemed to jump straight from medieval subsistence farming to Japanese-style computer-obsessed hyper-urbanization, skipping completely the comfortable semi-rural middle-class existence I grew up in. This was mostly accurate.

In short, the idea that any Asian child could have a childhood anything like mine never entered my mind. They all seemed to be either stuck in a miserable farming or sweatshop existence, or they were single children being pushed through a hyper-competitive educational system fanatically intent on memorization and conformity, and spending their free time plugged into electronic devices.

But now they are playing with Legos.

As a result of reading these articles, I am suddenly confronted with the fact that millions of children in former third-world countries will have a childhood a lot like mine: school, after-school academic activities, fun creative playtime, and parents who want them to be successful and well-rounded people. Because we now share a tangible and emotionally salient experience, these children have suddenly become much more real to me.

The amazing advancement of the standard of living in their countries has also become more real to me. A childhood once only available to the richest of the rich will now be the birthright of a substantial fraction of the world.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cargo Cult Crafts

I went to a pumpkin carving party last Saturday with a coworker. It was an interesting experience.

There were a lot of young teenagers and preteens there. Most of them were not carving actual pumpkins. They were carving styrofoam replicas of pumpkins. They were not using anything like a real tool; they were using cheap plastic things sold specifically for the purpose of carving these styrofoam pumpkins. And they were not using these to be creative or inventive; they were copying patterns from pre-printed pieces of paper that they had bought.

This seems wrong to me. It is, on every level, a fake and shallow imitation of what crafts should be, all image and no substance.

The activity seemed designed mainly to consume as much of their time as possible. They were encouraged to transfer the patterns to the pumpkin with little pinpricks, and then slowly saw between these pinpricks, in a process that usually took over an hour. The end result was typically a ragged-looking low-resolution replica of a complicated drawing, much like a bad mimeograph.

I came with an actual pumpkin. I grabbed the biggest kitchen knife I could find, and spent about ten minutes total to take off the top, remove the innards, and hack out a vampire face of my own devising with bold swift stabs.

I liked the result. It was simple and striking. It was also what I think a jack-o-lantern should be. Very few of the patterns being carved were actual faces.

When people realized that I would not be using a pattern, they asked me "Are you carving your own face?". I assumed that they were asking me if I would make the pumpkin a self-portrait, and said no. But they were asking if I would be doing something without using a pattern.

This difference in assumptions reflects the differences in what we consider to be impressive. As they saw me carve, they commented that I was like an artist. I have never gotten such a compliment before.

After I was done carving, I took the guts from my pumpkin, and also the ones that my coworker had brought for her children, separated out the seeds, and roasted them with salt and pepper and olive oil. These were quite popular. They were the only real foods in a sea of candy and junk. In this way, they were much like my carved pumpkin, compared to the styrofoam things.

In my mind, crafts should be about the process of taking raw materials from the world around you and transforming them into something that is useful or creatively yours. I turned a pumpkin into 'my own face' and good food. (I am still turning it into good food. It is in my fridge now, and I have eaten a fourth of it so far. My pumpkin ended up being very thick, with lots of good flesh.)

But the 'craft' of the preteens at the party was just the consumption of a manufactured good. They were just being consumers, not learning how to impose their will and creativity upon reality. As I compare my childhood to the children I saw at the party, I realize how lucky I was to grow up in a time and place and with parents that emphasized a connection to the natural world around me, and how I could interact with it and make things from it.

I understand that there are safety concerns with giving real knives to immature people. But maturity is a function of experience, not age. I definitely remember cutting myself with knives when I was growing up. But I healed, and I learned, and now I can handle blades of all kinds with deftness and confidence.

In the past, I did not understand the complaints about how our society was growing shallow and materialistic. Recently I have become more sympathetic to these arguments. Many of the young people I see seem programmed to be consumers rather than creators, and often do not even know what real creativity is. This 'pumpkin' carving party is an example of how the real things of previous generations are being replaced with fake replicas that do not generate the same benefits, and this concerns me.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Important Information, Important Caveat

"between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital for care suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death"


Harm from medical care is a very big problem. Many hospitals are amazingly incompetent, failing to institute basic care guidelines that would save a lot of lives. If you have any choice about what hospital to go to, try to find information about the medical accident rate there. This will be difficult; hospitals always try to hide any information that could be used to judge their quality.

In general, medical care is both more dangerous and less effective than most people think. This new study is evidence that going to a hospital is more dangerous than we thought it was.

However, it does not mean that they 'kill' over 200,000 people. It does not even mean that all of those people would be alive today if they had done everything perfectly. It means that those people died, and somewhere in their medical records was a mistake that could have been bad. The number of people actually killed by these mistakes is likely to be a small percentage of the 210,000 to 440,000 guess. Even then, many of the mistakes were ones of omission, where the doctors missed something they should have caught. In such cases, staying away from medical care would clearly not have saved the life of the victim.

When making medical decisions for yourself or your loved ones, you need to compare two probabilities: the probability that getting medical care will harm you, and the probability that not getting any care will harm you. Many of the people who died from preventable medical errors may have died sooner if they never got any care.

But still, if you do not really need advanced medical care, it is usually wise to stay away from hospitals.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Whack Rant

I just started reading 'A Whack on the Side of the Head'. I had read that it was very good, so I borrowed it from a friend when I had the chance recently. But when I got to page 19, I became so disgusted with the author that I yelled "You Idiot!" at him and threw the book down in disgust.

What follows will be a rant. If it is like my previous rants, it will be heartfelt, entertaining, persuasive, compelling, and quite possibly wrong. You have been warned. But the rant was in my head, growing and taking form from the moment I threw the book down, and I have to let it out.

Here is the text that set me off, somewhat edited:

"To be more creative, all we need to do is "look at the same thing as everyone else", and then "think something different". Humans have been using their imaginations this way since the beginning.
The first person to look at bacterial mold and think "antibiotics" did this."

This is wrong. This is not how penicillin was discovered. One of the greatest public health miracles of the century did not happen because someone had a creative idea. What actually happened was that someone was running an experiment, noticed something strange about a plate of bacteria, and then started investigating further. Doing random things and observing the results, not premeditated creative thinking, was the real source of antibiotics.

His claim about antibiotics is wrong so thoroughly that it immediately and permanently discredited his entire thesis. He obviously does not know, or care to know, about the actual, real-life operation of a very important human invention. He has simply made up a narrative to fit his thesis. It is a breathtaking example of intellectual dishonesty. This is an unforgivable sin in someone trying to tell me how to change my thought process make good things happen.

I must assume that if he cares so little about truth and reason where I can catch him, he must be just as cavalier in the places I cannot catch him. I must assume that all of the rest of his examples and evidence are just as false, and therefore that any conclusions he has are false, wrong, and useless. It is clear that he has imagined a reality that fits his prejudice, rather than forming his ideas by observing reality.

Until I encountered this monstrous lie, I was prepared to accept the book's thesis. When I was kicked out of my acceptance, I immediately started thinking of other information that opposed the cult of 'creative thinking' Just like in the case of penicillin, progress does not come from thinking. It comes from tinkering, experimenting, observation, recording and sharing the results of random tests and observations.

The history of actual science, and our knowledge of how the human brain works, both tell us that thinking mainly exists to explain what has already happened. For most of human history, discoveries came first, and then the theories came later. People did things, got their hands dirty with the physical world, ran experiments and observed the results, tinkered and explored, and after all that was done, the creative thinkers spun theories to try to explain the results. Most of these theories were worthless, but some were right, and produced testable predictions, and then more experiments were used to figure out which theories were useful.

Thought is, to a first approximation, worthless. Humans have been thinking for thousands of years, producing vast volumes of philosophy and theology that are basically useless. Human life remained nasty, brutish, and short until we stumbled across the habit of running experiments and sharing the results.

If you want to accomplish something with your life, then the best advice is to stop thinking things and start doing new things. Try new activities, make new friends, and learn new skills. Humans spend way too much time just sitting around and thinking, and they accomplish almost nothing by doing so. Much 'thinking' is just a way to try to signal good qualities to people we want to impress.

Rich countries today are full of overeducated "creative thinkers" with no useful skills. If you talk about your creative thinking in a job interview, that is a strong signal that you have accomplished nothing in your life. People want results, and they want people who can deliver results, and results come from doing lots of different things and developing skills and good habits. Experience is far more important than thinking, and you will not get experience in anything useful by thinking about things.

I freely admit that I do not follow this advice. Overthinking things is a vice of mine. I even got lucky enough to land one of the few jobs where creative thinking is actually a useful skill. But I did not get the job because of my creativity. I got the job because I had produced a good job market paper; I had demonstrated that I had already accomplished something that was very similar to what they wanted me to do in the job.

The best businesses today do not rely on creativity. They rely on data and tests. They experiment with lots of things, observe the results, tweak things, and experiment again. Creativity is one small and almost unnecessary part of this process; it can tell what it might be interesting to test.

Creativity is mainly an asset in the bizarre, artificial, and manipulative world of the entertainment industry. Human do crave creativity in their entertainment. I argue that they crave it for exactly the same reason that they crave airbrushed images of sexually attractive people. It is something that we have evolved to see as a good signal. Creative people make good political allies because they can find persuasive ways of arguing that our side is right and their side is wrong, so the tribe should banish them and reward us.

Okay, the rant is winding down. I see no reason to try to keep it going or tidy it up. If this were a LessWrong group meeting, it would have started an interesting and creative discussion and I could start enjoying listening to and sharing the creative thoughts of potentially useful allies...