Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

New Location

December 8, 2010

I moved the blog to a new location.


Almost through

November 13, 2009

Today is Friday the 13th, our third one this year.  It is also the last one this year, as those of you with paraskevidekatriaphobia will be happy to hear.  The majority of years have only one Friday the 13th, and three Friday the Thirteenths  in one year is the maximum possible number.  2012 will be another such year.

On the other hand, fortunately for the makers of horror films, Friday is the most likely day for the 13th of a month to fall on.

Frederick Douglass, American Slave

November 1, 2009

Last week I read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass. It is strange to me that this was not required reading in any of my high school American history courses.  Douglass was born a slave in Maryland, not far from where I live right now.  He was raised partly on a plantation, and partly in Baltimore.   In his late teens Douglass escaped to New York, and in a few years became well known in abolitionist circles for his eloquence in personally describing the conditions under which slaves were kept.  When he published his narrative in 1845, Douglass fled to Britain to avoid being taken back into slavery by his owners named in the book.  Only after British supporters raised enough money to buy his freedom could he travel back to the United States.  Later he became an advisor to Abraham Lincoln and a respected public figure.

In his book, Douglass describes his incredible personal experience of slavery.  For instance, like other slaves he was expected to sleep on the floor of the shack in which he lived with only a blanket.  In the winter, his feet became cracked from frostbite.  In the countryside, like other slaves, he was kept in a state of perpetual hunger.  Like other slaves, he was given one set of crude clothing a year and no shoes as he was a child.  If that clothing wore out, he had to go naked until the next year.  He was regularly beaten, often arbitrarily.  He saw a slave brother killed, shot in the head, with no repercussions for the murderer.  For a slave, the South was a huge prison.  If a white man passed a black man on the road, the common greeting was for the white man to say: ” Well, boy, whom do you belong to?” While it is powerful to hear this conditions described in the third person, it is doubly so to hear them described by Douglass himself.

Douglass makes several unexpected points in the book.  First, he repeatedly emphasizes that the more religious a slave holder was, the worse he treated his slaves.  The religious slave owners noted that slavery exists in the bible, and in one of Douglass’ anecdotes, even quoted the holy book as they were beating their slaves. A second unexpected point was the extent that slave holders went to deny their slaves education.  Douglass, who surreptitiously taught himself to read while in Baltimore, was rarely left alone for fear that he would be leafing through a newspaper or book.  His owners thought that education made slaves unruly.  In his master’s words: “Learning would spoil the best n***** in the world.” Several times Douglass started popular Sunday schools to teach his slave brothers to read, and each time the schools were quickly broken up by his owners.

Two passages were particularly powerful to me.  In one passage, Douglass describes his life as a teenager in Baltimore.  He had learned the trade of caulking, and he was allowed to work at a ship yard.  At the end of each week, Douglass had to report to his master and give him his entire weekly wages–around six dollars.  His master would then give him  a few cents to encourage him.  The second passage was that in which his master died, and Douglass was required to go back to Maryland to be valued.  All the slaves were lined up next to livestock, and a auditor roughly examined the slaves to estimate how much they were worth.  This passage reminded me of reading about Michelle Obama’s great-great-great-grandmother Melvina Shields, who was a slave valued at $475 when her master died.

Douglass’ 1845 narrative is only one hundred pages long.  It is usually bundled with long introductions and prefaces to make the book look thicker.  These should be skipped.  Douglass’ biting narrative doesn’t need any introduction.  One hundred and seventy years after it was first published,  it is the most powerful condemnation of slavery I have ever read.


Robin Hanson on Idealism and Immigration

October 29, 2009

Hear hear:

Some of my young idealistic friends like to talk about figuring out what they could do to most help the world, and might go to Burma to see how the really poor live.  I tell them one has to learn lots of details about a place to figure out how to improve it, and they’d do better to try this on a part of the world they understand better.  But that doesn’t sound nearly as fun as saving the whole world all at once.

The obvious way to help poor folk far away without relying on your poor understanding of their world is to rely on the one thing you know best about their world: it is poor.  Invite them to move to your rich world, to share in its riches.  If your neighbors hinder you, use what you know about them to change that.

Rove and Dean Debate Healthcare, Shout at Each Other

October 28, 2009

It is said that if you want mushrooms, you have to go to the forest.  In respect to political issues, however, this is exactly the wrong advice–one would have to be quite naive to try to learn about a political issue from politicians (or pundits).  Last night Petek and I went to a Karl Rove/Howard Dean health care debate at Penn State.  Predictably Dean was in favor of reforming health care, and Rove was for maintaining the current system.  Beyond that, I doubt that anyone in the audience learned anything new or changed their mind.

Dean tried to avoid talking about health care as much as possible.   Towards the end of the debate, he asked the moderators if they had any questions that were not about health care.  He kept dropping the name “Barack” and telling the audience how “your generation” has to stay active in politics and be bipartisan.  Many of his comments ended in exhortations with fist shaking and a raised voice.  As to his remarks on health care, he mostly spoke of the outrages of “predatory  insurance companies”, and repeatedly brought up “a student in the audience” whose mother was denied coverage for some disease or other.

Rove, on the other hand, focussed exclusively on health care.  He might have been more persuasive if it wasn’t for the ridiculous statistics he kept quoting–and everything he said was laced with statistics.  For example, he said that 45% of physicians in the United States would quit if the senate health care bill passes.   He said that medicare rejects claims at a rate twice as high as private insurance companies.  The audience broke into laughter when Rove said that America has the best health care system in the world.

Several times during the debate, the moderators lost control as Dean and Rove yelled over and at each other.  One such dialogue is contained in the Centre Times article about the debate.  While it was fun to see a couple of grown men strutting and pretending to have hurt pride, by the end of the hour-long debate I kept checking my watch. You see, there is better entertainment on Hulu, and more information about health care reform on Wikipedia.

Learning to Kill

October 24, 2009

The New York Times posted an article today about trendy butchery classes.  Now you can pay for someone to show you how to slaughter and dress various kinds of animals.  The article does a good job of making a point I often find myself making when talking to friends about vegetarianism.  I agree that it is better to eat meat from animals that have been treated well during their lives and killed humanely rather than industrially raised and killed meat.  However–and this is the point–it is even better to not eat animals at all (or to eat less meat than you currently do).

Here is the closing paragraph of the New York Times article:

And some participants have found that the slaughter is, well, less than life affirming. Jake Lahne, a graduate student in Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois, recently enrolled in a meat-production course at school to achieve “a real understanding of where meat comes from,” he wrote on a blog, the Ethicurean.

He got it. “Animals do not want to die,” he wrote. “They can feel pain and fear, and, just like us, will struggle to breathe for even one single more second. If you’re about to run 250 volts through a pig, do not look it in the eyes. It is not going to absolve you.”

“I truly believe that humane slaughter is important and possible,” he added, “but, as I have been learning, here’s the truth about any slaughter: it is both morally difficult and really gross.”

This is a test post

October 23, 2009

I added an .rss feed to my website, and I want to see if it captures new blog posts 😛

Edit: Success!

As long as I am writing:

Russian reverse psychology via Tyler Cowen

I comment on Petek’s post

If you haven’t been following, crazy real escape story

List of unusual deaths

Appropriate Backlash

August 19, 2008

Over the weekend I read Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini, a recommendation of Tyler Cowen‘s.  The book laid out some principles which people use to influence others behavior, and illustrated the principles with colorful examples.  It was a quick and entertaining read, but I was miffed by Cialdini’s conclusion.  He writes that we should militate against those that would use the psychological methods described in his book to influence us:

The enemy is the advertiser who seeks to create an image of popularity for a brand of toothpaste by, say, constructing a series of staged “unrehearsed-interview”…Here [we] are all being exploited.  In an earlier chapter, I recommended against the purchase of any product featured [in such a commercial] and I urged that we send the product manufacturers letters detailing the reason and suggesting that they dismiss their advertising agency.  I would recommend extending this aggressive stance…We should refuse to watch TV programs that use canned laughter.  If we see a bartender beginning a shift by salting his tip jar with a bill or two of his own, he should get none from us…In short, we should be willing to use boycott, threat, confrontation, censure, tirade, nearly anything, to retaliate.

Cialdini’s vitrionic response seemed to me a bit over the top.  Canned laughter may induce us to laugh more than we otherwise would have, but we still choose to laugh.  If we tip a bartender because it looks like other people have tipped him we still decide whether to tip or not ourselves.  It would be great if the toothpaste salesman gave us a completely dry list of the advantages and disadvantages of his brand vis-a-vis the other products available, but the real world we can’t be surprised when a salesman advocates for his particular brand.  As long as we understand the mechanism which which he is trying to influence us, we are free to choose to buy or not to buy it based upon our own judgement.

The appropriate response to a “psychological” sales pitch is to recognize it as such, and thereby render it ineffective.  Once we understand how seeding a tip jar may influence our decision to tip a bartender or not, we can make sure that we only tip for truly good service and not based on the amount of money already given.  There is no reason to aggitate further against businesses who use those type of pitches than to express your personal preferences by either buying or not buying their products.  If Cialdini wants businesses to stop using the methods described in his book, he should just try to educate consumers about how they may be persuaded.  By writing such a popular book, he has already gone a long way to do just that.

Test Tube Murder?

August 4, 2008

Would you support the right of a pregnant woman to abort her pregnancy against the wishes of the father of the fetus?  What about the right of a father to abort a fetus against the wishes of a pregnant mother?  If babies could gestate outside a woman’s body, would you reconsider your responses?

This type of technology might also refocus the abortion debate.  Megan McArdle is right on the money here:

Pro-choice advocates don’t talk so much about the right not to be a parent; they focus on the right to control your own body.  That’s also where the constitutional law seems to be focused, or so I read the right to privacy.  The minute you can take an aborted fetus and put it in an artificial womb, that argument falls away, and we get down to what pro-choicers really care about:  not having a kid.

The Truth about Human Nature

August 1, 2008

A United Kingdom university published the oldest joke in the world today.  At the same time, you give some modern humans a little leeway, and look what happens.

Some things never change.