Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics not covered in recent posts.

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  • Lo Statuz

    Signing up to be an organ donor on death is widely considered to
    be praiseworthy. I’m not so sure.

    Suppose I’m a rationally altruistic organ donor, trying to decide
    which, if any, organs to donate. Consider lungs. Using the
    numbers from
    Anyanwu et al.,
    a single-lung transplant costs $177k and buys the recipient an
    average of 2 more quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs), compared
    to medical treatment, which costs $74k. So what happens to the
    $103k difference if there’s no lung available? If it goes to
    something else that buys more than 2 QALYs, then maybe the
    population as a whole would be better off if I don’t donate my

    In the U.S., kidneys are a special case, since taxpayers pay for
    both transplants and dialysis.
    Yen et al.
    say a transplant costs $321k and dialysis costs $531k, so
    donating 2 kidneys saves taxpayers $420k and gives each recipient
    3 more QALYs, on average.

    • The unused medical expense goes to the insurance company’s bottom line as profit. The insurance company uses that profit to hire more accountants and lawyers to figure out how to deny more claims, and lobbyists to have Congress maintain the status quo and give insurance companies even more power of life and death. The insurance company modifies its insurance policies to give discounts to those who are not voluntary organ donors. Organ donations fall, people don’t get transplants and die sooner but with lower costs to insurance companies.

  • mjgeddes

    Superb blog by Mike Darwin, former president of Alcor:

    Charts a detailed history of the cryonics movement from a uniquely personal perspective. This guys knows his science… has long, densely packed postings of technical information presented in a very readable fashion… with diagrams, references and personal anecdotes. Highly recommended.

    Several classic posts really convey the brutal and horrific nature of aging, as well as insightful realist analysis of just how difficult the real problems are.

    ” Currently, the incidence of dementia in Americans dying at the average lifespan (78.3) is ~30%. That presents a formidable problem for today’s cryonicists, many of whom are projected to live into their 90s, where the incidence of dementia, primarily from Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and cerebrovascular disease, rises to 37.4%.4 If you add to that number those cryonicists who will suffer catastrophic brain damaging injuries from stroke, trauma, and neurodegenerative diseases other than AD, the number of cryonics patients who will enter cryopreservation with severely compromised Central Nervous Systems (CNSs) rises to somewhere in the vicinity of ~50%! If you add to that number the ‘losses’ suffered by cryonicists from autopsy and long delays to the start of treatment due to medico-legal constraints, just getting cryopreserved, leaving aside the problems of reanimation, becomes an extremely long-shot proposition.”

    “Cerebral atrophy is a big problem in aging, and it turns out the process begins not in middle age, but at approximately 2 years of age – at least for the neurons that comprise the gray matter of the cerebral cortex. Brain cell loss and degeneration become morphologically apparent in the brain’s white matter by the time we are in our early 20’s, although there is evidence that more subtle changes have been afoot for much longer.”

    “Consider nursing homes and the cognitive and other functional declines of aging today. We simply refuse to see the magnitude of the horror. We refuse to see it. If we could honestly be objective about it, it we would be not just depressing, it would be terrifying. It turns out we have a deeply embedded psychological defense called “terror management” that kicks in to prevent us from being objective and seeing our situation. This is useful, because we’d be even crazier than we already are, if it were not present.”

    “The Singularity is I fear, not near.”

    “They won’t weep for you because you will be forgotten – utterly and completely forgotten as the person you were – even if you are Cher, or the best, the richest, and the most famous surgeon of your day, as was Astley Cooper.”

    “In London, the inevitable has happened and the cemeteries, too expensive to maintain, are being abandoned to become urban wilderness preserves”

    “That is the central and ultimate tragedy in your life and the universe doesn’t give a damn. Blind evolution “made” you and it will just as blindly and uncaringly kill you. It will do so without malice and without “intent.”

  • Drewfus

    Last month I mentioned the monetary value of art. Here is Paul Bloom speaking about this and related matters on TED.

    Bloom thinks that status can’t explain all the value of expensive art (in contrast to someone like Steven Pinker). I agree.

    My personal belief on this is that art and music, and all the effort we make to “sex-up” our visual environment, is due to a sort of sensory starvation. Not at the environmental level, but at the cognitive architectural level. The perceptual areas of the brain are effectively hypertrophic, with respect to the bandwidths of the visual and auditory channels. The more orderly and predictable we make our environments, the greater is the excess processing capacity. This is not resulting in brain atrophy, but rather in the co-opting of this processing surplus by culture. I believe that there is also some loss of visual acuity in modern societies, compared to societies at lower technology levels. This also suggests that if the visual cortex is not shrinking in parallel with the loss of visual acuity, then our bored and perceptually unsatisfied brains are creating a demand for more and exciting input, including sophisticated input (not just flashing lights, color and unusual sounds). Ergo art, music, industrial design and architecture.

    However, this doesn’t explain the value of art originals over fakes, even ones that look very nearly identical. Bloom does well here, although I don’t think he has the full story.

    • mjgeddes

      Art works are the *objects* of consciousness. That is, everything we hold in conscious experience can be considered art. The generation of art is what consciousness does. We all live in a ‘virtual reality’ designed by our minds, of which art is the natural language of qualia.

      My ontology shows that consciousness is a combination of categorization (formation of analogies) and the generation of narratives that compress represesentions of our goals into forms of minimal complexity. So a more precise definition of art is that it is narrative which is the product of creative effort. This is consistent with Hanson’s ‘far mode’. Far mode is more or less equivalent to artistic representation/conscious experience. Narratives (art works) are simplified (compressed) representations of our goals based on categorization.

      It’s very interesting that the Arabic words for ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’ are interchangeable.

      ‘hasanu’ in Arabic means good and beautiful, ‘kalos’ in Greek and ‘shappira’ in Syriac have the same meaning. There’s no real difference between good and beautiful.

      • Drewfus

        Beautiful is to good, what delicious is to hungry. It means that human values are being produced. Delicious food is easy to understand from an evolutionary point of view, but what about beauty?

        Our hypertrophic brains coupled with standard sensory apparatus are like a big engine in a relatively moderate size car. The engine is normally ‘bored’, until it sees a mountain, which looks beautiful. The mountain exercises the engine to it’s limits (or beyond). Culture does the same for our big brains. It’s stresses the brain closer to it’s capacity, without which, atrophy ensures. To quote your quote;

        “Cerebral atrophy is a big problem in aging, and it turns out the process begins not in middle age, but at approximately 2 years of age – at least for the neurons that comprise the gray matter of the cerebral cortex. Brain cell loss and degeneration become morphologically apparent in the brain’s white matter by the time we are in our early 20’s, although there is evidence that more subtle changes have been afoot for much longer.”

        Is this something peculiar to humans? If so I believe it indicates that the human brain is in a non-equilibrium state – bigger and more capable than it strictly has to be. We used to need it all, in the hunter-gatherer era when the cognitive demands where both high and constant, but since farming we have surplus capacity, but rather than letting evolution shrink our brains (they have to some extent), we have found another, higher level purpose with which to entertain ourselves, but also to extend our social and political selves – another platform for competition, status management and wealth accumulation. If you don’t get enough of this culture stuff, your brain will shrink, or more accurately, attain the size that it would otherwise be without cultural stimulation.

        That the forces of culture and evolution are tugging the brain in opposite directions may partly explain some of the odd problems that humans suffer from; Schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, etc. That we dream while sleeping seems to be the result of brain so starved of stimulus that generates it’s own. Could art, movies, cosmetics, fashion and music simply be a sort of daytime dreaming for undernourished cognizers?

      • mjgeddes

        It’s got nothing to do with ‘surplus capacity’. The arts etc. are super-stimuli.

      • Drewfus

        That idea is interesting but it doesn’t explain to me why people are so interested in how things look. Why does everything have to
        look good? Why do people put a substantial chunk of their resources into making things look good, or buying things that are?

        Evolutionary psych has not explained all of this phenomenon. Symmetrical faces and clear skin, yes, but what about fashion, interior design, product design, special effects, or even tidiness? Why aren’t products and buildings designed purely functionally? It’s fascinating to think not only about all the effort that is put into visual outcomes, but how the world would look without it.

        To me, this indicates something brain architectural is driving this, from the inside – out, and not the other way around as the status theory suggests. This makes sense given that the general nature of creativity is innovation under relatively severe constraints. So much of our visual input is thrown away on it’s way to the higher level visual cortical areas that most of what we see is invented by the brain anyway. If we order our world (effectively choking visual input) to the point that the cognitive load implies excess capacity, then that capacity is either lost, or artificially retained. Use it or lose it. Via culture, we use it.

  • nw3

    We hope economic growth will pay for entitlement health spending, but that’s counter-productive.

    Risk aversion decreases as life expectancy increases.

    • nw3

      Risk aversion increases as life expectancy increases.

      I got tripped up by a double negative.

  • Robin, do you agree with this article (other than the stuff about paperclips)? I ask because it sounds like something you would write.

    The argument is basically that humans could reach a global optimum and avoid the need for standard signaling methods if there were a method of pre-commitment and enforcement that could not corrupted by humans.

  • Ed

    This is the truth, it is hidden, it is how we got to the present crisis.
    The system severely fools the people. Our track record is serial herd behavior: “Real Homes, Real Dow” at
    And it is kept out of sight! Clearly, the main enabler of sizable asset price bubbles (very harmful!) is keeping the real price histories out of sight!

    the 7th Comment 7/30/2011

  • OhioStater

    It’s been said people would rather make $50,000 when everyone else is making $40,000 than make $100,000 when everyone else gets $200,000.

    What about this?

    Would people rather be in the bottom 20% out of 10, or be in the bottom 30% out of 1,000? I think people would prefer bottom 20% out of 10.

    The bottom 30% of 1,000 is a stronger conclusion and indictment than being in the bottom 20% of a small population.

  • Prakash

    What level of meekness should a migrant project?

    If he projects too little meekness, nobody gives him a job.If he projects too much, he gets bullied, badly.

    Typically, the solution is the person should exhibit meekness at work and turn into a lion outside office, but most people maintain our level of meekness throughout the day.

  • nw3

    Twitter messages, aka tweets, are limited to 140 characters.

    Users rely on code words, labels, and shorthand to maximize the content of each message.

    A side effect is tweets look the same whether they come from intelligent people or unintelligent people.

    This author says Twitter should allow tweets up to 280 characters, arguing the original 140 character limit is not necessary given technological advances.

    I suspect what this author wants is the ability to distinguish himself, to signal his intelligence.

  • rapscallion

    Does simulationism count as a species of deism?

    • I would say “no”. It’s a reevaluation of the size of our universe, not an argument against atheism or against active intervation by a simulator.

      • rapscallion

        Deism is not theism. Looking at how Wikipedia defines deism, I don’t see any reason a deist would object to the idea of the creator being a non-omnipotent alien a really, really awesome computer. If this is atheism, I don’t think many deists would object to being called atheists.

      • rapscallion

        Yikes. I wish we could edit posts. The first post should read, “a non-omnipotent alien WITH a really, really awesome computer.”

  • Wonks Anonymous
  • Jacob

    The women in my freshman year college dorm decided to have a “no-mirror” week to celebrate natural beauty and boycott societal norms. The initiator and main advocate was easily the most attractive woman in the 200-student dorm.

    What’s going on here? Is it simply that she had the least to lose? I suspect there is more here. Any insights would be appreciated.

  • nw3

    S&P is in the news today.

    Ideally, S&P would establish guidelines and judge companies and countries along those guidelines. They would say, for example, 30% debt to GDP is the max for triple AAA countries, downgrade countries higher than that benchmark, and upgrade countries below that threshold. The market and politicians would have a clearer idea of what behaviors will be penalized. There would be no shocks or surprises.

    This is generally how S&P judges small countries and insignificant market transactions.

    There is no 30% hypothetical, but they bent the rules for the US. S&P is not very popular today, but they’ve never been more powerful. Congress can’t repeal S&P’s special status since it would seem like punishment for S&P’s action. S&P is also dictating terms to the White House, Treasury and Congress. Politicians are using this downgrade to further political ends vs the other party. S&P is the clear market leader, with Moody’s, Fitch, and Egan-Jone in the rear. It at least seems like getting S&P’s approval means more than approval from other rating firms.

    Strict policing benefits insiders you said. Well, loose policing apparently benefits the police.