Saturday, April 30, 2011

Honest Discussion of Nuclear Power

I've tried (and tried) to show that safety isn't a concern, but that doesn't mean it's the right choice:

End all energy subsidies and tax all externalities so we can tell which is really the best choice.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Every Player Should be a Coach

One of the biggest changes in my life over the last couple of years is my transition from a follower to a leader. Not in that vague interpersonal kind of way, but in real and tangible ways. Just a couple of years ago I was the student sitting in classes. Now I'm the teacher planning and executing lesson plans. Not too long ago I was still a part of my college improv team, taking direction from the leadership there. Now I'm teaching and coaching old and new improvisers.

I can say, without a doubt in my mind, that I've learned more being a leader than a follower. I've learned more about US History in three years as a teacher (see my series on learning by teaching) than in four years as a student. I learned more about economics in three years as a blogger than in four years as a student. I learned more about comedy in my years at the Dirty South Improv Theater than I did in my four years at Mock Turtle Soup. But this is not just the experience of one person, it's supported by research.

Author Dan Pink points to three experiments where "subjects were more likely to come up with the answer on behalf of another person than for themselves; the farther away the other person was imagined to be, the more likely the participants were to come up with the correct answer." But here's the catch, I couldn't have done one without the other. My years of history and economics classes were vital to my current teaching. My years of improv workshops were vital to my current coaching. The transition between a player and a coach is tough, but let me assure you, it you want to be great, it's worth it.

This was cross-posted at the The College Improv Resource.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A World Without Economic Growth

Here's something absent from every single thing I've ever read about predicting the future of our economy: Even if economic growth ends right now (which it most certainly will not), we still be as rich as we are right now.

Pick Your Bias(es)

Great list from the Spousonomics blog:
1. Confirmation bias. Everything you see only confirms what you already believe to be true–whether or not it really is. Jenny recently decided that her family was perfect because a new study confirmed that families with two girls are happiest–and she has two girls!

2. Optimism bias. You view and interpret facts in a self-serving way. Like believing you do more than 50% of the housework, while your spouse believes same about herself.

3. Hindsight bias. Also known as the I-knew-it-all-along effect. Things that happened in the past were so predictable. You KNEW you shouldn’t have hung up on your mother-in-law, but now it’s too late and she’s not speaking to you.

4. Correspondence bias. The tendency to make trait inferences about someone based on their behavior. Your wife steals the sheets. She must not care if you’re cold.

5. Actor-Observer bias: Similar to above. You believe others do things because of their personality, but you do things because of the situation, i.e. your husband didn’t pick up the milk because he only thinks of himself, but you didn’t pick up the milk because you’re busy doing a million things.

6. Self-serving bias. You choose the explanation that makes you look best. If your kid gets a bad grade on his English test, it’s because the teacher is bad. If he gets an A, it’s because he’s a genius (thanks to your good genes).

7. Ingroup bias. Other couples suck compared to you guys.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Benefits of Simplified Morality

I spend a lot of time trying to simplify complicated topics. Everything from immigration, to voting, to WikiLeaks. Like the title of this blog suggests, I'm trying to filter a lot of information into understandable bits. At the same time, I've longed to show just how un-simple many topics are. Everything from charity, to foreign policy, to human/animal relations. This comes from one of my dislikes of oversimplifying issues that are not black and white. But yet we simplify things all the time. We simplify stories to make them convincing. I simplify US History to make it digestible. We all simplify ourselves into clear likable labels. This might be why:
We propose that the rule that is cognitively most accessible during the decision making process (e.g., “Save lives” or “Do not kill”) will influence how people solve these moral dilemmas. Three studies are reported that indeed demonstrate that the most accessible rule influences willingness to intervene within footbridge dilemmas. This effect is found even when the accessibility of the rule is induced subliminally.
By creating a helpful set of personal rules we increase the likelihood we will follow them. We can improve our moral math by simplifying the equations. This is why when the normal rules of society break down, so do our personal moral standards. So have a set of moral rules to live by, but be sure not to overestimate their scope.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Black Plague and Nazi Holocaust

When the Black Death hit Europe in 1348-50, killing between one third and one half of the population, its cause was unknown. Many contemporaries blamed the Jews. Cities all over Germany witnessed mass killings of their Jewish population. At the same time, numerous Jewish communities were spared these horrors. We use plague pogroms as an indicator for medieval anti-Semitism. Pogroms during the Black Death are a strong and robust predictor of violence against Jews in the 1920s, and of votes for the Nazi Party. In addition, cities that saw medieval anti-Semitic violence also had higher deportation rates for Jews after 1933, were more likely to see synagogues damaged or destroyed in the Night of Broken Glass in 1938, and their inhabitants wrote more anti-Jewish letters to the editor of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer.
Via The Browser.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part XXII

Here's one shared by my friend-moving-to-Miami-tomorrow Jeff Brenman (goodbye Jeff). Apparently, whales have hit songs just like we do:
the team had to listen to 745 songs in total from six whale populations across the South Pacific over the 11-year period. The researchers identified 11 distinctly different styles (audio). Sometimes the "hit song" contained snippets from previous seasons, sometimes it was entirely revolutionary. But at any given time and place, there was only one song.
And like us, hits come and go:
What's more, the popular song switched incredibly rapidly; it took only 2 to 3 months for whales in a given region to entirely change their tune, the team reports online today in Current Biology.
Also like us, it's all about the ladies and all about the remix (earlier):
For male whales, singing is known to be a mating behavior, and Garland calls the results a "weird interaction of constrained novelty" where each whale wants to one-up the whale next to it but still feels pressure to conform enough that it doesn't stand out as an oddball.
But unlike us, their stars are too big to be studied:
his is extremely difficult to do, as humpbacks are too large to be put in captivity for study, and no good methods for tracking individual mating patterns exist.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Follow Your Heartbeat

I've come across a few articles recently all on how our heartbeat influences us. Here's a snippet from an interesting paper related to my previous post on our unconscious thoughts. In the study students were asked to figure out a game with no obvious strategy:
Most players gradually found a way to win at the card game and they reported having relied on intuition rather than reason. Subtle changes in the players' heart rates and sweat responses affected how quickly they learned to make the best choices during the game.

Interestingly, the quality of the advice that people's bodies gave them varied. Some people's gut feelings were spot on, meaning they mastered the card game quickly. Other people's bodies told them exactly the wrong moves to make, so they learned slowly or never found a way to win.

Dunn and his co-authors found this link between gut feelings and intuitive decision making to be stronger in people who were more aware of their own heartbeat. So for some individuals being able to 'listen to their heart' helped them make wise choices, whereas for others it led to costly mistakes.
So being aware of your heartbeat makes your "heart" and your "head" more connected. Similar to this and connected to my recent post on empathy, being aware of others' feelings can change our heartbeat. In the study some of the participants were forced to bond and some weren't. Then:
the other student was allocated the task of running on the spot vigorously for three minutes. This time, the sight of their partner running apparently caused the socially connected participants to experience increased heart rate and blood pressure, as compared with the participants who hadn't been prompted to feel socially connected. A weak bond had led the strangers' hearts to beat together.
So being socially connected makes you feel what they feel. So being aware of your heartbeat can help you access your subconscious, be more empathetic, and in this last study, improve your internal clock:
Thirty-one participants listened to auditory tones of either 8, 14, or 20 seconds duration. After each one, they heard a second tone and had to press a button when they thought its duration matched the first. Counting was forbidden during the task and a secondary, number-based memory task helped enforce this rule. Heart-beat perception accuracy was measured separately and simply involved participants counting silently their own heart-beats over periods of 25, 35, 45 and 60 seconds.

The take away message is that the participants who were more in tune with their heart-beats also tended to perform better at the time estimation task.
Perhaps these are some of the benefits of silent meditation and prayer.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Public Choice Theory 101

Here's the introduction to any good public choice theory class. It explains why the recent budget "cuts" turned out to not be real cuts and why it is perfectly rational for politicians to take from the many and give to the few:

Friday, April 22, 2011

An Hour with a Paid Expert

Earlier this year I posted on what the impact of an hour with an honest stranger might be. Apparently, there's a company taking that idea and applying it to experts:
Lots of bandwidth and $5,000 can get anyone an hour with Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker.

A couple more computer clicks can also remake a tennis serve, fix a golf swing and provide tips on how to out-bluff the poker world’s top pros.

Becker, a University of Chicago professor who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1992, will be selling his time on, a website offering one-to-one video chats with leaders, which opened yesterday. He’ll join people such as economics professors Jeffrey Miron of Harvard University and Laurence Kotlikoff of Boston University, “Freakonomics” co- authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, poker celebrities Patrik Antonius and Tom Dwan, and tennis coach Jeff Salzenstein.

“The idea is to bring this coaching model to everything,” said Brandon Adams, Expert Insight’s 32-year-old founder and chief executive officer.
I'm curious what the prices are for these experts and what the prices of other people might be. I'll let you all know right now, my price is about the cost of a good cup of coffee.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Late-April '11 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Economics of Polygamy

Polygamy acted as husbandly insurance against an individual wife’s barrenness, as well as high child mortality rates, and made ill or aging wives less burdensome. If it was taboo to have sex with pregnant and lactating women (which increased a nursing child’s chances of survival), new fathers suffered neither sexual privation nor a waiting period to produce another child. And with so many children, polygamists had plenty of sons to work the land or contribute to their commercial ventures; in militaristic societies, these sons were prized as military recruits. Daughters, less valued, were still useful for domestic work, or to be advantageously married off to polygamous men.
That's from a wonderful article on the possibility of legalizing polygamy in Canada. A concern this article raised, but didn't answer, is how the culture of polygamy, like illegal drugs, might change if it was raised out of the legal shadows.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Making Students More Honest

Cheating is a big problem for educators. Almost all students has cheated in some way. Worse, many are able to convince themselves it's either not that bad or not cheating at all. This is specifically a problem for my AP US History class debates where students asked be unbiased jury members. That's why, along with a jury selection method, I've come up with a very specific way to remind them of my integrity standards. Before each debate we
read this aloud:
I, insert your name, promise to judge the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me insert the name of your favorite president.
As I've suggested in the past, it helps:
In Experiment 1, 108 youngsters, aged 8-16 years, were left alone in the room and asked not to peek at the answers to a test. The majority of participants peeked at the test answers and then lied about their transgression. More importantly, participants were eight times more likely to change their response from a lie to the truth after promising to tell the truth. Experiment 2 confirmed that the results of Experiment 1 were not solely due to repeated questioning or the moral discussion of truth- and lie-telling. These results suggest that, while promising to tell the truth influences the truth-telling behaviors of adolescents, a moral discussion of truth and lies does not.
Via Eric Barker.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part XXI

Here's another example of how humans and animals are different. Instead of focusing on our differing strengths, here's a TED talk on our weakness (like how we are bad at risk and bad at investing). The difference is at the end, but I'll spoil it for you. The difference between irrational humans and irrational animals, is that we can know it and can create structures to overcome it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Economics of Education

From Freakonomics Radio:
So of all the topics that economists have studied, I would say one we are most certain about are the returns to education. And the numbers that people have come up with over and over are that every extra year of education that you get will translate into an 8% increase in earnings over your lifetime. So someone who graduated from college will earn about 30% more on average than someone who only graduated from high school. And if anything, the returns to education have gotten larger over time. They’re as big as they have ever been. And I think it makes sense that the returns to education now are higher than they’ve ever been because of how the economy has changed. It used to be that with a low education, you could get a good manufacturing job, lifetime employment. But now with the Chinese competition for instance, almost all the manufacturing jobs are gone, because there are Chinese workers willing to work, who are able to do these jobs at wages that are one-fifth or one-tenth of what an American worker would demand to do it.
Nothing overly surprising. But it does show why education is and will continue to be very important.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Moral Requirement of Voters

I talk a lot about voting, but rarely in the positive. If you do vote, here's some sound advice:
As a citizen, you do not owe it to others to provide them with the best possible governance. But if you take on the office of voter, you acquire additional moral responsibilities, just as you would were you to become the Federal Reserve chairperson, a physician, or a congressperson. The electorate decides who governs. Sometimes they decide policy directly. They owe it to the governed to provide what they justifiably believe or ought to believe is the best governance, just as others with political power owe it to the governed to do the same.
Or, as economist Bryan Caplan summarizes:
There's no duty to vote, but if you do vote, you have a duty to vote "only for things [you] justifiably believe would promote the common good."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Legalize Drugs: The Dealer

You heard my reasons based on good facts and a good story. Now here it from the main character, "Freeway" Ricky Ross, one of the biggest crack dealers in LA in the 1980s and '90s. His personal history is almost as interesting as his perspective on drug legalization. I highly recommended this Planet Money interview:

The Future is Unknown For Everyone

Whether it's the growing food crisis or the recent Japanese nuclear accident, the news is full of predictions. Few of them fare better than a random guess. Here's the research from a the new book Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, And You Can Do Better:
In Future Babble, Gardner acknowledges his debt to political scientist Phililp Tetlock, who set up a 20-year experiment in which he enrolled nearly 300 experts in politics. Tetlock then solicited thousands of predictions about the fates of scores of countries and later checked how well they did. Not so well. Tetlock concluded that most of his experts would have been beaten by “a dart-throwing chimpanzee.” Tetlock found that the experts wearing rose-tinted glasses “assigned probabilities of 65 percent to rosy scenarios that materialized only 15 percent of the time.” Doomsters did even worse: “They assigned probabilities of 70 percent to bleak scenarios that materialized only 12 percent of the time.”
Not to say predictions are bad, after all that's what makes economics so great. This is why people should be forced to back up their predictions financially, like they are at Intrade. I suggest finding a trusted observationalist and ignore most other people. I suggest reading the whole article quoted above to remember just how many times the experts have been wrong.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Reason to Volunteer Abroad

Last year I described why I think many overseas missions do more harm than good. The first comment was from Lindsey Jones, who recently posted her own experience volunteering abroad:
We called the trip to Haiti a "reverse mission trip," which is meant to imply that WE, the travelers, are the ones receiving rather than providing. We affirm the Haitian culture instead of fostering dependency, and we attempt to empower those in Haiti to do the work for their own nation since they are far more equipped to do it than we ever will be. We go to learn and benefit from what Haitians can teach us, and we have no intentions of teaching or telling them anything.
This is a great argument for volunteering abroad, but with diminishing effects.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Mid-April '11 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

(Belated) Birthday Wishes for Empathy

A dangerous coping mechanism I learned early in life was to not need people. If you don't need others, they can't let you down. Not only was this self-destructive, I began to assume that because I seemingly didn't need people, others didn't need me. This lack of empathy had me at times wonder if I had psychopathic (abnormal lack of empathy) tendencies. Even today, I have to make a conscious effort to not fall back on that. Birthdays are one of those times. It's the one time a year where everyone is culturally obligated to celebrate you. So when my birthday came last Friday, I was reminded of my uneasy expectations. This is one of the reasons why I don't have a Facebook wall. Why I don't advertise my birthday. And why I'm infamously bad at others' birthdays. I want this to change.

This year, I was flooded by appreciation from those around me. My AP US History class threw a little surprise party (complete with "Brookie's Cookie Cake" and presidential finger puppets). My sister and her husband surprised me with a visit. And my wife surprised me by telling stories at my weekly improv show, Mister Diplomat, followed by an after party at the theater. As much as I try to remind myself how important social praise is, I was still taken back at how much these surprises meant to me. Even after my history class, I noticed a change in my attitude. I was more appreciative of the good interactions and more able to deal with the bad interactions.

This got me thinking what inspires people to do such nice things. Part of it is obligation, but to go above and beyond requires something more. That extra something is empathy. So I decided to find a way to measure my own empathy and came across this test. It gives 60 statements and asks how strongly you agree or disagree with it. Here's the scale:
0 -32 = low (people with Asperger Syndrome or high-functioning autism score about 20)
33-52 = average (most women score about 47 and most men score about 42)
53-63 is above average
64-80 is very high
I scored a 19. Well below average and within the "disorder" category. I was especially alarmed when I read this article trying to redefine evil as a lack of empathy. The article discusses several facets I'd never considered. Like how more testosterone (even in the womb), usually results in less empathy. This may help explain why women are commonly regarded as more caring. However, a person's environment also matters. Children who have insecure attachment to their caretakers (abusive households, foster children, etc) often has less empathy. For me this shows how empathy multiplies empathy, especially for young people. Which shows me my role, as a teacher, in the cycle of empathy. It's even got me thinking of ways to directly focus on growing in our sensitivity to others (through public schools, through improv, through personal relationships).

The problem of empathy is bigger than just face to face interactions. There has been a fairly agreed upon assumption that empathy levels have decreased in America. I'm skeptical, but some blame this on conservatives. This could explain why political conservatives are seen as less willing to pay for the poor or why they focus more on security (from other less empathetic people). Either way I think this character trait is important for our political leaders. Perhaps an empathy test could be added to economist Alex Tabarrok's So You Think You Can Be President? game show idea.

So I am empathy deficient and it's clearly important. What I am to do? First, I need to learn from my ultra-sensitive wife, who scored a 56 on the empathy test. Part of marriage is carrying around another perspective of life. I can already see how her thoughts have improved mine. I also need to remember that even though it's difficult to change your own empathy, it's not impossible. Even knowing that I err on the side of less empathetic can help me override my default.

And finally, I think we should all have the goal of expanding our empathy circle. There's no reason not to include people in other cities, states, or countries. It certainly means putting more burden on you, but giving as much as we can to others may be what separates humans from animals. A main source of conflict is a lack on empathy. If we could implant a chip in our brain that made us feel others' pain as much as we feel ours, the world would be a much nicer place to live (though perhaps not a happier place). Until then, read the personal stories of others who lack empathy, have pity on us, and love us. You can start by commenting on this post.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Worthwhile Sentences on Feedback

From Hugh Hollowell: "Everyone always loves you when you don't tell them the truth."

From Hans Rosling: "My basic idea is that the world has changed so much, what people need isn't more data but a new mindset."

From Laura Morrison: "first, be self-aware enough to understand when your motives aren't genuine or when they're manipulative, and second, rather than manipulate people to get what you want, why not instead live honestly and directly communicate to others what you want from them?"

From Jonah Lehrer on good ADHD: "When we don't know where to look, we need to look everywhere."

From Magician Franz Harary: "If you can understand how people think, then, for a brief moment, you can control what they see."

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Benefits of Rationality

I talked a lot about rationality. Here's why I care:
There is considerable heterogeneity in subjects' consistency scores: high-income and high-education subjects display greater levels of consistency than low-income and low-education subjects, men are more consistent than women, and young subjects are more consistent than older subjects.
And here's why you should care:
We also find that consistency with utility maximization is strongly related to wealth: a standard deviation increase in the consistency score is associated with 15-19 percent more wealth.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Problem with Being Rich

Since one of my most popular posts (and several since), I've tried to convince my readers that we are rich. My goal is not to show that wealth leads to happiness, but to put financial stress in perspective. If we worry less about money, perhaps we can worry more about what really matters. I recently came across this sermon from a pastor in California. In it he does two things I think should be done more in American churches. He reminds them their rich and then he warns them about it. The Bible is clear that in God's economy, wealth can be a hindrance. I'm usually pretty weary talking about controversial religious topics here (not here), not because it's not important, but because I fear trivializing such vulnerable issues. I don't necessarily endorse everything he says, and it pretty long, but I highly recommended this sermon.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Legalize Giving Bribes

In many parts of the world, political machines still wield huge political influence through a system of underground deals. Here's one solution, legalize it:
In theory, once a demand for a bribe has been satisfied—and the service received, one presumes—the bribe giver may be interested in cooperating in getting the bribe taker caught, knowing that he or she will not face any punishment. That possibility could deter the bribe taker from taking a bribe in the first place. Right now, the interests of both converge, since both payer and taker face punishment if caught, and so the payer has a reduced interest in uncovering bribery.
To see just how bad the situation is, check out

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Declaration of War, What is it Good For?

We're fighting another war. The United States Nations is paying for it. The Republicans are ironically weary. This is my favorite related statement:
Question: In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? (Specifically, what about the strategic bombing of suspected nuclear sites — a situation that does not involve stopping an IMMINENT threat?) 
Answer: The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. 
As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.
That's from now President Obama in 2007. I'm not surprised that Obama acted like every war president of the last 65 years, fighting without a formal declaration of war, but I do blame him for not being different.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Early-April '11 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.