Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Words to live by

"Dance like no one's watching; tweet like one day you will be held up as the moral authority of the land." — Kumail Nanjiani

Monday, March 30, 2015

Overheard on the NYC subway

Two British girls in a whole class of high-school students taking the 1 train uptown to 59th St.:

Did you know we're going to Central Park?

What's Central Park?

It's just a park!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why the humanities shouldn't be crowded out by STEM education

Fareed Zakaria makes a compelling case:

If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities. From President Obama on down, public officials have cautioned against pursuing degrees like art history, which are seen as expensive luxuries in today’s world. . . .

This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings.

For most of its history, the United States was unique in offering a well-rounded education. In their comprehensive study, “The Race Between Education and Technology,” Harvard’s Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz point out that in the 19th century, countries like Britain, France and Germany educated only a few and put them through narrow programs designed to impart only the skills crucial to their professions. America, by contrast, provided mass general education because people were not rooted in specific locations with long-established trades that offered the only paths forward for young men. And the American economy historically changed so quickly that the nature of work and the requirements for success tended to shift from one generation to the next. People didn’t want to lock themselves into one professional guild or learn one specific skill for life.

That was appropriate in another era, the technologists argue, but it is dangerous in today’s world. Look at where American kids stand compared with their peers abroad. The most recent international test, conducted in 2012, found that among the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranked 27th in math, 20th in science and 17th in reading. If rankings across the three subjects are averaged, the United States comes in 21st, trailing nations such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Estonia.

In truth, though, the United States has never done well on international tests, and they are not good predictors of our national success. Since 1964, when the first such exam was administered to 13-year-olds in 12 countries, America has lagged behind its peers, rarely rising above the middle of the pack and doing particularly poorly in science and math. And yet over these past five decades, that same laggard country has dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation.

Consider the same pattern in two other highly innovative countries, Sweden and Israel. Israel ranks first in the world in venture-capital investments as a percentage of GDP; the United States ranks second, and Sweden is sixth, ahead of Great Britain and Germany. These nations do well by most measures of innovation, such as research and development spending and the number of high-tech companies as a share of all public companies. Yet all three countries fare surprisingly poorly in the OECD test rankings. Sweden and Israel performed even worse than the United States on the 2012 assessment, landing overall at 28th and 29th, respectively, among the 34 most-developed economies.

But other than bad test-takers, their economies have a few important traits in common: They are flexible. Their work cultures are non-hierarchical and merit-based. All operate like young countries, with energy and dynamism. All three are open societies, happy to let in the world’s ideas, goods and services. And people in all three nations are confident — a characteristic that can be measured. Despite ranking 27th and 30th in math, respectively, American and Israeli students came out at the top in their belief in their math abilities, if one tallies up their responses to survey questions about their skills. Sweden came in seventh, even though its math ranking was 28th.

Thirty years ago, William Bennett, the Reagan-era secretary of education, noticed this disparity between achievement and confidence and quipped, “This country is a lot better at teaching self-esteem than it is at teaching math.” It’s a funny line, but there is actually something powerful in the plucky confidence of American, Swedish and Israeli students. It allows them to challenge their elders, start companies, persist when others think they are wrong and pick themselves up when they fail. Too much confidence runs the risk of self-delusion, but the trait is an essential ingredient for entrepreneurship.

My point is not that it’s good that American students fare poorly on these tests. It isn’t. Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have benefitted enormously from having skilled workforces. But technical chops are just one ingredient needed for innovation and economic success. America overcomes its disadvantage — a less-technically-trained workforce — with other advantages such as creativity, critical thinking and an optimistic outlook. A country like Japan, by contrast, can’t do as much with its well-trained workers because it lacks many of the factors that produce continuous innovation.

Americans should be careful before they try to mimic Asian educational systems, which are oriented around memorization and test-taking. I went through that kind of system. It has its strengths, but it’s not conducive to thinking, problem solving or creativity. That’s why most Asian countries, from Singapore to South Korea to India, are trying to add features of a liberal education to their systems. Jack Ma, the founder of China’s Internet behemoth Alibaba, recently hypothesized in a speech that the Chinese are not as innovative as Westerners because China’s educational system, which teaches the basics very well, does not nourish a student’s complete intelligence, allowing her to range freely, experiment and enjoy herself while learning: “Many painters learn by having fun, many works [of art and literature] are the products of having fun. So, our entrepreneurs need to learn how to have fun, too.”

No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon (and the owner of this newspaper), insists that his senior executives write memos, often as long as six printed pages, and begins senior-management meetings with a period of quiet time, sometimes as long as 30 minutes, while everyone reads the “narratives” to themselves and makes notes on them. In an interview with Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, Bezos said: “Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

Companies often prefer strong basics to narrow expertise. Andrew Benett, a management consultant, surveyed 100 business leaders and found that 84 of them said they would rather hire smart, passionate people, even if they didn’t have the exact skills their companies needed.

Innovation in business has always involved insights beyond technology. Consider the case of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg was a classic liberal arts student who also happened to be passionately interested in computers. He studied ancient Greek intensively in high school and majored in psychology while he attended college. And Facebook’s innovations have a lot to do with psychology. Zuckerberg has often pointed out that before Facebook was created, most people shielded their identities on the Internet. It was a land of anonymity. Facebook’s insight was that it could create a culture of real identities, where people would voluntarily expose themselves to their friends, and this would become a transformative platform. Of course, Zuckerberg understands computers deeply and uses great coders to put his ideas into practice, but as he has put it, Facebook is “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.”

Twenty years ago, tech companies might have survived simply as product manufacturers. Now they have to be on the cutting edge of design, marketing and social networking. You can make a sneaker equally well in many parts of the world, but you can’t sell it for $300 unless you’ve built a story around it. The same is true for cars, clothes and coffee. The value added is in the brand — how it is imagined, presented, sold and sustained. Or consider America’s vast entertainment industry, built around stories, songs, design and creativity. All of this requires skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum.

Critical thinking is, in the end, the only way to protect American jobs. David Autor, the MIT economist who has most carefully studied the impact of technology and globalization on labor, writes that “human tasks that have proved most amenable to computerization are those that follow explicit, codifiable procedures — such as multiplication — where computers now vastly exceed human labor in speed, quality, accuracy, and cost efficiency. Tasks that have proved most vexing to automate are those that demand flexibility, judgment, and common sense — skills that we understand only tacitly — for example, developing a hypothesis or organizing a closet.” In 2013, two Oxford scholars conducted a comprehensive study on employment and found that, for workers to avoid the computerization of their jobs, “they will have to acquire creative and social skills.”

This doesn’t in any way detract from the need for training in technology, but it does suggest that as we work with computers (which is really the future of all work), the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out — yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.

One final reason to value a liberal education lies in its roots. For most of human history, all education was skills-based. Hunters, farmers and warriors taught their young to hunt, farm and fight. But about 2,500 years ago, that changed in Greece, which began to experiment with a new form of government: democracy. This innovation in government required an innovation in education. Basic skills for sustenance were no longer sufficient. Citizens also had to learn how to manage their own societies and practice self-government. They still do.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Why not force everyone to vote?

Peggy Noonan says:

"It would be transformative if everybody voted," [Obama] told an audience in Cleveland. Yes, it would. It would mean a lot of people who aren’t interested in public policy and choose not to follow it would suddenly be deciding it.

The way it is now, if you aren’t interested—and you have the right not to be interested—you don’t have to vote. If you are interested, you pay attention, develop political views, and vote. Making those who don’t care about voting vote will only dilute the votes of those who are serious and have done their democratic homework.

Most of us are moved by the sight of citizens lined up at the polls on Election Day. We should urge everyone to care enough to stand in that line. But we should not harass or bother those who, with modesty and even generosity, say they are happy to leave the privilege of the ballot to those who are engaged.
Mandatory voting would also increase the sense that your vote doesn't make a difference, since your vote would become an even smaller proportion of the total. More people would vote, but most of them would be more lackluster about their votes — including those who would have voted voluntarily anyway.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The US Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department

Conor Friedersdorf challenges conservatives to take it seriously:

Conservatives fancy themselves zealous protectors of constitutional rights. They are suspicious of government power. They are hostile to bureaucratic corruption, however petty. And they oppose the confiscation of wealth without compelling reasons. The Ferguson report gives them much to object to in every one of these categories. It is remarkable that many on the right have instead dismissed the report without even reading it—as if psychologizing Eric Holder or cross-referencing generic arguments about disparate impact and crime rates obviated the need to reckon with the Justice Department’s specific findings. It seems to me that a kind of team-sport mentality has prevailed. Conservatives do not like sweeping denunciations of the entire criminal-justice system as racist, and they especially do not like violent protests, looting, and attacks on policemen—all very rightly.

But from there, too many conservatives have come to see any criticism of police conduct, or any allegation of racism, as if it were a play by the opposing team. They duly boo. Instead, they should reflect that all that is correct in their defense of the police is compromised by the extension of that defense to anything unworthy of it. . . .

Many conservatives I have spoken to are of the opinion that the FPD is no worse than any other police department and that they oppose the FPD being targeted simply because of the Michael Brown incident. I suppose this is probably true, but what I don’t understand is why that is seen as a feature, not a bug. The information I am going to describe below is appalling and breathtaking. If Ferguson is no worse than other cities, then why don’t we say that the problem is that all cities need to look very hard at fixing their municipal police departments, rather than that the Ferguson PD should be excused?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

What happens when you try to talk to a Starbucks barista about race?

Joe Berkowitz finds out:

I went to the four Starbucks closest to my office and asked the baristas about race. It is difficult to put into words the relief of never having to do so ever again. . . . .

Starbucks was definitely asking baristas to speak to customers about Ferguson and other race-related issues, with all locations technically participating, but the finer details remained a mystery. Were the baristas, presumably already quite busy, receiving any training, or getting paid extra for this? Were there boundaries in place, or at least prescribed talking points or verbal no-fly zones? I decided, for the sake of the experiment, to pick up on those details as many of the frappe-crazed masses would--on the spot. So I set out for the nearest coffee shop, information-gaps and all, to have a deeply personal and political conversation with an apron-clad stranger. . . .

I order a small coffee and glance at all the people on line behind me. It's so many people--at least enough to fill a jury box. If the barista and I are to have an effective meditation on identity politics, all of these people are going to be made to wait. It's the first time that the wild impracticality of this campaign, as I understand it, fully dawns on me. Could Schultz really expect people on line to patiently wait while the barista and I—and the rest of America, by extension—make inroads toward unity? Perhaps once I start the conversation, an assistant would come along and take me aside so that we may approach enlightenment more privately.

When the barista, a young wavy-haired Latino, brought my change, I spoke my truth. "This is a little embarrassing," I began, "but I was wondering what happens if I want to talk about race."

His eyebrows narrow as though I've just asked him whether he has a minute to talk about green energy. After I mention having heard about a promotion, though, he understands. He gets a fresh cup for my small coffee and, while scribbling on it with a Sharpie, he explains more about the campaign. It's called ‪#‎RaceTogether‬, and baristas like him are being urged to write this hashtag on coffee cups in hopes of sparking meaningful conversation and spreading awareness of Starbucks racial issues. . . . "I was writing it more yesterday, but a lot of the customers were not super into it." He makes air-quotes during the last three words, leading me to believe those other customers were so not into it as to be far away, observing the inside of "it" through binoculars while shaking their heads emphatically. . . .

We are not talking about race, we are talking about talking about race, and that is it. Even doing just that took long enough, though, to make both the barista and the already antsy customers visibly antsier. As I leave, I can hear him ask the next poor guy if he's heard of #RaceTogether, and I feel a little queasy about the domino effect of this visit.

Now that I've experienced this campaign in action, I realize why it's familiar. Although the trend seems to have tapered off recently, Trader Joe's must have at one point urged its cashiers to always have a friendly chat with customers. How else to account for the consistent conversations I've had about what kind of party I must be throwing with so much Speculoo's Cookie Butter? (Um, the best damn party of your whole life.) Of course, the mandatory nature of these conversations sometimes made them veer beyond the amusingly banal into the realm of debasement. Those people were being forced in some way to make the smallest possible small talk with me, even though they were perhaps not "super into it."

The other customer service moment this campaign reminds me of is when certain pharmacy cashiers are made to ask customers to donate in support of breast cancer awareness, or something similar. In a technical sense, the pharmacy's heart, such as it exists, is in the right place, supporting a worthy cause. In a more accurate sense, though, this pharmacy might be forcing me to tell a human being that I'm too much of a self-centered cheapskate to support a worthy cause. Starbucks seekers will soon be put in a similar position when forced to decline helping to heal our nation's deepest wound in favor of not being slightly late for Trapfit class.

After visiting the next two neighboring Starbucks in quick succession, it's become clear that nobody on either side of the counter wants to talk about race. They want to talk about coffee, and transacting around it as expeditiously as science allows. . . . In both the second and third visit, I placed my coffee order and, upon receiving it, asked what happens if I want to talk about race. The baristas at both spots, both of whom are black, seem only vaguely familiar with the concept. They just know they're supposed to write #RaceTogether on the sides of some coffee cups. One of their managers hears my question and explains that the promotion hasn't actually begun.

"I think it's starting next week," he says. "We're gonna write ‪#‎ComeTogether‬ on all the cups that we hand out, and stickers. I think, the whole Trayvon Martin, trying to just, I would say, merge between the community and the police department."

Who could blame him for putting this off? I wouldn't want to write #RaceTogether on coffee cups and have to humor media people and the terminally curious with all their guinea-pig fascination. At this moment, #RaceTogether still has enough mystery to be viewed abstractly as this ridiculous idea that hasn't quite happened yet—like if we'd all heard tell of the selfie stick two or three years ago. It's the reason half of the baristas I ordered from giggled in a sheepish way while explaining the campaign. As of March 17, just after 6 p.m., they have yet to experience the reality of having to inquire what Starbucks customers claim to think about how institutionalized racism kills unarmed black people.

Perhaps they never will, though.

When I make my final coffee order, from another barista who is black, I have the following exchange:

Me: This is a little embarrassing, but I was wondering if you wanted to talk about race.

Him: Race?

Me: Yeah.

Him: What to say about it?

Me: I don't know, I just saw there was that promotion going on.

Him: Oh yeah.

Me: Yeah. Like, what happens if someone wants to talk about it?

Him: I don't know. Nothing.

No corporation can force people to have an honest conversation about America's race problem. They'll either have one or they won't. Simply presenting them with the opportunity, though, doesn't even raise awareness of the matter; it just raises awareness of Starbucks's awareness. The more you pat yourself on the back for being conscious of an issue, the more it seems like exploitation. What kind of positive change could actually come from a large number of people knowing that Starbucks wants people to talk about race? I don't know. Nothing.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What's the point of talking about "white privilege"?

John McWhorter writes:

[T]he idea is supposedly that we need to disseminate this awareness of White Privilege before we can start on the political part of the project. But the case for White Privilege as a necessary prelude to change relies on a premise that America is a nation “in denial” about racism past and present. That premise has rhetorical punch, but doesn’t comport with reality.

Take the usual phrasing that America needs a “conversation” on race. Our country engages in an endless “conversation” about race year round, in the media, academia, and barstool talk, while schools, museums, the media, the publishing industry, and government organizations treat coverage, exploration and deploring of, as well as apology for, racism as ingrained aspects of their mission.

Many foreign observers would be baffled by the notion that this is a nation that refuses a “conversation” about race or even racism—just last year involved fervent discussions of not only police brutality, but microaggression, gentrification, the N-word, reparations, and much more. The fact that this conversation doesn’t lead to all whites bowing down to all black complaints, an outcome tacitly desired by a certain cadre of academics and journalists, does not disqualify it as a conversation.

The question, then, becomes: Precisely what benefit do White Privilege 101 lessons add to all of what there already is? (Again, “knowing about White Privilege” is not an answer.) What are we hoping will happen in the wake of these lessons that hasn’t been happening before, and crucially, upon what evidence has that hope been founded?

America is by no means post-racial, but it is not 1960 either; change happens. Example: The U.S. Justice Department has officially faulted the Ferguson police department for discriminatory ticketing and could even shut it down. I cheer that development, but the protests over the Michael Brown verdict, magnified by social media, are what created this attention. The White Privilege lessons the DOJ’s outreach body imposed just made local whites angry. What popped the lock was good Old-Fashioned Civil Rights law. What’s the gain from White Privilege rhetoric? . . .

White Privilege 101 lessons require endless reiteration of key principles to retain. In many ways, taking them from words to action is such a logically fragile proposition that it must be billed as endlessly “subtle” (or “messy”)—a strange kind of pitch for something supposedly so urgent. And those questioning the whole affair are heatedly dismissed as “not getting it.” It all sounds familiar—but less as politics than as religion. . . .

In a society where racism is treated as morally equivalent to pedophilia, what whites are seeking is the sweet relief of moral absolution. Inside they are pleading, “Please don’t hate me!” And I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an accompanying feeling of purification (redemption, even) that comes with such consultant-given absolution. I can honestly say that I would be engaging in exactly this kind of moral self-flagellation about racism if I were white in today’s America.

However, not being white, I can’t help but see it from a different perspective.

If “I know that I’m privileged!” is a statement made largely for one’s own sense of security, then it’s unclear to me how, say, the private school programs’ White Privilege sessions are “challenging” White Privilege, as the Times story’s headline put it. Semi-coerced self-interest rather than genuine enlightenment or understanding seems to be the vehicle for this racial revelation. . . .

So let’s start this stage of our “dialogue on race” with a simple question: When our mandated diversity director says, “This is messy work, but these conversations are necessary,” we have every right, as moral persons, to ask: Why, and for whose benefit?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Radiohead — The Bends turns 20

Radiohead released their best album, The Bends, 20 years ago today.

Here's a full concert from that era (including at least one preview from their next album, OK Computer, which came out the next year).

Stevie Wonder plays "Fingertips Part 2," 52 years later

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What did Hillary Clinton hide?

Ann Althouse (my mom) observes:

The evidence is limited because she limited it, and I'm forced to infer that she is hiding some very important things — important enough that it was worth destroying the evidence. You know, President Nixon did not destroy the Watergate Tapes. He considered it though . . .

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hillary Clinton's inadequate answer on her emails

This answer by Hillary Clinton in her press conference about her emails is flawed. She's asked how the public can be assured that she withheld only personal emails, not work-related emails that might be "unflattering."

Her answer is that "you would have to ask that question to every single federal employee," since they all have the responsibility to decide whether to use their personal or work email addresses, depending on whether they're talking about something work-related or not.

See the problem? Think about it . . .

When she decided which emails to turn over, a long time had passed since she had sent them. She's had the time to reconsider things she said before. She's gotten to see which subjects have become controversial over time. She's had time to reflect on strategy for an upcoming presidential campaign. After all that time, then she decides which emails to call "work-related" — knowing that as long as she assigns that label to a given message, the public will likely see it.

And which kinds of messages have the most potential to be "unflattering" to a political candidate? Messages she sent on the spur of the moment, without much reflection or political calculation. Or messages about something we now know is a hotly debated issue, but that she didn't realize at the time would end up being a big issue.

None of that is true of a federal employee deciding whether to use their work email address or personal email address to send a message.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon has died at 59.

NYT reports:

Sam Simon, who was one of the major creative forces behind “The Simpsons” and who left the show after its fourth season in a lucrative arrangement that allowed him to spend much of the rest of his life giving his money away, died on Sunday at his home in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. He was 59. . . . Mr. Simon learned a few years ago that he had colon cancer.

The cartoonist Matt Groening, recruited by the producer James L. Brooks, invented the Simpson family for a series of short animated segments first seen on “The Tracey Ullman Show” in 1987. Mr. Groening named some of the characters after members of his own family, including Homer and Marge, the parents.

Although Mr. Groening is the person most closely associated with “The Simpsons,” Mr. Simon — who had published cartoons while he was a student at Stanford, worked on the cartoon show “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” and been a writer and producer for the sitcoms “Cheers” and “Taxi” — played a crucial role as “The Simpsons” evolved into a half-hour series. It became the longest-running sitcom in television history.

Mr. Simon helped populate Springfield, the fictional town where the Simpsons live, with a range of characters. He insisted that the show be created using some conventional sitcom techniques like having the writers work collectively. He had the voice actors read their parts as an ensemble, with the goal of giving the show more lifelike rhythm and timing. And he hired many of the show’s first writers, a number of whom gave him credit for informing its multilayered sensibility, one that skewers pieties with anarchic humor and sometimes vulgarity while celebrating family and community. . . .

Mr. Simon’s work on the show is also remembered for the way it ended. He and Mr. Groening clashed frequently — Mr. Groening was among several people, including Mr. Simon himself, who said that Mr. Simon could be difficult to work with — and Mr. Simon left in 1993, after four seasons.

It was not an amicable split, but it was extraordinarily profitable for Mr. Simon. He retained the title of executive producer and was given royalties from future home video sales. As “The Simpsons” moved into syndication and lucrative VHS and then DVD sales, it made Mr. Simon wealthy long after he was no longer directly involved in the show. He said in interviews that it provided him with “tens of millions” of dollars each year.
From an article in November 2014:
Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon has described his terminal colon cancer as the 'most amazing experience of my life', because he is surrounded by his loved ones and donating his estimated $100 million fortune to his passion - animal rights. Given three months to live in 2012, Simon immediately decided to team up with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) president Ingrid Newkirk, and dedicate his time to the rescue of maltreated animals and conservation.

Having defied that diagnosis’ original death sentence, Simon continues to push ahead and has also funded projects such as 'Feeding Families' to help with the underprivileged in inner cities. . . .

'[Newkirk] came up with almost a therapy for me, where we planned and are still planning a series of animal liberations and actions that I get to participate in and enjoy. It gives me something to look forward. I get to watch these animals that have been in concrete bunkers their whole lives take their first step on grass.'

Simon created the hit cartoon alongside Matt Groening in 1991. He technically retired from The Simpsons in 1993, but still receives tens of millions in royalties every season.

Asked why he decided to dedicate his fortune and final months to animal rights, Simon was unequivocal. 'The thing about animals that speaks to me so much is that my passion for the animals and against animal abuse is based on the knowledge that these creatures which think and feel can't speak for themselves,' said Simon to NBC. 'I feel it is my responsiblity to speak for those who can't speak for themselves.'

Should you keep a "weirdness budget"?

Katja Grace questions the idea:

It is often said that you should spend your weirdness budget [or "idiosyncrasy credits"] wisely. You should wear a gender-appropriate suit, and follow culture-appropriate sports, and use good grammar, and be non-specifically spiritual, and support moderate policies, and not have any tattoos around either of your eyes. And then on the odd occasion, when it happens to come up, you should gather up your entire weirdness budget and make a short, impassioned speech in favor of invertebrate equality. Or whatever you think is the very most effective use of weirdness. In short: you only get so much weirdness, so don’t use it up dressing like a clown or popularizing alternative sleep schedules. . . .

The usual consequence of advice to be thrifty with weirdness is that people end up with a collection of views and interests that they keep hidden from the world. Sometimes this might be actively deceptive, for instance when people with unspeakable views claim to have no views. But mostly avoiding being weird is just implicit misrepresentation. This suggests a range of considerations associated with honesty in general. Honesty has virtues and costs. . . .

It’s more interesting to know about a relatively complete, ‘authentic’ person than a flat, disconnected one-issue front that an unknown person has chosen to erect. People are usually interested in hearing about people more than ideas, so if you present yourself as a person this will probably interest them more. And a person generally has an array of idiosyncrasies and unusual concerns, including some that are not the most effective thing to be concerned about, and some characteristics that everyone agrees are actively bad.

Relatedly, revealing a relatively full array of your views and interests means people know you better, which tends to improve your relationship with them. I’d guess this is true even for people who observe you from far away on the internet. I think I feel more sympathetic to an author who admits they have characteristics beyond an interest in the subject matter.

Another virtue of honesty is that if people see the larger picture behind the particular view you are espousing, your behavior will make more sense, so you will seem more reasonable and interesting. For instance, if you advocate for developing world aid for a while, and then suddenly change to advocating for space travel, you might seem flakey. Whereas if you say all along that you care about doing the most cost-effective thing, and are open minded about causes, and are considering a bunch of them on an ongoing basis, and explain why you think these different causes are cost-effective, then this might seem consistent instead of actively inconsistent. Relatedly, as your views evolve it seems more natural for those who were interested before to remain interested if they understand the bigger picture of your motives.

Relatedly, particular weird views will often make more sense in the context of your larger set of weird views. If you espouse cryonics on its own, and don’t mention that you also think it will be possible to upload human minds onto computers, the cryonics will seem much more ambitious than it otherwise would.

Then there is just the usual problem that dishonesty is confusing and tangly. Views on some topics strongly suggest views on other topics, so if topics are out of bounds, you have to make sure you don’t imply anything about them. This is probably much easier in practice than it first seems, because people are not great at drawing inferences. I wouldn’t be surprised if using abstract language was enough to successfully hide most controversial statements most of the time. However there are probably other things like this.

If you tell people what you really care about, you can have more useful conversations with them, because they can give feedback and suggestions that actually matter to you. For instance, if I spend most of my time thinking about how to improve my life, but I write as if all I care about is resolving puzzles in social science, then your comments can only help me with puzzles in social science.

It can feel better to be honest. However this might just be down to better relationships and avoiding the mental taxation associated with maintaining an inoffensive front.

This is not an exhaustive account of the virtues of weirdness as honesty. Also note that none of the benefits I mentioned apply strongly all of the time. They are just considerations that sometimes matter, and sometimes make it better to be pretty weird.
Also, if you're almost always very normal, but then one day you say something very weird, the weirdness could be more conspicuous by contrast. If you're generally fairly eccentric, it can be easier for people to accept any given one of your weird ideas — "Yes that's kind of weird, but not that weird for him/her . . ."

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Daylight saving time's unintended consequences

Joseph Stromberg writes at Vox:

In the days following [daylight saving time], researchers have found, rates of heart attacks, traffic accidents, and workplace injuries tend to increase slightly — likely the effect of millions of people's bodies being forced to adjust to the missing hour of sleep. Workplace productivity, meanwhile, tends to decrease.

These problems have led some people, sick of changing their clocks twice a year, to call for the end of daylight saving. They point out that the practice doesn't even appear to save any energy — one of its original purposes. . . .

Daylight saving time was first formally proposed way back in 1895 by a New Zealand entomologist named George Vernon Hudson, who realized that shifting clocks forward an hour would give him more time to collect insects in the evenings. . . .

Friday, March 6, 2015

Old Men

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Thomas Sowell on vaccines

Sowell, the libertarian/conservative economist who's deeply skeptical of most government regulation, writes:

[T]he “evidence” on which the original claim that vaccines caused autism was based was just twelve children. But the campaign to convince the public was a masterpiece of propaganda.

The storyline was that pharmaceutical companies who produced the vaccine were callously risking and sacrificing helpless children in pursuit of profit. This is the kind of dramatic stuff the media love. It never seemed to occur to the media that lawyers who were suing pharmaceutical companies had a vested interest in this storyline that the media fed on to the public.

Unfortunately, it takes time to run careful scientific studies, involving vast numbers of children in different countries. That allowed the propaganda against vaccines to go on for years. Eventually, however, the results of the studies so completely discredited the claim that the measles vaccine caused autism that the medical journal which had published the article publicly repudiated it. The doctor who wrote the article had his license revoked. By this time, however, there was a whole anti-vaccine movement, and crusading movements are seldom stopped by facts. . . .

Some say the decision to vaccinate or not should be the parents’ choice. That would be fine if their child would live isolated from other children. But that is impossible.

"What gender scholars get wrong about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue"

"Women seem to be less focused on sexualized imagery than are gay and straight men. And gender activists mostly leave the gay gaze alone, but they have declared open season on straight guys. . . . The frenzied policing of straight male sexuality is a dead end." — Christina Hoff Sommers (via)

Monday, March 2, 2015