The Straw Vulcan

Of course I read the tvtropes article a long time ago, but this presentation goes into a lot more detail. Some of you might find it worth watching (/listening to, while you’re doing other stuff..), I did:

I think a lot of people have some incorrect ideas about what ‘rationality’ actually is and what ‘behaving (/more) rationally’ implies in a real-world setting. The above presentation tries to correct some probably quite common misconceptions. Incidentally, I think that the subset of people who would gain the most from watching the presentation is probably the subset of people who are the most skeptical about watching a presentation like this.


March 31, 2012 Posted by | Psychology, Rationality | Leave a comment

Personality trait endogeneity (diabetes)

I’ve touched upon how a large number of more or less external factors impact the formation of the political opinions of people before, and as political opinions (and religious views) are huge drivers of behaviour more generally, naturally we should also expect such variables to impact ‘personality’ more broadly. Young males are less risk averse than young females and older males. Where you are born matters a lot when it comes to which religion you’re supposed to join, and thus matters when it comes to questions like whether you think women should be treated like crap or not. But there are lots of ways our lives can be formed by things that ‘happen to us’, and it has come to my attention that one of the variables which has likely impacted me a lot over time is a factor I’ve only mentioned once or twice in passing in this context here on the blog. It deserves a bit more attention I think. It is of course my disease.

I shall admit from the outset that most of the effects are speculative, because in terms of what might be termed the personality-relevant range of my life, I’ve never lived without the disease; I got it at the age of two. The alternative scenario is very different to imagine. Nevertheless there are some things I’ve noticed along the way which I thought I should write down somewhere. Note that the disease can progress in many different ways and that the variation in outcomes both relate to inherent biological characteristica and individual behaviour; i.e. don’t read this like ‘the story of how diabetes affects people’ – I can only speak for myself.

Diabetes has without a doubt increased my level of risk aversion compared to the disease-free baseline. Diabetes can cause hypoglycemia, and severe hypoglycemia can cause brain damage or death. I’ve been close to those latter outcomes ‘a few times’; how many times depends a lot on stuff like how long the duration of unconsciousness/coma from hypoglycemia would have to be for you to consider it life-threatening and whether simply being admitted to the hospital with a hyperglycemia-related tonic–clonic seizure is significant enough to ‘count’. Most of the bad stuff’s in the past, I’ve had very few problems over the last 8 years or so, but in terms of how I behave I have some baggage here.

Openness to new experiences‘ and similar variables relate to risk aversion, so these traits have also likely been implicitly impacted. It’s hard to know how things would have played out differently if I hadn’t been sick, but these remarks are not just related to hypothetical effects; I know of some specific ways they had an impact on behaviour. One was that I drank quite rarely in the first years of high-school and did not ever spend the night someplace else (a common way to solve the logistics problems related to living far away from the action for a lot of other people (classmates, my brothers)), because I was afraid I’d actually die if I did something stupid. Perhaps even if I didn’t; the combination of alcohol and diabetes is hard to get right, especially when consuming the amounts people usually do in order to get drunk. If I hadn’t been too afraid to sleep elsewhere my parents would probably have said no, but they didn’t need to. Both my brothers were very different, but needless to say our differences don’t all relate to the disease.

Another closely related aspect is the level of control I need to have over events in order to feel comfortable. Some types of spontaneity are okay, but they all involve doing stuff you didn’t plan on doing – and if you’re not doing what you planned on doing, as a diabetic you almost always need to adjust insulin and take precautions. ‘Let’s go for a walk this afternoon’, my mom will say right after lunch – after I’ve taken insulin. I did not plan on going for a walk when I took the insulin, so now I either need to take some juice or glucose with me before joining my mom, to avoid hypoglycemia, or I need to tell her it would be better to postpone the walk a few hours. Just joining her without any adjustments is not an option. This is something she still forgets sometimes, btw., presumably because it’s easy to tell yourself that these days ‘he can always adjust the dosage’, whereas it’s a bit harder to remember that ‘dosage can not be adjusted after it has been injected’.

If I eat something I’ve never eaten before, I’m basically guessing what the effect will be on the blood glucose level. As a diabetic you get very good at this over time, because the link between the level of carbohydrate intake and the insulin requirement is more or less fixed, but you don’t always get it just right, also because of timing issues. For instance, I learned after a dinner and a trip to the movies with my big brother that the brown rice we had at his place affect my blood glucose in a different manner than the white rice I’d become accustomed to eating; I almost had a hypoglycemic incident in the cinema, because it turns out that the carbohydrates in brown rice take longer to impact blood glucose, meaning that the fast-acting insulin I’d taken to the meal was working before the food had really had a significant impact on my blood glucose. Another factor complicating matters a bit is that there are interaction effects here that people don’t usually think about (why would they?); for instance, fast acting carbohydrates will generally act slower (again postponing the insulin requirement) if they’re eaten together with food containing complex carbohydrates or fats. As long as you have full control over events and your environment, the kind of stuff that happened at the cinema just doesn’t happen, and every time you deviate from the plans you’ve made, you take on additional risk. Most of the time it’s worth it, but the extra risk is there and it needs to be managed and controlled. If the risk is particularly hard to control for some reason or another, it can make social isolation look like a more desirable state of affairs than it otherwise would. I mention this because my disease was very hard for me to control in my early highschool years, because of the hormonal changes which took place during that period, and I did tend to isolate myself from others to some degree, presumably at least in part as a consequence of that. One interesting sidenote here is that the additional risk related to participating in various social events that i faced also meant that other types of risk got a lower priority; when I attended the third year high school prom, my biggest worry was that I would have a hypoglycemic episode. It was a lot more present in my mind than the worry that some sweet girl would turn me down if I asked her to dance (..or whatever. I don’t dance.)

I don’t trust my body as much as other people do. The difference was probably a lot more pronounced earlier on, but it’s still a factor today. I know my body doesn’t always tell me the truth about how well I am, I know that I need to monitor it sometimes for it not to mess with me. I know that it has the potential to seriously mess with me, even though it would be very inconvenient for me if it were to happen. I’m implicitly much more aware of the link between behaviour and health than a completely healthy me would be, because my behaviour impacts my health literally on a day to day basis; if I don’t match insulin and behaviour, I will feel uncomfortable. I can not exclude the possibility that this distrust of myself and my own body has had spill-over effects on my social connections with others, making me less trusting generally, but this would be a much more theoretical effect on my personality than the others mentioned so far.

Guilt. Diabetes is all about tradeoffs. Generally, on the one hand we want Hba-1c, a rough measure of ‘average blood glucose’, to lie as closely to that of healthy individuals as possible. On the other hand, doctors don’t like to see diabetics in the emergency ward, which is where they tend to end up if they don’t care about anything except Hba-1c; it’s generally not possible to ‘normalize’ blood glucose completely due to side effects of the treatment. An Hba-1c close to the normal range will cause more frequent side effects in the short term, whereas disregarding Hba-1c to a significant degree in order to avoid all cases of hypoglycemia completely (including mild ones, which most well-regulated diabetics will have from time to time) will often eventually cause severe problems in the long run. How diabetics deal with these tradeoffs vary, but most of them will probably have some degree of guilt about not taking enough care of themselves. How well they deal with that guilt can have a significant effect on how well people manage their disease. I have felt much more guilty about my own behaviour in the past than I do now, and part of the reason is certainly that a lot of that guilt was misplaced, something I only later realized. Note that it isn’t just guilt about long-term stuff that goes into this; short term, everyday-life is relevant as well. If you get the dosis wrong, and sometimes you do, it will impact behaviour. If a diabetic is hyperglycemic, she might become more aggressive and irritable than she otherwise would be. Mild hypoglycemia might cause fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Disease affects behaviour, and it’s almost never ‘completely not your fault.’ So this is a factor too. Most of the very unpleasant arguments I’ve had with family members I’ve had while I was hyperglycemic; today I’ve learned to consider a ‘tendency to argue’ a symptom which needs to be checked out by means of a blood test. But even if you know that your disease affects your behaviour, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that your behaviour also affects your disease – so where does the blame go? Are drunk people blameworthy for what they do while they are drunk? The answer to such questions are not always clear-cut.

Last of all, death. I was quite early on made aware of the fact that I would not live forever. At the worst point during my high school years, I was in significant doubts as to whether I would still be alive at the age of 20-25; that’s the kind of thoughts that start going through your head when you wake up from a coma a couple of times a month in a hospital bed, and the doctor start asking questions like whether it’s okay if he scans your brain with the fancy MRI-machine to figure out if that last incident caused brain damage or not. Lots of young people think about death, but a lot fewer are forced to confront their own mortality by stuff outside their own control.

I’m very aware of the long-term damage that my disease might cause to me and I’ve always been. I think this is one of those things which has contributed to making me much less likely to engage with the opposite sex. Basically I had a ‘I’m sick and if she knew the truth about my condition, no right-thinking female would have anything to do with me and it would be deceitful of me to withhold that information from her’-approach to these things. Today I’m much less pessimistic, both about the health impact on dating outcomes and about my long-term prognosis, and I try not to make things harder for myself than they need to be in that respect – dating’s hard enough as it is. Thinking like that has been made easier by the fact that I’ve only had two diabetes-related hospitalizations over the last ~8-9 years or so, and neither of them were all that surprising in retrospect; they were both at least to a significant degree the results of other stuff going on in my life, not some freak out-of-the-blue episodes like some of those I had in the past. Which means that I’m much less fearful now and more open to experiment than I was at baseline (as long as I retain a sufficient level of control to feel relatively comfortable).

There’s a lot of stuff that goes into the question of which kind of person you end up becoming, and it’s probably harder to change yourself for the better if you don’t know how you came to become who you are. A significant problem is that we tend to pick narratives we prefer and the kind of explanations which best fit how we like the story to be told. But I still tend to believe observations like the above, even though effect sizes are unknown (unknowable?), are valuable.

March 30, 2012 Posted by | Diabetes, Personal | Leave a comment


1. “Finding out who you are is the first step. Accepting who you are can be the hard part. Enhancing who you are is the fun part.” (B’Anne Younker – quote from If Ignorance is Bliss)

2. “Our opinion of others is not so variable as our opinion of ourselves.” (Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues)

3. “Whatever affection we have for our friends or relations, the happiness of others never suffices for our own.” (-ll-)

4. “There does not exist a man sufficiently intelligent never to be tiresome.” (-ll-)

5. “I have no interest in health and never have. […] Apparently, though, health is one of those things that cares about you, whether or not you care about it.” (John Derbyshire)

6. “Opinions of rude jerks are more known to strangers.

If your friends are atheists, then you see that atheists come with any temperament. But when you hear about atheism from a stranger, there is a big chance he is a jerk, because other people usually don’t impose their opinions on strangers.

It works the same if you replace “atheism” by many other things. The most visible people are usually the most annoying ones.” (‘Viliam_Bur’, lesswrong)

7. “The top 5% of spenders account for almost half of all health care spending.” ((‘…in the US.’) Maybe I’ll blog this later on, for now I’ll just give you the link. You should go there to get a bit of context. When it comes to the quote, Gary’s point in the comment section here is also important.)

8. “The best of prophets of the future is the past.” (Lord Byron)

9. “transport costs were huge [in the first millenium] compared with the modern world. Perhaps the most famous economic statistic from the ancient world is the report in the Emperor Diocletian’s Edict on Prices (from c.300 AD) – that the cost of a wagon of wheat doubled for every fifty miles it was carried.” (from Peter Heather’s book Empires and Barbarians)

10. “They took the armchair out of the elevator in my dorm building. Now we have to stand all the way to the fourth floor.” (a quote from

11. “the opinion in favour of the present system, which entirely subordinates the weaker sex to the stronger, rests upon theory only; for there never has been trial made of any other […] the adoption of this system of inequality never was the result of deliberation, or forethought, or any social ideas, or any notion whatever of what conduced to the benefit of humanity or the good order of society. It arose simply from the fact that from the very earliest twilight of human society, every woman (owing to the value attached to her by men, combined with her inferiority in muscular strenght) was found in a state of bondage to some man. Laws and systems of polity always begin by recognizing the relations they find already existing between individuals. […] In early times, the great majority of the male sex were slaves, as well as the whole of the female. And many ages elapsed, some of them ages of high cultivation, before any thinker was bold enough to question the rightfulness, and the absolute social necessity, either of the one slavery or of the other. […] People are not aware how entirely, in former ages, the law of superior strength was the rule of life; how publicly and openly it was avowed, I do not say cynically or shamelessly — for these words imply a feeling that there was something in it to be ashamed of, and no such notion could find a place in the faculties of any person in those ages, except a philosopher or a saint.” (Mill, The Subjection of Women)

11. “If there is a God, atheism must strike Him as less of an insult than religion.” (Goncourt brothers)

12. “The illusion that times that were are better than those that are, has probably pervaded all ages.” (Horace Greeley)

March 29, 2012 Posted by | Quotes/aphorisms | Leave a comment

Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles?

“Summary — Self-esteem has become a household word. Teachers, parents, therapists, and others have focused efforts on boosting self-esteem, on the assumption that high self-esteem will cause many positive outcomes and benefits — an assumption that is critically evaluated in this review.
Appraisal of the effects of self-esteem is complicated by several factors. Because many people with high self-esteem
exaggerate their successes and good traits, we emphasize objective measures of outcomes. High self-esteem is also a heterogeneous category, encompassing people who frankly accept their good qualities along with narcissistic, defensive, and conceited individuals.
The modest correlations between self-esteem and school performance do not indicate that high self-esteem leads to
good performance. Instead, high self-esteem is partly the result of good school performance. Efforts to boost the self-esteem of pupils have not been shown to improve academic performance and may sometimes be counterproductive. Job performance in adults is sometimes related to self-esteem, although the correlations vary widely, and the direction of causality has not been established. Occupational success may boost self-esteem rather than the reverse. Alternatively, self-esteem may be helpful only in some job contexts. Laboratory studies have generally failed to find that self-esteem causes good task performance, with the important exception that high self-esteem facilitates persistence after failure.
People high in self-esteem claim to be more likable and attractive, to have better relationships, and to make better impressions on others than people with low self-esteem, but objective measures disconfirm most of these beliefs. Narcissists are charming at first but tend to alienate others eventually. Self-esteem has not been shown to predict the quality or duration of relationships.
High self-esteem makes people more willing to speak up in groups and to criticize the group’s approach. Leadership does not stem directly from self-esteem, but self-esteem may have indirect effects. Relative to people with low self-esteem, those with high self-esteem show stronger in-group favoritism, which may increase prejudice and discrimination.
Neither high nor low self-esteem is a direct cause of violence. Narcissism leads to increased aggression in retaliation for wounded pride. Low self-esteem may contribute to externalizing behavior and delinquency, although some studies have found that there are no effects or that the effect of self-esteem vanishes when other variables are controlled. The highest and lowest rates of cheating and bullying are found in different subcategories of high self-esteem.
Self-esteem has a strong relation to happiness. Although the research has not clearly established causation, we are persuaded that high self-esteem does lead to greater happiness. Low self-esteem is more likely than high to lead to depression under some circumstances. Some studies support the buffer hypothesis, which is that high self-esteem mitigates the effects of stress, but other studies come to the opposite conclusion, indicating that the negative effects of low self-esteem are mainly felt in good times. Still others find that high self-esteem leads to happier outcomes regardless of stress or other circumstances.
High self-esteem does not prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs, or engaging in early sex. If anything, high self-esteem fosters experimentation, which may increase early sexual activity or drinking, but in general effects of self-esteem are negligible. One important exception is that high self-esteem reduces the chances of bulimia in females.
Overall, the benefits of high self-esteem fall into two categories: enhanced initiative and pleasant feelings. We have not found evidence that boosting self-esteem (by therapeutic interventions or school programs) causes benefits. Our findings do not support continued widespread efforts to boost self-esteem in the hope that it will by itself foster improved outcomes. In view of the heterogeneity of high self-esteem, indiscriminate praise might just as easily promote narcissism, with its less desirable consequences. Instead, we recommend using praise to boost self-esteem as a reward for socially desirable behavior and self-improvement.” [my emphasis]

Here’s the link. A bit more from the paper:

“The role of self-esteem in romantic relationships has received fairly little attention. In particular, little is known about whether self-esteem predicts the durability of romantic relationships. One study with a very small sample (N=30) found that couples with low self-esteem were more likely than couples with high self-esteem to break up over a 1-month period (S.S. Hendrick, Hendrick, & Adler, 1988). Data on love styles and self-esteem support this finding, showing that low self-esteem is related to feelings of manic love, which is characterized by extreme feelings of both joy and anguish over the love object (W.K. Campbell, Foster, & Finkel, 2002). High self-esteem is related to passionate, erotic love, which is marked by the escalation of erotic feelings for the love object. These findings are consistent with other studies showing that, compared with people with high self-esteem, those with low self-esteem experience more instances of unrequited love (Dion & Dion, 1975) and more intense feelings of love for others (C. Hendrick & Hendrick, 1986).
Several findings indicate that relationship behavior differs as a function of self-esteem. Murray, Rose, Bellavia, Holmes, and Kusche (2002) found that people low in self-esteem engage in a variety of potentially destructive behaviors. They tend to distrust their partners’ expressions of love and support, and so they act as though they are constantly expecting their partners to reject and abandon them. Thus far, however, these patterns have not translated into any evidence that the relationships are actually more likely to dissolve.
Thus, despite the relationship problems caused by low self-esteem, relationships are no more likely to break up if a partner has low self-esteem than if a partner has high self-esteem. Possibly the reason for this is that high self-esteem leads to relationship problems, too. Rusbult, Morrow, and Johnson (1987) examined four types of responses to problems within close relationships, and found that self-esteem produced the largest difference in the active-destructive (“exit”) category of responses. People with high self-esteem were significantly more likely than others to respond to problems and conflicts by deciding to leave the relationship, seeking other partners, and engaging in other behaviors that would actively contribute to the deterioration of the relationship. These results were based on responses to hypothetical scenarios, which share many of the drawbacks of self-report measures. However, as the authors noted, it seems unlikely that their findings can be attributed to a simple response bias because people with high self-esteem were admitting to more undesirable, rather than desirable, behaviors.
Shackelford (2001) found that self-esteem was intertwined with a variety of patterns in marriage, although he did not provide evidence as to whether high self-esteem affects the durability of marriages. Spouses showed similar levels of self-esteem, with global self-esteem of spouses correlating at .23 and physical self-esteem (including self-rated attractiveness) correlating fairly strongly at .53. Significantly, Shackelford regarded self-esteem as an outcome rather than a cause of marital interactions, although his data were correlational. Wives’ fidelity was the strongest predictor of husbands’ self-esteem. This might indicate that men with high self-esteem cause their wives to remain faithful, or—as Shackelford speculated—that cuckolded husbands experience a loss of self-esteem.
Most important, women complained more about husbands with low than with high self-esteem. Low self-esteem men were derided by their wives as jealous, possessive, inconsiderate, moody, prone to abuse alcohol, and emotionally constricted. Again, the direction of causality is difficult to determine. Possibly, husbands’ low self-esteem elicits negative perceptions among wives. Conversely, being disrespected or despised by his wife may lower a man’s self-esteem. Yet another possibility is that having a variety of bad traits leads both to low self-esteem and to being disrespected by one’s wife. Meanwhile, the self-esteem of wives was unrelated to their husbands’ complaints about them, except that husbands who criticized or insulted their wives’ appearance were generally married to wives with low self-esteem, and indeed Shackelford (2001) found that this was the most consistent predictor of low self-esteem among wives.” (pp.18-19)

This is interesting stuff, worth pondering. Incidentally, my level of self-esteem is higher than it has been for a long time. That’s not saying much, but even so…

March 26, 2012 Posted by | Papers, Psychology | Leave a comment

Lies we tell kids

Another one of Paul Graham’s essays, you can read it here. I’ll quote extensively from it below.

“Adults lie constantly to kids. I’m not saying we should stop, but I think we should at least examine which lies we tell and why.

There may also be a benefit to us. We were all lied to as kids, and some of the lies we were told still affect us. So by studying the ways adults lie to kids, we may be able to clear our heads of lies we were told.

I’m using the word “lie” in a very general sense: not just overt falsehoods, but also all the more subtle ways we mislead kids. Though “lie” has negative connotations, I don’t mean to suggest we should never do this—just that we should pay attention when we do. [1]

One of the most remarkable things about the way we lie to kids is how broad the conspiracy is. All adults know what their culture lies to kids about: they’re the questions you answer “Ask your parents.” If a kid asked who won the World Series in 1982 or what the atomic weight of carbon was, you could just tell him. But if a kid asks you “Is there a God?” or “What’s a prostitute?” you’ll probably say “Ask your parents.”

Since we all agree, kids see few cracks in the view of the world presented to them. The biggest disagreements are between parents and schools, but even those are small. Schools are careful what they say about controversial topics, and if they do contradict what parents want their kids to believe, parents either pressure the school into keeping quiet or move their kids to a new school.

The conspiracy is so thorough that most kids who discover it do so only by discovering internal contradictions in what they’re told. It can be traumatic for the ones who wake up during the operation. Here’s what happened to Einstein:

Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies: it was a crushing impression.[2]

I remember that feeling. By 15 I was convinced the world was corrupt from end to end. That’s why movies like The Matrix have such resonance. Every kid grows up in a fake world. In a way it would be easier if the forces behind it were as clearly differentiated as a bunch of evil machines, and one could make a clean break just by taking a pill.


If you ask adults why they lie to kids, the most common reason they give is to protect them. And kids do need protecting. The environment you want to create for a newborn child will be quite unlike the streets of a big city.

That seems so obvious it seems wrong to call it a lie. It’s certainly not a bad lie to tell, to give a baby the impression the world is quiet and warm and safe. But this harmless type of lie can turn sour if left unexamined. […]

A lot of the things adults conceal from smaller children, they conceal because they’d be frightening, not because they want to conceal the existence of such things. Misleading the child is just a byproduct.

This seems one of the most justifiable types of lying adults do to kids. But because the lies are indirect we don’t keep a very strict accounting of them. Parents know they’ve concealed the facts about sex, and many at some point sit their kids down and explain more. But few tell their kids about the differences between the real world and the cocoon they grew up in. Combine this with the confidence parents try to instill in their kids, and every year you get a new crop of 18 year olds who think they know how to run the world. […]

Another reason parents don’t want their kids having sex is that they want to keep them innocent. Adults have a certain model of how kids are supposed to behave, and it’s different from what they expect of other adults. […]
One reason we want kids to be innocent is that we’re programmed to like certain kinds of helplessness. I’ve several times heard mothers say they deliberately refrained from correcting their young children’s mispronunciations because they were so cute. And if you think about it, cuteness is helplessness. Toys and cartoon characters meant to be cute always have clueless expressions and stubby, ineffectual limbs.

It’s not surprising we’d have an inborn desire to love and protect helpless creatures, considering human offspring are so helpless for so long. Without the helplessness that makes kids cute, they’d be very annoying. They’d merely seem like incompetent adults. […]

Innocence is also open-mindedness. We want kids to be innocent so they can continue to learn. Paradoxical as it sounds, there are some kinds of knowledge that get in the way of other kinds of knowledge. If you’re going to learn that the world is a brutal place full of people trying to take advantage of one another, you’re better off learning it last. Otherwise you won’t bother learning much more. […]

After sex, death is the topic adults lie most conspicuously about to kids. Sex I believe they conceal because of deep taboos. But why do we conceal death from kids? Probably because small children are particularly horrified by it. They want to feel safe, and death is the ultimate threat. […]

Along with such outright lies, there must have been a lot of changing the subject when death came up. I can’t remember that, of course, but I can infer it from the fact that I didn’t really grasp I was going to die till I was about 19. How could I have missed something so obvious for so long? Now that I’ve seen parents managing the subject, I can see how: questions about death are gently but firmly turned aside.

On this topic, especially, they’re met half-way by kids. Kids often want to be lied to. They want to believe they’re living in a comfortable, safe world as much as their parents want them to believe it. [4] […]

Telling a child they have a particular ethnic or religious identity is one of the stickiest things you can tell them. Almost anything else you tell a kid, they can change their mind about later when they start to think for themselves. But if you tell a kid they’re a member of a certain group, that seems nearly impossible to shake.

This despite the fact that it can be one of the most premeditated lies parents tell. When parents are of different religions, they’ll often agree between themselves that their children will be “raised as Xes.” And it works. The kids obligingly grow up considering themselves as Xes, despite the fact that if their parents had chosen the other way, they’d have grown up considering themselves as Ys.

One reason this works so well is the second kind of lie involved. The truth is common property. You can’t distinguish your group by doing things that are rational, and believing things that are true. If you want to set yourself apart from other people, you have to do things that are arbitrary, and believe things that are false. And after having spent their whole lives doing things that are arbitrary and believing things that are false, and being regarded as odd by “outsiders” on that account, the cognitive dissonance pushing children to regard themselves as Xes must be enormous. If they aren’t an X, why are they attached to all these arbitrary beliefs and customs? If they aren’t an X, why do all the non-Xes call them one?

This form of lie is not without its uses. You can use it to carry a payload of beneficial beliefs, and they will also become part of the child’s identity. You can tell the child that in addition to never wearing the color yellow, believing the world was created by a giant rabbit, and always snapping their fingers before eating fish, Xes are also particularly honest and industrious. Then X children will grow up feeling it’s part of their identity to be honest and industrious.

This probably accounts for a lot of the spread of modern religions, and explains why their doctrines are a combination of the useful and the bizarre. The bizarre half is what makes the religion stick, and the useful half is the payload. [6]


One of the least excusable reasons adults lie to kids is to maintain power over them. Sometimes these lies are truly sinister, like a child molester telling his victims they’ll get in trouble if they tell anyone what happened to them. Others seem more innocent; it depends how badly adults lie to maintain their power, and what they use it for.

Most adults make some effort to conceal their flaws from children. […]

But because adults conceal their flaws, and at the same time insist on high standards of behavior for kids, a lot of kids grow up feeling they fall hopelessly short. They walk around feeling horribly evil for having used a swearword, while in fact most of the adults around them are doing much worse things.

This happens in intellectual as well as moral questions. The more confident people are, the more willing they seem to be to answer a question “I don’t know.” Less confident people feel they have to have an answer or they’ll look bad. My parents were pretty good about admitting when they didn’t know things, but I must have been told a lot of lies of this type by teachers, because I rarely heard a teacher say “I don’t know” till I got to college. I remember because it was so surprising to hear someone say that in front of a class. […]


Of all the reasons we lie to kids, the most powerful is probably the same mundane reason they lie to us.

Often when we lie to people it’s not part of any conscious strategy, but because they’d react violently to the truth. Kids, almost by definition, lack self-control. They react violently to things—and so they get lied to a lot. [9]

A few Thanksgivings ago, a friend of mine found himself in a situation that perfectly illustrates the complex motives we have when we lie to kids. As the roast turkey appeared on the table, his alarmingly perceptive 5 year old son suddenly asked if the turkey had wanted to die. Foreseeing disaster, my friend and his wife rapidly improvised: yes, the turkey had wanted to die, and in fact had lived its whole life with the aim of being their Thanksgiving dinner. And that (phew) was the end of that.

Whenever we lie to kids to protect them, we’re usually also lying to keep the peace.

One consequence of this sort of calming lie is that we grow up thinking horrible things are normal. It’s hard for us to feel a sense of urgency as adults over something we’ve literally been trained not to worry about. When I was about 10 I saw a documentary on pollution that put me into a panic. It seemed the planet was being irretrievably ruined. I went to my mother afterward to ask if this was so. I don’t remember what she said, but she made me feel better, so I stopped worrying about it.

That was probably the best way to handle a frightened 10 year old. But we should understand the price. This sort of lie is one of the main reasons bad things persist: we’re all trained to ignore them. […]

We arrive at adulthood with a kind of truth debt. We were told a lot of lies to get us (and our parents) through our childhood. Some may have been necessary. Some probably weren’t. But we all arrive at adulthood with heads full of lies.

There’s never a point where the adults sit you down and explain all the lies they told you. They’ve forgotten most of them. So if you’re going to clear these lies out of your head, you’re going to have to do it yourself.

Few do. Most people go through life with bits of packing material adhering to their minds and never know it. You probably never can completely undo the effects of lies you were told as a kid, but it’s worth trying. I’ve found that whenever I’ve been able to undo a lie I was told, a lot of other things fell into place.”

So, a few remarks here. First, when I realized that Santa Claus was not real, I like to think (our memories can deceive us, but this is the narrative my persona has chosen) that it had a huge impact on my world view. That was the first time I truly realized that my parents were actively lying to me about stuff, that they didn’t always tell me the truth; that they’d lie even about important stuff like whether Santa Claus existed. I like to think it made me smarter, more skeptic, less innocent – and it made me a little less trusting. I figured out that grownups have selfish reasons for lying to me/’us’, because of the link between presents from Santa and the way you behaved. And lots of people (grownups) could be in on a lie (no grown-up in the extended family had ever openly questioned Santa’s existence in my presence), so it was hard to know whom to trust. I didn’t figure out the truth completely on my own; my older brother let it slip at one point, but it still took me a while to process that information. That teachers aren’t always telling/knowing the truth I knew long before Paul Graham did, because my parents never did much to hide that fact – I assume I had a few of those ‘but the teacher said…’ ‘the teacher is wrong’-experiences along the way. Lastly, when I realized Santa wasn’t real it made me take a big step towards atheism, because this realization made it much harder for me to come up with plausible reasons why ‘God’ should be real, because God and Santa were sorta-kinda alike; they both monitored you while you were awake and they judged your thoughts and actions, even though you couldn’t see them…

The Santa story above I bring up because this is one aspect of lying to kids that Paul Graham does not mention: Maybe adults can sometimes tell children the truth more efficiently by lying to them than by just simply telling them the truth. If you tell a kid that other people often lie to them, they’ll process that information in a very different way from how they’d process the actual experience of being deliberately lied to and and then figuring out on their own that you were lying to them (the lie should be sufficiently transparent for them to eventually be able to figure out the truth; this kind of lie will only work if there is some plausible way for the kid to realize that the lie is actually a lie). Being lied to by someone you trust and then figuring out that they lied to you is a very different process from just being told that ‘people lie/I lie to you sometimes…’; a more complex process with added uncertainty, doubts, questioning worldview/authority ect. The latter process is much more efficient to bring the point across. It arguably works for grownups too; going through such a process can sometimes be considered a kind of rite of passage for grownups. Of course when arguing this point it’s worth remembering, as alluded to earlier, that some kinds of lies are undoubtedly better suited for this purpose than others.

Yes, in case you were in doubt i have actually considered deliberately lying to an at this point highly theoretical potential future child of mine about Santa, for some of these reasons. Most people are irrational and cling to stupid beliefs. If you’ve never held any stupid, irrational beliefs that you invested significantly in yourself at some point, only to later realize that you’d been dead wrong all along, I would assume that it would be exceedingly difficult to understand how most people actually ‘work’. And being forced to realize that you had been very wrong about something you felt somewhat strongly about would give you at least two valuable lessons. 1. Being able to admit that you were wrong. 2. You would get a big step closer to the answer to the question: How does it feel like being wrong about something? (Answer: It feels like being right. A brilliant way of putting it, thanks Gwern!)

March 26, 2012 Posted by | Psychology, Random stuff | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

1. Tuberculosis. I linked to it in a different post a while ago, but that post had a lot of links so people probably weren’t paying much attention at that point and/or following the link. Some highlights from the article:

“Tuberculosis, MTB, or TB (short for tubercle bacillus) is a common, and in many cases lethal, infectious disease caused by various strains of mycobacteria, usually Mycobacterium tuberculosis.[1] Tuberculosis usually attacks the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body. It is spread through the air when people who have an active MTB infection cough, sneeze, or otherwise transmit their saliva through the air.[2] Most infections in humans result in an asymptomatic, latent infection, and about one in ten latent infections eventually progress to active disease, which, if left untreated, kills more than 50% of those infected. […]

One third of the world’s population is thought to have been infected with M. tuberculosis,[3][4] and new infections occur at a rate of about one per second.[3] In 2007 there were an estimated 13.7 million chronic active cases,[5] and in 2010 8.8 million new cases, and 1.45 million deaths, mostly in developing countries.[6] […] The distribution of tuberculosis is not uniform across the globe; about 80% of the population in many Asian and African countries test positive in tuberculin tests, while only 5–10% of the U.S. population test positive.[1] […]

Tuberculosis caused the most widespread public concern in the 19th and early 20th centuries as an endemic disease of the urban poor. In 1815, one in four deaths in England was of consumption; by 1918 one in six deaths in France were still caused by TB. After the establishment in the 1880s that the disease was contagious, TB was made a notifiable disease in Britain; there were campaigns to stop spitting in public places, and the infected poor were “encouraged” to enter sanatoria that resembled prisons; the sanatoria for the middle and upper classes offered excellent care and constant medical attention.[84] Whatever the purported benefits of the fresh air and labor in the sanatoria, even under the best conditions, 50% of those who entered were dead within five years (1916).[84] […]

It was not until 1946 with the development of the antibiotic streptomycin that effective treatment and cure became possible. Prior to the introduction of this drug, the only treatment besides sanatoria were surgical interventions, including the pneumothorax technique—collapsing an infected lung to “rest” it and allow lesions to heal—a technique that was of little benefit and was largely discontinued by the 1950s.[90] The emergence of multidrug-resistant TB has again introduced surgery as part of the treatment for these infections. Here, surgical removal of chest cavities will reduce the number of bacteria in the lungs, as well as increasing the exposure of the remaining bacteria to drugs in the bloodstream, and is therefore thought to increase the effectiveness of the chemotherapy.[91]”

In completely unrelated news…

2. Nitrogen cycle. A couple of images from the article:

3. Bazooka. Lots of stuff I didn’t know. Here’s an interesting bit:

“A major disadvantage to the bazooka was the large backblast and smoke trail (in colder weather), which gave away the position of the shooter, mandating quick relocation of the squad. Moreover, the bazooka fire team often had to expose their bodies in order to obtain a clear field of fire against an armored target. Casualties among bazooka team members were extremely high during the war, and assignment to such duty, widely known as Medal of Honor work in the face of German counterfire was typically regarded by other platoon members as not only highly dangerous, but nearly suicidal.”

4. Coal. Some stuff from the article:

“About 300 million years ago, the earth had dense forests in low-lying wetland areas. Due to natural processes, like flooding, these forests got buried under the soil. As more and more soil deposited over them, they were compressed. The temperature also rose as they sank deeper and deeper. For the process to continue, the plant matter was protected from biodegradation and oxidization, usually by mud or acidic water. This trapped the carbon in immense peat bogs that are eventually covered and deeply buried by sediments. Under high pressure and high temperature dead vegetation got slowly converted to coal. As coal contains mainly carbon, the conversion of dead vegetation into coal is called carbonization.[4]

The wide shallow seas of the Carboniferous period provided ideal conditions for coal formation, although coal is known from most geological periods. The exception is the coal gap in the Lower Triassic, where coal is rare: presumably a result of the mass extinction which prefaced this era. Coal is known from Precambrian strata, which predate land plants: this coal is presumed to have originated from algal residues.[5][6] […]

In 1700, 5/6 of the world’s coal was mined in Britain. Without coal, Britain would have run out of suitable sites for watermills by the 1830s.[21] In 1947, there were some 750,000 miners,[22] but by 2004 this had shrunk to some 5,000 miners working in around 20 collieries.[23] […]

When coal is used for electricity generation, it is usually pulverized and then combusted (burned) in a furnace with a boiler.[28] The furnace heat converts boiler water to steam, which is then used to spin turbines which turn generators and create electricity. The thermodynamic efficiency of this process has been improved over time. Simple cycle steam turbines have topped out with some of the most advanced reaching about 35% thermodynamic efficiency for the entire process. Increasing the combustion temperature can boost this efficiency even further.[29] Old coal power plants, especially “grandfathered” plants, are significantly less efficient and produce higher levels of waste heat. At least 40% of the world’s electricity comes from coal,[28][30] and in 2008 approximately 49% of the United States’ electricity came from coal.[31] […]

For a coal power plant with a 40% efficiency, it takes 325 kg (714 lb) of coal to power a 100 W lightbulb for one year.[60] […]

Of the three fossil fuels, coal has the most widely distributed reserves; coal is mined in over 100 countries, and on all continents except Antarctica. The largest reserves are found in the USA, Russia, China, India and Australia.”

5. Acanthochronology. File under: ‘You almost certainly did not know that this field of inquiry even existed.’

6. Japanese aircraft carrier Shinano.

“Shinano […] was an aircraft carrier of the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II. Initially laid down as the third of the Yamato-class battleships, Shinano’s partially complete hull was converted to an aircraft carrier in 1942, midway through construction. Over the next two years, Shinano was heavily modified to act as a large support carrier. When completed, she had a full-load displacement of 72,000 long tons (73,000 t), the largest aircraft carrier ever built at the time.

Commissioned in November 1944, Shinano was to transfer from the Yokosuka Naval Shipyard to Kure Naval Base to complete her outfitting and transfer a load of 100 Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka rocket-propelled kamikaze aircraft. While en route, Shinano was sunk by the American submarine USS Archer-Fish 10 days after her commissioning — the result of severe design flaws, crew inexperience and poor damage control. To date, she is the largest warship to be sunk by a submarine.”

Some more details:

“On 19 November 1944, Shinano was formally commissioned at Yokosuka, having spent the previous two weeks fitting out and performing minor trials.[6] By 1 October the crew had reported on board, 70 to 75 percent of which had no previous sea duty experience.[7] As a result of growing worry for her safety, due to a U.S. bomber fly-over, Japanese Naval Command ordered Shinano to Kure, where the remainder of her fitting-out would take place.[6] Naval Command wanted Shinano moved to Kure no later than 28 November. However, Abe asked for a delay in the sailing date. The majority of her watertight compartment doors had yet to be installed, the compartment air tests had not been conducted, and many holes for electrical cables, ventilation ducts and pipes had not been sealed.[3] Nor had the fire mains or drainage systems been completed as pumps had not been delivered.[7] He also wanted more time to train his new crew, and to give the crews of the destroyers a rest after returning from battle.[5]

Abe’s request was denied” (…so Abe ended up dead at the bottom of the ocean, just like 1,434 others)

7. South Pole–Aitken basin. It turns out that one of the largest known impact craters in the Solar System is to be found on the moon. I did not know that. It’s pretty damn big: “Roughly 2,500 kilometres (1,600 mi) in diameter and 13 kilometres (8.1 mi) deep. […] The South Pole-Aitken basin is the largest, deepest and oldest basin recognized on the Moon.[1] The lowest elevations of the Moon (about -6 km) are located within the South Pole-Aitken basin, and the highest elevations (about +8 km) are found on this basin’s north-eastern rim. Because of this basin’s great size, the crust at this locale is expected to be thinner than typical as a result of the large amount of material that would have been excavated during this impact event. Crustal thickness maps constructed using the Moon’s topography and gravity field imply a thickness of about 15 km beneath the floor of this basin, in comparison to the global average of about 50 km.[4]”

8. Columbian Exchange.

March 25, 2012 Posted by | Astronomy, Biology, Botany, Ecology, Geology, History, Infectious disease, Medicine, Paleontology, Wikipedia | Leave a comment

Random thoughts

So, imagine this scenario. You live in a (parallel universe/future world/space setting/…) where people know how long they have to live; you know the exact date that you’ll die. It’s quite important to note early on that this date cannot be changed by any future events outside the models below. You have X years left of your life when you get the offer.

You’re now presented with the option, A, of living ‘twice as long’, in the sense that you will have 2*X years left of your life if you pick option A. There’s a downside to the arrangement; you have to double the amount of sleep, Z, you get pr. day (/time period).

Let’s plug in some numbers just for fun. Say you’re 20, you know you’ll die at the age of 70 (X=50), and you can at the current point in time expect to get (Z=7) hours of sleep/day on average during your life. If you pick A, you’ll live to the age of 120 – you’ll gain 50 years – but you’ll have to sleep 14 hours/day. If you decide not to take the offer, you will have 310,250 hours [(24-7)*365*50] left in a conscious (non-sleeping) state and you will die in 50 years. If you take the offer, you’ll have 365,000 hours [(24-14)*365*100] left in a conscious (non-sleeping) state and you’ll die in 100 years. In this case, you both live longer and you will have more hours available to you to do stuff. But what about a 60 year old who sleeps 9 hours/day and can expect to live to the age of 85? In that case, A will give you 109,500 hours and 50 years, whereas the alternative will give you 136,875 hours but only 25 years. When looking at A more generally, it seems clear that the older you are the less years you gain and the worse the tradeoff looks because the natural/baseline sleep requirement is increasing in age. At which points in people’s lives would this look like the most interesting proposition? Would it necessarily be the case that ‘the younger, the better’ – what about, say, sociological factors? How big an impact will the decisions of people close to the decisionmaker have – would the longevity of individuals in this model depend on social ties/skills; and if so, how?

Interesting things happen if you change A and make different restrictions on the choices offered; for instance, what happens in a model, A’, where you gain one hour for each extra hour you sleep? Basically this is just saying that you can decide freely when to live your life (looking forward in time), but not how long you’ll actually live. How would people deal with this choice? What if you made the sleep requirement an increasing function of the years gained and further imposed the restriction that people could at most sleep for 23 hours/day? (you have to add some sort of restriction like that or it starts to get really weird) Like, say, model B, in which you’d gain the first 10 years by just sleeping one extra 1 hour/day, whereas the next decade would cost you an additional 2 hours of sleep pr. day – at which point would people think that the arrangement maximized their lifetime utility, and how would this maximum depend upon the choices made by the people closest to them? Note that in model B, the 20 year old guy from before would (still, just like A) be able to live for another 100 years, but he’d have to sleep 22 hours pr. day to do so; and he’d spend much less time awake in this case than if he did not choose this option.

In the above models, the cost of getting to live longer than you’d otherwise do is ‘sleep’ but it could be other things as well. In the real world, you have a lot of people who stay alive long after their minds are gone – before my grandfather’s mind had gone completely he did live something close to 23 hours in an at least ‘semi-conscious state’, paired with a few clear moments during the day. You also have cancer patients who spend the last weeks or months of their lives either writhing in pain or simply knocked out by painkillers. In these cases, what are ‘we/they’ optimizing? In the real world setting, there’s also stuff like physical exercise, which might add half a decade or more to your life – if you’re willing to incur the cost of actually get sweaty/take time out of your calender and/or sleep more (restitution).

Now imagine another model, C, where what is on offer is not years gained but rather hours awake. It’s the flip side to the first models here. In this model, if you’re willing to drop 2 years of your life you can cut down sleep by 1 hour/day in the years you have left. Say you’re that 20 year old guy again. He can at most cut 7 hours of sleep, which would leave him with 36 years left. The cost imposed is made up for by an additional number of total hours awake while alive: For instance, with the baseline scenario the guy gets 310,250 hours awake, but if he opts to die at the age of 68, he’d get 315,360 hours awake. Given this specification of the model, the total number of hours awake is maximized at the point where he dies after 42 years at the age of 62, sleeping 3 hours/day during his remaining life (hours awake is a parabola; giving up even more years will decrease his total number of hours awake) – this will give him 321,930 hours awake. Would some people choose this model? If you set it up like this, probably not many. But the funny thing is that given how people behave around other variables which are also well known to impact both longevity and subjective utility in not too dis-similar ways (smoking, alcohol, drugs), the obvious answer should be yes. People make not all that dis-similar tradeoffs all the time without even thinking about it.

Also in some of the alternative universes in which one might contemplate making these offers, what is here called a ‘sleep requirement’ is there universally known as ‘sleep dependency’; a chronic, debilitating and incurable disease which causes recurring long-term periods of unconsciousness.

March 17, 2012 Posted by | rambling nonsense, Random stuff | 3 Comments

Human, male, student – uncle?

Yesterday evening my big brother’s girlfriend gave birth to a healthy baby boy. I’ve now become a “little grandfather”. I’m of course happy for them and glad that everything went well; the pregnancy has been much more exciting than it ideally would have been.

Last year I lost my grandfather. This year I gained a nephew. Small steps on life’s long road. Life goes on.

March 17, 2012 Posted by | Personal, Random stuff | 6 Comments

Reaching peak performance?

From this paperComparative longitudinal structural analyses of the growth and decline of multiple intellectual abilities over the life span.

On a related if tangential note; I tend to do better on some of the measures included than I do on others. I tend to do well on some of the kinds of measures of intellectual ability – and/or (depending on who you ask..) measures which correlate significantly with intellectual ability – that are relatively easily observable, and I think some people, including some of the readers of this blog, overestimate me for that reason. There are people out there who can calculate the inverses of 2 3×3 matrices, then proceed to calculate the Kronecker product of the matrices and then move on to finally calculate the determinant of the resulting 9×9 matrix in a ridiculously short amount of time, and/or perhaps even without writing anything down along the way. I’m not one of those people and there are a lot of people in between me and them. (Now, you might argue that such an ability is easily observable but the kind of observability I have in mind here is one which relates to the social context.)

Incidentally, I did not blog this back when I originally read it (via MR; Tabarrok posted another graph which sparked a lot of debate) and now’s as good a time as any to post it here:

Here’s another one from the same presentation:

March 15, 2012 Posted by | Data, IQ, Papers, Personal, Psychology | Leave a comment


i. “Anyone who says that they’re great at communicating but ‘people are bad at listening’ is confused about how communication works.” (Randall Munroe, xkcd)

ii. “Well, when I look at a fetus in its 1st trimester, I don’t see much ‘human’ there. I see a blob of cells, looking like a generally mammalian fetus. It doesn’t think, it doesn’t feel – it doesn’t do anything I recognize as uniquely human. Heck, it ‘does’ so little that it can’t exist except as a parasite on the woman, and even as a parasite, it’s pretty pathetic. A tapeworm would look down on it.” ( emphasis. From ‘An Abortion Dialogue‘, by gwern. For some reason or another I loved the last part of that quote. If you’re reading this right now, you’ve come a long way.)

iii. “A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.” (Alexander Pope)

iv. “Nothing is so common-place as to wish to be remarkable.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.)

v. “Calvin: ‘Dad, are you vicariously living through me in the hope that my accomplishments will validate your mediocre life and in some way compensate for all of the opportunities you botched?’
Dad: ‘If I were, you can bet I’d be re-evaluating my strategy.’
Calvin: ‘Mom, Dad keeps insulting me.'” (Calvin and Hobbes)

vi. “Necessity relieves us from the embarrassment of choice.” (Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues)

vii. “The things we know best are the things we haven’t been taught.” (-ll-)

viii. “Some authors regard morality in the same light as we regard modern architecture. Convenience is the first thing to be looked for.” (-ll-)

ix. “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.” (Louis Pasteur)

x. “Arguing an inconsequential point diminishes your status. You lose, even if you win. […] Noticing an error does not create an obligation to correct that error. When the error is of little consequence, let it go.” (‘Mark M’, here)

xi. “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” (Popular Mechanics, 1949)

xii. “When we are not engaged in thinking about some definite problem, we usually spend about 95 percent of our time thinking about ourselves. Now, if we stop thinking about ourselves for a while and begin to think of the other person’s good points, we won’t have to resort to flattery so cheap and false that it can be spotted almost before it is out of the mouth,
One of the most neglected virtues of our daily existence is appreciation, Somehow, we neglect to praise our son or daughter when he or she brings home a good report card, and we fail to encourage our children when they first succeed in baking a cake or building a birdhouse. […] In our interpersonal relations we should never forget that all our associates are human beings and hunger for appreciation. It is the legal tender that all souls enjoy.” (from How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie)

xiii. “Remember that other people may be totally wrong. But they don’t think so. Don’t condemn them. Any fool can do that. Try to understand them.” (-ll-)

xiv. Hobbes: “‘Are you making any resolutions for the new year?’
Calvin: ‘Nope! I want everything to stay the same as it was this year.’
Hobbes: ‘Everything?’
Calvin: ‘Right. This year was lousy, but at least it’s familiar.’
Calvin: ‘I hate change! It’s too disruptive! When things are different you have to think about the change and deal with it! I like things to stay the same, so I can take everything for granted!’
Calvin: ‘Besides, things keep changing for the worse! The longer I live, the more complicated everything gets! I say let’s stop here before life gets any harder!’
Calvin: ‘From now on, no more change!’
Calvin (10 seconds later): ‘I’m bored. Let’s do something different.’
Hobbes: ‘Some things don’t change.'”

March 14, 2012 Posted by | Quotes/aphorisms | Leave a comment


1. A blitz chess game. I had black against a german player, Gerhard Richter. According to FIDE, there’s a guy with that name who has an ELO rating of 1949. I assume that was the guy I played against though I can’t know for certain – he had a quite high ‘slow rating’ so it was a strong player either way. In the game he drops a pawn at one point and I basically just run him over (though he does have some counterplay) after that – very satisfying to get a win like that against a strong opponent.

2. Will we ever restore sight to the blind?

It’s interesting how far medical science has advanced in some areas – to some degree we do ‘live in the future’, so to speak. I thought it was a bit funny that Ed would post this on the same day that I had a scheduled follow-up related to the medical trial in which I’m participating – I spent two hours today having my eyes looked at and measured in all kinds of ways.

3. U.S. Homicide Trends. The data are not completely up to date, but 2005 isn’t that long ago. Did you know that roughly 8 out of 9 (88,8%) of all homicides are committed by males? Or that males are almost 4 times more likely to get murdered? Here are some more data:

Females are much more likely to be killed by an intimate or a family member. If all else were equal (it’s not, but it’s probably worth pondering whether this changes the conclusion..), a female would be able to reduce her risk of getting killed significantly just by staying single instead of getting intimately involved with someone. Note that whereas something like one third of all female murder victims get killed by an intimate, the corresponding male number is just 3% (here’s another link adding more detail) – in terms of optimal strategies for lowering risk, the two genders should focus on different variables here. When dealing with the murders of females at the age of 25-50, approximately 40% of them are committed by an intimate (see previous link).

3a. I remember reading a study at one point (via MR?) where they looked at murder rates using BAC as an explanatory variable. I tried looking around in the archives but it seems that I did not blog it back then – I thought I had. Anyway, I’m not sure this study was the one I was thinking about but it covers the same subject and it was what popped up when doing a quick google – Alcohol, drugs and murder: A study of convicted homicide offenders. Abstract:

“Data on 1,887 convicted homicide offenders were examined to discern the relationships between alcohol and/or drug use and murder. Information obtained through confidential interviews at state prisons and local jails provided demographics and information on drinking and drug use immediately before the crime and relevant data on the offenders’ typical drinking style. About 50 percent of the offenders were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crime, similar to the rate found by other studies. Substance use was more prevalent than nonuse before the homicide: 36 percent used alcohol only, 13 percent used both alcohol and drugs, 7 percent used drugs only, and 43 percent did not use either. A heavier style of drinking is much more prevalent among homicide offenders than in the general population. Blacks showed the least involvement with alcohol before homicide. A direct role for alcohol is indicated by the finding that homicides were associated with a heavier than usual episode of drinking and the large mean alcohol consumption contiguous to the crime (9.3 ounces of alcohol or about 18 drinks). Evidence also indicates that a unique relationship existed between drug use and homicide.”

A majority of people who commit murder, at least in the US, do so under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

March 12, 2012 Posted by | alcohol, Chess, Data, Demographics, Medicine | 10 Comments

Wikipedia articles of interest

1. Operation Mincemeat.

“Operation Mincemeat was a successful British deception plan during World War II. As part of the widespread deception plan Operation Barclay to cover the intended invasion of Italy from North Africa, Mincemeat helped to convince the German high command that the Allies planned to invade Greece and Sardinia in 1943 instead of Sicily, the actual objective. This was accomplished by persuading the Germans that they had, by accident, intercepted “top secret” documents giving details of Allied war plans. The documents were attached to a corpse deliberately left to wash up on a beach in Punta Umbría in Spain.”

This article is just fascinating and it’s hard to quote from it because the ploy is just so awesome you need to read it all, but here’s a bit more from the article:

“With the help of the renowned pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Montagu and his team determined what kind of body they needed: a man who appeared to have died at sea by hypothermia and drowning, and then floated ashore after several days. However, finding a usable body seemed almost impossible, as indiscreet inquiries would cause talk, and it was impossible to tell a dead man’s next of kin what the body was wanted for. Under quiet pressure, Bentley Purchase, coroner of St. Pancras District in London, obtained the body of a 34-year old Welsh man named Glyndwr Michael, on the condition that the man’s real identity would never be revealed. The man had died after ingesting rat poison which contained phosphorus. After being ingested, the phosphide reacts with hydrochloric acid in the human stomach, generating phosphine, a highly toxic gas. Coroner Purchase explained, “This dose was not sufficient to kill him outright, and its only effect was so to impair the functioning of the liver that he died a little time afterwards”, leaving few clues to the cause of death. Montagu later claimed the man died from pneumonia, and that the family had been contacted and permission obtained, but none of this was true. The dead man’s parents had died and no known relatives were found.[6]

The next step was creating a “legend”: a synthetic identity for the dead man. He became “Captain (Acting Major) William “Bill” Martin, Royal Marines”,[6] born 1907, in Cardiff, Wales, and assigned to Headquarters, Combined Operations. As a Royal Marine, Major Martin came under Admiralty authority, and it would be easy to ensure that all official inquiries and messages about his death would be routed to the Naval Intelligence Division. The Army’s arrangements were different and much harder to control. Also, he could wear battledress rather than a naval uniform (uniforms were tailor-made by Gieves of Savile Row, and they couldn’t have Gieves’s tailor measure a corpse.) The rank of acting Major made him senior enough to be entrusted with sensitive documents, but not so prominent that anyone would expect to know him. The name “Martin” was chosen because there were several Martins of about that rank in the Royal Marines.[3]

To build up the legend, they provided a fiancée named “Pam”. Major Martin carried a snapshot of “Pam” (actually a clerk named Jean Leslie from MI5),[6] two love letters, and a jeweller’s bill, dated 19th April 1943, from the exclusive S J Phillips Ltd of 113 New Bond Street, for a diamond engagement ring […] In keeping with his rank, he was given some good quality underwear, at the time extremely difficult to obtain due to rationing. Items of woollen underwear owned by the late Herbert Fisher, the Master of New College Oxford, having been run over and killed by a lorry, were secured and used to underpin the verisimilitude of the body.[6]

He also had a pompous letter from his father, a letter from the family solicitor, and a letter from Ernest Whitley Jones, joint general manager of Lloyds Bank,[6] demanding payment of an overdraft of £79 19s 2d (£79.96). There were a book of stamps, a silver cross and St Christopher’s medallion, a pencil stub, keys, a used twopenny bus ticket,[6] ticket stubs from a London theatre, a bill for four nights’ lodging at the Naval and Military Club, and a receipt from Gieves & Hawkes for a new shirt […] To make the Major even more believable, Montagu and his team decided to suggest that he was a bit careless. His ID card was marked as a replacement for one that had been lost, and his pass to Combined Operations HQ had expired a few weeks before his departure and not been renewed.”

2. Zebroid.

Of course I stumbled upon this article because of one of Razib Khan’s latest posts. Here’s an image of a zebonkey/zebrula/zedonk (naming conventions differ) from the article:

Related article: Haldane’s rule.

3. Lewis and Clark Expedition.

“The Lewis and Clark Expedition, or “Corps of Discovery Expedition” (1804–1806) was the first transcontinental expedition to the Pacific Coast by the United States. Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson and led by two Virginia-born veterans of Indian wars in the Ohio Valley, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the expedition had several goals. Their objects were both scientific and commercial – to study the area’s plants, animal life, and geography, and to discover how the region could be exploited economically.[1] […]

The Lewis and Clark Expedition established relations with two dozen indigenous nations.[38] Without their help, the expedition would have starved to death or become hopelessly lost in the Rocky Mountains.[39] […] The Lewis and Clark Expedition gained an understanding of the geography of the Northwest and produced the first accurate maps of the area. During the journey, Lewis and Clark drew about 140 maps. […] The expedition recorded more than 200 plants and animals that were new to science and noted at least 72 native tribes.[53]”

Note that the article contains a featured image.

4. Oligodynamic effect.

“The oligodynamic effect (Greek: oligos = few, Greek: dynamis = force) was discovered in 1893 by the Swiss Karl Wilhelm von Nägeli as a toxic effect of metal ions on living cells, algae, molds, spores, fungi, viruses, prokaryotic and eukaryotic microorganisms, even in relatively low concentrations.[1] This antimicrobial effect is shown by ions of mercury, silver, copper, iron, lead, zinc, bismuth, gold, aluminium, and other metals.”

Basically, because of this effect your silver spoons self-sanitize; the silver kills the bacteria. If you’d ever wondered why doorknobs in hospitals are often/usually made of brass or similar materials, this effect would also be part of the explanation.

5. McMahon Line.

“The McMahon Line is a line agreed to by Britain and Tibet as part of the Simla Accord, a treaty signed in 1914. Although its legal status is disputed, it is the effective boundary between China and India.

The line is named after Sir Henry McMahon, foreign secretary of the British-run Government of India and the chief negotiator of the convention. It extends for 550 miles (890 km) from Bhutan in the west to 160 miles (260 km) east of the great bend of the Brahmaputra River in the east, largely along the crest of the Himalayas. Simla (along with the McMahon Line) was initially rejected by the Government of India as incompatible with the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention.[1] This convention was renounced in 1921. After Simla, the McMahon Line was forgotten until 1935, when British civil service officer Olaf Caroe convinced the government to publish the Simla Convention and use the McMahon Line on official maps.[2]

The McMahon Line is regarded by India as the legal national border. As recently as 2003, the Dalai Lama said that the disputed region was part of Tibet, but he reversed his position in 2008, acknowledging the legitimacy of the McMahon Line and the Indian claim to the region.[3]

China rejects the Simla Accord, contending that the Tibetan government was not sovereign and therefore did not have the power to conclude treaties.[4] Chinese maps show some 65,000 square kilometres (25,000 sq mi) of the territory south of the line as part of the Tibet Autonomous Region, known as South Tibet in China.[5] Chinese forces briefly occupied this area during the Sino-Indian War of 1962-63. China does recognize a Line of Actual Control which includes a portion of the “so called McMahon line” in the eastern part of its border with India, according to a 1959 diplomatic note by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai.[6]”

At the present point in time, the border between the world’s two most populous nations is actually not clearly defined and completely agreed upon by both parties.

6. Passenger Pigeon.

When you’re up against humans, there’s not always strength in numbers:

“Some estimate that there were 3 billion to 5 billion Passenger Pigeons in the United States when Europeans arrived in North America.[B] Others argue that the species had not been common in the Pre-Columbian period, but their numbers grew when devastation of the American Indian population by European diseases led to reduced competition for food.[C]

The species went from being one of the most abundant birds in the world during the 19th century to extinction early in the 20th century.[4] At the time, Passenger Pigeons had one of the largest groups or flocks of any animal, second only to the Rocky Mountain locust.

Some reduction in numbers occurred because of habitat loss when the Europeans started settling further inland, especially as it was accompanied by mass deforestation and conversion of habitat to farming. The primary factor emerged when pigeon meat was commercialized as a cheap food for slaves and the poor in the 19th century, resulting in hunting on a massive and mechanized scale. There was a slow decline in their numbers between about 1800 and 1870, followed by a catastrophic decline between 1870 and 1890.[5] Martha, thought to be the world’s last Passenger Pigeon, died on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo.”

7. Manifold. Interestingly, according to the talk page it’s one of the 500 most frequently viewed mathematics articles.

8. Alchian–Allen Effect.

“The Alchian-Allen Effect was described in 1964 by Armen Alchian and William R. Allen in the book University Economics (now called Exchange and Production [1]). It states that when the prices of two substitute goods, such as high and low grades of the same product, are both increased by a fixed per-unit amount such as a transportation cost or a lump-sum tax, consumption will shift toward the higher-grade product. This is true because the added per-unit amount decreases the relative price of the higher-grade product.”

9. Absolute hot. So, the question is this: Is there a maximum temperature at some point? While reading up on this I realized that I didn’t really know much about temperature (also recommended reading) in the first place. Given current models the math breaks down at very high temperatures. It’s easier to answer the question of ‘when’ (let’s just say that temperatures were uncomfortably high to us a few milliseconds after the Big Bang).

March 8, 2012 Posted by | Biology, Economics, Genetics, History, Mathematics, Microbiology, Wikipedia, Zoology | Leave a comment

Gordon – Everyday Life as an Intelligence Test

Here’s the link (pdf). Some excerpts:

“this article examines the issue of general intelligence in everyday life, where many tasks tend to be performed widely if not universally. The aim is to elucidate both the practical importance of intelligence within that sphere and some major obstacles to the full recognition of that importance. The effects of such obstacles often exist side by side with a keen, if sometimes reticent, awareness by many individuals of the role of intelligence in its more standard applications, such as schooling and certain occupations. […]

It is often not apparent to persons that cognitive tasks are embedded in many of life’s everyday activities, as those activities (say, parenting) often exhibit other, perhaps more salient, facets of content (warmth) that seem to outweigh any cognitive component (judgment) until the latter comes forcibly to attention (as when a warm parent leaves small children unattended with matches in the house). Empirically, however, such noncognitive facets may individually contribute much less than g does to variance in overall or long-term task performance (child safety) and, especially, to the task-as-item covariance (i.e., what is common to all such tasks) upon which any test depends for its reliability. […]

Underrecognition of the cognitive component is abetted by numerous other features of the phenomenology and organization of intelligence in everyday life. Not least among these is the fact that there certainly are everyday activities in which a cognitive component is thought crucial, but such activities are set somewhat apart by our culture in special categories. The result is that the residual activities may unthinkingly be consigned by laypersons to the noncognitive realm by virtue of the contrast. Education and learning have, of course, been the chief repositories of tasks viewed as essentially cognitive, and it is only in recent times that this view has been broadened among specialists to include performance within jobs and participation in crime.
Although Singaporean mothers were able, when specifically asked, to perceive the role of intelligence in a variety of children’s behaviors, such as “Shows common-sense” and “Sizes up a situation badly,” it was “Learns quickly,” a typically academic marker, that had the highest g loading in a factor analysis of 55 ranked items (Nevo & Khader, 1995). Between first, third, and sixth grades, academic skills increasingly come to dominate children’s attention as examples of what it means to be smart or intelligent (Yussen & Kane, 1985, Tables 2-3). It would appear that social perception of the role of intelligence is drawn toward outcomes with the highest g loadings, which is not surprising, but it may sometimes be tacitly misconcluded as a result that other outcomes have no g loadings at all when their loadings are simply not as high. Just as individuals may often be assigned too hastily to only two categories on the g continuum, say, qualified and unqualified, so may the g-loadedness of outcomes be falsely dichotomized.
A crucial final point is that, as in aggregate data, repetition of a single task or response by multiple persons can produce regularities in percentages and averages that are as reliable in life (and as indicative of the operation of g) as the results of multiple tasks presented to a single person on tests. If two populations differ in the average g that they bring to a repeated single task in everyday life, reliable group differences in average performance will emerge, just as group differences emerge in rates of passing an individual test item. Support for the role of intelligence from aggregate data, when uncovered, thus makes it possible to work backward to the inference that intelligence was very likely an influential component of the individual behavior so aggregated if that was not already an accepted view […]

What I am arguing against here, and hope to overcome with data, is a double standard in agnosticism among many test defenders concerning the potential g-loadedness of items, depending on whether the items appear on tests or in everyday life. […]

Although again deceptively commonplace to test experts, Jensen’s (1986b,p. 109) third provision, that in order to measure individual differences in a group of people, “item difficulty (i.e., percent ‘failing’ the item) must be greater than 0 and less than loo%,” is of profound significance for understanding why the role of g in life tasks tends to be underestimated. Many everyday behaviors, such as operating a car, prove so easy for most persons that they seem not to depend on what the layperson thinks of as intelligence at all, and performing them produces no subjective sense of the effort known as “thinking.” Recall the estimate quoted above that some errors occur as seldom as one in 10,000 opportunities. Many such tasks, of course, were overlearned in childhood, when effort would have been more apparent. Adults who commit inexplicable errors on such tasks are greeted with special epithets, suggestive of no intelligence at all. […]

Research on elementary cognitive tasks (ECTs), although conducted in the laboratory rather than on everyday tasks, provides especially informative examples of performances misperceived as making no demand on intelligence. ECTs are often so easy (pressing the button beside the light that goes on) that virtually no one gets them wrong, and participants cannot tell the difference between their own better and poorer performances (Jensen, 1980a, p. 691). Sensitive monitoring of reaction times (defined as the interval, in milliseconds, between the light signal and release of one’s finger from a home button) reveals, however, that speed of such performances does vary and is reliably correlated with g (Jensen,1993b). Jensen (1980b, p. 109) remarked that the cognitive demands of one particular ECT “are so extremely simple that it seems almost implausible that the procedure could yield any measurements that would be correlated with IQ.” The indefinite linearity of performance with IQ upwards (e.g., Hawk, 1970) appears to apply in the downward direction as well when appropriately measured, to include performance on tasks even as easy as these. […] In test parlance, mundane life lacks sufficient “top” or “ceiling,” that is, lacks items at a sufficiently high level of difficulty to reveal clearly the advantages of high intelligence over average intelligence […]

Almost all research on intelligence has been focused upon the individual level of analysis. For studied outcomes, research usually takes the form of correlating a measure of g with the outcome. For several reasons, some made understandable by the previous discussion of the test analogy, the theoretical value of such correlations is often underestimated. First, behaviors are rarely observed at the lowest level of performance, which would make their dependence on intelligence more apparent, and the correlations more convincing, because society is usually structured to prevent such poor performances from occurring. Second, performance failures, when witnessed, are often attributed to superficial causes, for example, not planning ahead, that are formulated in a manner that conceals the role of intelligence behind noncognitive, often motivational, terminology. Third, modest correlations that do get reported between IQ and outcomes are often dismissed as too inconsequential to motivate theory”

From the first 13 pages (of 118). I haven’t read much more than that yet, maybe I’ll post more on this later. Here’s a related paper written around the same time.

March 6, 2012 Posted by | IQ, Papers, Psychology | Leave a comment



The Granny Weatherwax/Nanny Ogg books are not my favourites in the series, but they’re ok and sometimes they are very funny. I liked the book.

Some quotes:

i. “As a witch, she naturally didn’t believe in any occult nonsense of any sort.”

ii. “Granny Weatherwax made a great play of her independence and self-reliance. But the point about that kind of stuff was that you needed someone around to be proudly independent and self-reliant at. People who didn’t need people needed people around to know that they were the kind of people who didn’t need people.”

iii. “she climbed the steps. A man was theoretically sweeping them. What he was in fact doing was moving the dirt around with a broom, to give it a change of scenery and a chance to make new friends.”

iv. “She’d faced wizards, monsters and elves … and now she was feeling pleased with herself because she’d fooled Jarge Weaver, a man who’d twice failed to become Village Idiot through being overqualified.”

v.”Definitely that kind of owner, he thought. Self-made man proud of his handiwork. Confuses bluffness and honesty with merely being rude. I wouldn’t mind betting a dollar that he thinks he can tell a man’s character by testing the firmness of his handshake and looking deeply into his eyes. [… 50 pages later:] ‘I happen to pride myself that I am a good judge of character,’ he said. ‘Look a man deeply in the eye and give him a firm handshake and you know everything about him.'”

vi. “It wasn’t so much the personality, it was the ‘but’ that people always added when they talked about it. But she’s got a lovely personality, they said. […] people would take pains to tell her that beauty was only skin-deep, as if a man ever fell for an attractive pair of kidneys.”

vii. “Agnes stayed up late, simply because of the novelty. Most people in Lancre, as the saying goes, went to bed with the chickens and got up with the cows.* […] *Er. That is to say, they went to bed at the same time as the chickens went to bed, and got up at the same time as the cows got up. Loosely worded sayings can really cause misunderstandings.”

viii. ‘I don’t understand! Is this man mad?’
Salzella put an arm around his shoulders and led him away from the crowd. ‘Well, now,’ he said, as kindly as he could. ‘A man who wears evening dress all the time, lurks in the shadows and occasionally kills people. Then he sends little notes, writing maniacal laughter. Five exclamation marks again, I notice. We have to ask ourselves: is this the career of a sane man?’

ix. “Agnes smiled unhappily. After you’d known Christine for any length of time, you found yourself fighting a desire to look into her ear to see if you could spot daylight coming out the other way.”

x. “‘And Mr Bucket has authorized me to say that there will be an additional two dollars’ bonus tonight in recognition of your bravely agreeing to continue with the show [the body of a murder-victim has just been discovered in the middle of a performance].
‘Money? After a shock like this? Money? He thinks he can offer us a couple of dollars and we’ll agree to stay on this cursed stage?’
‘Should be at least four!’
‘Right! Right!’ […] ‘Five dollars or nothing!'”

xi. “‘Everyone in the whole Ramtops buys the Almanack, even the dwarfs. That’s a lot of half dollars. And Gytha’s book seems to be doing very well.’
‘Well, of course, I’m glad it’s so popular, but what with distribution, paying the peddlers, the wear and tear on—‘
‘Your Almanack will last a household all winter, with care,’ said Granny. ‘Providing no one’s ill and the paper’s nice and thin.’
‘My son Jason buys two copies,’ said Nanny. ‘Of course, he’s got a big family. The privy door never stops swinging—‘”

xii. “In the same way that the really rich can never be mad (they’re eccentric), so they can also never be rude (they’re outspoken and forthright).”

xiii. “‘You’ve missed all the excitement.’
‘Have I?’
‘The Watch have been here, talking to everyone and asking lots of questions and writing things down very slowly.’
‘What sort of questions?’
‘Well, knowing the Watch, probably “Was it you what did it, then?” They’re rather slow thinkers.'”

xiv. “It is probably a full description of Henry Lawsy’s mind that if you had given him a book called How to Improve Your Mind in Five Minutes, he would have read it with a stopwatch. His progress through life was hampered by his tremendous sense of his own ignorance, a disability which affects all too few people.”

xv. “Nanny had a witch’s view of theft, which was a lot mroe complicated than the attitude adopted by the law and, if it came to it, people who owned property worth stealing.”

xvi. “The Watch are here, you know. In secret. They’re mingling.’
‘Ah … let me guess …’
Salzella looked around at the crowds. There was, indeed, a very short man in a suit intended for a rather larger man; this was especially the case with the opera cloak, which actually trailed on the floor behind him to give the overall impression of a superhero who had spent too much time around the Kryptonite. He was wearing a deformed fur hat and trying to surreptitiously to smoke a cigarette.
‘You mean that little man with the words “Watchman in Disguise” flashing on and off just above his head?’
‘Where? I didn’t see that!’
Salzella sighed. ‘It’s Corporal Nobby Nobbs,’ he said wearily. ‘The only known person to require an identity card to prove his species. I’ve watched him mingle with three large sherries.’
‘He’s not the only one, though,’ said Mr Bucket. ‘They’re taking this seriously.’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Salzella. ‘If we look over there, for example, we see Sergeant Detritus, who is a troll, and who is wearing what in the circumstances is actually a rather well-fitting suit. It is therefore, I feel, something of a pity he has neglected to remove his helmet. And these, you understand, the Watch has chosen for their ability to blend.'”

xvii. “Henry Lawsy peered closely at his opera notes. He had not, of course, fully understood the events of the first two acts, but knew that this was perfectly OK because one would have to be quite naïve to expect good sense as well as good songs. Anyway, it would all be explained in the last act, which was the Masked Ball in the Duke’s Palace. It would almost certainly turn out that the woman one of the men had been rather daringly courting would be his own wife, but so cunningly disguised by a very small mask that her husband wouldn’t have spotted that she wore the same clothes and had the same hairstyle. Someone’s serving man would turn out to be someone else’s daughter in disguise; someone would die of something that didn’t prevent them from singing about it for several minutes; and the plot would be resolved by some coincidences which, in real life, would be as likely as a cardboard hammer.
He didn’t know any of this for a fact. He was making a calculated guess.”

March 4, 2012 Posted by | Books, Terry Pratchett | Leave a comment

Change in the prevalence of obesity and use of health care in Denmark: an observational study

Wildenschild, Kjøller, Sabroe, Erlandsen and Heitmann has published a new study on this. Some stuff from the paper:

“In recent years, health care utilization has increased steadily. Data from Statistics Denmark show that the average number of consultations with a general practitioner increased from 7.2/year in 1999 to 8.0/year in 2005 for women and from 4.5/year to 5.3/year for men during the same period. […] Concurrently, with the increased utilization of health care, the prevalence of obesity among those aged 16–99 years increased from 5.5% in 1987 to 11.4% in 2005 according to the DHIS.[3] This rise in prevalence of obesity is in accordance with findings from other Danish studies [5,6] and with the development seen in other industrialized countries.[7,8]
Considering the higher incidence of somatic and psychological illness among obese people, it is conceivable that some of the increase in utilization of health care might be attributed to the increase in the prevalence of obesity. Studies examining the impact of the rising prevalence of obesity on the development of health care utilization are generally absent in previous literature, but several studies have shown an association between obesity per se and utilization of various types of health care.[9–22] […]
The purpose of this study was therefore to examine the impact of the rising prevalence of obesity on utilization of health care in Denmark in 1987–2005. The hypothesis was that the prevalence of obesity would be associated with utilization of health care and thus that the rise in utilization could be partly attributed to the rise in the prevalence of obesity. Another purpose was to examine whether the utilization of health care of obese people has changed during the period.”

I found this paper when looking for data on Danish obesity, which is not as easy to find as you’d perhaps think (for one thing, Statistics Denmark doesn’t have any data on this at all). Even though it’s not easy to find data on this, I did manage to find a 2004 study along the way which is aptly named Major increase in prevalence of overweight and obesity between 1987 and 2001 among Danish adults. The abstract:


The aim of the study was to examine the secular trends in the prevalence of obesity (BMI >or= 30.0 kg/m(2)) and overweight (25.0 <or= BMI < 30.0 kg/m(2)) in Danish adults between 1987 and 2001.


The study included self-reported weight and height of 10,094 men and 9897 women 16 to 98 years old, collected in a series of seven independent cross-sectional surveys. Prevalence and changes in prevalence of obesity and overweight stratified by sex and age groups were determined.


The prevalence of obesity more than doubled between 1987 and 2001, in men from 5.6% to 11.8% [odds ratio (OR) = 2.3, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 1.9 to 2.8, p < 0.0001] and in women from 5.4% to 12.5% (OR = 2.6, 95% CI = 2.1 to 3.2, p < 0.0001), with the largest increase among the 16- to 29-year-old subjects (men, from 0.8% to 7.5%, OR = 10.2, 95% CI = 4.1 to 25.3, p < 0.0001; women, from 1.4% to 9.0% OR = 7.0, 95% CI = 3.5 to 14.1, p < 0.0001). Between 1987 and 2001, the prevalence of overweight increased from 34% to 40% in men and from 17% to 27% in women.

The prevalence of overweight and obesity in Denmark has increased substantially between 1987 and 2001, particularly among young adults, a development that resembles that of other countries. There is clearly a need for early preventive efforts in childhood to limit the number of obesity-related complications in young adults.”

Note that this is not the study [3] mentioned in the original quote, but the numbers are nevertheless very similar; it’s quite clear that the estimated change that has taken place is within this neighbourhood – when using data like these. Note also that these results most likely underestimate the true increase over time (the type of data they have to work with is one of the main weaknesses of the original study and the authors don’t attempt to hide that); self-reported data on stuff like this are notoriously unreliable and will always cause some bias. This review article found, according to the abstract (couldn’t find a non-gated version online), that ‘The largest increase [in BMI over time] has been documented in studies based on objective data from total populations’, which is not surprising.

Back to the original study on health care utilization – what did they find?

“Principal findings
The increase in health care utilization that has occurred in recent years may in part be attributed to a rise in the prevalence of obesity. This increase is particularly seen among obese men. Health care utilization among obese women increased in 1987–2000 only and then leveled from 2000 to 2005. Including variables of obesity-related illness, such as hypertension, diabetes, and back problems, in the analyses suggested a varying significance of these conditions among the subsets of the sample but indicated that they may be at least part of the cause of the increased utilization among obese people. Among men, the association between BMI and health care utilization was dependent on age. Stratification according to age resulted in reduced statistical strength, and results were found to be significant only for those aged 45–64 years and borderline significant for those aged 25–44 and 65+ years. Among men aged 65+, the underweight had the largest probability of health care utilization, as opposed to the other age groups. This finding may be partly attributed to the presence of malignant illness in this group, indicating inverse causality”

These results make good sense to me, particularly that the strength of the association increases with age, though only up to a certain point (the weight-associated effect on -utilization is higher for middle aged than young people, and under-weight individuals is what muddles the waters when looking at the elderly segment + obesity may not be a super big issue if people actually get to reach old age in the first place); it will probably often take a few decades for obesity to cause significant health problems so it makes sense that middle aged obese people are more likely to ‘overutilize’ than people in the lower age brackets. I found this passage interesting:

“From 1987 to 2005, nonresponse to the DHIS increased from 20% in 1987 to 33% in 2005, with the largest increase in nonresponse occurring among those aged 16–24 and 25–44 years.[26] Analyses on nonresponse by BMI to the DHIS in 2005 showed that more obese than normal weight people did not participate.[26] This is in line with results from studies performed during the 1980s that indicated a greater nonresponse among obese people.[36,37] These findings imply that, over the years, nonresponse was generally larger among obese people compared with normal weight people, adding to an increasing underestimation of the prevalences of obesity in the study period. In addition, previous analyses on nonresponse in relation to health care utilization in the DHIS 2000 and 2005 have shown a positive association between nonresponse and health care utilization”

This of course leads to a conclusion which is less strong than it might have been, given better data (the lack of which is hard to blame the authors for):

“We found that the increased burden on the health care system was partly caused by obesity and a change toward an increase in health care use, particularly among obese men. It is likely that the present findings are underestimated due to a possible underestimation of weight, particularly among obese people with health problems, and potential differential selection caused by nonresponse among obese people with health problems.”

One final point, which is very important to remember when interpreting results like these, is that the increased utilization of health care ressources related to increased rates of obesity is not fully explained by (‘standard’) obesity-related illnesses:

“In the present study, associations between obesity and health care utilization were found independent of hypertension, diabetes, and back problems; thus, these illnesses did not fully mediate associations. This is in line with previous findings that suggested that associations between obesity and health care utilization can only partly be attributed to obesity-related illness such as heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and arthritis.14”

Even though you don’t get diabetes or hypertension from being fat, you’ll still have to see the doctor more often than will your friends who weigh less than you do.

March 3, 2012 Posted by | Data, Demographics, Diabetes, Economics, Health Economics, Medicine | 2 Comments

According to a note on the university website, we’ll get the exam results later today. Right now the cat is both alive and dead.

March 1, 2012 Posted by | Personal | Leave a comment


i. “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” (Arnold Toynbee)

ii. Hobbes: “Whatcha doin’?”
Calvin: “Getting rich!”
Hobbes: “Really?”
Calvin: “Yep. I’m writing a self-help book! There’s a huge market for this stuff.”
Calvin: “First you convince people there’s something wrong with them. That’s easy because advertising has already conditioned people to feel insecure about their weight, looks, social status, sex appeal, and so on.”
Calvin: “Next, you convince them that the problem is not their fault and that they’re victims of larger forces. That’s easy, because it’s what people believe anyway. Nobody wants to be responsible for his own situation.”
Calvin: “Finally, you convince them that with your expert advice and encouragement, they can conquer their problem and be happy.”
Hobbes: “Ingenious. What problem will you help people solve?”
Calvin: “Their addiction to self-help books!”
Calvin: “My book is called, “Shut up and stop whining: How to do something with your life besides think about yourself.””
Hobbes: “You should probably wait for the advance before you buy anything.”
Calvin: “The trouble is… If my program works, I won’t be able to write a sequel.” (Calvin and Hobbes)

iii. “No one finds fault with defects which are the result of nature.” (Aristotle)

iv. “humans are a status-based social animal and higher-status individuals are given more deference when it comes to following social rules than lower-status individuals. People behave accordingly. When their status permits them to get away with things, they tend to take advantage of it, and the kicker is that they don’t even notice they’re doing it — brain imaging studies have shown THEY DON’T EVEN FEEL BAD ABOUT IT. Their status apparently subconsciously suppresses the guilt/shame response. But it’s wrong to see this as a stable personality trait. People have varying levels of status depending on the domain, and you can expect them to behave according to the level of status they feel they’re operating with.” (Slocum, here)

v. “Use thy youth so that thou mayest have comfort to remember it when it hath forsaken thee, and not sigh and grieve at the account thereof. Use it as the spring-time which soon departeth, and wherein thou oughtest to plant and sow all provisions for a long and happy life.” (Walter Raleigh)

vi. “The reason that educated religious people stay religious, I suspect, is that when they doubt, they are subconsciously very careful to attack their own beliefs only at the strongest points — places where they know they can defend. Moreover, places where rehearsing the standard defense will feel strengthening. […] More than anything, the grip of religion is sustained by people just-not-thinking-about the real weak points of their religion. I don’t think this is a matter of training, but a matter of instinct. People don’t think about the real weak points of their beliefs for the same reason they don’t touch an oven’s red-hot burners; it’s painful.” (Eliezer Yudkowsky. The same dynamics are at work when it comes to politics.)

vii. “the archaeological record associated with each lineage [Homo erectus, H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens] nowhere reveals a striking behavioral advance that might reflect abrupt brain enlargement. Instead, even between 500,000 and 250,000 years ago, when average brain size was everywhere within the modern range, humans in both Africa and Eurasia remained extraordinarily primitive in their behaviour. They produced a relatively small range of stone artifact types, their artifact assemblages varied remarkably little over long time spans and vast areas, they rarely, if ever, produced formal (standardized) artifacts from bone, ivory, antler, or similar organic materials, they left little or no evidence for art, and they failed to build structures that would leave an unambiguous archaeological trace. In all these respects, the people differed little from their immediate successors between 250,000 and 50,000 years ago […] Archaeologists agree that the pattern changed sharply after 50,000 years ago, when formal bone artifacts, art, housing remnants, and other items associated with historic hunter-gatherers appeared widely for the first time. It is thus only after 50,000 years ago that fully modern behaviour became firmly established.”

(The Human Past, p. 122. I find it fascinating to think about that behaviour lagged brain size, so to speak, for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years. Ancient humans were basically geniuses (just like modern humans are geniuses, compared to other species) walking around behaving like morons who had no clue how smart they were. I wonder how many times throughout the history of the Earth that species not too different from our own have evolved which never even knew how big a potential they had before they went extinct? It’s worth remembering that biology isn’t everything.)

March 1, 2012 Posted by | Anthropology, Archaeology, Evolutionary biology, Quotes/aphorisms | Leave a comment