Category: RANTS

What part of “rant” don’t you understand? Look it up in the dictionary!

 

The Nocebo Effect

We all know about placebos, right?  From the Latin placēbō, “I shall please”?  When you take a placebo, you feel better because you think you’re going to feel better.   Of course, it’s just your imagination, right?  You don’t really feel better; it’s all a fake, right?

Not so much.  A double-blind experiment on Parkinson’s patients with fluorine-18 labelled L-dopa vs. placebos showed that the placebos were effective at the specific goal of causing the brain to produce dopamine.  The patients didn’t just “feel better”, their brains actually performed the same biochemistry that is stimulated by L-dopa.  Think about that.  Think very carefully.   These people simply thought they were getting L-dopa; they were not trained in using the mind’s power over the body.   What if they were?

Yeah, yeah, we’ve all heard that woo-woo stuff before, right?  Okay, never mind.   Just remember that the “Placebo Effect” is real.   Officially real, as in, no drug trial that fails to take it into account is considered valid by… well, anyone.   Now think very carefully about the implications of this established fact.

If you believe a pill is going to make you better, it will make you better.  Perhaps not as much better as a pill that has a direct effect on your biochemistry, but genuinely better.   If this is true, then the opposite might be expected to be true as well:  if you believe a pill is going to make you sick, it will make you sick.

And not just pills.  Also innumerable environmental poisons, radiation, even stuff that used to be considered harmless but has now been shown (or claimed, and believed) to be detrimental to health at some concentration.   If you believe it will make you sick, it will make you sick.  

This is called the “Nocebo Effect” (from the Latin nocēbō, “I shall harm”, from noceō, “I harm”).  It has also been called the “Antiplacebo Effect” or the “Negative Placebo Effect”, but that seems weaker to me.   I want to make a strong point about this response, not just a codicil to the literature on the Placebo Effect.

Today there is an epidemic of allergies and autoimmune disorders, especially among young people who have spent their whole lives being told of all the ubiquitous poisons in their environment, and have never been told that the human body is incredibly resilient and robust.   Some of this may be genuine reactions to actual pollutants and unhealthy foods, but it must also be due in part to the expectation that everything we eat or drink or breathe is poisoning us.

Notice that I said, “…in part…”; I didn’t say that environmental poisons don’t exist, or that all maladies are caused by bad attitudes. But what you believe is a significant contributing factor to what you experience. This fact is no longer the property of New Age mystics. It is real science now. Unfortunately, we seem to have no idea what to do about it except to excoriate anyone who disputes the notion that we are all helpless victims with no agency in our own lives.

Poor Cuba!

Today the USA announced that it would drop its ban on travel to Cuba and relax the trade restrictions that have prevented Cubans from exchanging good cigars for electronics and cars from the USA for the past half century.  I fear this will serve to drain Cuba’s remaining resources into the capitalist reservoir in short order.  Why?  Simple statistical economics (Stat Ec for short):

To the extent that all wealth is shared equally in an ideal socialist economy, there is only one possible distribution of wealth, and so the economic entropy of such a system (i.e. the logarithm of the number of possible random redistributions) is zero.  More importantly, the entropy is unchanged when more wealth is added.  Cuba may not be an ideal socialist economy, but it’s a lot closer than the USA, where every conceivable redistribution of wealth is a priori equally likely, giving an enormous economic entropy and a very large entropy increase with every injection of new wealth.  The USA is certainly not an ideal capitalist economy, but the deviation from randomness only occurs at the high end of the personal wealth spectrum: the wealth of the infamous 1% is far higher than predicted by a simple Boltzmann distribution (exponential decay of probability with increasing wealth), but for everyone else we might as well be utterly indiscriminating in all our financial transactions.  Look it up!

So what happens when a “hot” wealth reservoir (one with almost no increase of entropy per unit added wealth) is put in economic contact with a “cold” one (with a large increase of entropy for every addition of wealth)?  Wealth flows spontaneously from Cuba to the USA through the agency of completely random exchanges.  Again, look it up!  Any textbook on Statistical Mechanics will give you the details; or you can read mine: http://jick.net/~jess/hr/skept/Therm/

Which brings me to another observation that will surely be misunderstood by most readers: there will always be more people with low wealth than with high wealth, and this fact has nothing to do with anyone’s intentions.  It is an unavoidable consequence of completely random transactions involving exchanges of wealth.  Yes, like you, I believe my transactions are far from random; but then where does that Boltzmann distribution come from?  We try to bias our transactions in our favour, but we fail.  Randomness cannot be defeated.

Therefore if we could tomorrow gather up all the wealth in the world and distribute it evenly among all people (the limiting case of our desire to “flatten the distribution”), within several years the distribution would be back to the Boltzmann form — probably with even more “excess” wealth at the top end, because we would probably have relaxed many of the safeguards we have now, in the mistaken belief that uniform wealth would ensure fair trade.

The best we can hope for is to ensure equality of opportunity.  Equality of success is impossible, and not even desirable!  In our recent quest for the latter, we have compromised our traditional commitment to the former.  While “liberals” pursue the fantasy of a flat distribution of wealth, “conservatives” have been inventing ways to cheat in the game of wealth accumulation.  Crooks don’t want equality of opportunity; they want to have all the opportunity, and they want you to have none.

I am not a liberal.  I am not a conservative.  No, I do not have to choose a side.  Don’t be a fool.

Dogonomics

We can learn everything we really need to know about politics and economics from watching dogs at play.

We have two poodles, standard “Arlo” and mini “Tuffy” (well, he needs to be!).  The theme of all play between Arlo and Tuffy is “Mine!”  This is normal enough (and a good model for most human play), but yesterday I noticed a new nuance:

If there is one rawhide bone, they will spend all day snatching it from each other and running to hide it where they can gloat.  If the other loses interest, they will bring it out in the open and growl to get things going again.  You might think that big Arlo would have an unfair advantage over little Tuffy, but in fact it’s the other way around: Tuffy can get into places where Arlo can’t, and sit there with the bone, growling and barking.  It’s cute — they are almost human!  It’s also mostly good-natured competition.  Things are simple and it’s all in fun.

It gets darker and more complicated when we foolishly give them two bones.  You might think, as we did, that now there would be one for each and thus nothing to fight over.  Wrong.  The game now becomes “Both mine!”  Which is tricky because neither one can actually hold both bones in his jaws at once.  So they invent schemes for  hiding Bone 1 somewhere and then fighting over Bone 2.  Dominance can only be achieved by capturing all the wealth and protecting it in clever hiding places.

Moreover, they don’t have fun any more.  Because the competition is no longer simple and straightforward, it is perpetually frustrating and the growling turns to snarls.  Tuffy and Arlo come close to a real dogfight until we take away one of the bones.

From this I deduced that a higher standard of living is unlikely to make people more willing to share the wealth unless we can change some basic instincts that go way, way back.  Dogs don’t compete to get what they need; they compete to have it all, because that’s where the fun is, as long as scarcity is the rule.  With abundance comes confusion, dissatisfaction and animosity, every time.

Buying the Government

Nowadays I prefer to think of myself as a Canadian, but I was born and raised in the USA, so I still care what happens to the Great Experiment in Democracy.  Sadly, it seems to be over.

The 2014 midterm elections are only a few days away now, and if you believe the deluge of panicked Emails from various progressive Democrats (many of whom I have already sent a few bucks), the Republicans are about to commandeer Congress due to the massive funding of attack ads on TV by the Kochs and other billionaire friends of the Repos.  The Dems’ idea is to repurpose the demonstrated power of social media to “crowd-source” a counterattack.

I’ve stopped donating, and I’m about to stop caring.  Want to know why?  It’s not because I’ve suddenly turned more conservative in my old age.  It’s not because I’ve decided to throw my lot in with what appears to be the winning side.  It’s not even because whichever side “wins”, the shadow government seems hardly affected (although that is a contributing factor).

It’s because everyone seems to have accepted the premise that elections are decided mainly by who can afford the most TV time for their attack/defense ads.

Either this is untrue, in which case I am profoundly disappointed in the Democrats who are trying to convince us of it, or it’s true, in which case I am so nauseated by the electorate that I can’t help hoping they get just what they deserve — even though the rest of us will probably perish with them.

Platinum Rule

Most people seem to think the Golden Rule is all we need: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Well, that would certainly be an improvement upon the more prevalent, “Do unto others before they do unto you,” but it doesn’t really help unless we exercise some subtlety and foresight.  It is probably a good thing to tell someone if they are behaving like an ass.  On the other hand, how keen are you to be the recipient of such honesty when it’s the truth?  Hmmm…

There’s also the problem of misapprehending other people’s intent — not to mention your own!  The most common cause of animosity is attribution of evil intent to someone who believes s/he is trying to do the right thing.

I propose a “Platinum Rule” that should be exercised even more assiduously than the Golden Rule.  It goes like this:

Try to understand why others think and act as they do.” 

Most people are sincerely trying to do what they perceive as the right thing.  If you can understand why they believe that, then you have a better foundation for constructive dialogue than if you accuse them of intentional evil.

Of course, intentional evil does occur; but even then it is easier to expose if you try to explore other explanations.  Nothing annoys a true evil-doer like a pointed question that assumes their innocence.

Note that I am not espousing “radical cultural relativism” — just because you understand why someone thinks and acts as they do does not mean you agree with or excuse their behaviour; it just gives you some purchase in your attempts to talk them out of it.

Speaking of Nothing…

 

I’d like to speak in praise of Nothing.

Think of what you can do with Nothing.

Nothing is easy to be good for. What else can we say that about?

No one minds if you take Nothing for granted.

Nothing guarantees a 100% profit. (“Nothing ventured, Nothing gained.”)

Nothing is the most popular children’s pastime. (Just ask some kids what they are doing.)

Nothing is what everyone knows without having to learn it in school, although many do.

Nothing is what’s bothering your lover. Just ask!

Nothing is what I like about almost everything.

 

Confessional

 

Let me get up close and personal with the Tragedy of the Commons.

We are all fond of complaining bitterly about the terrible job our politicians do. And yet almost none of us want to be active in politics, and a large fraction of citizens (sometimes a majority) don’t even bother to vote.

We criticize volunteer workers of all sorts, perhaps more mercilessly than the politicians, because we perceive volunteers to be of lower status than “professionals” and therefore easy to abuse. We go to Annual General Meetings to voice our complaints, but when it comes time to elect new Officers, no one wants the job.

We complain about taxes but we expect the government to protect us and provide everything we need for a better life. We already have a better life than most humans, but we are far more interested in improving our lot than in helping others improve theirs. When they hate us for this, we label them terrorists.

We march in protest against pesticides, fertilizers, GMO crops and “factory farms”, but our own contribution to organic, sustainable farming is to grow a few leaves of lettuce in the corner of our garden, if that. We feel smugly superior to pay extra for “organically grown” produce at the grocery store. Those who actually act on their idealistic vision of “getting back to the land” soon discover that farming is hard work and is incredibly inefficient unless done on a large scale.

We call for reductions of fossil fuel use and try to ignore the fact that in North America it takes on average a pound of fuel to grow a pound of food. We complain about the congestion and pollution in cities, then move to the country where we have to drive into town for groceries every day.

We complain about insulting ads and trashy programming on TV, but we spend hours a day staring slack-jawed at the screen, oblivious to the fact that it displays a distorted 4:3 image in 16:9 format.

We gripe about everyone else’s stupidity and ignorance, but we only take steps to correct our own when we are forced to by circumstances.

We are the spoiled brats of the world, and we are overdue for a spanking.

I wish I could ignore the fact that “we” includes “I”; but I can’t.

 

Shit Happens

 

In the early 20th Century it was already clear that shit happens. However, not until nearly the end of that century did a consensus begin to arise regarding whose fault it was that shit happens. Actually, several contradictory consenses.

A few visionary scientists began to look for random correlations between various human activities and the shit frequency. They concluded that, with 73% confidence, shit was caused by humans sitting on toilets.

This proposition was soundly denounced by other scientists widely believed to be in the employ of toilet paper companies, waste management corporations and the plumbing industry in general. Their position was, loosely paraphrased, “Shit happens. D’oh!” (Others who had never appreciated The Simpsons preferred to say, “Shit happens. Duh!)

When pressed for a more detailed critique of the Anthropic Global Fecal Advance (AGFA) model, they explained that shit has been happening since the beginnings of life on Earth, and it was likely to continue until the end of same.

The AGFA proponents replied, “Yeah, and if people like you get their way that won’t be long, because we’ll all drown in shit!” The AGFA Deniers declined to comment.

Around the turn of the Millennium, popular enthusiasm for this issue reached such a fever pitch that every politician felt obliged to champion one side or the other, aggravating an already dramatic propensity for political polarization. Soon after that every scientist was pressed to “take a stand on shit” and declare for or against AGFA. Most complied.

By 2007 politicians around the world came together in Elizabeth, NJ, to draft the Elizabeth Accords, according to which the signatory nations promised to cut the shit by 20% within the next century. Almost every head of state shrugged and signed, knowing full well they would not be in office when the deadline approached.

In 2014 the United Nations formed an Intergovernmental Panel on Fecal Advance (IPFA) charged with polling all the world’s scientists for their opinions on the issue. During the voting, fence-sitting scientists were excoriated by both sides and many lost their research funding and even their jobs; elementary particle theorists were especially persecuted, because they seemed unaware of the existence of shit.

In 2041 there was a nuclear war between the AGFA Alliance and everyone else. Life on Earth was exterminated, as the Alliance always predicted.

Well, …

shit happens.

 

Price of Life

 

There was once a psychoanalyst who was fond of asking patients this question: “How much is your life worth, in kegs of beer?” The result was usually consternation and the intended focusing of attention. But it is a real question nonetheless. How much is your life worth in dollars? Well, obviously, to you it is worth more than anyone could pay, since without it you would not be around to enjoy the profits.

However, suppose you could save the life of someone you love by giving up your own? This can be a tough decision, but almost everyone is willing to take the question seriously, since it involves a life for a life, not money for a life.

If you win the big lottery, how many lives could you save with the money? Now divide your winnings by that number, and try to tell me that you have not just calculated the monetary value of a human life. I hope you will keep this figure in mind if you do win the big lottery. Again this is not a very threatening question, because it only involves saving lives with money.

Now we get into the hard stuff: are some lives worth more than others? We certainly seem to think so. Through our taxes and public services we will gladly spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to save the life of a child trapped in a well, but we may be reluctant to invest a similar amount to ward off starvation for an entire village of African farmers whose crops have failed due to drought. If you examine the implicit rationale from a biologist’s point of view, it seems clear that such priorities are dictated by a combination of sociological [formerly genetic] imperatives (“Family/tribe first!”) and what I call Gambler’s Economics (“I’ve got a big investment in this person already, and I’m not going to let it slip away!”). Although none of us are likely to be cheered by this view of our motives, we can probably live with it.

But here is a question that many people can’t even entertain: Suppose you could actually trade one life (not your own) for another, or for a dozen others? The classic example is the Cop’s Dilemma: a terrorist is holding a room full of people hostage with a bomb, and for a moment he puts down the trigger device to tie his shoelaces; you have a clear shot. Do you take it? The analysis of this situation will almost always be diverted into questions of whether you might be mistaken about the seriousness of the situation, or inventions of “better solutions” that surely must exist. No one wants to face the question head-on, because they probably sense the slippery slope that lies beyond it.

If you are willing to blow away one criminal to save many hostages, how about a more indirect exchange of lives? You are offered a massive amount of money to assassinate a political leader whom you dislike intensely and would just as soon be rid of; with this money you can save that African village.

If your main concern there is with getting caught, let’s crank it up a notch: a major drug dealer offers to move his operation out of your city if you will just eliminate the popular politician against whom he has a grudge. No, I don’t think it would be a good idea to trust a dealer’s word in such things, and I agree that an honest politician might someday do so much good that his or her life would be worth the continued predation of the drug trade; but we are avoiding the issue, aren’t we?

My purpose here is not to encourage murder, but to remind you of the “shades of grey” that mark all boundaries between good and evil. Simple pre- and proscriptions may help as guidelines, but they don’t let you off the hook for thinking through every important decision. You not only can, but must “put a price on a human life.”

 

Plant Rights

 

Like all “-isms”, vegetarianism is an ideology, not a matter of taste. I have no quarrel with those who are convinced that a vegetarian diet is more healthy than the omnivorous diet of hunter-gatherers, nor with those who argue that meat is too costly to produce (in terms of food resources) in today’s overpopulated world, nor with those who decry unnecessary cruelty and brutality, nor with those who just don’t like the taste of meat. But I do have a quarrel with those who think it is barbaric to eat meat because animals have rights similar to those of humans.

First, let me offer my opinion on Rights: There is no such thing in Nature. “Rights” are a construct of, and exist only within, human society. What we call a “right” is actually a privilege that has been protected in cultural tradition and/or law after being fought for over many years, usually involving considerable loss of life. Rights are not to be taken lightly, but they are figments of our imagination.

It may come to pass that advocates of “Animal Rights” will win (via the usual means) such protected privileges for animals as the majority of we humans have mutually agreed upon for ourselves. Inasmuch as the animals have no understanding of human politics, it seems unlikely that they will be as vigilant in the maintenance of such “rights” as we humans are, so if PETA members are ever able to congratulate each other on “mission accomplished” and relax their attacks, it seems likely that any shrine to Animal Rights will be pulled down as quickly as the guarantee of freedom in a complacent society. But I digress.

Here is my message to PETA: What about Plant Rights? You seem to think it’s perfectly innocent to rip the reproductive organs from an apple tree and chew on them in full view of the helpless tree, but a humane kosher abbatoire is a barbaric abomination.

Do you not believe that plants have feelings? Have you never heard of Kirlian photography, which has shown that the aura of a plant changes when it is injured? And that the same changes occur when a human merely thinks about injuring the plant?

Plants have been around a lot longer than animals. Does seniority count for nothing with you?

Animals at least have a chance to escape the hunter; the plant is forced to wait quietly for death by dismemberment, planted in rows for easy “harvest” and force-fed with artificial fertilizers until all their vitality is engaged in reproduction. We have distorted the natural form of most plants through milennia of genetic manipulation and forced breeding, until today’s plants bear exaggerated genitalia which we tear away and consume without a thought.

Just because plants are unable to cry out their agony in a language we can understand, you deny the existence of their pain – the universal excuse for brutality: “They aren’t really living beings like us.”

I suppose a few people may heed my words and look for a less hideous way to obtain their sustenance. To them I say, phophylactically, “Equal Rights for Yeasts, Algae and Lichens!” and “Free the Fungi!

 

Holiday Letter

For all these years that everyone has been sending me annual updates on their lives and those of their families, I’ve felt vaguely guilty for not reciprocating. It’s not as if nothing has happened in our lives for the last year (in any given year); it’s just that I am always still confused about what really happened and what it all means in the putative “greater scheme of things”.

I do know that there are some no-no’s I must avoid:

I musn’t call it a “Christmas Letter” or even an “Xmas Letter” because that implies that it’s only meant for folks that celebrate Xmas. Which would be pretty ironic given my own distaste for what that particular holiday has been turned into by our greed-driven Corporate/Consumerist society. (Ack! Don’t get me going.)

Bald-faced bragging is incredibly bad form, especially at this time of year when we are all supposed to have our empathic antennae tuned to the other instead of inward. So I can’t tell you about stuff I’m proud of, with the possible exception of my children’s accomplishments – and even that is really in rather poor taste. Fortunately I have already sent out dozens of Email notifications of these things during the year, when the anti-hubris injunctions were not in effect.

It should not run over one page, double-sided, single-spaced, in 8 pt font, because this season already kills enough trees, eh?

The font choice itself is a conundrum: if I expect anyone to actually read the thing, it would be more considerate to use at least 12 pt, if not 16 pt font, so that it will be easier to read – especially by my contemporaries whose eyesight is getting as bad as mine. But who can resist those lovely calligraphy fonts with all the swirls and wiggles?

Even without the above considerations, it is a mercy to avoid infinitesimal detail. Most people really don’t want to know all the preparatory details of that Pfeffernüße recipe.

All things considered, the optimal form for the Holiday Letter would seem to be a short poem summing things up concisely. So I’ll give it a try:


The trees are bare, the ground is froze,
we all can barely feel our toes,
Which signifies a time of celebration:
To raise a glass is not a sin,
nor are displays of wealth, if in
Defiance of Jack Frost’s intimidation.
 
A year’s gone by, like those before;
we labored much, accomplished more –
Read and wrote and traveled and enjoyed it.
We won acclaim, success and fame;
we joined and later quit the game,
But had some fun whenever we employed it.
 

The year reaches its nominal end
so that another can begin.
Let’s hope the new brings nothing new to fear.
Let’s fill it up with hope and cheer,
with winter whiskey, summer beer…
Remember, it is all uphill from here!

Zero Tolerance

 

Lots of things are bad for you. This is not news, but every new instance is reported as if it were. Recently people are getting a little more sophisticated about statistics, with messages like, “Substance X has been found to increase your chances of contracting cancer of the Y with 95% confidence.” This tells you absolutely nothing useful until you have some more information, like the number of subjects in the study, the amounts of X to which they were exposed, and so on. Leaving out all the minutiae and assuming (charitably) that the statistical analysis has been done competently, there is one vital piece of information that every such message must include to be meaningful:

How bad is it for you?
  
If you are exposed to a specified amount of X, how much does your (already finite) probability of contracting cancer of the Y increase by? If you don’t wear a helmet while riding a bicycle, how much larger is your (already finite) probability of suffering a fatal head injury? This must be well established, or surely the law requiring helmets could not have passed. But how many people know the numbers?

Why do we tolerate such nonsense? Because we are mentally lazy and don’t want to have to deal with the complex balancing of priorities implied by a quantitative comparison. How much easier to say, “The only acceptable amount of X in the environment is zero,” or, “The only acceptable risk of a core meltdown in a reactor is zero,” than to ask what we get in return for accepting a finite amount of X exposure or a reactor with a mean time between meltdowns of 1,000 years. Such zero-tolerance declarations express the same sentiment as the person who says, “The only good X is a dead X.”

“If even one person might die as a result of Z, then Z must be forbidden, no matter what the cost.” How many times have you heard this comfortable rationale expressed? What an absurd notion! Lowering the bus fare by 10% in a city of a million people will inevitably result in some people dying “prematurely” who would otherwise have lived longer. The question is, would more people be saved by this action? Such policy decisions must always involve quantitative comparisons of costs and benefits, and human lives will always be part of the equation.

Many of the worst atrocities that have ever been perpetrated in this world were performed by people who were convinced they were acting rationally on behalf of justice and common sense. How is it possible for well-meaning people to go so far wrong? “Zero Tolerance” is how.