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The Groffscars ("Oscars") of 2019

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It's time for my annual picks for Best Picture. This year (unlike in previous years), two of my picks are nominated, but my top one is not:


The Farewell was in my view the best film of the year. The story was riveting, touching on human relations with a complexity that goes beyond words. It was provocative, sad, even funny at times, but what I think some may miss is that the camerawork was gorgeous too. (The beautifully-composed closing shot, above, is far from the most remarkable. Staircases, even medical machines receive a visually poetic treatment throughout.)

My next-two favorites are, luckily, apparently top Best Picture contenders. First is 1917. Some people thought the (illusory) one-shot visuals were a gimmick, but for my money they fit the story very well and captured the unrelenting intensity of trench warfare.  The actors and script did a solid job sustaining attention over that length of time. That's basically tied in my mind with Parasite, which had an out-of-this …

Do Long-Lived Scientists Hold Back Their Disciplines?

That's the question suggested by a new paper in the American Economic Review. Here's the abstract:
We study the extent to which eminent scientists shape the vitality of their areas of scientific inquiry by examining entry rates into the subfields of 452 academic life scientists who pass away prematurely. Consistent with previous research, the flow of articles by collaborators into affected fields decreases precipitously after the death of a star scientist. In contrast, we find that the flow of articles by non-collaborators increases by 8.6% on average. These additional contributions are disproportionately likely to be highly cited. They are also more likely to be authored by scientists who were not previously active in the deceased superstar's field. Intellectual, social, and resource barriers all impede entry, with outsiders only entering subfields that offer a less hostile landscape for the support and acceptance of “foreign” ideas. Overall, our results suggest that once …

Who Supports Animal Rights?

There's a new paper out by political scientists on support for animal rights. It's in line with most of the data I'd seen but bears repeating. High correlations with support for human rights and being female, and not much of a connection with wealth, but if anything wealthy people are less supportive of animal rights.

The abstract:
In this article, we empirically test explanations for variation in support for animal rights at the individual level and across the United States. We draw on a combination of national public opinion surveys and cross-sectional data on animal rights laws from the fifty US states. We find a strong connection between recognition of human rights and animal rights both at the individual attitude level and at the US state policy level. Our results demonstrate that support for animal rights strongly links to support for disadvantaged or marginalized human populations, including LGBT groups, racial minorities, undocumented immigrants, and the poor.

Want to Save the World? Enter the Priesthood

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Effective altruism is now spending a great deal of time on improving prospects for the future. This is chiefly by avoiding extinction risks, but there are other strategies as well, e.g. moral circle expansion. In any case changing institutions looks like a promising strategy, either to spread moral consideration for animals and future people. What are the longest-lasting institutions in the world? Certainly high among them is religion. For this reason, it seems to me that influencing religion, particularly old religions with a tendency to grow, is a highly-neglected strategy for improving the world.
I've seen posts in effective altruism (e.g. this one) about outreach to religious groups, but I always saw them as a sort of diversity and inclusivity message: to grow a movement, you need to welcome all sorts of people. It's important to welcome and include people, of course, but this seems to be dramatically underselling the importance of religion. The Catholic Church is around 20…

How Much Do Wild Animals Suffer? A Foundational Result on the Question is Wrong.

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NOTE: I would like to clarify that the post below and the published paper show that a result from 1995 does not hold, but they do NOT make the case for the 1995 model being correct. There are many reasons the models in both papers are likely to be deeply flawed: path dependency, dynamic ecosystems, philosophical problems with the definition of suffering and enjoyment, and so on. The primary point here is to treat the 1995 result and other work on wild animal suffering with caution.

In 1995, Yew-Kwang Ng wrote a groundbreaking paper, "Towards welfare biology: Evolutionary economics of animal consciousness and suffering" that explored the novel question of the wellbeing of wild animals as distinct from the conservation of species. As perceptive as it was innovative, the paper proposed a number of axioms about evolution and consciousness to study which animals are sentient, what their experiences are, and what might be done about it.

Among the many results in the paper was the Bu…

A Simple Reason Why Vegan Options Can Have Increased While Veganism Did Not

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It's common knowledge in urban areas that the availability of vegan options has soared in the U.S. and around the world in recent years, and it's nearly equally common to think that veganism has become more common as well, but the data on this raises questions. Gallup has been estimating the number of vegans and vegetarians for years and has repeatedly found no change. At the same time, the number of vegan options is clearly increasing in supermarkets and restaurants. It's far from clear that Gallup is right, because other, sketchier statistics have some hint of the numbers of vegans increasing. I can't find the original data, but GlobalData apparently found a 600% increase in the number of people identifying as vegan, and there's a bunch of figures like this bouncing around online. This seems likely to be driven by the fact that in surveys, more people identify as vegan and vegetarian than actually are based on self-reported food choices, but Gallup’s trends (or a…

The Groffscars ("Oscars") of 2018

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Chiming once again in as the Oscars are announced with my picks for this year, which aren't always those that are nominated.

My favorite movie of the year was A Star Is Born. I left that movie in awe: the way the camera moves during the concerts makes it feel like we are on stage, and Lady Gaga, the quintessential modern pop star, comes across as a totally normal person. The story and acting had my bawling as I left the theater.

After that, I think the next-best movie of the year was Hereditary, which as a horror movie didn't stand a chance of being nominated. It's the scariest movie I've ever seen in theaters, easily, and probably the scariest I've ever seen. It draws with real-life issues as well in a way that makes it all the more unsettling.

I think after that Black Panther takes the cake for me. It's a superhero movie made into an afro-futuristic epic, and despite all its popularity, it's not a bit oversold. It draws on all sorts of pop-culture all the wa…