Jul 15 2011

Links of the day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 6:21 pm

1. Gobar gas. Using relatively cheap materials, it is possible to build a “digester” that turns dung into natural gas. Gobar gas has had a lot of success in the Indian subcontinent. It seems like this could be an excellent way to provide safer cooking fuels for rural people in developing countries (as opposed to using wood for cooking fuel, which produces indoor smoke which is often a health hazard and which uses up the trees in forests).

2 Computer learns language by playing games. A computer was able to learn to read a the text of a computer game manual (without having any prior English language knowledge programmed into it) and learn how to improve its gameplay strategy (in the game Civilization 2). My favorite Skynet-related comment left by a reader: “I’m curious about which victory conditions the AI tended towards. I’m hoping it was space colonization and not world domination.” As it turns out, the computer’s strategy was world domination (winning the game by conquering all other civilizations through warfare).

3. A chart showing the different ways the Bible defines marriage.

4. Driven off the Road by M.B.A.s. “Lutz’s main argument is that companies, shareholders and consumers are best served by product-driven executives. . . . The auto industry is actually a terrific proxy for a trend toward short-term, myopically balance-sheet-driven management that has infected American business.”

5. On discovering you’re an android. “The idea that the self, or the conscious mind, emerges from the workings of the physical structures of the brain – with no need to invoke any supernatural spirit, essence or soul – is so fundamental to modern neuroscience that it almost goes unmentioned.”

6. Power powers promiscuity, new study finds. “With power comes confidence, and for both men and women, such confidence often results in marital infidelity, a new study finds. The study, to be published in an upcoming Psychological Science, found that among 1,275 Dutch professionals, those with the higher-paying, higher-ranked positions were more likely to have thought about or actually engaged in extra-marital entanglements, thanks to boosted levels of confidence. . . . The powerful see the world, themselves, and other people in a different manner and they act in a different manner than do those who lack power.”

7. 6 premature predictions of tech failure. A list of 6 technologies / products that industry leaders wrongly predicted would fail.

8. The Brain on Trial.

When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. The drives you take for granted (“I’m a heterosexual/homosexual,” “I’m attracted to children/adults,” “I’m aggressive/not aggressive,” and so on) depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption. . . .

[W]e are not the ones steering the boat of our behavior, at least not nearly as much as we believe. Who we are runs well below the surface of our conscious access, and the details reach back in time to before our birth, when the meeting of a sperm and an egg granted us certain attributes and not others. Who we can be starts with our molecular blueprints—a series of alien codes written in invisibly small strings of acids—well before we have anything to do with it. Each of us is, in part, a product of our inaccessible, microscopic history. . . .

When it comes to nature and nurture, the important point is that we choose neither one. We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that we cannot control in our most-formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens—equal before the law—possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making. The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we’re dealt. . . .

The legal system rests on the assumption that we are “practical reasoners,” a term of art that presumes, at bottom, the existence of free will. The idea is that we use conscious deliberation when deciding how to act—that is, in the absence of external duress, we make free decisions. This concept of the practical reasoner is intuitive but problematic. . . .

After all, there is no spot in the brain that is not densely interconnected with—and driven by—other brain parts. And that suggests that no part is independent and therefore “free.” In modern science, it is difficult to find the gap into which to slip free will . . . because there seems to be no part of the machinery that does not follow in a causal relationship from the other parts.

Free will may exist (it may simply be beyond our current science), but one thing seems clear: if free will does exist, it has little room in which to operate. It can at best be a small factor riding on top of vast neural networks shaped by genes and environment. In fact, free will may end up being so small that we eventually think about bad decision-making in the same way we think about any physical process, such as diabetes or lung disease. . . .

While our current style of punishment rests on a bedrock of personal volition and blame, our modern understanding of the brain suggests a different approach. Blameworthiness should be removed from the legal argot. It is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life.

Instead of debating culpability, we should focus on what to do, moving forward, with an accused lawbreaker. I suggest that the legal system has to become forward-looking, primarily because it can no longer hope to do otherwise. As science complicates the question of culpability, our legal and social policy will need to shift toward a different set of questions: How is a person likely to behave in the future? Are criminal actions likely to be repeated? Can this person be helped toward pro-social behavior? How can incentives be realistically structured to deter crime? . . .

We will never know with certainty what someone will do upon release from prison, because real life is complicated. But greater predictive power is hidden in the numbers than people generally expect. Statistically based sentencing is imperfect, but it nonetheless allows evidence to trump folk intuition, and it offers customization in place of the blunt guidelines that the legal system typically employs. The current actuarial approaches do not require a deep understanding of genes or brain chemistry, but as we introduce more science into these measures—for example, with neuroimaging studies—the predictive power will only improve. (To make such a system immune to government abuse, the data and equations that compose the sentencing guidelines must be transparent and available online for anyone to verify.)

Jul 13 2011

Why Don’t Brazilians Emigrate?

What is the most commonly-spoken language in South America? If you said Spanish, you’re wrong. It’s Portuguese. Portuguese is the unexpected winner (unexpected, at least, in most Americans’ minds) because Brazil is such a big country (bigger than the continental United States). Brazil is the fifth most populous country in the world, with a population of nearly 200 million (only China, India, the United States, and Indonesia have bigger populations).1 In 2007 the U.S. Census Bureau estimated, however, that only about 250,000 Brazilians were living in the United States.2

This means that about .13% of Brazilians have emigrated to the United States. Compared to other similar countries, this is a small number. For example, there are about 135,000 Argentines living in the United States,3 out of a total Argentine population of about 40 million4 and there are about 70,000 Chileans living in the United States,5 out of a total Chilean population of 17 million.6 This means that about .34% of Argentines and about .41% of Chileans live in the United States. The proportion of Argentines in the United States is thus over two and a half times greater than the proportion of Brazilians and the proportion of Chileans in the United States is more than three times greater. So why don’t Brazilians emigrate as much as other Latin Americans? This post gives my completely anecdotal explanations.

My observations are based on my family background and personal experience. My mother is Brazilian and immigrated to the United States when she was in her 20s. Out of the eight children in her family, she and only one sister have come to the U.S., while the other six siblings have stayed in Brazil. In my own personal experience, I have lived in Brazil as an adult, speak Portuguese, and minored in Latin American studies as an undergraduate. Here are my explanations for the relative rarity of Brazilian migration to the United States:

1. Internal migration. Brazil is a large continental country with a growing economy and increasing opportunities. The big cities of in the relatively wealthy state of São Paulo (it it were its own country, the state of São Paulo would be the 16th-largest economy in the world7) are inundated with immigrants from the Northeast of Brazil seeking jobs and better opportunities. It is far easier to migrate within your own country (and thus avoid the necessity of learning another language and adapting to a new culture).

2. Opportunities are available for the ambitious. My mother’s family was relatively poor when she was a child (they even lived in a dirt-floor house for a while). Even though Brazil’s growth has been inconsistent over the last 40 years, the general trend has been upward over that time. For those who are ambitious and smart, there are good opportunities for a prosperous life in Brazil. It is not as easy for the poor in Brazil to escape their poverty, but it is possible. In spite of their humble background, all of my mom’s siblings are solidly middle class and enjoy good lives in Brazil. I don’t think any of my Brazilian aunts and uncles or cousins would ever consider leaving — they have everything they need in their own country.

3. Sentimentality. Brazilians are much more openly affectionate and devoted to their relationships with friends and family than most Americans and they would see the separation as a huge drawback.

4. Patriotism and national pride. Brazilians are proud of their country, its potential for greatness, and its achievements (just ask a Brazilian who invented the airplane — they will vehemently deny that it was the Wright brothers, but instead insist that it was a Brazilian named Santos Dumont). They don’t want to leave and give up something to which they feel so much attachment and pride.

5. The lack of a large Brazilian diaspora. It is easier to emigrate when you are going to a place that already has living there a large group of your fellow countryman who speak your language and can help you adapt to your new country. The lack of many large Brazilian migrant communities in the United States makes it more difficult to immigrate. In the places where there is an established Brazilian community — Massachusetts (which has its roots in early-20th century Portuguese cod fisherman who immigrated there first), New Jersey, and Miami — there are plenty of new Brazilian immigrants.

(As an interesting aside: there was a 2005 Brazilian novela (daily nighttime serialized TV show) which was set in Florida and dramatized the plight of immigrants in Brazil. The novela was called “América.” Even though the novela portrayed a generally negative view of illegal immigration and of life in the United States, illegal immigration from Brazil to the United States temporarily skyrocketed as a result of the novela. Perhaps another explanation is that the lack of immigration is because of a lack of general knowledge about potential options to immigrate. The United States is close to Mexico and Central America, so knowledge about options for migration is easier for citizens of those countries, and the cultural and linguistic ties they have with Spanish speaking countries in South America perhaps makes that knowledge more widespread in places like Argentina and Chile than in Brazil.)

This post was based on a comment I left here.




Jul 11 2011

Links of the day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 6:08 pm

1. Somatic mutations make twins’ brain less similar. A new study indicates that one of the reasons that even identical twins differ in their development and how they turn out is maybe because of post-conception mutations in their somatic cells. Random mutations happen when your cells divide. A study comparing mutations in identical twins found about 1,000 point mutations (a change in one letter of the DNA code) in one twin not present in the other and two to three copy number variants (mutations that delete or duplicate larger chunks of the chromosome) present only in one twin. Anytime a cell acquires a mutation, all of its daughter cells will then have the same mutation. This could explain why diseases which are highly heritable, such as schizophrenia, do not always manifest in both twins — the explanation could be that one twin acquired a mutation for schizophrenia after conception.

2. RIAA Accounting: How To Sell 1 Million Albums And Still Owe $500,000. In case you didn’t already know, the music industry is run by immoral thiefs who get rich by exploiting artists.

3. The Backfire Effect. When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger. (As an aside, the linked article is from a blog that always has interesting articles summarizing the science about all the many ways we humans delude ourselves and think irrationally — I highly recommend it!)

4. The first non-human meat farmers. Preliminary observations may indicate the first discovery of a non-human animal that has domesticated another species, herds that animal, and uses it for meat!

Jul 06 2011

Morality and ethics – part 5

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 11:00 pm

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

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 #2: act for the future. Acting for the future is a natural extension of Rule #1 Following Rule #1 means not just being selfless and loving toward people in the present, but showing that same love and selflessness towards those in the future. It also means showing that same love and concern for your future self. We think of our “self” as one continuous being, existing from birth until death. It can sometimes be helpful, however, to consider this idea of a continuous self as an illusion and consider the “you” of the present moment as a finite entity, one which will soon no longer exist, and of the different “yous” at future times as separate independent selves. Consider who you were 10 years ago. Chances are that there are substantial differences between who you are now and who you were in the past. You probably look different. Your opinions about many things may have changed. Your personality may have changed. Your relationships and personal circumstances may be different. These changes were probably mostly gradual ones, so it may be difficult to fix a moment in time when the “you” of the past changed into the “you” of the present, but it is probably clear that the change has happened.

One of the unique properties of personhood that makes us consider our future and past selves to be the same “self” is that the condition of each of your future selves is largely determined by your actions in the present. But taking a moment from time to time to look at your future selves as separate, independent beings for whom you have complete responsibility helps you remember that because of your obligations of love and selflessness, you have an obligation to work in the present to ensure the welfare and personal development of your future selves.

Why focus on the future?

Human beings are not very good at predicting the future. Our predictions of what will happen in the future, and how we’ll feel about it, are often wrong. Over time, almost every mutual fund underperforms when compared with the market average. Pundits and so-called experts generally avoid making specific predictions that can be easily measured and evaluated, and when they do, they are usually wrong (of course, they love to trumpet the rare occasions when they are right, but conveniently forget to mention the far greater number of times that they were wrong). On a more personal note, we are very bad at predicting how we will feel in the future, and how potential life events will affect our future levels of happiness.1 So if the future is so opaque, why should we act for the future, and how can we do it?

Acting for the future doesn’t require that we predict specific events, but that we engage in the behaviors most likely to fulfill the premises of the moral system. How can we know which behaviors will do this? First, we can use all of our methods for discovering truth, including the scientific method, past experience, and our knowledge about cause and effect. Second, we can draw on the experiences of others. Most people are very similar to each other. We can get a good idea about the effect of certain behaviors in our life by looking at the effect of those same behaviors in others’ lives.

We act for the future by doing the things now that will make the world a better, more moral place in the future. We act for the future by improving ourselves and doing the things which will make us better people in the future. Acting for the world means seeking progress: both personal progression, progression of others, and progression of humanity.

Make the World Better

The most basic way to “live for the future” is to live so that the world will have been a better place for having you in it. My conception of morality places human beings at the center, so making it a “better place” focuses first on making it a better place for human beings, but also secondarily on making it a better place for all other living things, so long as we can do it without hurting humans beings in the process.


So where do we start in our quest to make the world better? The first place is the family. Almost none of us will do much that will be remembered in history books or encyclopedias. The vast majority of even the “famous” people of today – including most scholars, writers, politicians, movie stars, and musicians – will mostly be forgotten in 100 years, relegated to footnotes in books that nobody reads. And in 1000 years, most will be completely unknown. The most lasting contribution most of us will make to humanity’s future is through the children we leave behind.

Because our greatest impact on the future is through our children, we should put a proportionate amount of time and effort into our children, but not in the way that most people would think. Things like dance lessons or piano practice, private school tuition or tutors, extra homework or sports practices are not the most important places to direct our efforts. As I’ve discussed previously,2 there is a large and ever-growing body twin and adoption studies examining a variety of life outcomes which show that, out of heredity, home environment, or the outside environment, the home environment is the least important variable.3 Now, of course, parenting is still important. Good parenting can have small effects at the margins. Moreover, bad parenting can have disastrous effects: any kind of abuse will very likely have significant negative impacts on children. Parents need to care for their children, teach them basic manners, ensure they have access to an education, etc. But assuming that those basic needs are met, most of the life outcomes for your children will be determined, to a large extent, by genetics and by environmental factors outside of your control.

So how do we put forth the time and effort to making the world a better place through our children? First, if you are a decent person and are someone who is contributing to society, then chances are that your children will be that way too. So, you can contribute most to future society by focusing more on having more children and less on being a helicopter parent who micromanages every aspect of your child’s upbringing.

Other than abuse, one of the worst things that parents can do to negatively influence their children is divorce. Just like most other behaviors and life events, likelihood of divorce does seem to have a genetic component,4 and it appears that some of the same genetic factors that increase parents’ likelihood to divorce, and not the divorce itself, are responsible for some of the negative outcomes in children in divorced families. Some of the negative outcomes, however, do appear to be caused by the divorce itself, and not by genetic factors.5 That means that you should be committed to monogamy for life (and that if you have a family history of divorce, you should be concerned about whether you might have a genetic propensity for divorce). Of course, there are situations (such as abusive relationships) when a divorce would be best for children, but in our world of no-fault divorces, these are likely a minority of current divorces.

Research has indicated various factors which increase the probability of a stable, enduring marriage. Women who delay their first sexual encounter until adulthood (after age 18) have much lower divorce rates.6 While it could be that some other factor makes a woman both more likely to have sex as an adolescent and to get divorced later in life, the research indicates that it is more likely that having sex at early age itself made women more likely to get divorced (although more research needs to be done to confirm this). I don’t know what the research shows about the effect on men of having sex at a young age, but it doesn’t matter: the sexual partners of young women are mostly young men, so that means that to prevent early sexual behavior from increasing the likelihood of divorce, both young men and young women should not have sex until adulthood.

People who live together before marriage are far more likely to divorce.7 Couples who cohabit “reported significantly lower quality marriages and a greater potential for splitting up than other couples.”8 Some researchers have questioned the causality in the relationship between cohabitation and divorce,9 but I have not found any hard data from these critics to back up their criticisms. Thus, absent further data to the contrary, it is also prudent to avoid cohabitation before marriage.

Economic Welfare

The most dramatic large-scale improvements in quality of life for large numbers of people have been brought about by the astronomically high levels of economic growth since the industrial revolution.10 Some people like to portray humanity’s far past as being an idyllic existence living in harmony with nature, free of exploitation or hierarchies. They are wrong. Life for our forebears was nasty, brutish, and short. Our farmer ancestors generally lived lives close to subsistence, doing backbreaking labor all day, every day.

Before agriculture, our hunter gatherer ancestors had somewhat better health and diets than their farmer descendants, and they usually worked fewer hours as well. But warfare and violence between tribal groups in hunter gatherer societies was generally high. Infanticide was probably fairly common. And life was still not easy. For example, women had to carry each child child up to about age four for miles every day. Our hunter gatherer ancestors living in that “idyllic past” did all sorts of things to harm the environment, such as hunting to extinction almost all large mammals outside of Africa and practicing slash and burn agriculture that radically altered the environment of many places on Earth. Medical knowledge was nonexistent. Literacy amongst our ancestors was rare, if it existed at all in their culture. People didn’t have the leisure or the knowledge to worry about things like education, the future of humanity, economic growth, or the environment. The truth is that the only reason people in the present day worry about such things as quality of life, humanity’s future, or the environment is because economic growth (along with the accompanying scientific advances) have given them enough education, prosperity, and leisure to be able consider those issues.

Acting for the future means doing the things we can do now to make sure that the future is a better place to live for ourselves, our descendants, and every other human being. The best way to achieve that is through economic growth (both on a personal and societal level).

How can we as individuals do this? One the biggest long-run determinants of economic growth is the savings rate. We should therefore avoid using debt to finance personal consumption and we should save. Not all debt is bad, though. It can a good idea to use debt to accumulate capital – this could include going into debt for an education to build human capital (but only to the extent that the education increases our earning power and gives us skills which will contribute to society) or to build physical capital (by, for example, building a factory or starting a business).

More than just saving, we should be frugal and restrained in our lifestyle and consumption of resources. One of the miracles of the human condition since the industrial revolution is decreasing prices for almost every type of good. It seems that human ingenuity has been able to cope with increasing population sizes and the limits of earth’s resources such that we have been able to provide better living conditions for ever-growing numbers of people. It would be easy to assume that this will always continue. I hope that it does. But prudence dictates at least some caution. It makes sense to conserve our resources. The great prosperity we enjoy in the developed world is a direct result of the frugality and savings of our forbears. It is fascinating to read through accounts of the living conditions of average Americans from previous eras. They endured many hardships to be able to save their money and ensure a better future for their children. The infrastructure and physical capital that we have now in the United States is the result of generations of hardworking Americans who saved and worked and built up our country. We owe it to future generations to do the same – it would be tremendously short-sighted and selfish to refuse to do the same thing for future generations.

That means we should keep a budget. We should live below our means and save our money. We should be frugal and conservative in what we buy and what we consume. Reduce, reuse, recycle, etc. We should also minimize our consumption of meat. When you feed plants to animals, most of the energy contained in the plants is lost – it is far more efficient to devote the same land and resources used to feed and raise animals to growing crops for human consumption.11 If everyone ate the same kind of diet as Americans, the world would only be able to support 2.5 billion people.12

On a societal level, we should seek governments and economic systems that encourage economic growth. This means governments free of corruption and free of onerous economic regulations. It means governments with laws that encourage real competition between firms (and not the oligopolies and monopolies we see in so many industries today) and that prevent corporate executives from extracting high rents (in the form of ridiculously high salaries) or from maintaining a shortsighted perspective focused on short-term profits (to keep a high stock price so they can get bonuses) at the expense of real long term growth.

Implications of Rule #2: specific sub-rules

I’ve discussed some of the implications of this rule, but there are many more. 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. Act with self-control.
2. Practice the things you want to succeed doing.
3. Persist in doing good.
4. Cease doing unnecessary or less important things and instead prioritize doing the necessary and more important things first.
5. Always seek to improve your character and discipline yourself.
6. Get married, and don’t cheat on your spouse. Don’t cohabitate before marriage.
7. If you’re a good person, have children. Have more children.
8. Be good to your children. Teach them and give them the basic opportunities and tools for success in life.
9. Live within your means.
10. Be frugal and save your money, work to be self-reliant.
11. Avoid debt.
12. Minimize the resources you use.
13. Work hard.
14. Work doing things that contribute to society.
15. In all of your work, balance your efforts so that you do not neglect the most important things in life: your family and relationships with others.
16. Always seek greater knowledge and wisdom.
17. Help others achieve the comfort and well-being that you enjoy.

In the next post in the series, I will discuss Rule #3, “Promote the community’s welfare.”




1 Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness.

10 Watch this amazing video for a great visualization: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbkSRLYSojo

11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_effects_of_meat_production

It has to do with the food chain. In the food chain, anytime energy is converted into another form, it is not a perfect conversion and a lot of energy is wasted. All of the energy we consume comes from the sun. When you eat plants, you are only one step removed from the energy source (sun – plant – you). When you eat animals, you are two or three steps removed from the energy source (sun – plant – animal – you, or sun – plant – animal – animal – you).


The loss of energy by a factor of 1/2 from each of the steps of non-predatory death, defecation, and respiration is typical of many living systems. Thus, the net production at one trophic level is 1 / 2 * 1 / 2 * 1 / 2 = 1 / 8 or approximately 10% that of the trophic level before it.

Example: Assume 500 units of energy are produced by trophic level 1. One half of that is lost to non-predatory death, while the other half (250 units) is ingested by trophic level 2. One half of the amount ingested is expelled through defecation, leaving the other half (125 units) to be assimilated by the organism. Finally one half of the remaining energy is lost through respiration while the rest (63 units) is used for growth and reproduction. This energy expended for growth and reproduction constitutes to the net production of trophic level 1, which is equal to 500 * 1 / 2 * 1 / 2 * 1 / 2 = 63 units.