Tuesday, September 22, 2009


George Will on Sunday wrote a short article about the lessons of our failed nation building in Bosnia. If nation-building could ever be successful, we'd expect it to work in Bosnia:
If Bosnia -- situated in placid and prosperous Europe; recipient of abundant aid and attention from the United States, the European Union, NATO and the United Nations -- is so resistant to nation-building, what are sensible expectations for a similar project in remote, mountainous, tribal Afghanistan?
The lesson should be that we didn't simply make the wrong decisions and now we've learned from it and we'll do it all correctly the next time. The lesson really should be that nation-building has never succeeded, and we really don't know what would be necessary to make it succeed and may never know. Even with models of successful nations like the the US or Western Europe, it's still not quite clear what it is that makes these countries successful, let alone what another country would have to do to get there.

On a different topic, Radley Balko yesterday wrote an article at Reason Magazine about Shaken Baby Syndrome. Doctors used to be confident that a triad of symptoms in infant deaths were ironclad evidence that the child had been just prior to death been shaken violently enough to kill the baby. This led to about 200 convictions per year mostly for murder based almost entirely on autopsies which showed the presence of the triad of symptoms. But now those convictions are all suspect:
Where the near-unanimous opinion once held that the SBS triad of symptoms could only result from a shaking with the force equivalent of a fall from a three-story to four-story window, or a car moving at 25 mph to 40 mph (depending on the source), research completed in 2003 using lifelike infant dolls suggested that vigorous human shaking produces bleeding similar to that of only a 2-foot to 3-foot fall. Furthermore, the shaking experiments failed to produce symptoms with the severity of those typically seen in SBS deaths.
SBS misdiagnosis is part of a more general problem, namely that we've quite overrated the reliability of much of our forensic science and thought we had ironclad evidence when in fact such "evidence" had never been subject to rigorous scientific review. We're starting to reevaluate the criteria which we've used to convict suspects.

Both of these are stories of overconfidence quite out of keeping with the available knowledge, and in both cases such overconfidence ruined many lives (also, the hubristic were not among the victims). We all make mistakes and those little foibles make life interesting and tend to be our food for growth. But when it comes to making decisions on great matters in which many lives are at stake, going forward boldly with untested ideas can only be described as hubris. We should remember these stories when we think about the grand plans that people are proposing to make our lives better.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Uploading our brains to computers

Bryan Caplan today mentioned the idea of achieving immortality via uploading one's brain to a computer. I've heard others propose such a concept, such as Ray Kurzweil, or seen it appear in fiction, such as in William Gibson, or in Stephen King's Lawnmower Man. It's a tantalizing idea.

Nonetheless, based on what I said earlier about consciousness and teleportation, my biggest fear is when you upload your brain, you won't really upload your consciousness.

In other words, imagine one day in the future, you're sitting there in a chair, with some brain-reader strapped to your head. It reads your brain, uploads it, and then voila, there's now some sort of digital intelligence newly created within the computer's memory. But you're still sitting in the chair, looking at the computer as this computer intelligence is greeting you. And even worse, this computer intelligence is absolutely convinced that it is the true you, and that the physical person sitting in the chair is an obsolete copy that needs to be deleted. From this point, one could spin some sort of sci-fi horror story about an omnipresent computer intelligence trying to kill you because it thinks it's the real you, which might make for an interesting story, but is not a very appealing reality.

If technology is going to give us virtual reality, it seems likely that there is going to have to be some sort of physical continuity for the brain In other words, we have to figure out ways to prolong and preserve our bodies, especially our nervous system, in order to achieve some sort of immortality, if such a thing is at all possible.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Otanes the Persian, a man after my own heart

I've been reading Herodotus' Histories, and there's a short interesting story about a Persian named Otanes. A group of magi (priests) briefly seized control of Persia in the 6th century BC. Seven conspirators, including Otanes and Darius led an insurrection which led to Darius becoming sole monarch of Persia. After the insurrection, but before Darius had been declared King, according to Herodotus, there was a debate among the conspirators about what new government Persia should be given. Otanes favored turning the government over to the Persian People (Book III ch 80-83). He was overruled, since amazingly, these seven conspirators deliberating on whether they should forgo power or seize it for themselves, decide they want power themselves, and they side with Darius who favors a sole monarchy. After deciding this, the next question is who among them is to be the sole monarch, and it's here were Otanes really shines through. Otanes says that he doesn't want power, and that he will withdraw if they leave him and his descendants be. According to Herodotus, Otanes says:
Fellow partisans, it is plain that one of us must be made king (whether by lot, or entrusted with the office by the choice of the Persians, or in some other way), but I shall not compete with you; I desire neither to rule nor to be ruled; but if I waive my claim to be king, I make this condition, that neither I nor any of my descendants shall be subject to any one of you. (Book III ch 83)
The conspirators agree to this, and apparently the agreement is honored down to Herodotus' own day--Otanes and his descendants are given complete autonomy.

Otanes is definitely a man after my own heart. It really makes me wonder how many people, given the choice between ruling others or to be free from the rule of others, would choose the latter. I suspect not many, but I really don't know.

Interestingly there's sort of a related tidbit in Book V about freedom and prosperity. After the Athenians have liberated themselves from their tyrants, with the help of Lacedaemonians, the Lacedaemonians start to grow worried about the Athenians:
the Lacedaemonians, when they ... saw the Athenians increasing in power and in no way inclined to obey them, realized that if the Athenians remained free, they would be equal in power with themselves, but that if they were held down under tyranny, they would be weak and ready to serve a master (Book V ch 91)
The Lacedaemonians were realizing that people left free grow both more prosperous and more powerful. Thus, just as Darius would want to restrict his people's freedom to insure that his people don't threaten his power, so the Lacedaemonians realized they would rather had left Athens oppressed to insure that the Athenians didn't threaten their power.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Are American filmgoers so opposed to Darwin?

A new British Charles Darwin biopic called Creation premiered at the Toronto film festival last week and is set to be released in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and three other European countries over the next several months, but it isn't going to be released in the US. The question is why.

The British Daily Telegraphy thinks it's because the movie is too controversial for American audiences:
according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution .... The film has sparked fierce debate on US Christian websites .... "The film has no distributor in America. It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it's because of what the film is about."

The film stars Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany and is about the struggle between his religious beliefs and his evolutionary theory. The Daily Telegraph says that "Early reviews have raved about the film," but Rotten Tomatoes lists only two reviewers, who are split: one liking it, the other not. Rotten Tomatoes, though, doesn't include the Hollywood Reporter review, which is quite positive.

John Scalzi has a different theory. He thinks it's because the movie just isn't that sexy and exciting:
it may be that a quiet story about the difficult relationship between an increasingly agnostic 19th Century British scientist and his increasingly devout wife, thrown into sharp relief by the death of their beloved 10-year-old daughter, performed by mid-list stars, is not exactly the sort of film that’s going to draw in a huge winter holiday crowd, regardless of whether that scientist happens to be Darwin or not, and that these facts are rather more pertinent, from a potential distributor’s point of view.

This latter theory has some plausibility to it. Controversy is not a good excuse not to release a film since controvery tends to bring bring in the crowds. If Christians got all upset about this movie and it made some press, then people would start piling in, just as people piled in to see The Last Temptation of Christ and Life of Brian.

Something similar happened before with the American release of Battle Royale. It was a Japanese movie set in a dystopic future in which randomly selected school children are placed on an island with weapons and forced to kill each other off for the entertainment of tv audiences. It never got an American release, and people assumed it was because it was too violent or controversial. Turns out the problem is that the Japanese studio and the American distributors couldn't come to an agreement. The Japanese wanted a major American release akin to any big budget American action movie: opening in lots of theaters with lots of promotion and such. But the American distributors would only give it a more limited release, thinking it wouldn't make much money because it was a foreign language film. Foreign language films seldom do very well in the US. For this reason, they couldn't get come to an agreement and the film was never released here in the US.

It's possible something like that is going on with Creation, where the British producers want a wide release and the American distributors think it would only be worth a limited release. It seems implausible that the film wouldn't do fine with a limited release in a couple big cities like New York, LA, San Francisco and other cities which have a lot of small theaters specifically catering to independent and foreign films like this.

Nonetheless, it will be too bad if this film doesn't get an American release, even though, I admit, I probably wouldn't go see it, since it really doesn't look like my cup of tea.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pain Free Animals & Utilitarian Calculus

Robin Hanson has an interesting commentary on the possibility of using animals that are genetically modified not to feel pain for animal testing and livestock. The idea is that people would have fewer moral qualms about eating meat from an animal that didn't experience the pain of slaughter and that people would approve of animal testing if the animals didn't suffer.

This reminds us of Utilitarianism. According to the Utilitarians nothing is in itself good or bad. An action's moral value is determined by the consequences. And we evaluate the consequences by the quantity of the resultant pleasure and pain, since these are the only absolute measures of virtue. If something causes, in the aggregate, across all persons that it affects, more pleasure than pain, then it's good, but if more pain than pleasure then it's bad. This means that we could skew this Utilitarian calculus in our favor by making something entirely pain free. Thus, it would be impossible to do anything bad to a thing that feels no pain (so long as we assume that no one else is affected).

A separate survey gives us some insight into home open to thinking of things in Utilitarian terms. According to this survey which asked people whether they'd be okay with creating pain-free animals for animal testing, people are pretty equally split, about half favoring, half opposing. People who are opposed to cruelty to animals altogether (vegetarians and the animal protection community) are most strongly opposed to it. I think many people probably oppose it simply because they oppose genetic modification entirely. The results are not unambiguous. For example those most opposed to animal cruelty when asked, if pain-free animals already were around, would a scientist "be morally obliged to use a pain-free animal in an otherwise painful experiment," a significant majority agreed.

The idea of a pain-free animal does provide an interesting thought experiment for Utilitarianism: if you have a person who can't experience pain is it impossible to do anything bad to them? I don't think this undermines Utilitarianism, but it does provide an example to chew upon, especially if Utilitarians want to think upon correlative issues like, how do we formulate ethics for the treatment of the dead?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Forget the "We Shall Never Forget" mantra

I concur with Will Wilkinson. There's nothing healthy in this insistence that we never forget 9/11:
Those most insistent that we “never forget” 9/11 are those who need our continuing collective complicity in the erosion of our civil liberties, in the weakening of the rule of law, in the unjustified invasion of unrelated foreign countries and the murder of their people, in the policy of state-sanctioned torture.
Yes, there are many people who died on that day, and we should remember these people. But, we need to move the event into the back of our collective consciousness, where it no longer guides our actions. No person ever grew psychologically healthy by dwelling on past misfortunes. Memory of 9/11 has only led to exaggerated fear of terrorism, which is this county is a nominal threat. It has also led to erosion of civil liberties, invasion of privacy, and still continuing military aggression. Let's put 9/11 behind us.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Why are guys attracted to crazy girls?

Glamour blogger Shallon Lester brought this issue up last week. Why are guys sometimes attracted to those emotionally unstable, unpredictable women? She suggests,
I think guys secretly like the drama. Maybe it makes them feel alive or brings some action to their otherwise dull lives. Or, perhaps it reminds them of the chaos of their own family life as a child ... Or, they could just be weak guys who like being dominated and repressed.

Lauren Fritsky, in response suggests possibly, "men need to feel needed" and and are with such crazy women to boost self-esteem.

Ami Angelowicz, to one up them all, adds five possible theories (ht Glenn Reynolds)

1. Men love to be heroes. They love to “fix” things. It makes them feel needed, important, and feeds the male ego. Who makes a better damsel in distress than a poor, defenseless lunachic? Note to guys: a woman is not like a house. Fixer-uppers do not usually turn out to be a wise investment. If you need to fix something, there are plenty of us normal single girls out there who need some light bulbs changed.
2. If she’s crazy day to day, chances are she’s crazy in the sack. But men don’t really care about sex that much, do they? Wait … I think they might.
3. He has mommy issues. If a guy had a dysfunctional mother (or primary family member) he may not actually be aware that his lady’s behavior is NOT normal. There’s no shame in going to therapy and working that stuff out.
4. Need to figure out your future career? Money troubles? Feeling anxious or depressed? Having a GF with problems much worse than your own is a wonderful distraction. Warning: she will only make your problems worse.
5. He is not ready for a real intimate and committed relationship, and we all pick the wrong kind of person when we’re not ready. As soon as he envisions a lifetime of cracked-out antics, chances are he’ll be on the road to Mrs. Rightville, ASAP

As a guy who has in the past been attracted to some crazy chicks I think I'm in a position to provide insight. From my perspective, I think Shallon Lester gets closest to the truth.

First, I should say, that this is not something confined to just guys. People in general are attracted to "crazy" people, in the sense that we're talking about here (see the movie Withnail & I for a perfect example of a crazy guy like this). The key to this type craziness is a lack of inhibitions which is what leads to the mood swings, the unpredictable actions, and the inability to really make long term commitments. Such people are attractive because they're more interesting, more exciting, more unpredictable. People who deviate from expectations are just plain more interesting and we're attracted to them.

Many people are scared by such unpredictable people, but others are simultaneously attracted to them. The men who are attracted to these crazy chicks (like me when I was younger) are definitely not going to be more dominant personalities ("more spineless," one might say) and are also probably going to be more open to novel experiences. And, I sort of agree with Angelowicz on number 5: if a guy starts thinking long term with a crazy girlfriend he's going to have to think either that he can somehow tame her, without losing the excitement of her crazyiness (unlikely, but a guy can still dream right?) or he's going to drop her for someone more stable.