Monthly Archives: March 2012

Our Quiet Galaxy

Part of our surviving the great filter was our galaxy having especially few collisions with other galaxies:

The Milky Way and Andromeda are siblings, … we used to think they were near-twins. .. [But] the black hole at [Andromeda’s] heart is more than a hundred times as massive as ours. And while our galaxy is strewn with about 150 of the bright galactic baubles known as globular clusters, Andromeda boasts more than 400. … Whereas Andromeda is a pretty well-adjusted spiral, the Milky Way is an oddball – dimmer and quieter than all but a few per cent of its peers. That is probably because typical spirals such as Andromeda are transformed by collisions with other galaxies over their lifetimes. …

The Milky Way must have lived relatively undisturbed. Except for encounters with a few little galaxies such as the Sagittarius dwarf, which the Milky Way is slowly devouring, we wouldn’t have seen much action for 10 billion years. Perhaps that is why we are here to note the difference. More disturbed spirals would have suffered more supernova explosions and other upheavals, possibly making the Milky Way’s rare serenity especially hospitable for complex life. (more)

So alien life is more likely to be found in our galaxy than in random galaxies. More generally, the more steps in the filter that are spatially correlated like this, the more likely that if life is anywhere out there, it is especially near to us.

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What Is Private?

Where do we draw the line between public and private behavior? Consider:

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit issued an opinion last month … that people seeking roommates are shielded from fair-housing laws by the First Amendment’s protection of free association. … The Fair Housing Act prohibits denying housing to someone based on a protected characteristic, such as race or religion. It also prohibits making or publishing discriminatory advertisements for housing. …

Two years ago I undertook a study of 10,000 housing ads posted to Craigslist … 5,000 ads for rentals and 5,000 ads for roommates. … The vast majority of discriminatory ads were taken out by people seeking roommates — that is, by ordinary individuals looking for someone to help share the rent. … Most of the ads expressing a racial, religious or ethnic preference were placed by members of minority groups who were seeking roommates like themselves. …. These people were in violation of the Fair Housing Act and subject to civil prosecution.

Just as it would be abhorrent for the government to prevent people of different races, ethnicities or religions from living together, it would be equally offensive to block people of a shared race, ethnicity or religion from living together. … If the 9th Circuit had ruled differently, the potential for backlash would have been enormous and support for a crucial civil rights law would have been undermined. (more)

Surely the main reason a landlord might care about your race or ethnicity is because your neighbors might care. If your neighbors are willing to pay more to live next to people with a race they like, then your landlord might try to accommodate their preferences. So assuming you’ll have your own private room in any case, what is the difference between apartment-mate and housing discrimination? It is mainly the difference between who you’ll share a bathroom, kitchen, couch, and big TV, and who you’ll share a garage, elevator, laundry room, playground, pool, or exercise room — and of course the bathrooms, kitchens, couches, and big TVs in your lobby and community center. Is this really what we think is the difference between acceptable and unacceptable race discrimination?

I suspect the real difference is that we are willing to blame and punish landlords, who are seen as rich and dominating, but not ordinary people. If we saw Craigslist as similarly rich and dominating, we might blame and punish them as well.

What if a group took an entire floor of an apartment building, declared it all to be a single apartment, and sought the required dozens of “roommates” from a given race? If they did it without the help of a rich firm, they’d probably get away with it. But if a rich firm helped, it would be outrageous racism!

Added 7a: Imagine Romney was revealed to have once rejected an apartment because blacks lived in the neighboring apartment. And imagine Obama was revealed to have rejected a roommate in college because he was white. How different would the resulting scandals be?

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Anxiety Is Near

How do you gear yourself up for a big test, an important presentation, or any other high-pressure situation?  … Reminding yourself of the high stakes … will actually impede your performance. … Reminding yourself how unimportant the event is in the big scheme of things is a better tactic, and psychologists have come up with a variety of ingenious ways to help us do so. …

[Researchers] gave a group of seventh-graders an in-class assignment in which they were presented with a list of values and asked to choose which one was most important to them. … The control group in the study chose a value that was not important to them. … This brief writing assignment significantly improved the grades of African-American students, and reduced the racial achievement gap by 40 percent. … a similar approach … [helps] female college students taking an introductory physics course. …

[Researchers] asked university students to think about their ancestors by drawing a family tree or by writing an essay imagining how their forebears lived and what advice they would give them. The students who thought and wrote about their ancestors did better on subsequent intelligence tests than members of the control group (who were asked to think instead about their most recent trip to the supermarket). (more; HT Barker via Katja)

Seem an application of near-far theory (aka construal level theory) to me. Basic values and distant ancestors should both evoke a far mental mode, where we feel higher status and care less about everything.

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Friends Vs. Family

A French couple recently told me that they would feel more affiliation for a king that a president or premier. Asking around I found that many others feel similarly. Which is curious because you might expect people to feel more affiliated with leaders they can choose.

But then if you think about it, people tend to feel more affiliated with family relative to friends. This might be due to people being more intrinsically similar to family, but then again it might not. Westerners find it hard to believe that couples in arranged marriages often feel very attached and intimate, but people from cultures with arranged marriages consistently report this.

You might think that when an employee gets tied more to a job, so that it gets harder to leave, he or she might resent this dependence. But this doesn’t seem to happen often. You might think we’d similarly resent friends that we’ve come to depend on, but in fact I think we like such friends more. And of course most folks feel attached to their parents, even though we couldn’t choose parents and were very dependent on them for a long time.

While we might resent depending on others, we may be comforted to know others are stuck with us, and so won’t leave us, and this second effect may usually dominate.

Contrary to what many say, I’d guess most people really did love their king, really do love their partners in arranged marriages, and feel comforted by their connection to longtime neighbors, friends, and employers when the relation would be costly to break on both sides. Because we are most stuck with them, we tend to love family most of all.

So, does this effect tend to make slaves love their masters? How much does that reduce welfare losses from slavery?

Added 1p: We like presidents more when they oversee more war deaths:

A strong predictor of [perceived American presidential] greatness is the fraction of American lives lost in war during a president’s tenure. (more)

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Me on Al Jazeera again

I’ll be on Al Jazeera again at 3:30p EST today , this time with George Dvorsky and Ari Shulman; the topic: ethics of transhumanism.

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Foragers Were Naked

The pubic louse evolved around 3.3 million years ago, … and it could not have done so until ancestral humans lost their body fur, creating its niche. What’s more, [we have] dated the evolution of body lice, which live in clothing, to around 70,000 years ago. So it looks like our ancestors wandered around stark naked for a very long time. (more)

Theories of why we stayed naked for so long vary:

When our ancestors moved to more open ground, natural selection would have favoured individuals with very fine hair to help cooling air circulate around their sweaty bodies. But sweating requires a large fluid intake, which means living near rivers or steams, whose banks tend to be wooded and shady – thus reducing the need to sweat. What’s more, the Pleistocene ice age set in around 1.6 million years ago and even in Africa the nights would have been chilly. … Other animals on the savannah have hung on to their fur. …

[Some argue] that we did not shed our pelts until we were smart enough to deal with the consequences, which was probably after modern humans evolved, about 200,000 years ago. “We can make things to compensate for fur loss such as clothing, shelter and fire.” … [Some argue] natural selection favoured less hairy individuals because fur harbours parasites that spread disease. Later, sexual selection lent a hand, as people with clear, unblemished skin advertising their good health became the most desirable sexual partners and passed on more genes.

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Egan’s Zendegi

Greg Egan is one of my favorite science fiction authors, and his latest novel Zendegi (Kindle version costs a penny) seems to refer to this blog:

“You can always reach me through my blog! Overpowering Falsehood dot com, the number one site for rational thinking about the future—”

That is Nate Caplan, a self-centered arrogant rich American male nerd, who creepily stalks our Iranian female scientist hero Nasim Golestani, an expert in em (brain emulation) tech. Nate introduces himself this way:

I’m Nate Caplan. My IQ is one hundred and sixty. I’m in perfect physical and mental health. And I can pay you half a million dollars right now, any way you want it.

Nate wants to pay so he can be the first em:

It’s very important to me that I’m the first transcendent being in this stellar system. I can’t risk having to compete with another resource-hungry entity; I have personal plans that require at least one Jovian mass of computronium.

Nasim naturally despises Nate.

So is Nate Caplan inspired by me, by my famously libertarian colleague Bryan Caplan, or by Eliezer Yudkowsky, who was my co-blogger back when Egan wrote this book?

Consider that Egan’s book also contains a Benign Superintelligence Bootstrap Project, clearly modeled on Eliezer’s Singularity Institute:

Their aim is to build an artificial intelligence capable of such exquisite powers of self-analysis that it will design and construct its own successor. … The successor will then produce a still more proficient third version, and so on, leading to a cascade of exponentially increasing abilities. … Within weeks—perhaps within hours—a being of truly God-like powers will emerge.

This institute is backed by an arrogant pompous “octogenarian oil billionaire” Zachary Churchland. To say more here, I’m going to have to give spoilers – you are warned. Continue reading "Egan’s Zendegi" »

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You Are Panem’s Capitol

A reporter asked me how the world would be different if people took a year of leisure after each seven years of work, instead of retiring at 65, as I suggested in Why Retire? I guessed that young people would have more interesting stories to tell about what they did with their year off. More interesting at least than the typical retiree story of another year of golfing or organizing photo albums. As people get older they get more comfortable with set patterns, and less eager for adventure.

This might be good for their near needs, but less fits our far ideals about how we should live our lives. This is also probably why people tend to like marriage more than you might think from their youthful inclinations.

I thought of this while watching The Hunger Games. The book and movie express a strong sincere class and urban/rural envy and hatred. People from the heroine’s poor starving coal-mining District 12 are not allowed to leave or choose their laws, and are forcibly humiliated by the Capitol region, where folks live in lazy shallow luxury.

You might think this echoes your 99%er hatred of the 1%, but not only is the anti-urban-elite element strong here, on a cosmic scale you are more like Panem’s Capitol than District 12. Because unless humanity creates a strong permanent central government to control fertility, far future folk will return to very slow growth, and thus to near subsistence incomes. And you might consider what this vast horde will think of your rich ways.

Yes, you didn’t choose to live now, and you may have a right to spend your wealth any way you want. But future folk may have a right to hate or despise you, if they think you have mostly squandered the gift of living in our rare age of luxury. District 12 folks despise Capitol folk not just because their riches seem stolen, but also because they seem weak, shallow, selfish, and self-indulgent, with little sense of or contribution to larger possibilities. Future folk may think the same about you.

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Med Media Mangle

The media holds medicine to a lower standard than it holds alternative medicine, such as say crystal healing. No way would an article in a major paper complain that we aren’t subsidizing crystals enough for poor folks, based on the observation that rich folks buy more crystals and rich folks are healthier. But for medicine, that sort of correlation is enough.

For example, this week the Post has not one but two long articles celebrating a new breast cancer study, which it says shows:

“Nearly five black women die needlessly per day from breast cancer” because they don’t have information about the importance of breast screening and they don’t have access to high quality care.

But in fact, the study shows only that across 25 US cities, the ratio of the black vs. white breast cancer death rates correlates (barely significantly) with median city income and a measure of city racial segregation. It is a huge leap to conclude from these correlations that black women don’t have enough info or care!

The very robust health-status correlation predicts more health for higher status folks, and thus more race-health disparity when there is a higher race-status disparity. It seem quite plausible that the race-status disparity is higher in cities where races are segregated and incomes are low.

More from the Post:

It would be nearly nine months before she told herself it was time to act. By then, the lump was the size of a small egg. … Doctors and advocates say the fear that kept her from acting quickly is all too common among black women. It is among the factors that contribute to a disturbing trend: Although they are less likely than white women to get breast cancer, black women are more likely to die from it. … Poverty and racial inequities are the primary factors driving the disparity, according to a study. … The study, which compared mortality rates between black and white women in the nation’s 25 largest cities, states that “nearly five black women die needlessly per day from breast cancer” because they don’t have information about the importance of breast screening and they don’t have access to high quality care. The authors … said genetics play only a small role in the disparity.

More from the study:

[In] the 25 largest cities in the US, … non-Hispanic Black : non-Hispanic White [breast cancer death] rate ratios (RRs) were calculated … Almost all the NHB rates were greater than almost all the NHW rates. … From among the 7 potential correlates, only median household income (r = 0.43, p = 0.037) and a measure of segregation (r = 0.42, p = 0.039) were significantly related to the RR.

Note that white women may seem to “get” more breast cancer because they are tested more often for it.

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Haves And Have-Nots

I often ask my students to predict the social effects of particular new products or technologies. And a common error is that they expect every new thing to increase inequality. Their argument is that any new thing costs money, which rich people can better afford. So the rich must more gain advantage from each new product. A similar argument is given for a new kind of job – those better suited to that kind of job will do that job, and gain an advantage over people with other jobs, increasing the job induced inequality.

An obvious flaw in this argument is that it works way too well – it applies to pretty much anything new. Yet the net effect of all the new things that we’ve ever seen has been at most a modest increase in inequality. Thus the average inequality produced by each new thing must be pretty small. Also, there have been eras when inequality has decreased – but how could that happen if each new innovation increases inequality?

Students are often tempted to imagine an extreme division of society into haves and have-nots, like the Eloi and Morlocks of H.G.Well’s novel The Time Machine. The imagined groups are entirely distinct and separate, with little variation within each group. And of course these groups are in a moral struggle, to the death. This seems an obvious consequences of thinking about the future in a far mental mode – which leans one toward fewer categories with more uniform members, more moralizing, and less moral compromise.

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