Monday, December 28, 2009

Age of Transition: Meat

This morning I was trimming the fat off some pork chops to get them ready for cooking in a crock pot.  It occurred to me that this activity would be considered madness at any time more than 50 years ago, and also more than 50 years in the future.

Our ancestors would not chop off the fat.  They wanted as much fat as possible.  More fat mean more calories, which meant less chance of going hungry.  They also thought it tasted better.  Old cookbooks would tell you to rub lard on your meat before cooking if it was 'not sufficiently marbled'.  They would be amazed by any society where people would exert effort to make meat leaner.

Future generations will be appalled by the thought of handling and cooking raw meat.  Given the prevailing moral trends, they will probably be vegetarians.  Even if they are not, they will probably think about chopping up raw pork the same way I think about taking a live hog out behind the barn, slitting its throat, and butchering it.

We live in a strange time, one that has never existed in the past and will probably never exist in the future.  It is a transition between states of human existence.  Enjoy it while you can.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


This is a good, easy-to-read article about different effects of television.

In a study published last year in Child Development, a team led by Marie Evans Schmidt found that background TV has significant effects on toddlers' play.

Fifty children, aged one through three, played by themselves in a room while a parent sat nearby reading magazines. Half the time (either at the beginning or end of the session), an episode of the game show Jeopardy! was playing in the background. The researchers videotaped the kids' playing behavior and found that play episodes and focused attention were shorter while the TV show was on, even though no one was actively watching the show. Over a lifetime, this might mean that these kids are less able to focus on tasks...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Interesting Fact: Advertising

A (nonscientific) survey found that people who work in the advertising industry are least likely to have unhealthy habits (smoking and eating junk food).  This might be because those who are familiar with advertising are less likely to fall prey to its effects.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Orthodox Jews and Identity

If you want to live and operate in a modern Western society, you must accept the fundamental principles of our civilization.  And one of the most basic truths we hold about humanity is that one's identity is a matter of personal choice.  The individual determines who and what he or she is.  This decision is definitely not made by self-proclaimed authority figures who were not chosen by a democratic process.

The 12-year-old boy was refused a place at the JFS (formerly known as the Jews' Free School) in Brent, in north London.

The boy has a father who is Jewish by birth and a mother who is Jewish by conversion.

But the conversion ceremony was conducted by a Progressive ... synagogue which is not recognised by the Office of the Chief Rabbi.

The children of atheists, and practising Christians, were allowed to attend as long as their mothers were considered Jewish.

Although Liberal Jews say faith is about belief rather than ethnic origin, Orthodox Jewish supporters of the school said the Supreme Court's ruling risked infringing their human rights by interfering with the way they have always been defined.

from this BBC story

The British Supreme court ruled that the school's policy was illegal.  I agree with them.  There is clearly something wrong with a religious school that cheerfully admits atheists while refusing a spot to a child of someone who freely chose the Jewish faith.  These Orthodox Jews are, by the standards of our civilization, racist.  It is clear that their definition of 'Jew' is based mainly on genetics and not personal choices.  They were trying to use our society's religious freedom as a cover for ethnic discrimination.

This attitude is certainly not limited to Orthodox Jews.  There are far too many people in this world that simply do not value personal choice and individual liberty, people who think that they have the right to rule the lives of other people in the name of 'community' or 'society' or 'religion'.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Anti-groping cameras set for Tokyo train line  from the BBC

This is not a problem that will be solved with technology from the government.  This is a problem that can only be solved by giving women the right to carry concealed weapons.

Product Placement

Last night I saw an episode of 'Bones' that was an excellent look at the future of advertising.  Half of the plot of the episode was based around the successful attempt of three of the characters to hold their place in line for the 'Avatar' movie while still doing their day's work.  This worked fairly well, and it was a scenario that made sense, given the characters.

The episode generated some complaints online (what doesn't?), but in my opinion it is the least intrusive type of advertising imaginable.  I am guessing that the reason people complain about these types of product placement is because they are in the habit of using technology to completely skip the standard advertising.*  However, it is completely impossible to skip product placement.  If you wanted to skip this ad, you would miss about a third of the show.

We will see more and more of this in the future.  It is inevitable.  The old way of doing commercials is dying.  It is just too easy to separate them from the show.  People will skip them on DVR's, or they will upload them to the Internet with the commercials cut out.  Product placements deeply embedded into the content of the show are the only way for the sponsor-driven business model of entertainment creation to survive.

In the future, the entire show will end up being a commercial.  People will accept it as they get used to it, and the show makers will get more and more subtle and creative.  For example, the types of gun used in action movies are currently determined by script writers and props people.  Soon, this will be put up for auction among various gun makers.  Whoever bids the highest will get to showcase their gun.  The show creators will not make a ton of money this way, but they will end up doing it for every single prop, like cars and computers and clothing.  Hopefully, that will add up to enough to cover the cost of the show without altering the plot too much.  But we will continue to see them making extra money by working all kinds of things into the plot.  The script manager and the advertising manager will end up being the same person.

Hopefully this will all mean the end of traditional commercials.  But not necessarily.  There will still be old people who are in the habit of sitting down in front of the TV and staring at whatever comes up.  So, given that the only people watching traditional commercials will be the old and non-tech-savvy, expect all of these commercials to be selling things to old people.  If you want to reach the youth audience, you will have to do product placements.

* These people need to realize that DVR ad-skipping violates the Categorical Imperative.  If everybody did it, then nobody would be able to get any money selling ads and it would be impossible to create new episodes of the show they like.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Civilization and Rights

'Civilization' and 'civilized' are two words that I often use, without defining exactly what they mean.  This is because the two concepts are very broad; there are a lot of things that go into making, defining, and characterizing a civilization.

For example, one of the best indicators of civilization, both in history and among current countries, is indoor plumbing.  Any group of people that does not or cannot maintain a plumbing system for most of its populace does not deserve to call itself a civilization.

But this does not mean that we can improve our civilization by training more plumbers or building more plumbing.  Plumbing is a symptom, not a cause, of civilization.  One of the biggest and most important questions for humanity is what causes a good civilization.

I have often connected science, rational thinking, and the scientific method with civilization.  That was somewhat sloppy.  Science is kind of like plumbing in that it is a symptom of civilization.  While science and engineering make civilizations stronger and more powerful, and dramatically improve everyone's quality of life, they are not what most people intuitively connect with the word 'civilized'.  As Hitler and Stalin showed us, it is possible to combine science and technology with barbarity and savagery.  And it is possible to imagine an enlightened and civilized group of people who do not possess much technology.

Some people connect manners and politeness with civilization.  I believe that this is folly.  An extremely complicated system of etiquette and protocol is usually a sign that something has gone horribly wrong with a group of people.  It signifies that they are afraid to speak honestly and that they have nothing better to do with their time than to invent and follow pointless rules.

I believe that the core definition of 'civilized' is 'having respect for the rights of other people' and that the core definition of 'civilization' is 'a society where everyone's rights are respected'.  Civilized people respect the rights of life and liberty above all else, and they design their social rules and institutions so that these rights are sacred above anything else.  Civilized people respect property rights, and this generates conditions that foster economic activity that makes the society richer.  Civilized people respect the rights of honest debate and intellectual inquiry, and this generates conditions that allow science and technology to thrive. 

Scientific freedom in combination with economic freedom is what created all the marvels of civilization that we enjoy today.  If you lose either, your civilization cannot advance.  But if your society fails to respect and guarantee the fundamental rights of human beings, it will either fall to pieces or become a plague upon humanity.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Priorities and Targets

This is an excellent short article on climate change.

Only half of man-made global warming comes from CO2. The rest comes from a variety of sources, including hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), black carbon (soot)
Critics point out that the Kyoto protocol has achieved a great deal less than the Montreal protocol, which was designed to prevent the use of ozone-depleting CFCs. Montreal, implemented in 1987, was originally expected to cut half of its gases in 12 years. In the event it got rid of all of them in ten years.
Black carbon is a particular problem in the Arctic and the Himalayan glaciers; it melts snow and ice and thus increases the tendency to absorb heat from the sun. It contributes somewhere between an eighth and a quarter of global warming. Unlike CO2, which stays in the atmosphere for centuries, it disappears within weeks. Cutting emissions would therefore make an instant difference.
HFCs—industrial gases with 1,440 times the global-warming potential of carbon dioxide—are another candidate. Like CFCs, they are produced by a smallish number of industrial processes, and cutting emissions of them is cheap and easy.

This illustrates a fundamental truth about life.  The simpler the goals are, the easier they are to attain.  If you try to do everything, you usually end up doing nothing.  The way to change things effectively is to focus on the one thing that has the highest payoff, and then do that before moving on to anything else.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Centuries of Progress

Here's a fun trivia question:  When and where were the first public toilets introduced?

Go on, guess.  I'll reveal the answer at the end of the post.  In the meantime, I'll talk about technological progress.

Civilization as we know it began in the 19th century.  Life in 1810 wasn't much different than it was in Roman times.  The entire society was essentially pastoral, with a hereditary class of wealthy landowners dominating the economy and politics.  Almost everything was made by hand, and travel and communication were very difficult.  But by 1910, the physical nature of the world was radically altered.  Physics and chemistry and engineering had fundamentally changed the production and distribution of food and physical goods.  The world was dominated by railroads and factories.  Things like electricity and indoor plumbing had gone from nonexistant to commonplace.

More importantly, everyone knew that the world was changing rapidly and would continue to change in the future.  Thomas Jefferson believed that the basic facts of his plantation lifestyle would be the standard pattern for hundreds of years.  He thought that the ideal shape of the future would be an eternity of pastoralism, basically unchanged from the patterns of antiquity.  He simply did not understand how technology would change the fact of the world.  Nobody in 1910 could make that mistake.

But the interesting thing is that the physical nature of our lives and civilization has not changed nearly as much in the last hundred years.  The system of farms and factories and indoor plumbing is mostly unchanged.  We have replaced railroads with cars and airplanes, but aside from that, we are basically doing what they did in 1900, but more efficiently.

The real change in the last hundred years has been in the realm of information.  The existence of telegraphs in the 1800's was a start, but telegraphs were basically just a more efficient way of writing letters.  In the 20th century, we developed a system of mass media unprecedented in human history, with movies, radio, and then television.  Information and entertainment was mass-produced instead of hand-made, matching the transformation of physical goods in the 19th century.  We also created a network of telephones that reached into every house, dramatically changing how people connected to and communicated with each other.  And then, of course, came computers and the Internet and mobile phones.  We all know about these changes because we are living through them.

I believe that the fundamental changes to information have already taken place, just as the fundamental changes to physical goods production had already taken place in 1910.  The shape of the future is mostly clear.  We will do what we are doing now, only more efficiently.

I believe that the next frontier for a radical shift is medicine and biology.  The 19th century remade the physical world, the 20th century remade information, and the 21st century will be about remaking humanity.  If you look honestly at our current medical system, you will see that it is shockingly underdeveloped compared to the other miracles of our civilization.  Most of the money spent on medicine is wasted, and a lot of the things they do are useless or even harmful.  The few things that are done right, such as trauma care and antibiotics, are those with immediate and obvious short-term consequences. 

Aside from childhood vaccinations, our medical system is basically worthless to someone with good genes who lives a healthy life and avoids accidents.  All they know how to do is fix things that go wrong.  The best that you can ever hope from an interaction with the medical system is to leave in a condition that is no worse than that of a healthy person your age who never needed medical care.  They can do absolutely nothing to make your life better if it is already good.

The life expectancy of a healthy person today is little better than the life expectancy of someone five thousand years ago who managed to avoid war, famine, and disease.  If you were from a well-off family and managed to survive to age five, then you would probably live a good long life.  The shockingly low life expectancy at birth figures were due to the horrible living conditions of the peasantry and to the plagues and childhood illnesses that affected everybody. The recent increase in life expectancy comes mainly from better nutrition, better sanitation, and lower rates of violence.  Our civilization's single best tool for life extension is the produce section of the supermarket.

Now, I love knowing that the ER will patch me up if I get in a car crash or break a bone in some kind of accident.  I also know that I would probably be dead, or at least severely weakened, if I had not gotten vaccines and an antibiotic treatment as an infant.  But now that I have passed that hurdle, I will do my best to avoid the medical system for as long as possible.  I have adjusted my diet, exercise, and living patterns so that I will avoid things like high blood pressure and cholesterol problems for a long time.  I will have my body monitored with regular checkups, of course, and if something starts to malfunction, I will consent to let a doctor fix it if there is no other option.

But we can, and will, do so much more than merely patching things up.  We will find ways to actually improve human functioning.  A system built around trying to fix broken bodies and restore them to their original condition will be replaced by a system that is built around making new and better bodies with a combination of nanotechnology, biological engineering, and cybernetics.

One of my goals in life is to not require any medical treatment until some time after the Singularity hits.  By the time my body starts to fall apart, we should have the technology to grow me a new one or upload me into a robot.

To answer the opening question: The first public restrooms were in the Crystal Palace in London's Great Exhibition of 1851

Now consider what it was like to live in England in 1850.  You would be living in the greatest and most powerful and most advanced civilization the world had ever known.  And yet your life lacked a feature that people a century later would regard as a basic necessity of civilized life.  The men and women of 1850 thought that they were civilized.  But nowadays, we would regard their living conditions as barbaric.  ( On a related note, modern deodorant was invented in the late 1800's )

Think about this when you consider the living conditions of the future.  The humans of the future will regard our lives as primitive and barely civilized.

Food Canon

Another Excellent post from Atomic Nerds:

For whatever reason, there are certain items of food in American culture that are not so much food as regional sects of a larger religion. You don't just eat barbecue or hot dogs or whatever (unless you're some kind of heathen, or worse, a pantheist), you have your specific version of that food item which is The Food as it is properly communed with and there are various heretic sects that defile The Food. Naturally I am no exception.

I agree with her completely on cornbread and biscuits, but when it comes to chili and barbecue I am a pantheist.  Also, I am one of those people who thinks that 'a pizza should be of comparable thickness and texture to a sofa cushion.'  I do not like crunchy pizza.

Do you have any food dogma?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Whining and Perceptions

It is final exam season, which tends to be stressful for teachers as well as students.  I am already hearing complains from other grad students about students whining and begging for higher grades.  I have heard one of them talking to my office mate.

I don't usually have that problem.  My students never seem to complain about their grades to me or ask me for better grades.  I've never had anyone come to me with a sob story about why they need a better grade.  They tend to just accept whatever grade I give them.

There are several possibilities for this.  Maybe I'm just lucky.  Maybe my assignment and grading system is seen as fairer, or a better representation of skill* so they treat my grades as more valid.

Or maybe it is a matter of social perception.  Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that students are more likely to ask female teachers for grade changes.  Maybe they think women are more likely to take pity of them, or they are more intimidated by men.

In the course of our conversation about all this, one of my colleagues said, "You look like a tough guy."  I'm still not sure what I think about this.

*Most of the grade in my class is based on homework.  People can claim that they had a bad day on a test, but there is no excuse for poor performance when they have a week to do each assignment, when each assignment has the built-in possibility of doing extra credit for a better grade, and when I gladly answer questions about the homework in class.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Flynn Effect and Poker

The Flynn effect is the fact that IQ scores have been constantly rising over time.  There is some debate about whether this is real, or an artifact of the measuring process.

The history of poker is strong evidence that the effect is real.  Poker has gotten more and more complicated over time.  It started off very simple, but over time, more and more variants were added, all of which required more and more mental processing power to play.

It started with a 20-card deck, no draw, no revealed cards, and very simple scoring.  In the early 1800's, the deck expanded to 52 cards, and the flush and then the straight were added to the game.  Stud poker was added in the Civil war, and then wild cards were added, and then variants like lowball and high-low.  People started to draw to change their hands, and then they started making the best hand out of seven or more cards.  In the early 1900's, community cards were added, bringing a whole new level of strategy.

Remember that this is a game played for fun by ordinary people.  Playing the common and popular poker variants and rules of the modern era takes a lot more brainpower than playing the old-style rules.  I believe that the increasing complexity of poker happened because the brain of the average person was better equipped to handle the complexity.  People got more raw IQ, and responded by increasing the strategic complexity of their entertainment so that it remained a good challenge.

Note, of course, that intelligence is not wisdom.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Looking Around and Thinking

The scientific method in action:

In Vietnam, they would identify children who had somehow managed to be well nourished. Then they would try to figure out what those families were doing right.

During this process, which Monique Sternin refers to as a "treasure hunt," the Sternins went to the families' homes, looked closely for clues, and asked many questions. One home did not even have full walls, but it housed healthy children. Seeing a crab crawling out of a basket, Sternin said, as she recently recalled, "Oh! What about that? Do you by any chance feed your children crab?" Reluctantly, the father admitted that yes, he scavenged for shrimp and crabs while he was farming in the rice paddies.

"These are protein bombs," says Dirk Schroeder, a professor of global health at Emory University who later conducted a study showing the project's effectiveness. "When parents were first asked, they were really embarrassed about it. It was considered a low-class food, rather than buying Nestle baby food in a jar. In fact, it was a perfect thing to do."

This Vietnamese father was one of the "positive deviants" identified by the Sternins. Other strategies emerged too: distributing the available food into more portions; keeping chickens outdoors, which is more hygienic. Once these behaviors were discovered, the outliers shared them with their neighbors. They all ate together at the homes of the positive deviants. "As the price of admission you would have to bring shrimp," Sternin says. The community developed its own system for weighing and monitoring the children. Based on encouraging early results, this pilot project was expanded to other villages.

When the two-year intervention ended, rates of malnutrition had declined substantially. One evaluation found that in four of the communities, severe malnutrition had dropped from 23 percent to 6 percent. The change was durable: When Schroeder and his colleagues conducted a study three years later, they found that children in participating villages were doing better than their counterparts in a similar village. Strikingly, younger children, who were born after the initiative concluded, enjoyed an even more pronounced edge than their older siblings.
There are so many things to think about here.  The first is the power of the scientific method.  You can cause massive improvements in people's lives just by looking around and seeing what happens as a result of different activities.  The aid workers did not use any technology or spend any money.  They just identified the people who were doing things right and told everyone else about it.

The second is about the perversity of human thinking in the absence of the scientific method.  Why would someone be ashamed to feed his children crab meat, when anyone can see that they are healthier than the other children?  Why would the villagers automatically adopt the practice of feeding their children bottled baby food, while consistently refusing to accept the scientific advice of aid workers? 

It really does appear that they were mainly using their children to play status games with other adults.  Instead of doing what was right for the children, they did what would make the parents appear wealthy and successful.  A similar thing has been observed with the practice of sterilizing water.  You can make dirty water safe to drink by putting it in a plastic bottle and leaving it on a hot metal roof for a few hours.  The heat and UV radiation kill all the dangerous microbes.  But people in poor countries often refuse to do this, because it tells the neighbors that they are too poor to afford clean water.  They would rather risk their child's death than admit that they don't have money.

Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to poor societies.  It seems to be quite common in our own as well.  Parents often do things that do not add any value to the lives of the child or parent, just because they think society expects them to do it.

But that is another topic.  The third thing to consider in the Vietnam story is the actions of Nestle.  From one point of view, they didn't do anything wrong.  They simply sold baby food.  I am guessing that they didn't do much to advertise it either.  It sells because people associate Western stuff with being rich and successful.  The baby food probably has plenty of good vitamins and would work fine if it was used as it was meant to be used.  I would guess that the best strategy for a poor family would be to feed the children a mash of crab meat, rice, and veggies, and top it off with maybe one bottle of baby food a month to round out the vitamins. 

Yet, for some reason, the introduction of canned baby food made people ashamed to feed the children crab meat, and the loss or protein led to malnutrition, with all of its associated morbidity and mortality.  There was a clear harm to the society.  How can we prevent this?  It does not make much sense to prevent the sale outright.  Strict controls on labeling, advertising and marketing might help a little, but they would not stop people from associating the product with wealth and success.

I guess the only real solution is to teach people to think critically and evaluate things based on evidence rather than image or social pressure.  That is a long, slow process, but anything else just will not work in the end.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

More Bad Science

Can you spot the giant methodological hole in this research?

They calculated the calorific consumption of America's population based on data in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey carried out by the country's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. They then compared that figure with recorded levels of food production, modified for imports and exports. They found that the average American wastes 1,400 kilocalories a day.

They assume that all food produced, but not consumed by humans, is wasted.  I read the study, and it did not mention anything about excluding food that is meant for pets.  I am almost certain that their measures of food production include everything sold by farmers, including agricultural products that end up in pet food.  Even if they do exclude pet food, many people feed their animals food that is meant for humans.

A medium-sized dog (30 kilograms) consumes about 1500 calories a day.  This may be considered waste by many people, but it is not a simple story of Americans throwing food into the trash.