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Showing posts from October, 2017

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…