Monthly Archives: October 2010

Pink Politics

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s lots of pink on display this month, especially in things that aren’t usually pink.  The pink reflects a campaign to “raise awareness about breast cancer”, and I’ve been pondering what about it bugs me the most.

On the surface there’s the fact that it seems women tend to test for breast cancer too often, so that encouraging more testing does net harm. And cancer research has been one of the least productive areas of medical research in recent decades, so donations there may also do very little good. So “doing something” about breast cancer seems one of the least useful causes around.

But I think I’m more bothered by the campaign being less about doing something and more about “awareness”, which translates mostly into social pressure to get other folks to show pink, buying pink products, wearing pink clothes, etc. Much of the money donated goes not to tests or research but to paying celebrities to make more publicity.

Now this social pressure couldn’t really work if it weren’t pretty widely known that showing pink is associated with the breast cancer, which seems at odds with the claim that there is a lack of awareness of breast cancer. Even more at odds is the fact that pink campaigns rarely offer concrete arguments that theirs is an especially worthy cause; it is just assumed that listeners pretty much agree. Really, what fraction of folks don’t know breasts can get cancer, tests might detect it, and academics research it?

But on further reflection, what bothers me most is the underlying politics. Imagine a campaign for exercise awareness. Lack of exercise causes far more harm than breast cancer, and there must also remain a few folks who are not fully aware of this. Yet there would be very little interest in a color campaign for exercise awareness. Same for get-enough-sleep awareness. So why is breast cancer different?

Yes there’s the implicit sex angle in talking about breasts, but you could have a “have sex to get exercise” campaign, or make sexual innuendo about beds in a sleep campaign. And a campaign about testicular cancer wouldn’t be nearly as popular. So this isn’t mainly about sexual innuendo.

One obvious difference is that being anti-breast-cancer is framed as being pro-women. Thus one can insinuate that folks who resist social pressures to support the campaign are anti-women. Since folks fear seeming anti-women much more than seeming anti-health, a breast-cancer campaign can tap into far more social pressure than can an exercise or sleep campaign.

Think pink gets much of its energy by offering a way for folks to be indirectly political; one can seem pro-women, and insinuate that others are anti-women, while only ever explicitly talking about health and medicine. AIDS awareness gets a similar political punch; one can talk only health, yet insinuate that others are anti-gay. Much of medicine is not about health, but about showing that you care, in this case caring about the right political groups.

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Concept Artists

Back in ’94 I won an electronic arts prize, and spent a weekend in Austria with artists. They had declared me a “concept artist” and we discussed what that meant. I felt deja vu Thursday when I presented at the Parsons New School of Design, and after talked with professors of design and architecture (audio, slides; vid). It seems to me that they are also concept artists, though they might not embrace this description, and this made me wonder again how many intellectuals are concept artists.

A painter arranges paint on a canvas in a pattern that other artists judge to be pretty or provocative or intriguing, or, well anything really that they respect enough to call “art.” While they have no explicit standards, they can roughly articulate many features that all-else-equal make paintings better, and communities of artists usually have enough consensus on what they like to together rate paintings as good or bad. It is similar for sculpture, movies, novels, etc. — communities of artists develop common enough implicit standards so that they agree enough on what is good art.

Similar standards of evaluation can be applied to concepts, ideas, and claims. To the naive, “concept artists” may sound like they intend mainly to make claims about reality, and to evaluate those claims in terms of how well they cohere with each other and data about reality. But in fact concept artists evaluate claims more the way most any artists evaluates art – in terms of beauty, elegance, provocation, intrigue, etc. This can make concept artists a bit more tolerant of ambiguity, logical gaps, etc., though the difference can be subtle – being too obviously tolerant of such things usually isn’t good art.

Concept artists aren’t really my style of intellectual, but I must admit that the fact that conceptual artists are not primarily focused on the truth of their claims does not prevent them from achieving insight and contributing to intellectual progress.  Truth be old, most other intellectuals also are not first and foremost trying to find truth. Yet intellectual progress is often a side effect of their activities. It is much harder than you might think to say which intellectual styles best find truth in what contexts.

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Limits To Law

Teaching Law & Econ this semester reminds me of the puzzling ways law and culture work to prevent law from applying to “personal” arenas. Yes, many reasons are offered to explain why law is or should be so limited, but taken as a whole the pattern suggests a more primal reluctance to let law and related formal institutions apply to “personal” areas.  For example, consider these rough legal trends (most trends have exceptions):

  1. Law enforces matching promises, but not a single lone promise.
  2. Blackmail law prevents monetary penalties on illicit secrets.
  3. Lawsuits compensate mainly for money, not pain & desire, losses.
  4. Torts compensate for non-contracted harms, but not benefits.
  5. Pollution laws weaker for households than firms.
  6. Discrimination laws only apply to employers, not employees.
  7. Discrimination laws apply only to jobs, not romance.
  8. Limited enforcement of the terms of wills over long timescales.
  9. Norms against explicit contracts in personal relations.
  10. Norms against “snitching” on crimes.
  11. Dislike gambling lawsuits to let law apply to small cases.
  12. More?

Did we inherit intuitions that different social mechanisms should apply at different social scales? For example, foragers had five social scales:

  1. Family – typically a man, woman, and kids
  2. Band – ten to forty folks who travel and sleep together
  3. Tribe – friendly nearby bands that meet & hear of often
  4. World – perhaps hostile strangers know little about

Foragers had different rules and mechanisms for these different scales.  For example, dominance was more acceptable within families than between the families of a band.  Bands had to come to consensus on more topics than did tribes.  One did not need to be fair to the world.

Farming introduced the village or town, akin to the tribe, the clan, an extended family that may include folks far away, nations as collections of tribe, and sometimes empires as collections of nations. Industry brought yet more units, such as cities, counties, states, etc.  So which forager social units do we see as most similar to our various modern units, and which ancient norms and methods do still think should apply to them?

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Norms Beat Empathy

Consider two bus-seat scenarios.

In the first scenario, a bus (or train) has seats, but sometimes not enough, so that many have to stand. Imagine that this bus sells (single-use) elite cards, so that folks without elite cards must surrender their seat to elite cardholders if no other seats are available. Imagine also that you saw that someone nearby had dropped a card, and instead of returning it to them you kept it for yourself. You expect that if you had asked aloud if anyone dropped a card, the right person would have identified themselves. But you took it instead so that you could sit when the bus was crowded. Now consider: how bad would you feel about this?

Got it?  Ok, now consider a second scenario, where bus seating is a free for all – first to grab a seat gets it. Imagine that as you and a big crowd get on a bus you rush to grab a seat before someone else takes it.  Now consider: how bad would you feel about this?

My guess is that you probably felt a lot less bad on this second scenario. But the consequences of your act is pretty similar – in both cases you gain a seat at the expense of someone else. Yes, the fact that someone paid for their card suggests a higher than average value for sitting, but this isn’t a really strong clue about their value; many other considerations are relevant.  So the amount of hurt you expect to have caused shouldn’t be that different.

Your feeling much less bad when law and norms let you grab a seat suggests that you mainly feel bad about violating laws and norms – your concern about the people involved is secondary. If asked why it is bad to steal you might express sympathy with the sad victim, but that’s not really why you feel bad about stealing.

For a similar comparison, consider trying to seduce a married person or a unmarried person. Many people think the first act is immorality of the worse sort, while the second act is quite respectable. But in both cases the person seduced becomes less available to other partners, and in both cases your gain is someone else’s loss. Yes the fact that they chose to get married is a clue about the value they gain from each other, but it isn’t a strong clue; it might be overcome by other considerations.  Many folks could reasonably convince themselves they are a better match for the seducee than their competitors.

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Sustainable Music

Recently I [saw] … a cake that bore the iced command, “Celebrate Sustainability!” Clearly the candle had been passed. For more than a generation, cakes at campus events have tutored students to “Celebrate Diversity!” Something has changed. … Diversity and sustainability have a complicated, decades-old rivalry. … Both are about repairing the world; both invite exuberant commitment; both are moralistic. … Sustainability set aside the driving idea of the original environmental movement, that we help ourselves when we clean up the environment. Sustainability shifts the focus to both the imagined future and the supposed needs of the earth itself. (more)

Green Is Far – What [do] the various “environmental” topics have in common[?] … They are mostly … at unusually large distances in space, time, and social relation from ordinary folks and concerns. (more)

In my enviro econ class we’ve come to concepts like “degradable,” “renewable,” and “sustainable.” People often get very concerned when they imagine that certain common practices can’t continue forever, and want to regulate them to extend how long they could last.  Interestingly, this logic is only applied to a few areas like oil, metals, and farms, but not to most of our industries and practices.

For example, consider the sustainability of music. Each new song sits somewhere in a range of originality, from very original to very derivative. The more new original songs are developed and marketed, the harder it gets to develop and market new songs that will be seen as relatively original. Song writers then become more tempted to develop and market recycled versions of old songs.  As the supply of original songs is slowly exhausted, the music industry slowly changes its focus from original to derivative songs.

Since original music cannot last forever, we face a “sustainability” question regarding whether we are using up the supply of original music too quickly, too slowly, or just right.  Formally, this question is very similar to questions of whether we are using up copper or farmland too quickly. Such things can also be reused, where all else equal reuse is less attractive than first use. But to most people, questions about the sustainability of music, or of novels or movies, seem silly, relative to the usual “serious” sustainability questions. Why?

My suggestion: sustainability is a far concept, about what happens on far timescales, so it makes more sense to people as applied to far things.  Near things are to be considered only on near timescales, people assume.

Added 9p: Jeremy points us to a very relevant short story by Spider Robinson.

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NYC Meetup Thursday

I’ll be speaking this Thursday night in NYC, 6-8:30p, on the general theme of “Design and Existential Risk”, at the Parsons The New School For Design, kellen auditoriam, 66 Fifth Ave. (moreposter).  At 9p, I’ll head to Stand Burger, on 12th between 5th and University Place.  Come join us for either or both.

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The Future Seems Shiny

The future is not the realization of our hopes and dreams, a warning to mend our ways, an adventure to inspire us, nor a romance to touch our hearts. The future is just another place in spacetime. (more)

Our minds have two very different modes (and a range between). We model important things nearby in more detail than less important things far away. The more nearby aspects we notice in a thing, the more other nearby aspects and relevant detail we assume it has. On the other hand, the more far aspects we see in something, the more other far aspects we assume it has, and the more we reason about it via broad categories and relations. (More on near vs. far thinking here and here.)


Since the future is far in time, thinking about it tends to invoke a far mode of thought, which introduces other far mode defaults into our image of the future. And thinking about the far future makes us think especially far. Of course many other considerations influence any particular imagined future, but it can help to understand the assumptions your mind is primed to make about the far future, regardless of whether those assumptions are true.

futurebuildingFor example, since we expect things further away in time to also be further away in space, we expect future folk to live further away, such as in space, and to habitually travel longer distances. Since the distant past is also further away in time, we also expect past folk to live further away and travel longer distances, but the many concrete details we know about the past reduces this effect.

Since blue light scatters more easily than red, far away things in our field of view tend to look more blue. So we expect future stuff to look blue. And since blue stuff looks cold, we expect future stuff to look cold. Finally, since we expect far away things to have less detail, we tend to imagine them with fewer parts and flourishes, and less detailed textures and patterns. The future is not paisley.

And in fact, if you Goggle “futuristic style” images, you’ll tend to see images like those in this post – simple, smooth, cool, blue, and sky/spacy.  In a word, “shiny.” Continue reading "The Future Seems Shiny" »

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Response to Roissy

Roissy disagrees with me. I respond at length here.

Robin Hanson has been beating the drum on his liberaltarian wet dream known as the forager/farmer thesis in a series of posts. Basically, “liberal” values and lifestyle are a reflection of humanity’s ancient forager (hunter-gatherer) ways, while “conservative”, or traditional, values and lifestyle are emergent properties of our relatively more recent 10,000 year old farmer (agricultural) heritage.

Yup, so far so good.

Modern foragers in the form of cafe-loitering SWPLs … are essentially freeriding on the industrial and moral substrates that were created by rules-following and hierarchical farmer ancestors. Thanks to their comfy livings and safe environments, elite cosmopolitan liberals in Western societies are returning to the values and lifestyles of their distant forager forebears, while modern traditionalists hew to more rigid codes of conduct and warn them (in so many words) that all foraging and no farming makes Jack a weak boy.

All of us, liberals and conservatives alike, free-ride on institutions, technology, morals, and inherited from our ancestors. While some conservatives suggest our civilization is on the verge of collapse because we’ve forsaken farmer morals, I make no such claim. Oh I’m a bit worried about risks from moving to forager practices in an industrial world, but being rich we can afford to take some risks. I suspect we’ll find good uses for farmer ways down the road, but there’s no crisis at the moment.

Hanson relies for much of his speculative evidence on the Sex At Dawn book, which I promiscuously manhandled here. But there’s too much wrong with the claims made by that book to sufficiently lend support to the Forager vs Farmer (i.e., liberal vs conservative) thesis of clashing values and lifestyles. For instance, Hanson and Ryan elide the force of jealousy in shaping human sexual dynamics. … Just about every polyamorous, free love utopia/forager commune that has been tried in historical record has utterly failed.

When I say foragers were more promiscuous than farmers, I don’t mean they weren’t picky about sex partners, nor that they didn’t get jealous. I mean they changed partners lots more often than farmers do. On sources, I’ve been reading lots of anthropology books and articles this year, trying to see what they seem to agree on; I’m not relying much on Sex at Dawn at all.

Hanson and Ryan claim foragers are/were nonviolent compared to farmers. But from everything I’ve read on the matter, that is wrong as well.

Perhaps you read S. Pinker and maybe L. Keeley, like the other bloggers?  On war, most anthropologists seem to disagree. Sex at Dawn gets that right.

Finally, a big point of Hanson’s repackaged thesis is that “rich and safe” modern foragers … pursue and advocate a promiscuous lifestyle. Except the data show that isn’t necessarily true. Higher IQ men place greater value on monogamy and sexual exclusivity and are less likely to cheat than lower IQ men.

I don’t see what IQ has to do with this at all. Norms and practices have clearly moved in the direction of increased tolerance for promiscuity over the last century, though of course they aren’t remotely near an extreme free love scenario. My claim has been that we’ve moved in the forager direction as we’ve gotten rich; I’m not claiming we’ve moved all the way there.

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Divide: Forager v Farmer

In August I listed questions “I rarely see adequately answered” about great divides. Here are my first cut answers on the great divide I’ve been discussing: forager vs. farmer styles:

  1. How is this division a key division, underlying many others? Foraging to farming was the most disruptive transition humans so far. Ten thousand years has been enough time for big cultural adaptations to farming, but not enough for full genetic adaptation. Two centuries has been far too little time to adapt to industry.
  2. How do people acquire their sides in this conflict? We have varying degrees of cultural and genetic adaptation to farming styles. And since farming cultural pressures, e.g., fear, are weaker for rich folk, our recently differing wealth also contributes to this divide.
  3. How has this conflict lasted so long, without one side winning? Farming and foraging lifestyles are different enough that it can take millennia for cultural adaptation, and much longer for full genetic adaptation.
  4. How could one side finally win such an old conflict? In the long run, our descendants may become well adapted to their environment. But for now, we act on old instincts.
  5. Why is one side better than the other in an absolute sense? Each side feels right to those raised that way, and remaining in a similar environment. But forager ways feel more naturally right when one is rich and safe.  The farmer side is somewhat better adapted to the modern world, but both are substantially off, and for the rich adaptation pressures feel weaker.
  6. Why can’t those folks be persuaded that their side is bad? Our preferences are in part created by how we are raised. Most of us are unaware of assumptions implicit in such preferences.
  7. Why can’t peaceful compromise replace conflict? Peaceful compromise should replace conflict, but that requires folks to reflect on the source of their intuitions. As we get safer and richer it does make sense to move to more natural-feeling forager ways. But since real risks remain, and a competitive future may demand more adaptation, farmer ways should be preserved; we may need them later.

I encourage others to answer such questions regarding their favorite great divide.

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Is Cancer Industrial?

Finding only one case of the disease in the investigation of hundreds of Egyptian mummies, with few references to cancer in literary evidence, proves that cancer was extremely rare in antiquity. The disease rate has risen massively since the Industrial Revolution, in particular childhood cancer — proving that the rise is not simply due to people living longer. … The virtual absence of malignancies in mummies must be interpreted as indicating their rarity in antiquity, indicating that cancer causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialization”. … Hundreds of mummies from all areas of the world have been examined and there are still only two publications showing microscopic confirmation of cancer. (more; HT Kurzweil)

That is from a press release; journal article quotes below. A very thought provoking result, though it would help if, for comparison, they estimated what fraction of modern bones and mummies show evidence of cancer.  It doesn’t fit very well with the observation that natural plant chemicals seem to cause more cancer than artificial chemicals.  So I remain confused. Those quotes: Continue reading "Is Cancer Industrial?" »

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