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Showing posts from 2017

Why I am Donating to Wild Animal Suffering Research

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This post discusses my donations, as part of a pledge to give 10% of my monthly income to highly effective charities. To learn why thousands of people have taken the pledge and to take it, visit givingwhatwecan.org.


A dead turtle appeared on the shores of Playa Dorada in the Galapagos last month. The turtle, Benny, had died a few hours earlier, and his body was cold. Not too long ago Benny had been a baby with tiny little webbed hands and eyes that barely opened. You can see videos online of baby turtles just like Benny hatching and their little bodies moving oh-so-slowly as they meet the world for the first time. Benny had been one of them. Then he grew up and lived in the waters of the Galapagos–until one day, when he ate a jellyfish called "hielo," or ice, that poisoned him. Benny convulsed in severe pain until he suffered an abrupt death.
How did Benny die?
The species of the jellyfish that Benny eat is rapidly expanding thanks to the warming global climate.Benny could not …

Things I've Changed My Mind on This Year:

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1) The importance of artificial general intelligence:

I'd previously been dismissive of superintelligence as being something altruists should focus on, but that was in large part motivated reasoning. I read books like Superintelligenceand Global Catastrophic Risks, and I knew their theses were right initially but would not admit it to myself. With time, though I came to see that I was resisting the conclusion that superintelligence is an important priority mostly because it was uncomfortable. Now I recognize that it is potentially the most important problem and want to explore opportunities to contribute.

2) The economic argument for animal welfare reforms:

One of the reasons often given for supporting animal welfare reforms to those who want to see fewer (read: no) animals tortured for food is that welfare reforms make the industry less profitable, cutting down on the numbers of animals raised. I did not think this effect was strong enough to be worth the effort activists put into …

Is Peace the Cause of Political Polarization?

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Everybody likes to attribute bad trends to other bad trends they don't like. Liberals may say political polarization is caused by inequality, while conservatives may say it's caused by the decline in religion. Recently I've been wondering if a good trend caused a bad trend: is political polarization just a result of decades without a major war mobilization?

A lot of egalitarian reforms and social projects seem to happen during or around wartime. The U.S. abolished slavery during the Civil War, gave women the right to vote on the heels of World War I, and World War II had all sorts of social effects from racially integrated units to gay soldiers to women in factories. When I read about the history of Rome, I remember great land reforms tending to coincide with major wars. (Lex Licinia Sextia, the first major land reform, happened on the coattails of the Roman-Etruscan wars.) The idea of war triggering social egalitarianism also fits with folk psychology ideas of how people b…

Animal Welfare Reforms Are Looking Significantly Better for Animals (and Worse for Gary Francione)

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Supporters of welfare reform campaigns by animal advocacy organizations got a nice piece of evidence last month that deserves more attention than it's gotten in effective animal advocacy circles.  To cast things in sloppy strokes, a longstanding feud between "welfarists" and "abolitionists" has been over whether welfare reforms help or hurt animal agriculture. Abolitionists argue that reforms actually help the industry–if not, why would the industry adopt them? We'll probably never have a definite answer to this question, but economic analyses of one of the biggest animal welfare laws in U.S. history–California's Proposition 2–give reason for animal advocates to move toward the welfarist view.

From the paper, "The Impact of Farm Animal Housing Restrictions on Egg Prices, Consumer Welfare, and Production in California":


Twenty months after implementation of the [animal welfare] laws, the number of egg-laying hens and total egg production in Calif…

Poland's Nationalist March

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Poland had a 60,000-person nationalist march Saturday, something that hits close to home for me since my family comes from the Poland/Ukraine border, and nearly all of my great-grandfather’s (who I knew) family was likely killed in Auschwitz. The march is terrifying, but I don't find it surprising based on my experience visiting Krakow a few years ago.

I went to Krakow largely to visit Auschwitz but also, to a small degree, to see the region where my ancestors lived (even if they did not have a connection to Krakow itself).

My visit to Auschwitz was highly commercial: people smiled for pictures by the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate, and we of course exited through the gift shop. People on my tour were uncomfortable when I put rocks on memorial sites in keeping with Jewish tradition. When I returned from the tour and was walking around Krakow, I kept getting solicited by guides in golf carts, each one claiming to offer the best deal on a tour of Auschwitz and the Jewish quarter.
Then I visi…

The Man in the High Castle: Best Show on TV

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I've recently gotten into Amazon's The Man in the High Castle, based on the Philip K. Dick novel. The show depicts the 1960s in an alternate history in which Axis powers won World War II. The U.S. is divided into a German half, a Japanese half, and a no man's land in between. Resistance fighters work to undermine fascist rule while political tensions rise between the Japanese and Germans. It's terrifying, of course, but it's also gripping and inspiring.

(Note that I am only on season 1, so don't expect this to depict the second season properly.)

Beyond the obvious political intrigue, what I appreciate about the show is its blend of genres. It's part spy game (with double agents and all), part neo-noir detective story, part western, and part war flick. The pace moves steadily–it's the first show I find close so irresistible since Lost.

More than anything, I appreciate the show for its depiction of a struggle for justice against all odds. Give it a watch.

Why You Should Read "Positive News"

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The new news site "Positive News" is worth a read. I'm far from a starry-eyed optimist and was cheered by an MRI study in 2011 claiming (by a dubious definition) that optimism was a psychological disorder. That does not change the fact that contemporary news is overly focused on small, negative aspects of reality: shootings that kill a tiny number of people next to the numbers whose lives are being saved worldwide by the decline in poverty; a Trump tweet that threatens democracy far less than Supreme Court decisions elsewhere signal a rise in democracy.

I don't do a good enough job myself of being positive, and I'm hoping this will help me improve on that score.
Great recent features include: –The movement for joyful aging5 possible solutions to overpopulationThe new masculinity

Oh, and on the positive news front ISIS is crumbling–so much that it rarely gets mentioned in the news next to the likes of North Korea. Even if another crisis has taken center stage, it…

Democratic Dysfunction May Get in the Way of Everything

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Trump's election has been gravely concerning to me for a while now, and as a Bay Area resident the repeated clashes between antifas on the one hand and Milo and friends on the other hand are an additional alarm. As a believer in Enlightenment values who, perhaps conveniently, thinks that widespread belief in and consensus around those values leads to good things (such as economic prosperity and peace), I'm disturbed by what seems like an assault on reason from all sides. On the right, there's the rise of nativism, and on the left, there's an identity-politics reaction that risks enabling the right.12

This has me starting to worry that maybe democratic dysfunction could be an issue above all issues. This piece got me thinking recently, and this blog helped me sort through my thoughts. I tend to think of the most pressing issues in the world as those directly affecting various generally ignored or in some cases inherently disenfranchised groups, including nonhuman animals…

Yesterday's Nobel Prize Winner's Work Has More Radical Implications than Most Admit

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Richard Thaler won the Nobel prize yesterday for his work in developing behavioral economics. Thaler led the way in unraveling the traditional view in economics that humans are rational decision makers who at least on average will satisfy their goals if left to their own devices. In fact, humans systematically deviate from rationality in ways that give rise to policy prescriptions. I wrote my college thesis on Nudge, the book he co-authored with Cass Sunstein to collect these ideas, and I think behavioral economics is one of the greatest recent inventions.
I think that the implications of Thaler's and others' work in behavioral economics goes deeper than what he and others admit. Experiments show that humans systematically deviate from rationality by being present-biased, prone to temptation, unfocused, and inordinately susceptible to social influence. Thaler points out that these are all things that can systematically stop us from achieving our goals.
They also raise serious qu…

The Hidden Cost of Shifting Away from Poverty

The Center for Effective Altruism and effective altruists active in online spaces have for a while now been shifting away from a focus on poverty toward a focus on the far future and meta-level work (and if not that, animal advocacy). Interestingly, the rank and file of effective altruism does not seem to have made this shift (or at least completed it). I generally agree with CEA and the online community on this. I think it's a shift with solid reasoning behind it. I think there's reason to pause, though, and appreciate some of what EA loses by making this shift.

Much of what EA loses by making this shift has been discussed: things become very abstract in a way that may not be compelling to as many people, and there are concerns about an overly speculative cause.

I believe there are other concerns to be had, though. In particular, there is an immense amount that EAs can learn from the global poverty space and apply to other spaces, and I see very few EAs doing that. The things I…

Another Reading of the Historical Record on Civil Rights

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I wrote a blog post a week ago positing that civil rights era protests may not have been as effective as I'd previously thought. My basic claim was that confrontation seemed to kick up a storm, and it might have been possible to kick up less of a storm. I still think it probably would not have been possible, but the strength of my confidence was weakened.


There's an alternative reading, or at least an additional issue, that might be at play in the history of the civil rights movement: that the civil rights movement made serious strategic miscalculations in the specific changes it pushed for and accepted.

The story of racial justice since the civil rights movement is chronicled in a number of places, my favorite of which is Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations. Basically, while legally ordained segregation ended, a number of systems popped up that sustained nearly the same degree of racial segregation in the most intimate and important places: mass incarceration, reside…

Did Confrontation Really Work in the Civil Rights Movement?

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I've recently wrapped up reading Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire, the book covering 1963-1965 in a three-part series on the civil rights movement. I've been reading through the series in large part for its insights for animal advocacy in particular and social and political dynamics in general. The civil rights movement is one of the most commonly cited pieces of evidence for why protests and grassroots activism work. (It's certainly overly cited in the animal advocacy context.) Despite that, I'm ending the book with doubts about whether confrontational activism worked even in the civil rights movement.

To be clear, Pillar of Fire and its prequel Parting the Waters document short-run nonviolent triumph over the forces of segregation: children pushing through firehoses in Birmingham and marches to the Selma voting registrar's office. The civil rights movement's discipline yields political rewards. The political party most allied to them, the Democrats, win an e…

Locals Thwart New Kansas Tyson Plant—Why Doesn't This Happen More Often?

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In the annals of social movements, one of the ones that most clearly achieved its objectives was the wave of U.S. anti-nuclear protests in the 1970s. Across the U.S., those who lived near nuclear power plants picketed, blockaded, and disrupted construction of plants, including taking strategic advantage of the Three Mile Island incident to effectively end nuclear power across the U.S. Nuclear power in the U.S. now has a monumental stigma against it quite unlike other developed countries—nuclear power is even a primary source for France's energy infrastructure. (U.S. policy is likely mistaken, as nuclear power is relatively safe).

This week, Kansas offers some inspiration for animal advocates on a model we should consider. Tyson is being forced to back out of a huge new chicken facility after 2,000 out of 5,000 residents of neighboring town Tonganoxie protested last Friday over environmental concerns.

Tyson is scrambling and will likely find somewhere to build not too far from there,…

How Sharp a Turn Did Humans Take in the Industrial Revolution?

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Luke Muelhauser at the Open Philanthropy Project has a thought-provoking post arguing that most of human history is roughly the same plodding along in boring conditions until the industrial revolution, in which productivity exploded, countering what people have gotten in history. You can see a visual illustration of this in the graph on the right.
I think this gets a whole lot right about the way history has gone. It irrefutably gets a lot right when you talk in terms of sheer magnitude of living conditions: the amount of good things multiplied many times over in a short period of time.
As one of the commenters pointed out, there could still be importance to earlier eras of history–potentially as much importance as in post-Industrial Revolution history. The reason is this: if our interest is in relative progress, then one man's flat line is another man's explosion. If human progress followed an exponential function, then when an "explosion" happens depends on the scale…

What I've Been Reading/Watching/Listening To

Here are some recent things I've been following and would recommend:

Books:
Pillar of Fire - The second part in a fascinating three-part series on the civil rights movement.
Tales of the City - Serialized fiction by Armistead Maupin in the 1970s on countercultural life in San Francisco.

Articles:The Unilateralist’s Curse: The Case for Principle of Conformity - A philosophy paper that hits on a surprising dilemma and argues for a conclusion most philosophers would not like. The Resegregation of Jefferson County - A disheartening New York Times Magazine feature on the state of the South.We need to nationalise Google, Facebook and Amazon. Here’s why - The title speaks for itself, but I think this is a topic that has had surprisingly little discussion relative to its importance. How bosses are (literally) like dictators - A Vox piece on workplace democracy, or the lack thereof. Another rarely discussed issue with real importance.
Films:
Hacksaw Ridge - Mel Gibson's recent movie follows a …

Sympathizing with the Christian Dissenter in Hacksaw Ridge

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I watched Hacksaw Ridge this weekend, Mel Gibson's movie about a literal Christian soldier during World War II who becomes a medic after completing basic training without picking up a gun. He's a Seventh Day Adventist, which makes him a pacifist (as well as a vegetarian).

I found myself empathizing and sympathizing with him more than I'd expected, including in moments that pertained less to his pacifism than to his religion–a puzzling predicament for me as an atheist Jew. Faith is the opposite of how I try to operate. I try to be skeptical of everything and believe things based on proof (all while knowing that this is unattainable).

Yet once I have arrived at a conclusion, and pending further evidence forcing me to revise my beliefs, I believe strongly in acting: whether it's direct activism as I've done in the past, research, or donating money. Acting requires commitment. Even when the evidence points one way, social norms often point the other way. Those social nor…

Is Instinctive Conformism an Actually Rational?

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Many of us grow up questioning conformity. Even those who don't go through a teenage rage phase get a good deal of anti-conformity in school thanks to the Enlightenment. It turns out some of the human tendency toward conformity may be rational, and for fairly subtle reasons.
I read up last week on the Unilateralist's Curse, the problem covered in a brilliant philosophy paper by Cambridge's Nick Bostrom (h/t Buck Shlegeris). The Unilateralist's Curse occurs when a member of a group sharing a common altruistic goal takes an action that hurts the goal because that member mistakenly believes the action to be helpful. If members of a group are each appraising the likelihood of an action being helpful and choosing whether to take the action independently, the action is more likely to happen than it should be.
An example is this: five people have discovered a technology with the potential to cause grave harm and are deciding whether to release it or not. Even if four out of the…

Some Answers about Policy Outreach on Artificial Intelligence

I asked a question last week about whether efforts to ensure that artificial intelligence is developed safely should include public outreach. This goes significantly against the grain of most people working on AI safety, as the predominant view is that all that is useful right now is research, and even outreach to elites should wait. While I'm still not persuaded that public outreach would be harmful, I was moved toward seeing why it might be a bad idea from a few answers I got:

1) On the core issues, the policy asks have yet to be worked out for ensuring safe development of artificial intelligence. Nobody knows how we actually program AI to be safe, yet. We are so far from that there is little to say.
2) Regulation could tie the ethical AI developers' hands and let bad actors be the ones who develop AI. This argument closely resembles arguments about other regulations: industries flee countries with the most regulations, causing industries to move to less-regulated countries. I…

Insects Are Going out the Window. How Should We Think About This?

Insect populations are rapidly declining according to scientists (and our cars' windshields):
An amateur German group called the Krefeld Entomological Society has been monitoring insect numbers at 100 nature reserves in Western Europe since the 1980s. Although there were the annual fluctuations they discovered that by 2013 numbers began to plummet by nearly 80 per cent.
Most people likely see this as a huge loss, particularly animal advocates. Environmentalists will of course see this as a huge loss given the effects on many ecosystems.
There's a growing body of literature, however, that suggests a different reaction (for instance, see Simon Knutsson). Much of it is done by lay people, but I hope to be able to study this question academically before long. If insects do feel pleasure and pain, then their lives look pretty lousy. In the vast majority of cases, "being an insect" means being born and promptly starving, being eaten alive, or dying in another horrific way.
It …

I'm a City Dweller

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I woke up living in an apartment building for the first time in my life. (I'd previously woken up in apartment buildings, but did not live in them.) Having spent most of my life in the suburbs and my high school years having envy for my friends' access to public transit, this is an interesting moment for me. I've always admired cities, and the moment has had me reflect on my place in one.

It had me thinking about cities and what I've read and learned about them. In college I did a program called FOCUS on New Haven that introduced us to urban politics and then took a course on New Haven and American cities based off the book City: Urbanism and Its End. There's a lot more to learn from reading about New Haven than many people think. Its history has a rare degree of historical documentation given the presence of Yale. It typifies the history of many formerly great American cities, going from a geographically blessed religious haven to an industrial behemoth (in this ca…

RIP Village Voice

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The Village Voice is ending its print addition today and is being hailed for its long run. It was once introduced to me as a gay newspaper, which I think indicates the way people think about it. The funny thing is that the paper had a huge fight with gay rights activists in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots, which it referred to as "The Great Faggot Rebellion" and refusing ads with the word "gay" in them. Here's their article from the night of the Stonewall riots, a fun historical artifact:

Here, on the other hand, is their guide to 2017 Pride. Let's just say #SocialChange.

Does AI Safety (and the Effective Altruist Technocracy) Need More of a Grassroots?

The Future of Life Institute released a letter today to the UN’s Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) conveying concerns regarding lethal autonomous weapons (signed by Elon Musk and covered in The Washington Post and elsewhere). The concerns are grave:
Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close. We therefore implore the High Contracting Parties to find a way to protect us all from these dangers.I used to be unduly dismissive of far future concerns (as did many other EAs), but I've been persuaded by books like Superintelligence that getting a…