Saturday, September 17, 2016

Bad Stripe Is Evident in More QOL Indicators

The Bad Stripe is a section of the US that runs from extreme southwest Pennsylania along the Appalachians, turns west and decreases in intensity through western Kentucky and Tennessee, and extends through Arkansas and into eastern Oklahoma. As noted before, it consistently shows lower values for happiness and human development indices. For US demographics and geography buffs: it's not the Black Belt, which abuts it further southeast and closer to the coast. It is clearly, however, a cultural boundary zone between north and south - basically, from the southern shore of the Ohio River to the Deep South - and the part that extends west of the Mississippi may be a result of having been settled by Appalachians, since Americans have tended to in-migrate east-to-west. But the reasons for the Strip and whether it really has resulted from the same factors remains unclear.

Below are two maps from the several earlier articles showing the frequently re-emerging Bad Stripe: increased voting GOP for president in 2008 (bright red is 15% or more increase since 2004), and self-reported by congressional district, also 2008.

So it was with great interest that I read this Medium article ("The Origin of Populist Surges Everywhere", there's another more-intense-Republican-voting map, as well as these two: death by overdose (mostly opioids, i.e. pain meds) on top, and firearm suicides on the bottom - "diseases of despair", as the author calls them.

Paintings of Unnoticed Places

Westside San Joaquin

I've run across Stephanie Taylor's work before, in the hospital where I work, and on every occasion they were paintings non-iconic, obscure, but nonetheless unique and immediately identifiable aspects of California. These are places we aren't suppose to see, because they aren't how the place wants to think about itself, but we see them anyway. Consequently it's exciting to see them represented. I was moved to write about them and post some here after a trip to the Crocker in Sacramento. I've always had kind of a strange fascination with boiling a place down to its authentic essence - taking the semantic mean, I guess you could say - and while usually I feed this addiction by poring over maps and narratives, here she's accomplishing the same thing visually. (Of note, as I looked through her work I noticed that she draws the occasional map.) Through these non-places, she lets California speak for itself, in the same way that Terrence Malick's New World let the real Virginia speak for itself. Some of these places, specifically, are the Salton Sea, the rivers in the Central Valley, the golf courses in SoCal - oddly, places that many Californians would not recognize - but that if you're observant and you've been up and down the state, you immediately know. I guess my enthusiasm can be excused as resulting from the kinship I feel, after having often been in and around these places that we're not supposed to notice, and so has she, and more importantly I wonder if she found them all the same way.

A second observation is in order about her portraits, rather than the landscapes (although I've included only landscapes here). Paintings of people are, I think, necessarily more honest about the intrusion onto the subject the act of capturing them represents. Non-candid photography of casual subjects often seems a bit disingenous to me. Clearly the subject knows s/he is being photographed, yet the speed of the shutter leaves us thinking that somehow we're seeing them in the moment as they actually are, not how they are for the camera. When someone is being painted, we know they sat for it, that they posed, that they moved during the process.

You can see more at this Bee article, as well as at her studio.

Above: two Salton Sea images. Next two below: Southern California.

Two below: scenes from the Central Valley.

Two below: a foothill-looking forest,
and one getting into higher in the Sierra.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Problems of Utilitarianism #3: Hypothetical Happiness Matters, Unless It Doesn't

I spent the previous post about problems of utilitarianism critiquing the repugnant conclusion, by saying that what counts is utility as experienced by individuals, not some big abstract pile of hypothetical total utility points separate from the people that experience them. This explains why it's better to have some happiness-experiencing people than none at all, but not why and not why we shouldn't feed the utility monster.

If we define "bad" as decreasing utility - then quickly and humanely killing someone in their sleep would be acceptable, because they don't suffer. But in fact this isn't what our moral intuitions lead us to do. We endorse ending the lives of living things only when there is no possibility of future positive experience, future experience that would make life worth living. Hence a patient with ALS looking to the future may choose assisted suicide, but we don't sneak up to the hospital bed of someone suffering from pneumonia and give them a quick overdose of fentanyl.

The problem is that not just the pile of utility points, but also all future positive experience is also an abstraction. In fact almost all utility is abstract, i.e. not being currently experienced. We don't just react to immediate pleasure or pain we're experiencing this millisecond, we're also setting up to avoid future pain and gain future pleasure. However, abstract though it is, again it will be experienced non-abstractly by an individual.

One might argue that to make others' suffering less abstract the answer is to increase empathy so you're motivated to help them and everyone's utility increases; or, to decrease empathy so you can't be haunted by others' suffering. It is possible that from a population perspective one of these strategies is more stable and self-perpetuating than another, and this could be modeled experimentally. Whether this will helpfully apply to a natural evolved nervous system (even a social one) is another question, as these nervous systems evolved as machines subservient to the mission of spreading their genes, and if suffering achieves that, then that's what will be employed. When the nervous systems rebel and start thinking the universe is about them is when the story gets confused, which may be why these inconsistencies in reasoning about morality and happiness continue to appear.

Problems of Utilitarianism #2: Parfit and Rawls Are Incompatible

Previous problem of utilitarianism here. Next problem of utilitarianism here.

The Rawlsian conception of a just society is incompatible with Parfit's extension of utilitarianism.

Rawls claimed that a just society was necessarily a very egalitarian one. His argument was that if you were going to be placed into a society without knowing ahead of time what your role would be, if you're smart, you would want a society where there's not much difference between the guy at the top, and the guy at the bottom. That is to say: sure it would be a blast to be a plantation-owner in the antebellum American South, but if you fell out of the sky at random into a role in that society, chances are much greater you'd end up as a slave or tenant farmer breaking your back for one of the plantation owners.(1)

Parfit extended utilitarianism by saying that if we want the greatest good for the greatest number, we should want not just more happiness, but more people. The equation is average happiness of each person * # people = total amount of happiness. In this view, having more people to be experiencing some happiness can even counterbalance the amount of happiness that each person is experiencing. Another way of saying this: if utilitarianism is the greatest good for the greatest number, don't neglect the "number" part.

The full elaboration of this claim runs counter to most people's moral intuitions and lead to what's known as the repugnant conclusion (summarized below).

Imagine two societies: a society of a million people who have the best lives possible, whose lives are 99% worth living. (I don't know, sometimes it's cloudy when they go to the beach, otherwise life is perfect.) Compare that to a society of a hundred million whose lives are only 1% better than death: they groan each day under the oppressive weight of a dictatorship, but sometimes see a nice flower, which keeps them from wanting to kill themselves.(2) Because 99% * a million is less overall happiness than 1% * a hundred million, the repugnant conclusion according to Parfit's interpretation of utilitarianism, is that it's better to have the much bigger, much less happy society.

The obvious rejection is that an individual experiences individual happiness - total happiness is not something that is experienced - and the individual experience of objective happiness is what matters. Of course, if you make that claim, you're arguing against utilitarianism.

To illustrate Parfit's repugnant conclusion concretely in contrast to Rawls, let's apply it to a real historical situation, the concrete example of black slavery in the United States. Of course the QALY (quality-adjusted life years) measurements for utility will necessarily be a little fudged. On the eve of the American Civil War in 1860, the census showed 3,953,761 slaves in the United States. Let's round that up to four million and assume these people had lives 1% worth living(3) (after all they're literally in the horrible dictatorship that I described above.) [Added later: the very next day after I wrote this post, I ran across Robin Hanson's blog post "Power Corrupts, Slavery Edition" which contains the statement "US south slave plantations were quite literally small totalitarian governments".] Now let's compare that to Avalon on the California island of Catalina. Ever been there? It's really nice, as you might expect, and has a population of just under 4,000, and while it's not completely egalitarian, you can't be bought or killed with impunity. It's a really nice place, so let's assume there's 99% average happiness. Parfit concludes that it's better to have that slave society than modern Avalon.

By Parfit's interpretation of utilitarianism, the problem is not the institution of slavery's impact on quality of life, as long as we can overcome this by having enough slaves. Rawls could never recommend choosing a slave society over a non-slave society ("well how big a slave society is it?" the repugnant conclusion says you should ask.) By Rawls (and most of our intuitions) the answer of which you would rather be randomly thrown into is obvious, and wholly contingent on whether moral value comes from some abstract total register of utility points, or the experienced utility of an individual human being. Since policy makers do these calculations to make decisions, this absurd conclusion could conceivably make a difference, and some respected thinkers (Bryan Caplan and Michael Huemer among them) have argued that our intuitions are wrong.

Of course the counterargument is: if individually experienced utility is all that matters, isn't it better to have one really happy person then two ho-hum people? Shouldn't we feed the utility monster then? I don't know, other than to say fatalistically, that possibly moral reasoning either is not a real process, and that we are unable to make decisions like this about groups of people that we do not know. Which would be terrible, considering that modern societies are forced to do so all the time. But it would be consistent with Adam Smith's thought experiment about losing a single joint of a finger versus an earthquake in China that kills a hundred thousand. Humans cannot reason about abstract people as moral agents, because we did not evolve with a need to do so - other than as threats or trade partners.


1. Rawls also suffers from the problem of differing agents: assume that someone doesn't care about relative status, only absolute comforts. If such a person gets his head frozen and wakes up in a future where there are absolute un-displaceable overlords but who give them amazing experiences and material comfort, that person might not care, even though you would chafe under such an uber nanny-state regime. I also wonder how meaningful the question of a choice can be, because there is no neutral position to choose from and all are habituated to the specifics of times and places. I.e., to me England appears a nightmarish dystopia but the people I've met from there seem to be reasonable people who enjoy their lives and even return there voluntarily, so who knows.

2. If you think assigning numbers to such situations is spurious and academic, I'm afraid I must inform you that they are very concrete and very real-world, as health systems use units of DALYs and QALYs all the time to make decisions. And some systems do assign negative values, meaning that some conditions are considered to make life not worth living, i.e. they are literally worse than death.

3. I tried to look up the suicide rate for slaves, as this would give an idea of how many slaves thought their life was not worth living. Although I couldn't find numbers, apparently suicide was unexpectedly rare, and the threat of execution by owners would not have been an effective deterrent for slaves who thought continued slavery was worse than death. In several places (e.g. here) I saw an article referenced: David Lester, Center for the Study of Suicide, "Suicidal Behavior in African-American Slaves," Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 37:1 (1998), 1-13.

Problems of Utilitarianism #1: Real Utility Monsters

Next problem of utilitarianism here.

Utilitarianism is often formulated as the claim: "The best society is the one with the greatest good for the greatest number."

There are many problems with this, first and foremost is that such an abstract formulation submerges the question of how to achieve and maintain this. To make this concrete, it doesn't even distinguish between radical capitalism and radical communism.

But another problem troubles it, one which crops up in multiple places in reasoning about moral societies: the problem of differing agency. Many of us understand on some level how troubling this is to the Enlightenment project of organizing societies, and this is evident in our discomfort discussing (for instance) behavioral genetics.

Here is an innocuous case of differing agency - one might call it trivially differing agency - that is not problematic for utilitarianism: I kind of like chicken. But my wife really likes chicken. If we get to the end of the meal and there's one piece of chicken left, the obvious best choice is to give it to her, because there will be more happiness in the world if she eats it. In the same way, I once refused a free ticket to a PGA tour event because I can't stand golf, and it is almost certainly true that whoever got that ticket instead of me, they enjoyed the event more. My taking up a spot at such an event would be an anti-utilitarian travesty.

Differing agency remains innocuous only so long as agents differ somewhat randomly in their specific tastes but not on average in the intensity of their pleasure and suffering. To illustrate this problem, Robert Nozick imagined a utility monster, that would always derive more enjoyment from everything. It doesn't habituate, it has no hedonic treadmill. You could imagine the utility monster as some kind of hedonistic superintelligent alien that had come to Earth to experience chocolate ice cream and massages, and experience them it does, on wondrous levels of ecstasy we can't begin to imagine. To it, we are as dim beasts, barely able to register pleasure compared to the raptures that the monster can attain. If we are true utilitarians, we always have to give our chicken and golf tickets (and chocolate ice cream and massages) to the utility monster. (Let's assume it's a nice utility monster that doesn't destroy things like the one below, it just likes the things we like, more than we like them, which is still a big problem.)

Not exactly how Nozick imagined it, but hey it's funny.
From Existential Comics

And as it turns out, this is not a thought experiment, because humans actually do differ, both in their capacity to experience pleasure, and the damage done by negative stimuli. People in the throes of a manic episode take great hedonic value from a great many things, including money and sex, which is partly why such episodes are psychiatric emergencies. Do we feel obligated to help them continue spending sprees or accept their propositions? People with borderline personality disorder are much more badly harmed by social rejection than the rest of us; do we feel obligated to constantly reassure them that we are their best friends, to the exclusion of other people who are healthier in this regard? You might argue that over time the greatest good is not to help them make worse decisions that will surely harm them in the long run. But there are certainly people whose happiness set points are constitutionally lower or more fragile (anti-utility monsters), and outside of mental health professionals there are very few of us who see a moral obligation in continually propping up their current hedonic state.

My gut reaction is that we don't have such an obligation, but I can't see why we shouldn't, if utilitarianism is correct.

Of note, Nozick also critiqued the Rawlsian conception of a just society, but there is a further critique of Nozick in the instantiation of societies of humans, which again relies on the actual differing capacities of humans that affect the quality of their agency. And despite heroic efforts to create equal agents, humans continue to stratify themselves based on these differing qualities.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

In Praise of Dilettantism; Or, Going Through "Phases" As Therapy

Those of us with wide-ranging interests can hit a wall at a certain age. As our career takes a greater share of our time, it becomes more difficult to escape noticing that some of our interests actually pay off in ways that directly improve our lives (like interest in the subject matter of our careers), as opposed to mere curiosity in things with neat-o factor but that are basically intellectual consumption goods. At a certain point, curiosity, praiseworthy though it is, just isn't good enough. It's against the backdrop of this conflict that some of us adopt and discard not just curiosities, but investments in communities and skills. Some of these quickly-jettisoned phases make it under the wire initially because they offer improvements to our perceived weaknesses, and while that is good enough at first, soon enough we encounter diminishing returns.

I'm posting this because this conflict engenders the adoption of certain kinds of new skills and activities at a certain age, and if this seems familiar, read on. (Intellectual mid-life crises? I won't say it but you can if you want.) For a concrete example: not long ago a retired friend of mine was going through a higher math phase. He was learning a lot of difficult, dense stuff that he'd always been interested in as a younger man - and I've had exactly the same urge on occasion - but he admitted to me a year ago that he was starting to question the rewards and his motivations in the first place. (I don't know if he's stuck with it.)

And I closely identified with him. Two years ago, I went through a chess phase. As with my friend, this was something I had wanted to do since college, and only once I was a couple months in to the daily games and studying did I begin to contemplate the massive amount of time and effort required to properly develop such a skill. After a beginner's bump, my Elo rating was frustratingly inert.

I revisited my motivation for learning chess, with renewed honesty. First, I thought the learning and improving at chess would improve my strategic thinking generally. Second (something which I could finally admit to myself) I could dump my long-standing inferiority complex around my ability to learn strategy games. As for the first point, I went looking for evidence that learning chess would in fact improve strategic thinking in some ways. What I found were some scattered results that there was an improvement in academic achievement in children learning chess, but nothing like general improvements in strategic thinking in a grown-ass man, other than at chess (duh). (Note: having done this kind of research for several such activities, one of the patterns that has emerged is that efficiencies in our thinking mostly do not generalize outside very limited, concrete domains as much as we would like to think. Even the famous N-back results for improving working memory have not generalized well.) As for the second point, I then asked myself if learning chess would only make me better at chess, did it really matter?

I am proud to say I quickly made the decision to quit, and have not played a game in almost 2.5 years. More importantly I'm not troubled that I made this decision. I'm actually quite proud, as you might guess by my taking the time to write about it in public. And in fact it's not the only recent instance of gleeful hobby-abandonment: I had a very similar experience with learning how to really hit a baseball for the first time at age 42. I hired a former pro to teach me for five lessons. Ridiculous? Maybe. Did I get much, much better at hitting? Yes! (Have you ever reliably hit overhand pitches from a pro? Didn't think so bro.) At this point, am I good enough to join even the recciest of rec leagues? Probably not. But most importantly, do I get mad thinking about how I could never hit a baseball when I see people playing baseball, or hear them talking about playing baseball? No, not anymore! And THAT is what I wanted. Who knows if I would improve my coordination or definition in my arms from hitting; I bet not, but anyway there are better ways of doing that.

A reader might think, "Well that's super, this guy is celebrating being a dilettante and/or quitter." For chess and baseball, yes, quitting is worth celebrating. And really, what would be the most contemptible outcome here, celebrating quitting, or a 40-year-old man suddenly deciding he's going to put his heart and soul into chess and baseball, activities for which the window of opportunity is long closed even if I'd ever had some innate advantage for either? (The fact that I don't is the whole reason I did these things.) There are more important things to commit to - in direct opposition to the flakiness described above, I take my marriage and my career very seriously and almost every day I literally measure how I'm improving at those.

My own focus here is that these (mercifully brief) phases let me jettison my concerns about things that, once I do them and improve a little, show that I did get better, but they weren't that important. I mostly want to recommend similar liberations to my fellow humans, since this process has certainly benefited me.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Bad Stripe = "Greater Appalachia"

The Bad Stripe I've identified based on voting out of sync with the rest of the country and even the rest of their states, and a consistent cluster of low human development indicators - and it appears on Jayman's blog, more or less, as his Greater Appalachia. Is it because it's a boundary zone? Settled by Border Reivers?

Above: the yall zone, the border of which is basically the Bad Stripe. Note the correspondence with northern Greater Appalachia.