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Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Review: Osprey Savu 5

 My long beloved Matador Beast 28 is slowly dying, with a rip slowly working its way around the waist belt. My big problem with the Matador Beast was always that the side pockets were nearly worthless, at most storing a Zojirushi thermal flask that's not very big. The camel's back broke when the thermal flask started falling out of the backpack while riding.

 I decided to try the Savu 5 lumbar pack when Osprey started selling them at $35. It has 2 water bottle holders, and one big central pouch. Actually riding with it, it works for commutes or even road rides of 16 miles or longer. But if you actually load up with two water bottles and tackle steep climbs with it you quickly feel lower back pain, so it's actually not so good for actual mountain biking --- I'd stick with water bottle cages.

What it proved to be surprisingly great at though is the commute --- I can squeeze in a backpacking towel, a change of clothes, badge, keys, and a cap for commuting. The side pockets can hold my headphones and the phone proper can go into a handlebar bag to keep myself from texting and riding. It's also great for day hikes, since the water bottle holders firmly accept almost any type of water bottles and hold it firmly. It won't carry quite enough for a day long hike with the family (you'll inevitably need to carry other people's lunches and jackets if you're a dad), but for short 2-4 mile hikes you'll easily have enough water for the family and a few snacks.

It's also generally good for taking kids to birthday parties and stuff like that --- the main pouch has enough room for a kindle paperwhite, so you can entertain yourself.

I thought about returning it, but Boen decided that he likes it more than his camelbak, so I'll be keeping it.

Monday, June 05, 2023

Review: No Excuses - Existentialism and the Meaning of Life

 I picked up No Excuses during an audible sale. Usually I enjoy the Great Courses series, but this one was a dud. The lecturer basically went over what the various existentialist authors wrote (including some biography), but didn't actually cover why they were all grouped into a movement. Even during the last lecture he didn't explain why you would group together religious people and atheists/humanists in a single movement. I came away from the series no more enlightened about the movement than I did before listening to it.

Thursday, June 01, 2023

Review: The Righteous Mind

 The Righteous Mind is divided into 3 parts. The first two are at the very least enlightening and gives you plenty to think about, and the last part unfortunately falls into the "bothsidesim" that has aged particularly badly since 2012, which was when the book is written.

The first part is pretty straightforward: humans aren't rational. Our rationality and reasoning abilities are frequently used for post-hoc analysis and self-justification as to why we did the things we were going to do anyway, whether it was reprehensible or moral behavior. This isn't particularly controversial, as anyone who has tried to get a kid to do the right thing will tell you --- the smarter the kid, the more reasons he will come up with as to why what he did was the right thing, irregardless of the actual rightness of the behavior. What's interesting is that what it takes to change people's minds isn't reason, but affection, admiration, and mutual respect:

When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight. The elephant leans away from the opponent, and the rider works frantically to rebut the opponent’s charges. But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then the elephant leans toward that person and the rider tries to find the truth in the other person’s arguments. The elephant may not often change its direction in response to objections from its own rider, but it is easily steered by the mere presence of friendly elephants (that’s the social persuasion link in the social intuitionist model) or by good arguments given to it by the riders of those friendly elephants (that’s the reasoned persuasion link). (pg. 79)

The second part of the book is an exploration of humanity's good behavior. The author uses a phrase - we're 90% Chimp and 10% Bees. The idea here is that chimps don't normally cooperate with each other, and 90% of the time we behave like selfish primates. But then there are some triggers that get us to all bind together into a team or group or religion, and then humans are capable of cooperating to a high degree, like bees. There's a part of the book where Haidt explains the aggressive egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer societies:

It’s not that human nature suddenly changed and became egalitarian; men still tried to dominate others when they could get away with it. Rather, people armed with weapons and gossip created what Boehm calls “reverse dominance hierarchies” in which the rank and file band together to dominate and restrain would-be alpha males. (It’s uncannily similar to Marx’s dream of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”)34 The result is a fragile state of political egalitarianism achieved by cooperation among creatures who are innately predisposed to hierarchical arrangements. It’s a great example of how “innate” refers to the first draft of the mind. The final edition can look quite different, so it’s a mistake to look at today’s hunter-gatherers and say, “See, that’s what human nature really looks like!” (pg. 199)

 His theory therefore is that the egalitarian instinct evolved relatively recently. I'm not so sure I buy that. In any case, Haidt points out how you can deliberately trigger the "hive switch" on humans:

Increase similarity, not diversity. To make a human hive, you want to make everyone feel like a family. So don’t call attention to racial and ethnic differences; make them less relevant by ramping up similarity and celebrating the group’s shared values and common identity.49 A great deal of research in social psychology shows that people are warmer and more trusting toward people who look like them, dress like them, talk like them, or even just share their first name or birthday.50 There’s nothing special about race. You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals, and mutual interdependencies. (pg. 277)

This explains, by the way, why corporate programs to increase diversity ironically also increases latent racism --- the training to make people aware of diversity ironically erodes the hive switch and therefore makes the company less cohesive. The reduction of cohesiveness not only makes the company less effective, it also creates a backlash because the people comprising of the company no longer view themselves as part of a whole. People who might otherwise have bought into the human hive now rail against wokeness instead.

Haidt points out then, that the role of religion isn't an accident. It binds communities together in ways that secular shared values do not:

It was things like giving up alcohol and tobacco, fasting for days at a time, conforming to a communal dress code or hairstyle, or cutting ties with outsiders. For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted. But Sosis was surprised to discover that demands for sacrifice did not help secular communes. Most of them failed within eight years, and there was no correlation between sacrifice and longevity.31 Why doesn’t sacrifice strengthen secular communes? Sosis argues that rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized. He quotes the anthropologist Roy Rappaport: “To invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity.”32 But when secular organizations demand sacrifice, every member has a right to ask for a cost-benefit analysis, and many refuse to do things that don’t make logical sense. In other words, the very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship. Irrational beliefs can sometimes help the group function more rationally, particularly when those beliefs rest upon the Sanctity foundation.33 (pg. 298)

This is an insightful and probably accurate view of society. You'll read this book nodding along to this part. The final part of the book (and really, the author couldn't help but insert it all over the book) is the note that liberals rely only on the caring portion of human morality, and ignore the other pillars (he calls them tastes) of society. This leads to the conclusion that liberals can't see what conservatives view as important, such as "traditional values" and the view of sacredness.

The problem with this criticism of liberalism is that it completely goes against the past few centuries of human history since the enlightenment in Europe! There was a time when human slavery was viewed as normal. In all traditional societies, women were frequently treated as property. Haidt mentions a time when he visited India and came back with a strong sense of what made Indian tradition strong and how he came away with respect for the traditional cultures and values of that society. He doesn't mention attending a funeral where widows were expected to burn themselves in the cremation pyre of their dead husbands. He doesn't mention the traditions of feet binding in Chinese society. Haidt protests against this by quoting Isaiah Berlin:

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrestled throughout his career with the problem of the world’s moral diversity and what to make of it. He firmly rejected moral relativism: I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps”—each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false (pg. 367)

But in vain. We all know that fascism is wrong, but it's also very clear that in recent years, that's what the "moral right" has adopted. It seems that after reading this book, I've come to agree with the New Atheists --- that religion is a blight on humanity and if we are to survive we must kill it dead. It's very clear even from the evidence in the real world that the enlightenment-dominant societies are the ones thriving, and the fundamentalist Christian societies (whether it's the Muslim countries in the middle east or the red states in the USA) are the ones doing the most poorly in terms of lifespan, happiness, or even pure economic productivity. It might be that the liberal politicians need to find ways to attract those voters, but if they don't, it's clear to me that if Haidt's theory of group selection was true, the liberal tribes are going to outperform the conservatives by a lot!

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Review: Ultimate High

 Arley Lewis recommended Ultimate High as the opposite of incompetence literature. It's an account of Goran Kropp's  trip to climb Everest, cycling from his home in Stockholm to Kathmandu with all the equipment he needed for the climb, summiting Everest (after 3 attempts) in 1995 during the same year where multiple mountaineering expeditions led by famous climbers had massive deaths as recounted by Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. I had read Into Thin Air before, and it mentioned Goran Kropp in passing but since Kropp didn't play a role in the tragedy on the mountain he had barely any mention.

Kropp accounts his biography, his climbing experience, and the tragedy of losing friends to the sport/hobby. He mentions meeting his girlfriend Renata Chlumska, but describes her as a model. Only mentioning (as an aside) at the end of the book that she turned out to be pretty tough, climbing Everest without Oxygen in 1999! (In the book, all she does is sit around at base camp wringing her hands over the dangers her boyfriend is experiencing)

It's quite clear the Kropp isn't a cyclist. The devotes maybe 20 pages of the book to the cycling adventures, doesn't mention any scenery, and mostly complains about hostile natives in the lands he rides through. A  lot of it, of course, is that compared to Anne Mustoe, he's a guy, so he was always going to get more hostile reactions. Once we get to the mountain we get detailed accounts of what he did, and boy, the kind of physical travails he has to overcome makes you wonder how anyone takes up the sport.

The book is compelling reading --- once it arrived in the mail I read it in 3 hours the same night. It's not incompetence literature (though once I was done with the book, I looked him up on Wikipedia and discovered he died mountaineering in 2002). The end of the book describes a proposed expedition where he would learn to sail (!!), sail to Antarctica and then traverse the continent on skis. That sounded pretty insane, but from his Wikipedia bio it's quite clear he never got around to it.

I enjoyed the book. It's worth reading, keeping me up late at night to finish it. Recommended.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Review: What We Owe The Future

 When I first heard about What We Owe The Future, I thought that longtermism would be easy to explain and the book wouldn't have much to offer. I was wrong. One of the earliest parts of the book talks about how unlikely our current present with by discussing the contingency of slavery abolition. It turns out that it was an unlikely sequence of events that created the abolition movement, and unlike the right-wing conservative view, the elimination of slavery was a true act of altruism, not driven by economics whatsoever:

at the time of abolition slavery was enormously profitable for the British. In the years leading up to abolition, British colonies produced more sugar than the rest of the world combined, and Britain consumed the most sugar of any country.85 When slavery was abolished, the shelf price of sugar increased by about 50 percent, costing the British public £21 million over seven years—about 5 percent of British expenditure at the time.86 Indeed, the slave trade was booming rather than declining: even though Britain had abolished its slave trade in 1807, more Africans were taken in the transatlantic slave trade between 1821 and 1830 than in any other decade except the 1780s.87 The British government paid off British slave owners in order to pass the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which gradually freed the enslaved across most of the British Empire.88 This cost the British government £20 million, amounting to 40 percent of the Treasury’s annual expenditure at the time.89 To finance the payments, the British government took out a £15 million loan, which was not fully paid back until 2015. The economic interpretation of abolition also struggles to explain the activist approach that Britain took to the slave trade after 1807...from 1807 to 1867, enforcing abolition cost Britain almost 2 percent of its annual national income, several times what Britain spends today on foreign aid; political scientists Robert Pape and Chaim Kaufman described this campaign as “the most expensive international moral effort in modern history.”91 If the economic interpretation were correct, such activity would have been unnecessary because the slave trade would have been on its way out anyway... “antislavery organizing was odd rather than inevitable, a peculiar institution rather than the inevitable outcome of moral and cultural progress.… In key respects the British antislavery movement was a historical accident, a contingent event that just as easily might never have occurred.”...If the United States had instead remained part of the British Empire, Britain might have been more reluctant to jeopardise its uneasy relationship with the United States by taking a divisive action like abolishing the slave trade.124 The plantation lobby would also have been bigger in a still-united empire. Finally, Brown notes that abolitionists in France struggled because they lacked the opportunities and status of those in England. Because abolitionist thought grew in France around the same time as the French and Haitian revolutions, abolitionist thought, Brown argues, became linked with violence and strife.123(kindle loc. 1088-1208)

To me, that understanding of the history behind the anti-slavery movement  by itself justified reading the book. The book is overall very optimistic --- it views the future of humanity as being very bright, and that nearly everything you can do to ensure that humanity survives and has a benevolent future is justified.

If the rest of the book was of this nature I think I would have no hesitation endorsing the thoughts behind the book. However, pretty soon after this discussion the book veers into ultra-right-wing libertarian thinking. For instance, the author asserts that it's a moral duty to have more children, despite the increased carbon emissions that having a child in a developed country generates. The theory is that one more somewhat happy person makes the world better off, even if it causes the immiseration of the rest of the world by creating carbon emissions (which the author happily admits will affect climate for hundreds of thousands of years). He delves into population ethics, and somehow comes to the conclusion that a world with say, 10,000 very happy people (call these the Koch brothers and the Elon Musks) and 10 billion somewhat unhappy people, is a better world than a world with 1 billion happy people, just because there are more people who would rather have been born than not to have lived. In other words, the philosophy behind the author's population ethics completely justifies slavery and the highly inequitable world we live in. To me, that's crazy talk!

There's a lot of concern about long term economic stagnation. Once again, the idea here is that the way out of that is to keep increasing the number of people in the world, since more minds being available to solve problems will create more innovative solutions. This approach completely ignores the fact that it doesn't matter how many minds are born --- if your societal approach eliminates the possibility of good education and the possibility of contributing to solutions rather than creating problems, then the increased population probably is more likely to cause the ultimate extinction of humanity than to contribute to the long term survival of civilization. The author even admits that pre-industrial hunter gatherer societies actually were better nourished and had more free time than agriculturists, and perhaps even lead more fulfilling lives than the average citizen of more modern societies working 40-80 hour weeks and having zero paid vacations.

Thankfully, I don't think I have to spend a lot of time debunking the effective altruism movement. Folks like Sam Bankman Fried have pretty much exposed that movement as full of people using questionable approaches in order to justify unethical behavior. This book veers into that and even though it's been published less than a year ago, has already shown that it doesn't age well.

Nevertheless, you should always read books that you disagree with just in case you're wrong. In this case, the book itself is well written and a good way for you to test yourself against its moral conclusions. Even if you disagree, it'll give you lots to think about.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Review: Politics is for Power

 Politics is for Power is an indictment of something I've been guilty of: treating politics the way sports fans treat sports, reading about it, sharing articles on social media, but not actually doing very much. It makes for a very uncomfortable read, but as the title of the book says, if you actually want to achieve political power you actually have to get off your ass and out of the house and do something:

The petitions with large numbers of signatures were primarily addressing legitimate policy concerns, but minor ones. Petition-gathering organizations such as MoveOn see the same phenomenon. Saving dolphins generates enthusiasm among petition signers. So does demanding funding for PBS and NPR. Aid to the poor? Not so much. Schaffner and I looked closer at the White House data. We obtained the zip code of every petition signer, which we linked to the income level of their neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, people in wealthy neighborhoods were more likely to sign online petitions than those in poor ones. More surprising is that those in wealthier neighborhoods were especially likely to sign petitions if the petition was about issues that were frivolous and narrow. Academics refer to this behavior as postmaterialist. For citizens whose material needs—food, shelter, health—are met, politics can be focused on frivolous and nonmaterial issues. Politics can be more of a game. (kindle loc 1016)

 When people quit Facebook, nobody likely calls them up or sends an email to convey concern or disappointment that they are no longer offering their political hot takes. The relationships are not serious enough that anyone would care to make such a call. That no one is relying on you is a great sign that the activity you are doing is a shallow hobby. (kindle loc 1711)

 Eitan Hersh's thesis is as follows: most people really don't care about politics --- all you have to listen to any interview with a typical voter to discover how incredibly uninformed they are, and how much the nuance or detail of public policy matters to them. Historically, political parties have gotten the loyalty of the electorate by doing things that matter to them --- getting them jobs, solving day to day problems in the community, and doing things like getting them healthcare. If you ever wonder why people in the middle east, for instance, support the terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Muslin Brotherhood, it's because their local organizations provide services:

Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood, all of which provide health and education services in addition to a political agenda. To ordinary people who don’t care much about politics, these groups say, “We care about you. We support you. When the time comes for a vote or a protest, be there for us.” In the story from Egypt and the Arab Spring, the leaderless resistance groups stood no chance in an election against the Muslim Brotherhood, which built a brand not just based on an ideology but on a commitment to community service. White nationalists are figuring this out, too. As I mentioned in the book’s introduction, the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina was out in 2018 offering assistance to opioid addicts.19 When your ideology is as noxious as the KKK’s, you won’t win many supporters on your policy views alone. But you may win supporters if you show people you care about them. And if you show voters empathy and take care of people and the mainstream parties aren’t doing the same, maybe you’ll get some converts to your cause. (kindle loc 3161)

The author covers the history of the decline of such machine politics in the USA, where the parties got hollowed out as the electorate got wealthier and needed less help, and the top level political leaders decided that the local chapters can embarrass them by holding beliefs that contradict the national platform:

Top-down leadership retains control so that no local can go rogue and embarrass the national organization. Top-down unions, according to labor scholar and activist Jane McAlevey, recruit leaders based on “likability and charisma … [the] ability to speak with the media and chair meetings,” characteristics that aren’t particularly meaningful to trust-building with workers. McAlevey argues that unions have collapsed in part because they’ve lost sight of local workers’ potential for grassroots leadership. (kindle loc 2908)

 If you've ever volunteered for a phone bank, you'll know that the experience is shallow and doesn't feel right --- you're given a script and a bunch of phone calls to make and after you're done you're given some more. You feel like a telemarketer after all is said and done and there's no linkage to your political goals. Hersh says this is by design. The donation-oriented approach encourages this, but doesn't retain an on-the-ground organization to carry you through unexciting elections. The way around this is to provide services or to do deep canvassing, which makes less dedicated people uncomfortable, since you have to actually listen to people:

The idea of approaching a citizen who is not knowledgeable or interested in politics and focusing on listening rather than talking, or focusing on serving the material needs of the voter, feels dirty, in part, because any side can do it. We saw that in the previous chapter: the most pernicious political organizations offer services in exchange for political support. It feels dirty because politics, to hobbyists, is about ideas more than it is about power. Even if hobbyists think their side has the best ideas and ought to be in power, the thought of approaching people who don’t know anything about politics and saying, “Vote for my party because we are going to take care of you in these concrete ways,” is exactly like the kind of dirty transactional politics that they want to avoid. To the retired social worker I failed to recruit, even offering voters an empathetic ear felt dirty and transactional. (kindle loc 3315)

 Hersh suggests that the antidote is to go out and organize your community and try to provide basic services. Even in rich wealthy communities:

Ture and Hamilton write, “One of the most disturbing things about almost all white supporters has been that they are reluctant to go into their own communities—which is where the racism exists—and work to get rid of it.” Fast-forward fifty years from that book, when I sit and read through public comments arguing against low-income housing development in well-to-do communities, saying that new developments will “change the character of the town,” and when I see little or no organized effort in privileged white communities to support lower-income housing, I know what Ture and Hamilton were talking about. (kindle loc 3232)

 At the top level, that means the wealthy donors funding the parties have to be willing to give up control instead of pouring money into largely ineffective campaign ads to make themselves feel good. This will be a tough thing to do but given the asymmetry in politics between the two party if the Democratic party wishes to succeed it's the only way to go:

For a political party or wealthy political benefactor to do what I am suggesting—shifting resources to goods and services and hiring local organizers—requires them to empower local people, which means they will not maintain tight centralized control. This is sometimes hard for them to stomach. Empowering local organizers comes with risk. Leaders who hire local organizers need to know how to find good people, how to train them, how to empower and monitor them. If done well, this can be much more effective than any top-down approach, as I have suggested in the stories of organizers in this book. But do not confuse my endorsement with a claim that it is easy to pull off. If donors and parties want to do something more effective than silly campaigns ads, which have, at best, tiny effects on politics, they need to take some risks and do harder things. (kindle loc 3436)

 Unlike Democratic donors, Republican donors typically support politicians whose policy priorities align with a wealthy person’s financial interests. The donors can view donations as an investment. When Schaffner and I asked max-out donors why they made their contribution, many more Republicans than Democrats said that a very or extremely important reason for their gift was that the politician could affect the donor’s own industry (37 percent of Republicans versus 22 percent of Democrats). This asymmetry puts Democrats at a disadvantage. Not motivated by their own bottom line, Democratic donors instead have to be motivated by ideology, issues, or even by the entertainment value that a donation provides. For entertainment value, state legislative races and other low-level offices don’t offer donors much. Maybe this is a reason that over the last decade, Republicans more than Democrats have invested in the offices that, however small and unexciting, are the key to congressional redistricting and consequential state policies. (kindle loc 1312)

This is by far the most important and uncomfortable book I've read this year about politics. If you're a typical college educated reader who cares about politics, the book will make you squirm in many places as you realize how much of your time was misspent when you could actually be doing something else more effective. It doesn't mince words and is brutally honest about what it would take to gain political power. If you really want your side to win, the amount of hard work required is daunting. But I agree with Hersh that it is the only way to gain enduring political power. The alternative is shallow movements that fail or create political vacuums that will invite the folks who're willing to do the hard work to win:

Consider the Arab Spring.8 The Arab Spring is the name of a series of revolutionary movements that started as antigovernment protests in 2010. The Arab Spring started in Tunisia and spread through Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, and to a lesser extent in other countries. By all accounts, social media played an important role in coordinating the protests, telling activists where and when to gather, transmitting information about where and when to send medical supplies and food. The Arab Spring failed nearly everywhere. The aftermath has been called the Arab Winter, a wake of death, destruction, and capsized rickety boats that carried now-drowned refugee children. The Arab Spring was a tragedy...In Egypt, for instance, protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square spurred elections, which was a major victory—after a mere eighteen days of protest, the country’s leader of almost thirty years stepped down. But the secular movement in Tahrir Square had no leaders, no ability to organize, and no capacity to mobilize voters. The liberal energy that spurred change lost the elections to an organized party, the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood, which was eventually forced out of power by a military coup. Activists with an Internet connection could crumble a government but could not build one in its place.9 To do that, you need a hierarchy of leaders from low-level people willing to knock on thirty-five doors to middle-level organizers to higher-level leaders with a plan. In short, you need an organization. In Egypt, the protesters never had that. (kindle loc 2509-2516)

This book is a call to action and an indictment of most of us in the (upper) middle class. I highly recommend it.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Review: Lovers Quarrel

 Lovers Quarrel is an Astro City story arc focused on Quarrel and Crackerjack. Earlier volumes have established Crackerjack as a blowhard, but Quarrel was in the honor guard, the equivalent of the Justice League. The overall story asks a question few comic books ever ask, with their unaging characters --- what do aging non-superpowered heroes do when they get old? We get Quarrel's origin story, along with the answer to that question.

I thought the story was good, but not as chock full of originality as I've come to expect from Astro City. That's because whenever the spotlight focuses on the super-powered characters, the series reads much more like a conventional comic book super hero story rather than the slice-of-life-in-an-alternate-world that it otherwise portrays. Nevertheless, with Astro City, the story never stays on a single character long enough to get sick of it, which means I'll keep reading future volumes.