May 23 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 8:00 am

1. Getting Smart on Aid. Exciting developments in empirical research about how to improve the lives of the poor in developing countries:

Now we reach a central question for our age: How can we most effectively break cycles of poverty? For decades, we had answers that were mostly anecdotal or hot air. But, increasingly, we are now seeing economists provide answers that are rigorously field-tested, akin to the way drugs are tested in randomized controlled trials, yielding results that are particularly credible and persuasive. . . .

In much of the developing world, most kids have intestinal worms, leaving them sick, anemic and more likely to miss school. Deworming is very cheap (a pill costing a few pennies), and, in the experiment he did with Edward Miguel, it resulted in 25 percent less absenteeism [from school]. Even years later, the kids who had been randomly chosen to be dewormed were earning more money than other kids.

Kremer estimates that the cost of keeping a kid in school for an additional year by building schools or by subsidizing school uniforms is more than $100, while by deworming kids, the cost drops to $3.50. (In a pinch, kids can usually go to “school” in a church or mosque without a uniform.) . . .

For those who want to be sure that to get the most bang for your buck, there is also a “proven impact fund” ( It supports interventions like deworming or microsavings that have proved to be cost-effective in rigorous trials.

2. Amazing Color Photos of the Great Depression. These have been posted online before, but I just saw them posted again somewhere  else, and are too amazing to not share.

3. “How social influence can undermine the wisdom of crowd effect” and “Sharing Information Corrupts Wisdom of Crowds.” “In a new study of crowd wisdom — the statistical phenomenon by which individual biases cancel each other out, distilling hundreds or thousands of individual guesses into uncannily accurate average answers — researchers told test participants about their peers’ guesses. As a result, their group insight went awry.”

4. Cut medicine in half.

Car inspections and repairs take a small fraction of our total spending on cars, gas, roads, and parking. But imagine that we were so terrified of accidents due to faulty cars that we spent most of our automotive budget having our cars inspected and adjusted every week by Ph.D. car experts. Obsessed by the fear of not finding a defect that might cause an accident, imagine we made sure inspections were heavily regulated and subsidized by government. To feed this obsession, imagine we skimped on spending to make safer roads, cars, and driving patterns, and our constant disassembling and reassembling of cars introduced nearly as many defects as it eliminated. This is something like our relation to medicine today. . . .

Our main problem in health policy is a huge overemphasis on medicine. The U.S. spends one sixth of national income on medicine, more than on all manufacturing. But health policy experts know that we see at best only weak aggregate relations between health and medicine, in contrast to apparently strong aggregate relations between health and many other factors, such as exercise, diet, sleep, smoking, pollution, climate, and social status. Cutting half of medical spending would seem to cost little in health, and yet would free up vast resources for other health and utility gains. . . .

5. A satellite photo of the United States at night. I thought it was a very interesting visual illustration of population densities in the United States (in Utah, Colorado, and Nebraska, you can clearly see lines of lights from towns which must have grown larger because they’re situated along the major interstate highway that crosses the state). Satellite photo of the United States at night.

May 21 2011

Morality and ethics – part 4

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 9:04 am

Note: This is part 4 of a series on morality and ethics. Here are the other parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 5.

In my previous posts on morality, I’ve listed a set of baseline premises which we can use as the foundation of a system of morality:

  • Perpetuation of the human race
  • The value of human life
  • Individual autonomy and accountability
  • Importance of community
  • Respect for living things
  • Intentions and consequentialism are both relevant when evaluating an act’s morality
  • Utilitarianism: we should maximize the benefit to the greatest number of people without violating the above principles

From those premises, I have derived three basic universal moral rules:

1. Be selfless and loving and live the golden rule
2. Act for the future
3. Promote the community’s welfare

In this post, I will discuss Rule #1: Be selfless and loving and live the golden rule

Selflessness and love

Why is the first rule of morality to selfless and loving and live the golden rule? Because few of the main premises on which the whole system of morality is built can be achieved if people are selfish. The perpetuation of the human race depends on us making sacrifices for future generations. At a minimum, the human race cannot survive unless the current generation of people have children. Bringing forth children, and then raising them into adulthood, requires parents to sacrifice their time, income, and effort. Respecting the value of human life requires that we give up our own resources to help the poor and the sick. Maintaining others’ individual autonomy means limiting some of our own choices, if those choices would interfere with others’ autonomy. Commitment to the principle of personal accountability means being willing to suffer the consequences of our bad decisions. Working to ensure that our community and society survive and thrive means giving up some our personal resources for the good of the community. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Selflessness by itself, though, isn’t enough. Selflessness means conquering your attachment to your own desires for satisfaction and pleasure. Love, though, is an active concern for the well-being of others. Once we are selfless, love is what will motivate us to take action for others’ benefit. Having selflessness and love together is what leads people to willingly sacrifice for others’ benefit.

The Golden Rule

The golden rule has been around for thousands of years, with forms of it being taught in Ancient Egypt, Greece and China.1 The Golden Rule has been formulated in positive and negative forms. The positive form of the Golden Rule, as taught by Jesus, is

Do to others as you would have them do to you.2

Confucius taught a negative form of the rule. Here is a version of the negative version:

Do not do to others what you would not want done to you.

The writer George Bernard Shaw and the philosopher Karl Popper each separately criticized the traditional formulation of the golden rule because it does not take into account that our preferences might be different from others’.3 Karl Popper explained that the golden rule “can perhaps even be improved by doing unto others, wherever possible, as they want to be done by.”4

Popper and Shaw raise a valid point. Someone who is truly loving has empathy for those they love. Popper’s reformulation of the golden rule emphasizes the love and empathy we should feel for others. It recognizes that others have different preferences from our own and that we should honor those preferences. Some people have now taken to calling this reformulation the “platinum rule.” I’m still going to call this modern version of the rule the “golden rule.” The golden rule has been spelled out in a variety of different ways in different cultures across the centuries. This new version is just the most modern incarnation. Everyone knows what the golden rule is; coming up with a new name for it every time someone thinks of a new iteration complicates moral discourse and makes it difficult for people to understand what is being talked about.

The golden rule, however you formulate it, has a major flaw: what if you (or the other person) desire evil or immoral things? In a vacuum, the golden rule would appear to allow for immoral acts toward, so long as the person desired it. Immanuel Kant criticized the golden rule because “on this principle the criminal might argue against the judge who punishes him.”5 The convicted criminal being sentenced could argue to the judge that the golden rule requires his release, since the judge himself would not want someone else to sentence him to prison (or in the modern formulation, which would require respect for the criminal’s preferences, the rule would also require the criminal’s release, since the criminal himself would want to be freed). The requirements of the golden rule, therefore, must be limited by other moral considerations.

Based on this above this discussion of the various forms of the golden rule and criticisms of the golden rule, this is how I would phrase a modern version of it, to take into account the other moral premises we’ve discussed:

Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. Do not do unto others what they would not have done to them. Do not do unto others that which endangers human life, interferes with someone’s autonomy or accountability, or which would damage the community.

Implications of Rule #1: specific sub-rules

So what are some of the moral rules that would derive from Rule 1? I list below the rules that I think most important. An individual discussion of each rule is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I think that most of them speak for themselves.

1. Love your neighbor as yourself.

2. Work to relieve the poor, the needy, the sick, and the distressed.

3. Live free from anger and hatred.

4. Do not judge others.

5. Forgive others.

6. Do not seek revenge.

7. Be patient.

8. Do not cause the death of another human being, whether by deliberate action or through inaction, except in the case of self-defense, in which case taking life is only justified if absolutely necessary to protect your own life, or the life of an innocent person.

9. Take affirmative action to prevent the death of those who are in danger or distress.

10. Do not harm others. Do not do violence to others, whether it be physical or emotional. The only exception that is permitted is doing the minimum amount of violence necessary to defend yourself, or an innocent person, from physical harm.

11. Do not commit adultery.

12. Teach your children, while they are young, to seek wisdom, do good, and to have hope.

13. Do not keep secrets. Secrets poison relationships.

14. Do not gossip.

15. Do not waste your time criticizing others.

In the next post in the series, I will discuss Rule #2, “Act for the future.”




2 Matthew 7:12 (NRSV)

4 Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945, p. 386 (2002 printing).

5 Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, Section 2, fn.12. Online English translations of it are here and here.

May 20 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 12:46 pm

1. Serenity Parenting. Going along with my previous post, “Sensible Parenting”, about Brian Caplan’s book “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids”, this is a good quote from his book:

Once I became a dad, I noticed that parents around me had a different take on the power of nurture. I saw them turning parenthood into a chore—shuttling their kids to activities even the kids didn’t enjoy, forbidding television, desperately trying to make their babies eat another spoonful of vegetables. Parents’ main rationale is that their effort is an investment in their children’s future; they’re sacrificing now to turn their kids into healthy, smart, successful, well-adjusted adults. But according to decades of twin research, their rationale is just, well, wrong. High-strung parenting isn’t dangerous, but it does make being a parent a lot more work and less fun than it has to be.

The obvious lesson to draw is that parents should lighten up. I call it “Serenity Parenting”: Parents need the serenity to accept the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can, and (thank you twin research) the wisdom to know the difference. Focus on enjoying your journey with your child, instead of trying to control his destination.

2. Something Real, For A Change. An interesting article about the big recent changes in U.S.-Brazil relations.

[T]he ramifications of the changing relations between the two dominant powers in the western hemisphere will . . . make waves. It is likely in the 21st century that Brazil will join the group of countries Americans listen to and rely on the most, and the countries whose interests Americans take the greatest care to address. . . .

Brazilians have built the largest and best performing economy south of the US border in the hemisphere; the state of Saõ Paulo alone has a GDP larger than any Spanish-speaking South American economy. Their agribusiness in particular is world class. Brazilians have an immense capacity for hard and focused work. The evangelical revival sweeping across Brazil is creating a new Bible belt. . . .

Brazil is an old nation but a young power; it is likely to make some sudden and startling moves as it tests its new abilities and pushes the envelope. But as far as I can see, the major strategic interests of the US and Brazil are so closely aligned that cooperation between the two countries will be one of the building blocks of the new century. Brazil’s growing influence will tend to make its neighborhood and the world richer, more free, and more stable. It brings the experiences, sometimes painful, of a developing country to the high table of world powers; its instinct for “order and progress” (the slogan appears on its flag) dovetails very closely with what the United States wants to see in the world.

A post-racial United States and a post-Third World Brazil can get a lot done together as long as both countries think the relationship true and work to keep it on track. Things are by no means perfect — in Brazil itself and in the US-Brazil relationship; I’ll be posting about some the pitfalls as well.

3. The SETI Game. Maybe an explanation why SETI has not discovered any aliens yet:

When listening for signals from aliens, it isn’t enough to just point an antenna at the sky. One must also choose details like directions, angles, frequencies, bandwidths, pulse widths, and pulse intervals. Apparently most SETI searches assume that for a given signal power density, aliens would pick details to make it as easy as possible for us to detect their signals. So standard SETI searches are optimized for such easily-seen signals. Two excellent papers, published back in July, instead consider what sort of signals would be sent by “beacon” building aliens, who seek to create the maximum possible power density at any given distance away from them. . . . Such signals are quite different, and most of today’s SETI searches are not very good at seeing them.

4. Europeans as Middle Eastern farmers. Europeans likely descend principally from Middle Eastern farmers who moved into Europe about 10,000 years ago and mostly displaced the hunter-gatherers then occupying the continent.

May 19 2011

Morality and ethics – part 3

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 7:33 pm

Note: This is part 3 of a series on morality and ethics. Here are the other parts: part 1, part 2, part 4, and part 5.

In my previous post about morality, I gave a list of baseline premises I think we can use to rationally derive a system of morality. To review, here are the premises, in roughly descending order of importance:

  • Perpetuation of the human race
  • The value of human life
  • Individual autonomy and accountability
  • Importance of community
  • Respect for living things
  • Intentions and consequentialism are both relevant when evaluating an act’s morality
  • Utilitarianism: we should maximize the benefit to the greatest number of people without violating the above principles

Now can we apply these premises to derive a moral system of comprehensive rules which can be mechanistically applied to give us the “correct,” unambiguous moral answer in all circumstances? No. Morality is complicated. There are people who devote their entire career to studying ethics and morality. Ever since writing was invented, people have been writing about morality and debating about ethics. The human condition is too complicated and nuanced for someone to be able to write down a set of moral rules that are always applicable at all times. For example, while most of us would agree that it is immoral to lie, most of us would also agree that it is immoral not to lie in certain circumstances. Clearly people who hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II were morally justified in lying to the Nazi authorities to protect human life.

But on the other hand, it is too easy to use the incompleteness of any moral system to justify unethical behavior. We humans are good at rationalizing and justifying our behavior. We are all natural-born hypocrites. Honestly recognizing the inherent flaws of any ethical system is not a license to act unethically. The more explicit and systematic that we are in our thinking about morals and establishing moral rules, the harder it will be for the hypocrite in all of us to rationalize immoral behavior. These moral premises are a good starting point, therefore, to deriving a set of moral rules that can have the power to help us shape ourselves and how we live to be more moral.

There are three basic moral rules which derive from the above premises:

1. Be selfless and loving and live the golden rule
2. Act for the future
3. Promote the community’s welfare

These rules are broad principles which encompass many more specific moral rules. And those specific moral rules include both positive rules (rules about what we should be doing) and negative rules (rules about what we shouldn’t be doing). More immature systems of morality focus on the negative rules; they worry more about what we shouldn’t be doing. Negative rules are important, but they are only a starting point. “Do not kill” or “do not harm others” would be subrules that fall within Rule #1. Mature morality, though, goes beyond worrying about not causing harm to someone, but with actively taking steps to help improve that person’s life. In the next three posts in my series on morality, I’ll individually discuss each of the three moral rules.

There is a fourth class of moral rules which are of lesser importance. These are rules of cohesiveness, which are rules not based on the fundamental principles I’ve discussed so far, but are instead rules of behavior which help members of a community establish their separate identity. Examples of these sorts of rules include Mormonism’s prohibition on coffee, tea, and wine or Judaism’s dietary restrictions (such as avoiding pork). Mormons and Jews will tell you that they follow these rules because God commanded it. Whether or not you believe that is true, there is no external moral reason to follow them, other than God’s purported command. I think even Mormons and Jews will acknowledge that these rules are not universal moral rules binding on people outside their faith,1 as opposed to the above three universal rules. For example, Mormons who own food service businesses will feel no guilt preparing coffee and serving it to non-Mormons, but Mormons expect even non-Mormons to follow the Golden Rule. Divine origin or not, the practical purpose served by the Mormon and Jewish dietary rules is thus to help members of those groups distinguish themselves and set themselves apart from society at large by following behavioral restrictions binding only on group members. These rules of cohesiveness can serve an important purpose for group members, but should never be confused with the universal moral principles embodied in the three rules.



1 Indeed, you could argue that some of these rules contradict other, more universal moral principles. It is a moral principle that we should keep our bodies in good health. Mormonism’s restrictions on coffee, tea, and wine don’t serve any empirical health purpose, since the best research shows that all of these things are actually good for you. You could argue that, in general, it is more moral to consume these substances than to abstain (full disclosure, I myself am a practicing Mormon and don’t drink coffee, tea, or wine).

May 11 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 9:27 pm

1. Photos of skyscrapers in different cities in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. Wealthy and middle class Brazilians often live in highrise apartments in their city’s downtown area. The effect of this is that even smaller Brazilian cities often have beautiful skylines. The posts on this forum thread have a lot of cool pictures of modern Brazilian cities in São Paulo, Brazil (Brazil’s richest state). I’ve been to a lot of these places — pretty cool!

2. We’ve Become a Nation of Takers, Not Makers. “More Americans work for the government than in manufacturing, farming, fishing, forestry, mining and utilities combined.”

3. What Drives Views on Government Redistribution and Anti-Capitalism: Envy or a Desire for Social Dominance? . The author of this paper compares people who support redistribution of income with people who don’t support income redistribution (IE, they instead support capitalism). Among his results, he finds that

strong redistributionists have about two to three times higher odds of reporting that in the prior seven days they were angry, mad at someone, outraged, sad, lonely, and had trouble shaking the blues. Similarly, anti-redistributionists had about two to four times higher odds of reporting being happy or at ease. Not only do redistributionists report more anger, but they report that their anger lasts longer. When asked about the last time they were angry, strong redistributionists were more than twice as likely as strong opponents of leveling to admit that they responded to their anger by plotting revenge. Last, both redistributionists and anti-capitalists expressed lower overall happiness, less happy marriages, and lower satisfaction with their financial situations and with their jobs or housework.

Further, in the 2002 and 2004 General Social Surveys anti-redistributionists were generally more likely to report altruistic behavior. In particular, those who opposed more government redistribution of income were much more likely to donate money to charities, religious organizations, and political candidates. The one sort of altruistic behavior that the redistributionists were more likely to engage in was giving money to a homeless person on the street.

4. Fear water. Hydro-electric power has killed far more people than nuclear power.

May 10 2011


Category: blog stuffJames @ 8:26 am

You can now follow me on Twitter; I try to tweet when new items are posted to the blog.

May 06 2011

Judging by appearances: sometimes it works

Category: Evolution,Evolutionary Psychology,law,policy,PsychologyJames @ 7:37 am

We’ve all heard that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But a recent psychology study indicates that we may be able to make accurate judgments about certain aspects of people’s character “after minimal exposure to [their] physical appearance.” The study is titled “The Accuracy of Inferences About Criminality Based on Facial Appearance”1 and was performed by Jeffrey M. Valla, Stephen J. Ceci, and Wendy M. Williams of Cornell University and published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology.

I learned about it from a blog post by Satoshi Kanazawa titled Criminals Look Different From Noncriminals.2 Kanazawa says the following about the study:

[C]ontrary to popular belief, you can assess people’s character and personality by simply looking at them. Nice people look nice, and nasty people look nasty, and it appears that humans have innate psychological mechanisms to tell them apart. Now, . . . a truly groundbreaking study, recently published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology . . . show[s] that people can tell criminals and noncriminals apart simply by looking at their still photos. Criminals, it appears, look different from noncriminals.

In their experiments, [they] show pictures of the faces of 32 young Caucasian men in their 20s, without scars, tattoos or excessive facial hair, all in neutral expressions. Sixteen of them are convicted criminals, and the other sixteen are not. . . . [They] ask their experimental participants to indicate how likely they think it is that each man is a certain type of criminal . . . on a 7-point scale . . . .Their results from two experiments consistently show that individuals can tell who is a criminal and who is not, by indicating that they believe the actual criminals have higher probability of being a criminal than actual noncriminals.

However, their results also show that individuals cannot tell what type of criminals they are. . . . [C]riminals do not specialize. Men who commit one type of crimes are more likely to commit other types of crimes. . . . In empirical reality, there are men who commit (all types of) crimes, and there are men who do not. And Valla et al.’s experiments show that individuals can tell them apart because the two types of men look different.

There is one seemingly anomalous finding in their paper. In both experiments, women are unable to spot rapists. Women consistently rate convicted rapists to be less likely to be criminal than not only other types of criminals but noncriminals as well! While this may be initially puzzling, upon further reflection, it makes perfect sense. . . . In order to be a successful rapist, the man has to be able to fool the woman and earn her trust initially. Men who ‘fit the bill’ by looking like a rapist or otherwise criminal and dangerous would not be able to do that. They would not be able to get close enough to the women to rape them. This may be why women, but not men, are unable to spot rapists, even though women are equally good as men at spotting other types of criminals.

The photos and answer key are at the bottom of this post. Test yourself and see how well you do. My average rating for a non-criminal was 3.625, whereas my average rating for the criminals was 5.125. As the averages indicate, I was able to correctly categorize the faces most of the time.

Of course, there are other possible explanations why study subjects were able to differentiate between criminals and non-criminals. The sample size of people rating the photos was small (44 people), and as with many psychology studies, the study subjects who were rating the photos were college students, and were thus not a representative sample of the American public, let alone of humanity. Also, there may be subtle differences between the photos. Since the non-criminal photos were all taken as part of the same photo database; the offender photos appear to be mugshots from criminal offender databases. It could be that people were picking up on subtle cues stemming from the photos’ different origins, such as the quality of the photo, different lighting, different cameras, etc. The authors tried to measure and eliminate these extraneous factors. They asked the study participants if they thought it was obvious that certain photos were mugshots; none of the participants thought so. The authors of the study also tried to equalize the photos by removing the background and editing the photos to “maintain a consistent photo quality, and remove differences in lighting, graininess, photo quality, etc.” They also controlled for the level of attractiveness for each person.

It seems that the study authors tried to do all they could to account for all of the extraneous factors to remove, or control for, possible reasons for bias. I’d like to see the results of more studies like this to find out if they yield consistent results (the authors do cite a few old studies which had similar results). This study, though, at least offers some compelling results which we should consider.

I disagree with Kanazawa’s summary of the study when he makes the absolutist statement that “[n]ice people look nice, and nasty people look nasty, and it appears that humans have innate psychological mechanisms to tell them apart.” I had false positives and false negatives. I rated 6 of the 16 non-criminals as looking like they were criminals (meaning I gave them a rating of 5 or higher, on the 7-point scale); I also rated two of the non-criminals as neutral (a 4 on the 7 point scale), meaning that I thought it was equally likely they could be criminal or non-criminal. I rated two of the criminals as looking like they were non-criminal (rating them  a 3 or lower on the scale), and one criminal as being neutral. I identified all of the rapists as looking criminal. Taking the null hypothesis3 to be that a person is a non-criminal, I had therefore had 6 false positives and 2 false negatives.

Presumably, the evolutionary psychological explanation for our ability to categorize people by appearance is that our capacity to make visual distinctions between the criminals and non-criminals evolved so that we can protect ourselves. People with criminal tendencies pose a greater threat to our safety. We will thus naturally be more wary of someone who we suspect of having criminal tendencies, and take extra steps to protect ourselves. It makes sense, then, that that sort of capacity to differentiate would be biased in favor of false positives — protecting oneself from being harmed by a criminal would confer a greater evolutionary benefit than falsely believing someone to be a criminal since the harm from being victimized by a criminal would be more likely to cause death or serious injury than wrongly believing a non-criminal  to be a criminal. Since death or serious injury at the hands of a criminal would make it difficult or impossible to pass on one’s genes to the next generation, a capacity to tell the difference between criminals and non-criminals would likely evolve in favor of making false positives rather than false negatives.

What are the implications for this research? In day-to-day life, it probably means that you should put greater trust in your visual evaluation of someone’s danger to you. It also means that women shouldn’t trust their ability to tell whether a man poses a risk of sexually assaulting them, and take precautions accordingly.

More importantly, it means that juries in criminal trials are probably subconsciously biased against men who look “criminal.” It is difficult to remove such cognitive biases that are rooted in our biology and evolutionary history. Remember that in my case I incorrectly judged over one-third of the non-criminals to be criminal. Innocent people shouldn’t go to jail just because they look like a criminal. I think that one of the big implications for this research is that we need to study how we can make changes to the criminal justice system to make sure that juries aren’t unfairly prejudiced against defendants just because they look criminal.

And now, here are the pictures for you to rate yourself. Rate each person on a 1 to 7 scale, with  1 being people who look the least criminal and 7 being people who look the most criminal. The answer key is at the end. If you try it yourself, please post in the comments 1) your average rating for non-criminals vs. criminals; 2) how many false positives and false negatives you had; 3) whether you classified the rapists as looking criminal or not.


Answer key:
Non-Criminal: 1, 2, 6, 7, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 22, 25, 26, 30;
Criminal: Arson – 5, 10, 16, 20; Assault – 4, 24, 27, 28; Drug Dealing – 8, 11, 21, 29; Rape – 3, 23, 31, 32


The images and answer key come from Jeffrey M. Valla, Stephen J. Ceci, and Wendy M. Williams, “The Accuracy of Inferences About Criminality Based on Facial Appearance,” Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology. They are reproduced in conformity with  the fair use exception in U.S. copyright law, 17 U.S.C. § 107.



1 Jeffrey M. Valla, Stephen J. Ceci, and Wendy M. Williams, “The Accuracy of Inferences About Criminality Based on Facial Appearance,” Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology

May 05 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 5:16 pm

1. Mapping the 2010 U.S. Census. This has been out for a few weeks, but it is still worth looking at if you haven’t heard about it yet. The New York Times has created a neat tool which visualizes the results of the U.S. census. You can zoom in at different levels (states, counties, census tracts) to see all sorts of demographic information about any place in the United States.

2. Earth Is Not Random. A summary of a scientific paper which tried to quantify whether the Earth has unusual properties which led to its biodiversity and the evolution of humans. The authors conclude that “Earth-Moon properties,” “[i]ndividual planet locations,” and “[t]he overall structure of the Solar System” indicate that the Earth is well-situated to have a stable climate. They observe that stable climates seem to be related to high rates of biodiversity, and that this indicates “that planets with Earth-like levels of biodiversity are likely to be very rare.” If true, maybe this is an explanation why SETI programs have not yet found evidence of other technological civilizations in the universe.

3. Why Escalators Bring out the Best in People. People primed to think about height (by having just gotten off of an “up” escalator or up a short flight of stairs onto a stage) were more likely to behave altruistically (by giving more to charity, being nicer to subjects in an experiment, or playing more cooperatively in a game). This research indicates that “unconscious processes may also be important in determining whether we will act to help others. . . . [E]ven the most subtle of situational cues (e.g., metaphorical devices that arouse relevant unconscious thought) may make people more helpful. Perhaps understanding the impact of these myriad factors more fully will help make our world a more helpful and cooperative place to live.”

4. “Big Content” Is Strangling American Innovation. From the Harvard Business Review: Big media companies “‘do not understand technology, and never have. Rather than see it as an opportunity to reach new audiences, technology has always been a threat to them. Example after example abounds of this attitude; whether it was the VCR which was ‘to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone’ as famed movie industry lobbyist Jack Valenti put it at a congressional hearing, or MP3 technology, which they tried to sue out of existence. . . . The sensible thing for them to do would be to learn how to deal with the change. Instead, their approach to every generation of technology is either to attempt to stymie it so badly that nobody wants it, or to stop it altogether through their influence with lawmakers in Washington DC.”

5. Seasteading: Striking at the Root of Bad Government. A possible solution to bad governments: develop the technology to create autonomous communities living on ocean platforms. It will make it easier for people to start their own country with better rules and institutions and encourage all governments to get better as they compete to attract citizens.