Showing posts from 2018

The Holocaust Analogy for Animal Agriculture Matters—And It Drives My Activism

I can remember where I was the first time I learned that a man named Hitler had killed members of my family. It was on a hill in the Bay Area that we drove up to get to our house. I drove on it a few months ago and remembered the conversation. My great-grandfather loved me and always showed care to me in the few years I knew him, and it shocked me to learn that his brothers, sisters, and parents were murdered.

Like most Jews of my generation, I grew up with this legacy on my mind. In every history class I had that covered the 1940s, I would wonder when and how they would talk about the Holocaust. (It wasn't until high school that we did.) I did not know how the Holocaust happened until I was in fourth grade, when I overheard a friend describing how Hitler would get Jews to go into showers and then gas them. My friend clearly found it wrong, but he did not feel the outrage of if it had been done to him. I felt personal outrage. I could see that image in my head viscerally forever af…

The Largest Randomized Controlled Trial in History

Chinese researchers released what appears to be the largest experiment in history, with over a thousand researchers involved. The authors list alone is dumbfounding. The study is on the diffusion of modern scientific agricultural techniques in China. There is so much to ponder here that I can barely get started, but a few things:

(1) This shows an inspiring, awesomely grand application of the most rigorous social science tool and should expand the horizons of what's possible.

(2) This shows the growing power of China in combination with social science. I don't quite understand how this worked, but it seems like the type of thing that has got to be far more difficult in a democracy. That makes it somewhat disturbing, but it also raises the question of what interesting findings will come out of China.

(3) This study might worry those concerned about animal agriculture. It's not directly connected, but such efficiency when applied to raising animals could become even worse tortu…

Why Can't Steven Pinker and AI Safety Altruists Get Along?

There are few books that have more influenced to my thinking than Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature. The book makes a powerful case for effective altruism by showing that much of what effective altruists try to spread—reason and empathy, chiefly—has led to a sweeping decline in virtually every form of human violence over the course of human history. At the same time, I think that Pinker's thesis and evidence in that book are compatible with an understanding that tail risks to human civilization, such as catastrophic risks, may have increased, and animal suffering, has clearly increased in recent history. (Humans' moral views on the latter do clearly seem to be improving, though.) 
I've found it puzzling, then, that to coincide with the publication of his book Enlightenment Now, Pinker has been publishing multiplearticles criticizing altruists who are focused on addressing long-term risks, primarily from artificial general intelligence. Pinker disagrees wit…

The Groffscars ("Oscars") of 2017

Thanks to the advent of MoviePass, I've decided to return to my high school cinephile days, and with them, a round up of the best of the year. But before I get into this, I must say, if you have not seen Black Panther yet, see it. It would rank toward the top of my list had it come out in 2017 (and surely will be one of the tops in 2018).

Without further ado, then, here are my top choices for 2017 in film:

8. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I love Star Wars movies, and I'm not ashamed to say that the current round are worthy of recognition for their craftsmanship. This one in particular was a work of art in ways most Star Wars movies are not. The plot was complex and ever-changing, and the visuals were brilliant. I'm happy to see major Hollywood franchises–Marvel, Star Wars, etc.–start putting solid directors behind the camera to make pop entertainment into pop art. (Warner Brothers, could we fire Zack Snyder and get a real director for the Justice League movies?) Let's have mor…

Fooling Ourselves into Believing Things

A New York Times piece I'd had in my backlog writes about an issue most atheists struggle to understand: how does one come to believe something one does not believe? Can we make ourselves have faith?

I was struck by the piece because as time has gone on, I've seen how real this phenomenon can be–and how it may even be something useful to rational people. I've experienced moments when I've thought of getting myself to believe something I did not believe or feel something I did not feel.

Most saliently, as with most gay men, I tried to be straight. I took it a step further in college and did a program called the Vaad, which attempted to turn Yale students into Orthodox Jews. They were damn good at it, too, full of references to the surprisingly difficult fine-tuned universe argument and Kurt Vonnegut. Some people in the program did go on to go to Israel, study at Yeshiva, and so on, and from what I hear there are many others like that. And of course, in some ways, I've…

Data and Racism in Machine Learning?

We often hear stories these days about racism in machine learning algorithms. The subtlety in these stories is often missing. I've been reading about this recently and found this quote very telling:
A wave of scholarship, triggered by the ProPublica report, illuminated the statistical challenge at the heart of the argument: Given that the underlying “base rate” of rearrest is higher for blacks than for whites, it is mathematically inevitable that the burden of false positives will fall more heavily on black defendants than on white ones. In other words, given that more black defendants than white defendants actually do have a high risk of reoffending, a “high risk” label that is correct 70% of the time for both white and black defendants will still mis-label more black than white defendants as high risk. A study titled “Inherent Tradeoffs in the Fair Determination of Risk Scores” proved mathematically that when rearrest rates are not equal between races, a well-calibrated tool like…

The Humane Society and Sexual Harassment: Resources to Read

I thought of writing something myself in light of recent events at the Humane Society, which are reflective of deeper issues in the animal rights movement (ones that I have alternately witnessed, been a bystander to, tacitly facilitated, or spoken out against). Instead, I'm going to recommend women's writing on this subject:

“Hey Man”: Language and Bro Culture in the Animal Protection Movement

Carol Adams's Blog (Author of The Sexual Politics of Meat

VINE Sanctuary/pattrice jones's Blog

Encompass Movement

I should say, also, that I'm proud to support an entirely female or trans organization, Wild Animal Suffering Research.

Is a Computer Neuron the Same as a Brain Neuron?

When I took a philosophy of mind class in high school, my professor proposed neural networks in computer science as a potential way to create consciousness. At the very least, it's a way to create high levels of intelligence. I didn't know exactly what a computerized neural network consisted of (I imagined it being built in hardware), and I still don't, really, but I'm curious: how similar is an artificial neural network to a biological one? Is it really a good replication?

From an article on the similarities and differences

An [Artificial Neural Network] consists of layers made up of interconnected neurons that receive a set of inputs and a set of weights. It then does some mathematical manipulation and outputs the results as a set of “activations” that are similar to synapses in biological neurons. While ANNs typically consist of hundreds to maybe thousands of neurons, the biological neural network of the human brain consists of billions.
On the other hand:

The Beauty of Swimming Next to Fishes

It's not often most humans encounter aquatic animals face to face (unlike domestic animals, and somewhat unlike even pigs or chickens). If we do encounter them, it's likely at the end of a fork.

Seeing fishes, sharks, and a lobster face-to-face was probably the highlight of my recent trip to Belize. You can appreciate their subjectivity in a way that's rare otherwise. Here's a video so you can experience a bit of that, too:

What I've Been Reading/Watching/Listening To

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

1984 – It had been a while since I read this. In light of my experiences last year–the personal and the political–I dusted this off, and I am newly impressed by Orwell's world.
Infinite Jest – Apparently one of the best novels of the 21st century, this book has been enjoyable to read so far (I'm about half-way through). It's the first book I've read in a while that's an intellectual puzzle with obscure references and a counter-intuitive structure that one has to piece together.
Superforecasting – Social scientist Philip Tetlock discusses his forecasting tournaments, which set out to figure out how to predict the future–and do just that. It's both fascinating and important.

Call Me By Your Name – I loved this movie. From the music to the photography to the actors' playful banter, it's a beauty to behold.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi – You've all seen this by now so why say an…

An Engagement Good for More Than Two

Last weekend marked six months since my fiancé, Lucas Freitas, and I got engaged, and I thought it would be helpful for us to share how we (he, really) did it while keeping the event aligned with our shared values of altruism and rationality.

Lucas proposed to me in the conference hotel where we'd first met in person, just one year prior. We met at the National Animal Rights Conference in 2016, and he got down on one knee at the same tent by the pool where we'd had our first kiss.

When he offered me a beautiful ring, designed as the prairie diamond I'd gotten him when we were first dating, I was surprised and uneasy about the ring, and its potential cost, after saying yes while drowning in tears.

Jewelry had always seemed to me the essence of frivolity; the sort of expense one can commit to a charitable donation. What I didn’t realize was that Lucas researched and thought critically about the matter, and arrived at a middle ground that I believe combines a physical symbol of …

Not Everybody Feels the Same Way as Chewbacca

On Monday I commented that Star Wars: The Last Jedi may do more for animal rights than Chewbacca.

Apparently my canine companion has yet to get the message. It's a reminder that change comes in fits and spurts, not all at once:

Or maybe it's just jealousy.

Could Star Wars Do More for Animal Rights Than Cowspiracy?

If you live on the planet Crait and haven't seen The Last Jedi yet, don't read this.The new Star Wars movie contains two moments with unsubtle animal rights messages. The first is what my fiancé Lucas is now calling the "Chewbacca goes vegan" scene. Chewbacca cannot bring himself to eat one of the adorable porgs, who strangely share an unfortunate but useful characteristic of most domestic animals: they look like babies. The second is when children liberate a bunch of horselike creatures from a cruel capitalist casino after we see the horses abused with the Star Wars version of a bull hook.

Those scenes mark Star Wars doing something Pixar is good at: giving animals both personalities and personhood, and making the audience root for them. While vegans cheer at documentaries like What the Health? and Cowspiracy, it may be the Last Jedis and Finding Dorys of the world that really carry the day for animal rights. Fiction, in fact, is a powerful way to increase empathy ac…