Thursday, June 30, 2011

Robots and Personality

My sense of humor is bizarre. I just laughed out loud for several minutes after reading this:

The most effective way to find and destroy a land mine is to step on it.
This has bad results, of course, if you're a human. But not so much if you're a robot and have as many legs as a centipede sticking out from your body. That's why Mark Tilden, a robotics physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, built something like that. At the Yuma Test Grounds in Arizona, the autonomous robot, 5 feet long and modeled on a stick-insect, strutted out for a live-fire test and worked beautifully, he says. Every time it found a mine, blew it up and lost a limb, it picked itself up and readjusted to move forward on its remaining legs, continuing to clear a path through the minefield.
Finally it was down to one leg. Still, it pulled itself forward. Tilden was ecstatic. The machine was working splendidly.
The human in command of the exercise, however -- an Army colonel -- blew a fuse.
The colonel ordered the test stopped.
Why? asked Tilden. What's wrong?
The colonel just could not stand the pathos of watching the burned, scarred and crippled machine drag itself forward on its last leg.
This test, he charged, was inhumane.

I think I found this story so funny because I can see the conflict between two personality types: the engineer who happily watches his machine perform its intended function, and the leader who identifies emotionally with the people and tools under his command. I was laughing at the confusion of the engineer who made a flawless machine but failed to consider the human factors in the design.

The article is interesting throughout, as is the one that pointed me to it:

They're designed to do a job, and they're designed to be able to interact with people to the extent that it facilitates their ability to do that job, but service robots are really not programmed to be your pet, your best friend, or a member of your family.
Whether it's in their programming or not is, to some extent, beside the point, since it happens anyway. And when it happens, it dramatically changes the way that people interact with what on a primary level is intended to be little more than a tool. Realizing this, a team from Delft University of Technology and Philips Research in the Netherlands decided to take a look at how people actually want their robot vacuums to behave, and what kinds of personalities they'd like them to display.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Psychiatric Drugs Continued

More scary stuff:

What should be of greatest concern for Americans is the astonishing rise in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in children, sometimes as young as two years old. These children are often treated with drugs that were never approved by the FDA for use in this age group and have serious side effects.

I believe that people should have the right to take drugs that the FDA has not approved. However, they should only do so with full knowledge of the risks, and knowledge of the fact that the government does not think it is safe. The existence of regulatory agencies often gives people a false sense of security. They assume that things are safe, instead of asking the questions they should.

But then, maybe they are making a rational calculation:

As low-income families experience growing economic hardship, many are finding that applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments on the basis of mental disability is the only way to survive. It is more generous than welfare, and it virtually ensures that the family will also qualify for Medicaid. According to MIT economics professor David Autor, "This has become the new welfare." Hospitals and state welfare agencies also have incentives to encourage uninsured families to apply for SSI payments, since hospitals will get paid and states will save money by shifting welfare costs to the federal government.
Growing numbers of for-profit firms specialize in helping poor families apply for SSI benefits. But to qualify nearly always requires that applicants, including children, be taking psychoactive drugs. According to a New York Times story, a Rutgers University study found that children from low-income families are four times as likely as privately insured children to receive antipsychotic medicines.

That first sentence is nonsense. People could survive without this government program, and the assertion that they cannot is incredibly insulting and misleading. But it is true that without these kinds of programs, people would have to reduce or alter their consumption and/or learn new skills and work harder. Nobody wants to do that, so they do what it takes to get the diagnosis. 

One of the mantras of public choice economics is "If you subsidize something, you get more of it." That is what we are seeing here. The government gives you money if your kids are on psychoactive drugs, so more people put their kids on psychoactive drugs.

Monday, June 20, 2011


One of my favourite lines – and I haven't been able to find out who came up with it – is that "There's an age when boys read one of two books. Either they read Ayn Rand or they read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. One of these books leaves you with no grasp on reality and a deeply warped sense of fantasy in place of real life. The other one is about hobbits and orcs."

I read Lord of the Rings, thankfully.
Then I read Hume's Enquiry, this wonderful, humane book saying that nobody has all the answers. What we know is what we have evidence for. We do the best we can, but anybody who claims to be able to deduce or have revelation about The Truth – with both Ts capitalised – is wrong. It doesn't work that way. The only reasonable way to approach life is with an attitude of humane scepticism. I felt that a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders when I read that book. 

I have never gotten around to reading Hume, but I know the general idea of his works and I definitely approve. I rarely have the patience for reading the full text of philosophers write. They are far too verbose. It is much more efficient to read summaries.

Residents of the Austrian mountain town of Hallstatt, population 800, are scandalized. A Chinese firm has plans to replicate the village — including its famous lake — in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, Austrian media reported this week.

The Chinese possess a fascinating combination of initiative and shamelessness. They decide that they want something, and then they do it. Their entrepreneurs will gladly make copies of anything and everything, and their consumers will gladly buy it. The concept of 'authenticity' seems completely foreign to them.

Ayn Rand would be proud of them.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Depressing Health Facts

Using data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and Census Bureau, I estimate death rates of working-age prisoners and nonprisoners by sex and race. Incarceration was more detrimental to females in comparison to their male counterparts in the period covered by this study. White male prisoners had higher death rates than white males who were not in prison. Black male prisoners, however, consistently exhibited lower death rates than black male nonprisoners did. Additionally, the findings indicate that while the relative difference in mortality levels of white and black males was quite high outside of prison, it essentially disappeared in prison. Notably, removing deaths caused by firearms and motor vehicles in the nonprison population accounted for some of the mortality differential between black prisoners and nonprisoners. The death rates of the other groups analyzed suggest that prison is an unhealthy environment; yet, prison appears to be a healthier place than the typical environment of the nonincarcerated black male population. These findings suggest that firearms and motor vehicle accidents do not sufficiently explain the higher death rates of black males, and they indicate that a lack of basic healthcare may be implicated in the death rates of black males not incarcerated.

emphasis mine

Source (You may not be able to read the paper without access from a university library.)

So basically, this study says that being locked in a cage with people selected for their violent and antisocial tendencies is a healthier environment than black men normally live in, and that remains true even if you ignore deaths from cars and guns. I have skimmed the paper and it looks like they used decent methodology.

There are a lot of ways you could spin this. It could be due to a better diet and increased access to health care, or it could be due to controlling dangerous actions and habits, or maybe a combination of both. Nobody is going to claim that quality of life is higher in prison, but it is kind of disheartening to see data showing that, for a segment of the population, having the government lock you in a cage and manage your life (badly) results in less mortality than living on your own in our society. No matter if you blame society or the individuals involved, something is seriously wrong here.

The second link is a newspaper article about life expectancy: 

Women in large swaths of the U.S. are dying younger than they were a generation ago, reversing nearly a century of progress in public health
In some parts of the United States, men and women are dying younger on average than their counterparts in nations such as Syria, Panama and Vietnam.
Communities with large immigrant populations — Southern California, for example — fared considerably better than average despite relatively high poverty rates. The worst-performing counties were clustered primarily in Appalachia, the Deep South and the lower Midwest. In those places, women died as much as a year younger in 2007 than women did a decade earlier. Life expectancy for women slipped 2 1/2 years in Madison County, Miss., which recorded the biggest regression.

Again, you have the same debate over social causes versus individual responsibility, but it is clear that something is very wrong. There are pockets of people in our country that are regressing in the most basic measures of well-being.

Just like with prison, there is a lot more to your overall quality of life than your mortality rate. Most people would probably think that living in the modern world and dying at 70 is better than living a hundred years ago and dying at 75, just like they would prefer to not be in prison. But mortality is related to health, and your health has a huge impact on your quality of life.

This is a big problem. Something is missing. When analyzing problems like this, the key is to try to find the relevant scarcity, to figure out what is lacking so you can provide it.  

Living a healthy life requires both knowledge and willpower. The two are substitutes. For example, the more you know about cooking, the less willpower you need to eat healthy, because you know how to cook healthy food that tastes really good. Giving people more knowledge is something most people agree on, but the problem is that it is often hard and expensive to do so.

One thing that might help is to provide people with 'artificial willpower' by making systems that allow you to make and enforce commitments. People should be able to tell their credit card companies and grocery stores to refuse to process any transaction involving junk food. I have talked about this before. 

Hopefully in the future we will all have robot butlers to do our shopping for us. They can be our commitment mechanisms; we can tell them to get healthy food and not buy bad things, and we will not go in stores and be confronted with impulse purchases.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I just spent $160 for two pairs of Vibram Fivefingers shoes, one pair of Komodos and one pair of Classics. The Komodos are designed for sports, including parkour, that involve lateral motion  and balancing on the forefoot. I liked the way they felt. Even though the soles were a bit thicker and more padded, I still had plenty of freedom of movement in my feet. I will see how they do in the next parkour session. They are also supposed to be more rugged; hopefully they can handle the abuse that I inflict on my shoes.

The classics were on sale for $50. They will not be able to handle any serious activity, but they will be good for everyday use, and should be fine for light jogging. I had a ratty old pair of sandals that I wore when I did not feel like putting on my KSO's, but the classics are so easy to put on that I will not need to wear them anymore.

I am very frugal; I live more cheaply than anyone I know. I hate wasting money. But when it comes to shoes, I will gladly pay for quality. Your footwear has a huge impact on your quality of life. You will spend at least half of your life in your shoes, and with every step you take, they will do either good or bad things to your feet, ankles, knees, legs, and even your hips and spine.  If people put more thought into choosing the shoes that are right for them, and were willing to spend the money, they would have a better lifestyle and fewer health problems.

My mom's mother is 93 now, and still active and moving around. One of the reasons for this is that she refuses to buy 'little old lady' shoes. She goes to the kid's section of the shoe store and buys sneakers made for little boys. They are bright and colorful and comfortable and meant for moving around and have convenient velcro straps rather than laces.

My dad's mother, by contrast, is much younger but seems to have more trouble moving around. The main reason for this is that she will often wear horrible flip-flops that make it impossible to move well. Some of her family were considering getting her a scooter. My family did our best to convince them that this would be a terrible idea and that getting better shoes so she could actually walk around would be much better.

Part of the effect of shoes is psychological. Putting on little kid's shoes makes my grandmother feel younger.  Studies have shown that this makes a difference; if you surround old people with things that remind them of their youth, their health actually improves. Of course, when my grandmother was young, running around being a tomboy and playing sandlot baseball, nobody had shoes like that. But in her mind, those shoes equal youth, and so she is healthier and acts younger.

I freely admit that part of the effect of my Vibrams may be psychological. They press all the right buttons: they are new, well-engineered, and high-tech, but not associated with a traditional shoe company and all of their annoying celebrity endorsements and manipulative ads. They are affiliated with the outdoor sports and natural fitness movement. 

In a way, I like the attention they bring. I like signaling that I am the kind of person who tries new things, is willing to push social boundaries, and wants and needs shoes designed for an active and unconventional lifestyle. From a standpoint of practicality and biomechanics, this is irrelevant rubbish, but I have a primate subconscious like everyone else, and these social things matter to it. The feeling I get from wearing my Vibrams is probably the feeling that most people get when they wear designer clothing or other status symbols, and for the same reason.

In a few years, there will probably be a cheaper brand that works just as well. The popularity of Fivefingers is bringing lots of competitors. This can only be a good thing; being the only provider of these kinds of shoes allows the Vibram company to extract monopoly profits from me. We will only see the full potential of minimalist shoes when we have a competitive market with lots of options, and lots of companies trying to outdo each other to deliver better value.

But if Vibram manages things well, they will retain their cachet and all of the benefits it brings them. It will be interesting to see if I stick with that company or switch to a different brand.

Monday, June 13, 2011

RIP Fivefingers KSO

My 21-month-old pair of Vibram Fivefingers finally died yesterday in the line of duty, during a two-hour parkour session:

As you can see, I had completely worn out the treading on the sole; it was bald in several places, and very thin.

They actually lasted longer than I thought they would. My shoes usually fall apart in a couple years, and I used these for running and hiking and parkour and climbing and normal everyday wear. Ever since I got them, I have not worn anything else aside from dress shoes, sandals, and winter boots.

I got a second pair last summer, and that pair is already looking rough. This pair looked like it was falling apart after about six months, but after I superglued them back together they held up well and did not need any more fixing. I have not had to glue my second pair, but the soles of those are also looking ragged.

I am not sure what I will get to replace this pair. Black KSO's are known for having the most quality problems of any of the Fivefinger family, as my experience demonstrates. Hopefully they have gotten that under control in the last year, but they may have been too busy making new models. I tried the one meant for hiking, and did not like it. I may try the one meant for running, which has a thicker sole. Some fivefinger enthusiasts do not like the feel of that either, but a thick sole may make them last longer. They also have a few more advancements, like a plastic coating on the tops of the toes to prevent them from getting holes. I'll just have to try the different types on.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Drug Testing

Despite the fact that I support full drug legalization, I have absolutely no problem with the recent Florida law to test welfare recipients for drugs and remove benefits from those who are using them. There is a huge difference between using punishing something with state-sanctioned violence and punishing it by the removal of state assistance. Access to taxpayer money should be a privilege, not a right, and you should lose that privilege if you are spending the money on recreational chemicals.

I mentioned in my last post that we need ways to make strong social statements against drugs without making them illegal and instigating violence against people who use them. This is an excellent way to do it. If you spend your own money on drugs and your habit does not cause any problems for anyone else, you should be free to do as you like. But if you have demonstrated an inability to support yourself without taxpayer money, you should have your behavior monitored and controlled by the state. Ideally this should be done in the spirit of medical care and self-improvement rather than punishment. But the simple fact is that if you have money to spend on drugs, you are clearly getting too much money from the state.

City with No Government

Interesting article 

The reader comments are also worth reading.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Psychiatric Drugs

I have read about a lot of studies showing that antidepressants perform little better than placebos. The data show that they are dangerous and basically useless. Now the evidence is showing that mental illness is not actually caused by chemical imbalances in the brain:

Neurotransmitter function seems to be normal in people with mental illness before treatment. In Whitaker's words:
Prior to treatment, patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, depression, and other psychiatric disorders do not suffer from any known "chemical imbalance." However, once a person is put on a psychiatric medication, which, in one manner or another, throws a wrench into the usual mechanics of a neuronal pathway, his or her brain begins to function…abnormally.
Carlat refers to the chemical imbalance theory as a "myth" (which he calls "convenient" because it destigmatizes mental illness), and Kirsch, whose book focuses on depression, sums up this way: "It now seems beyond question that the traditional account of depression as a chemical imbalance in the brain is simply wrong."

Read the whole thing, and don't let anyone you know start taking those drugs. Future generations will probably look at these things the way we look at the doctors who treated people by bleeding them.

Early to Rise

For some reason, I woke up before 6 this morning, while it was still dark. I read some news articles on my phone, but shortly after dawn I realized that I would not be getting back to sleep, and I had set my bread machine to finish around 7:15. So I did something I had never done before: I went for a morning run before breakfast.

I felt great at first. The weather was wonderfully cool and I was going at what felt like a good pace. I don't know the time, because I had left my watch at school. But after about two miles, I ran out of energy.I started feeling a bit light-headed, and my body simply refused to move at a pace faster than a walk. So I stopped, took a shower, read some more, and then ate breakfast. The bread tasted really good, partly because it was a good loaf* and partly because I was hungry.

I have walked around in the morning before. In the summer, it really is best to be active early. The weather is great and there are far fewer bugs than there are in the evening. The problem is that most places are closed. Most stores do not open until 9, by which time the weather is already nasty.

The Spanish really had the right idea of how to structure a day in a hot, sunny climate. You get up early, get stuff done, take a nice long siesta during the hot nasty part of the day, and then get up refreshed and keep doing stuff in the late afternoon and evening. But for cultural reasons, we are stuck with a work schedule developed in a much colder and darker climate.

On the way to school I stopped by the grocery store to get yogurt. Not the little cups of flavored junk with corn syrup, but a big container of all-natural yogurt. The ingredient list said "cultured milk" and nothing else. My mom introduced me to the potential of this stuff. She gets the fat-free version, and flavors it with fresh or frozen fruit. I get the full-fat version. Given my current physique and diet and exercise habits**, I actually need more fat in my diet. On many days, the only fat I eat comes from cooking oil and the nuts in my bread, so a nice helping of dairy fat is wonderful.

I flavored it with some of the wild flower honey I have in my desk. It was great. I ate over half the container before storing it in the office fridge.

*Equal parts oatmeal, whole wheat, and white flour, with brown sugar, raisins, walnuts, flaxseed, and a tablespoon of rye flour.
** My weekly routine now includes five nights of martial arts practice, a two-hour parkour session, three or four intense sessions of bouldering problems on the climbing wall, and the occasional run.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Drug Abuse

Mind-altering drugs like alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, marijuana, and 'hard' illegal drugs sit right in the middle of a hideously complicated tangle of economics, sociology, psychology, and biology. The problem is even more complicated by the fact that discussions of the subject are often infected by partisan thinking in which people take sides and then try to focus only on the evidence that supports their side. I have found few sources who are willing to simultaneously admit two things that seem to me to be indisputable facts:

1) Drug and alcohol addiction is a horrible thing that can completely ruin people's lives. Addiction can cause one of the worst things that can be inflicted on a person: the transformation of a human being into a semi-sentient brute.
2) Making drugs illegal does not do much to stop the damage they do, and generates a lot of very nasty side effects. Incarceration can often do as much damage to a person's mind and character as an addiction

It is a very common human instinct, when confronted with something that causes so much death and pain, to try to make it illegal. The problem is that the process of 'making something illegal' is very different than what our instincts think it is. Our emotional and social instincts evolved in a time when humans lived in tribes of about a hundred people. In that setting, you can usually accomplish what you want to accomplish by gathering everyone together, talking things over, coming to an agreement, and then monitoring each other for compliance. If the tribe agrees that something should be taboo, then enforcing the taboo is generally pretty easy and effective, and agreeing to make bad things taboo is generally a good idea.

When most people say something like "this should be illegal" what they usually mean is "We should all agree that this is a bad thing that should be avoided." They usually do not mean "Agents of the state should seek out anyone who does this and throw them in a cage with violent criminals, even if they are otherwise blameless and productive members of society." The problem is that in a modern society, 'making something illegal' implies the latter and not the former.

The drug debate highlights the fact that laws have two wildly different functions. The first function of law, the one that economists usually focus on, is altering the costs and benefits for certain kinds of behavior. The second function of law, the one that most people instinctively focus in, is shaping the social and moral structure of society. By passing a law, you are making a strong social statement that certain kinds of behaviors are not acceptable, and trying to shape a society where those behaviors do not exist. We need a way to separate these two functions, so that we can make strong social statements against things without actually imposing large costs on the people who do them.

There are two kinds of drug and alcohol users. Casual users are those who gain some benefits from the drug and do not suffer any major problems from it. The vast majority of Americans are casual users of both alcohol and caffeine. Quite a large number of people are physically addicted to caffeine, which is a mind-altering drug quite similar to cocaine, but the delivery mechanisms in place and the social knowledge of how much to use prevent the addiction from spiraling out of control. It is possible to be a casual user of a 'hard' drug, and it is possible for safe and well-functioning markets in those drugs to exist, as this article demonstrates.

Making a drug illegal harms casual users. They either lose the benefits of the drug, or they are forced to obtain it from criminals and risk being harmed by both those criminals and the state. There is also evidence that making drugs illegal actually increases the risks of casual users becoming addicts, for a variety of reasons. The quality is less predictable, people have an incentive to use stronger versions of the drug, and the social norms that enable safe habits of use are destroyed:

Prescribing heroin, as Switzerland and the Netherlands do, seems to cut the number of users a lot, as dealer-addicts are taken out of the equation, breaking the link between wholesalers and casual customers. Decriminalising the possession of cannabis in Western Australia and Portugal (which decriminalised possession of all drugs in 2001) had no impact on consumption, but saved a lot of money. A study of American states found no link between the diligence of enforcement and changes in user numbers. When Britain reclassified cannabis as a less serious drug in 2004, consumption slumped. (Despite that, the government backtracked five years later.)

Making a drug illegal also harms addicts. They find it very hard to get help with their debilitating problem, and the penalties for their use make the problem even worse. They end up becoming victims of criminals and of their own government, in addition to their condition.

I believe that, in a perfect world, nobody would use drugs. I include alcohol and caffeine in this statement, as well as processed superstimulus foods that can trigger addictive behaviors. Note that I do not think that consuming these things is morally wrong. I just think that the consumption is either foolish, pointless, or only of value in limited situations.*

But I also believe that all drugs should be legal. Attempts to combat the damage they do by making them illegal have all failed miserably, causing huge social problems without any noticeable decline in drug use. We should just learn to accept that there will be damage from addiction, the way we accept the 30,000 deaths caused on our roads each year.

Of course, we should work to minimize that harm, the same way we engineer cars to make them safer. But stopping the harm that drugs do is a very hard problem, much harder than installing seat belts and telling people to use them. The only things that seem to work are instilling self-control and rational thinking in people, and creating a society where everyone knows the acceptable ways of using the substance in question. But that is a lot easier said than done.

*I will consume alcohol if it is served to me in social situations, but I do not buy it or seek it out.