Sunday, April 24, 2011

Advice to prospective undergrads who want to make the world a better place

Katja Grace quotes her friend Katla's "advice to aspiring undergraduates" on her blog Meteuphoric (which is definitely worth bookmarking):

Don’t use the apparent altruism of a course or degree as a strong sign of its usefulness for the world. Apparently altruistic courses are the ones concerned with climate change or poverty or species extinctions or social stigma or genocide or so on. Many people are apparently altruistic as an excuse for not doing difficult courses, and the coursework will be designed accordingly. Part of designing coursework for people who aren’t up to difficult courses is understanding that they do not need tools for solving important problems in the world, but rather for getting a job at all.

Also, courses about problems such as climate change or third world development naturally will not include much material on how to solve these problems, as they have not been solved. Instead you and your ‘altruistic’ acquaintances will probably have to discuss how to solve them yourselves, or if your teacher recognises that you are not up to this, to learn to describe how difficult and complex they are. On the upside, solving the problems will be easy because you are probably too ignorant to constrain them much. On the downside, your solutions will not improve the world.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Do many Americans pay no taxes? Do tax cuts increase government revenue?

Respectively . . .

1. No.

The New Republic's Jon Chait (via Paul Krugman) explains:

[Y]ou will see the endlessly circulated right-wing talking point that nearly half of all Americans pay no income taxes. . . . [T]hey focus entirely on the federal income tax, because most people will not understand this constitutes just one portion of the overall tax system. . . .

Americans pay different kinds of taxes to different entities. State and local taxes tend to be regressive. Payroll taxes, which fund Social Security and Medicare, are also regressive. To balance this out, we have a pretty progressive income tax. If you focus only on the income tax, it makes it look like the rich are getting screwed. But of course the income tax is just one element. And conservatives are working hard to make the tax code more regressive at every level of government.
2. No.

The conservative National Review's Kevin Williamson criticizes Speaker of the House John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and others for claiming or insinuating that lower taxes lead to higher revenue:
Tax cuts do not generally increase revenue, and Republicans should stop saying otherwise. . . .

There are no free lunches in taxation, or anywhere else.
Can you imagine a world where cutting taxes increased tax revenue? What would happen? Every politician would always support cutting taxes, as this would give voters everything they want: low taxes and lots of government benefits! Yay! Needless to say, that is not what the real world is like.

Now that that's clear, can we please put an end to, as Krugman calls them, the "zombie tax lies"?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Music Friday: Walk Like an Egyptian

Played by bluegrass group the Cleverlys:

The Bangles' original:

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"Wasting food"

It's not so bad. (via)

There's a broader point to be made here about environmentalism and signaling, but I don't have time to go into it now . . .

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How much of a problem is it that you don't have enough time in your whole life to become "reasonably well-read"?

Linda Holmes observes, on NPR's website:

The vast majority of the world's books, music, films, television and art, you will never see. It's just numbers.

Consider books alone. Let's say you read two a week, and sometimes you take on a long one that takes you a whole week. That's quite a brisk pace for the average person. That lets you finish, let's say, 100 books a year. If we assume you start now, and you're 15, and you are willing to continue at this pace until you're 80. That's 6,500 books, which really sounds like a lot.

Let's do you another favor: Let's further assume you limit yourself to books from the last, say, 250 years. Nothing before 1761. This cuts out giant, enormous swaths of literature, of course, but we'll assume you're willing to write off thousands of years of writing in an effort to be reasonably well-read.

Of course, by the time you're 80, there will be 65 more years of new books, so by then, you're dealing with 315 years of books, which allows you to read about 20 books from each year. You'll have to break down your 20 books each year between fiction and nonfiction – you have to cover history, philosophy, essays, diaries, science, religion, science fiction, westerns, political theory ... I hope you weren't planning to go out very much.

You can hit the highlights, and you can specialize enough to become knowledgeable in some things, but most of what's out there, you'll have to ignore. (Don't forget books not written in English! Don't forget to learn all the other languages!) . . .

We could do the same calculus with film or music or, increasingly, television – you simply have no chance of seeing even most of what exists. Statistically speaking, you will die having missed almost everything.
That's a very quantitative way to look at it, as if the main thing that matters is what percentage of "everything" you've consumed. I don't see why that should be the standard.

It's analogous to the way people marvel at how "insignificant" humanity is because we're so small relative to the entire universe (which, by the way, would seem to imply that physically larger people are more important than smaller people — and surely we don't believe that). How big would we need to be in order to be "significant"? How much would we need to read, view, or listen to in order to be "well-read" or "cultured"?

Tyler Cowen's Discover Your Inner Economist offers a different way to look at this, which I find more meaningful. In the book's chapter on art, Cowen says we've become "cultural billionaires" — we just need to realize and take advantage of this fact. An overwhelming amount of great art is available to us for amazingly little money via libraries, museums, architecture (which you can see for free by walking down the street), Netflix, YouTube . . .

That doesn't solve the quantity problem. But we have so much access to such an astoundingly high level of quality that it would seem ungrateful to fuss over not having enough hours to get to most of it. We have enough time to live lives that are incredibly rich in literature and other art.

I happily admit there are whole genres of music that I consistently don't pay any attention to. "But that's so close-minded!" Well, it is and it isn't. I'm not making an objective judgment that these genres aren't worthwhile for anyone to spend time on. It's just that I, like everyone, have my own time management strategies. I've listened to Beethoven's symphonies a ridiculous number of times, always knowing there was some other piece of music I hadn't heard before, which I could have spent that time listening to . . . and I'll never hear it now. But I'm confident I've had good reasons for making such choices. I'm not worried I might be a little more ignorant of other musical genres, or novels I could have been reading at the time. I actually like the fact that I know much more about my own tastes than the vast majority of all content, of which I'm ignorant. This is part of the joy of life.

You wouldn't dream of trying to live in every city in the world, or even 10% of them, because that would mean you'd spend less time at home. Quality is more important than quantity.

The fact that everyone experiences such a limited number of books, paintings, songs, and cities adds to each individual's uniqueness. These experiences shape our identities. If we were all somehow able to read every book, and live in every city, we'd be much more similar to each other, and that would be really boring.

ADDED: Mindy Kaling has a related insight:
Don't worry about having perfect taste. People with perfectly curated taste usually have no original voice.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why do politicians lie so much?

Robin Hanson blames the voters.

Are Paul Krugman and David Brooks in a secret feud?

Jonathan Chait gathers the evidence that Krugman and Brooks have been planting their New York Times columns with implicit attacks on each other.

Chait concludes:

Brooks views Krugman as making himself a hero to the liberal choir, while he (Brooks) fearlessly challenges both sides. Krugman sees Brooks as residing comfortably within the cozy embrace of the conventional wisdom, whereas he (Krugman) risks being cast as a partisan or a radical by arbiters of respectability like Brooks for following the logic through to its conclusions. . . .

What makes the feud somewhat pathological is the Times' convention of keeping its columnists from openly debating each other. I suppose this is designed to advance the cause of civility. But the reality is that this just creates a lot of sniping, and the inability to quote and describe each others' arguments in any detail makes it impossible to treat them seriously.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

First date

"So, what's your sign?"

"Pisces." (Thinking: And the fact that you asked that question is my sign that we won't be having a second date . . .)

UPDATE: I posted this to Facebook too, and one friend responded:

Were you on a date in the 70s? (the decade, that is)
Another friend said:
Ask her what color your aura is, and how old you will live to according to the little creases on your palm. If she starts telepathically communicating with an invisible friend *AHEM,* "spirit guide," she's a keeper!
Seeing those two comments together made me feel like a character in one of the LA scenes in Annie Hall.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Incoherent views on taxes, spending, and the deficit

Bruce Bartlett (who was an economic policy advisor for Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr.) runs through 15 recent polls of the American public's views on taxing and spending.

Some of the most disheartening points:

[T]hree-fifths of voters believe that the budget can be fixed just by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. . . .

[S]upport for cutting spending is largely confined to small programs such as foreign aid, and that people favor increasing spending for big programs such as Social Security. . . .

[O]nly 49 percent of people believe that reducing the deficit will require cuts in programs that benefit them; 41 percent do not. Also, only 37 percent of people believe that reducing the deficit will require higher taxes on them; 59 percent do not.
People overestimate how much we spend on foreign aid, and they underestimate how much we spend on Medicare and Social Security. We want to believe that if we happen to like a program, it doesn't cost too much. "Big government" is bad, so the biggest programs must be the ones we don't like.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Do married men engage in less antisocial behavior because marriage tames them?

Or is there a "selection effect," i.e. men who are less antisocial (as in antisocial personality disorder, not as a synonym for "asocial"!) are more likely to get married in the first place?

Turns out the answer is: both.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The creator of the National Organization for Marriage's 2010 "Summer for Marriage Tour" explains how he saw the light on same-sex marriage.

"Having spent the last five years putting all of my political will, interest and energy into fighting against the spread of same-sex marriage as if it were a contagious disease, I must admit that it is hard for me to put the following text into words let alone utter them with my own voice." "I now support full marriage equality."

Louis Marinelli tells the story of how he came to a few realizations while on his anti-same-sex-marriage tour:

I really came to understand that gays and lesbians were just real people who wanted to live real lives and be treated equally as opposed to, for example, wanting to destroy American culture. . . .

I soon realized that there I was surrounded by hateful people; propping up a cause I created five years ago, a cause which I had begun to question.
The whole post is worth a read.

In an email interview, he gives more specific critiques and recantations of some of his past statements. This is my favorite:
Once I wrote that homosexuals are deceitful people who care only about themselves or something to that effect. Honestly, aren’t we all? It was wrong for me to exclude everyone else from that description. We all lie and when it comes down to it, we will do what is best for ourselves. So throwing in a little levity, I stand by the comment but want to apologize for limiting its scope to the gay community.
Remember the 2005 press conference of San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders?

Megan McArdle shows what it's like to bake a cake in 2011 vs. what it would have been like in 1950 or 1900.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"[W]e face the absurd phenomenon of colleges encouraging students to go into six-figure debt ... but forbidding them to drink on campus ...

... because they're deemed insufficiently mature to appreciate the risks."

Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a. Instapundit) argues that the federal drinking age in the United States should be lowered from 21 to 18 — and that Republicans are particularly well-positioned to bring about this change:

Republicans are supposed to stand for limited government, freedom and federalism, but it was under a Republican administration—and a Republican transportation secretary, Elizabeth Dole—that states were forced to raise their age limits or face financial penalties. That was before the tea party, though. Perhaps today, when Republican leaders across the board are singing the praises of limited government, it is time for them to put their money where their mouths are and support an end to the federal drinking-age mandate.

And if arguments based on fairness and principle aren't enough, perhaps one based on politics will do the trick: This will get votes.

Democrats traditionally do well with the youth vote, and one reason is that they have been successful in portraying Republicans as fuddy-duddies who want to hold young people down. This may be unfair—college speech codes and the like don't tend to come from Republicans—but the evidence suggests that it works. What's more, the first few elections people vote in tend to set a long-term pattern. A move to repeal the federal drinking-age mandate might help Republicans turn this around.
There's also the fact that almost no other country in the world has such a high drinking age. And I think ours is the highest of any developed country. But I guess Republicans don't like the "America is the only country in the industrialized world..." style of framing.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Attorney General Eric Holder: “The facts are clear. Intimate partner homicide is the leading cause of death for African-American women ages 15 to 45."

And he's right that the facts are clear. The facts are clear that Holder is wrong.

As that Volokh Conspiracy blog post explains (corroborating a column by Christina Hoff Sommers), homicide is not the most common cause of death of African-American women ages 15 to 45. It's the 5th most common. And those are homicides by anyone, including strangers; only a fraction of them involve domestic violence.

Sommers adds:

Holder's patently false assertion has remained on the Justice Department website for more than a year.

How is that possible? It is possible because false claims about male domestic violence are ubiquitous and immune to refutation. During the era of the infamous Super Bowl Hoax, it was widely believed that on Super Bowl Sundays, violence against women increases 40%. Journalists began to refer to the game as the "abuse bowl" and quoted experts who explained how male viewers, intoxicated and pumped up with testosterone, could "explode like mad linemen." During the 1993 Super Bowl, NBC ran a public service announcement warning men they would go to jail for attacking their wives.

In this roiling sea of media credulity, one lone journalist, Washington Post reporter Ken Ringle, checked the facts. As it turned out, there was no source: An activist had misunderstood something she read, jumped to her sensational conclusion, announced it at a news conference and an urban myth was born. Despite occasional efforts to prove the story true, no one has ever managed to link the Super Bowl to domestic battery.
Snopes has a longer takedown of the Super Bowl myth. Snopes concludes:
The ensuing weeks and months saw a fair amount of backpedalling by those who had propagated the Super Bowl Sunday violence myth, but — as usual — the retractions and corrections received far less attention than the sensational-but-false stories everyone wanted to believe, and the bogus Super Bowl statistic remains a widely-cited and believed piece of misinformation. As Sommers concluded, "How a belief in that misandrist canard can make the world a better place for women is not explained."

Friday, April 8, 2011

Kurt Cobain was found dead 17 years ago today.

He's estimated to have committed suicide 3 days earlier. (Wikipedia.)

Here's an interview with him from December 1993, after they released their last album. Most of the clip is pretty mundane, but if you skip ahead to 6:38 (after it looks like the interview has ended), you can see a chilling moment. He talks about his famous stomach problem:

Ah! It's gone! I finally have been prescribed the right stomach medicine after 6 years of being in constant pain . . . I was in pain so long, I didn't care if I was in a band, I didn't care if I was alive. And it just so happened that I came to that conclusion at a time when my band became really popular. It had been going on and building up for so many years that I was suicidal. I just didn't want to live. So I just thought: if I'm going to die, if I'm going to kill myself, I should take some drugs. May as well become a junkie, because I felt like a junkie every day.

I've blogged tributes to Nirvana and to Cobain, so I don't have anything more to add to what I said:
I vividly remember when I was 13, sitting around watching MTV on April 8, 1994. Kurt Loder announced on MTV News that Kurt Cobain had been found dead in his home and that the cause of death was "a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head." I was so young that the meaning of that delicate phrasing didn't register with me, so I asked my mom about it. She had to explain: "That means he killed himself."

Nirvana released only three proper studio albums. In an interview near the end of his life, Cobain was critical of the band's soft/loud formula and talked about wanting to branch out stylistically. He was disappointed that the band up to that point had emphasized the heavy side of that formula instead of a poppier, Beatley side. We'll never get to hear how the band might have developed; the analogy would be if John Lennon had died not in 1980 but in 1965. They should have done so much more. But they changed the direction of rock music in the few years they were around.

ADDED: This Metafilter thread has a lot of remembrances of Cobain and Nirvana. A commenter named lubujackson says:
As a tween when Nirvana hit, I never thought "life sucks" was Nirvana's message as all the haters seem to believe. Lyrically, the songs cover a lot of ground in an impressionistic way, and at the time I just thought Nirvana was really good, satisfying rock music. Most importantly at the time, they passed the Holden Caufield "sniff test" for phoniness.
DaDaDaDave says:
Nirvana made great music to jump around your seventh-grade best friend's living room to. For me that was about it (and that was enough), but I had several friends in whose emotional lives Kurt Cobain was an important force for good. Cobain's songs may be about depression, but they aren't depressing--even the slow, sad ones have a reinvigorating and genuinely human energy. Two decades later I can put on any Nirvana album (even Bleach) and it still sounds good; any Nirvana album on my car stereo will cause me to drive faster. What more can anyone ask of a rock band?
Naju comments:
I was 12 and my favorite band was Nirvana, and I can't tell you how influential and positive they were for me. They were my punk rock, they made me question everything, they made me smarter. It's easy to be jaded about the whole downer teen angst thing going on in the music. But I was young and reading the biography of the band was sort of life changing. The way Kurt befriended and stood up for gay people at his high school, and the ways he went against the grain in order to be compassionate and real, made me realize that my friends laughing about "fags" were just incredibly immature and lame.
Gompa says:
People sometimes forget just how hard it was, before the internet, to access unconventional culture, particularly if you didn't live in a major city. I was in high school in northern Ontario in the early 1990s, and other than these mix tapes my friend's older collegiate neighbour made for him that had some Dead Kennedys and Dead Milkmen and stuff like that on 'em, we were completely out of the loop. You'd catch a Sonic Youth video on the MuchMusic "alternative" show, go down to the crappy little record store at the mall, go to the "S" section - nothing. I remember it being flat-out miraculous to find the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Mother's Milk album in one of those stores.

After Nevermind? Before long, there was a whole section in those stores stocking this kind of stuff. Also, Cobain was a namedropping goldmine - I'd read an interview with him, write down the names of every band he referenced, and then go on a shopping spree next time I was in Toronto. That's how I discovered Fugazi, the Meat Puppets, the Vaselines, L7, the Pixies. Basically uncovered the trail that would, by '93, lead me to quit a business degree and do something I actually gave a shit about with my life.

Discovering Nirvana at the age of 18 changed the basic course of my life. I'll always have Kurt Cobain to thank for that. Wish he was still around to hear it.
Here's a comment I posted over there:
Nirvana was to grunge rock as the Beatles were to '60s rock, or as Mozart was to the Classical style, or as Bach was to Baroque. They didn't invent their style. They perfected it. You don't become the definitive reference point for a whole genre just at random.

Kurt Cobain was the first to admit that he mostly ripped off a lot of other bands to make Nirvana's music. I'm so glad he did.
I'll close with a comment by adipocere:
I remember hearing Bleach played for the first time on a radio station with the vaguely-defined "college" format with a "What? Is? That?" sensation. I believe I got that on cassette and played the hell out of "Negative Creep" (try that song in your workout mix).

Damn, listen to "Sliver." That's the track where Cobain's empathy and his ability to craft a set of lyrics around someone else's story became his strength. I wouldn't say it was his formula but it was definitely a new plateau for him.

Much later, I heard "All Apologies" off of In Utero and turned to a friend. "I don't think he's going to be around much longer." It sounded like a suicide note or the foreshadowing to some dreadful accident.

Finally, I was driving a hundred miles home at three in the morning, trying to stay awake, radio blaring, when the DJ came on to announce the news. I pulled onto the shoulder, got out of the car, stood there for a while not believing it, then got back in. I did not have trouble staying awake for the rest of the drive home.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Michele Bachmann might win the Republican presidential nomination ...

... by being like Howard Dean.

That's Jon Chait's argument. It's not as silly as it might sound at first, even though Dean failed to win the nomination the only time he ran for president. Remember, you win not just because of your own qualities, but also because of the inadequacy of every other contender.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Is obesity caused by "food addiction"?

Medical News Today reports (via):

Some people really are addicted to foods in a similar way others might be dependent on certain substances, like addictive illegal or prescriptions drugs, or alcohol, researchers from Yale University revealed in Archives of General Psychiatry. Those with an addictive-like behavior seem to have more neural activity in specific parts of the brain in the same way substance-dependent people appear to have, the authors explained.

It's a bit like saying that if you dangle a tasty chocolate milkshake in front of a pathological eater, what goes on in that person's brain is similar to what would happen if you placed a bottle of scotch in front of an alcoholic. . . .

The authors believe that no studies had so far looked into the neural correlates of addictive-like eating behavior.
Those researchers say:
One-third of American adults are now obese and obesity-related disease is the second leading cause of preventable death. Unfortunately, most obesity treatments do not result in lasting weight loss because most patients regain their lost weight within five years. Based on numerous parallels in neural functioning associated with substance dependence and obesity, theorists have proposed that addictive processes may be involved in the etiology of obesity.

Food and drug use both result in dopamine release in mesolimbic regions [of the brain] and the degree of release correlates with subjective reward from both food and drug use.
The article goes on to cite some scientific research, but it's all about the general phenomenon of food addiction. I'm not seeing any correlation or causation between the addiction and obesity.

My question is: if food addiction is the real problem, aren't we all suffering from it?

Friday, April 1, 2011

A children's chorus sings "Lisztomania" by Phoenix

That's the PS 22 Chorus (via Cover Song Archive, via Metafilter).

Did you notice the word that was censored for the kids?