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Ryan Beck
An engineer and a geek
An engineer and a geek


Infinity War was pretty much perfect. I feel like it really delivered on the last decade of Marvel movies, and stayed true to the comics. That's a pretty amazing feat to pull off.
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An example I've seen of what my last post is talking about is this idea that climate change will threaten civilization within the next 50 years. I've seen it said a surprising number of times on social media and similar statements in a number of news articles. Even Emmanuel Macron, the French President, in a speech to the US Congress said something along the lines of 'we must act now to ensure the Earth is habitable in 25 years.' This is not even remotely what the science is saying. I haven't seen any serious prediction that climate change threatens humanity, on pretty much any timescale. I get why it's done, I imagine the thought process goes something like this:

"No one is giving a crap that climate change will hurt crops and increase drought frequency as well as raise sea levels, which will be devastating to poor countries around the world, increasing unrest and violence. And aside from the horrible consequences to the world's poor, the US will suffer economic harm and increased danger from all of this."

"Well then let's up the stakes"

"Okay pretend climate change will wipe out all life in 100 years"

"Make it 25"

And the problem is this kind of exaggeration really hurts the cause. In 25 years when the world doesn't end, people will say "huh, maybe climate change isn't a big deal." It increases skepticism of climate change and makes the actual effects seem minor in comparison. Like if you were talking to someone who believed earthquakes didn't exist and told them "every earthquake is a magnitude 12!" When an earthquake does happen they might say "well it wasn't a magnitude 12 so it must not have been an earthquake and it was hardly anything to worry about."

Getting facts right and not blindly trusting things you hear matters, but sometimes it can be hard not to fall for exaggerations from sources we trust. Especially when it's a message that reinforces our beliefs.
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People like to think they're immune to misinformation and viral news, but how many of us go "huh, is there something I'm missing? Am I the one who's wrong?" when we see how popular an idea we disagree with is or when we see a trusted information source take an opposite position to ours? I know I definitely do pretty often. Does anyone else? Does that worry anybody else? I try to dig into the logic and research behind it where possible, but there just isn't time to research everything.
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I recently finished The Circle by Dave Eggers. It's an alright book, but the best part about it is that it raises some interesting questions. The most interesting one, I think, is where we draw the line in the way we tolerate the genuine beliefs others hold.

Some people probably hold really controversial beliefs but are afraid to speak them out loud. If they did they would likely be ridiculed or denounced. They know that these beliefs would be seen as disgusting by most of society, but that knowledge alone only serves to keep them silent, not to change their minds.

There are two extremes that we try to find a balance between related to this. On one end is a world where everyone is willing to tolerate any opinion, so that no one is ever in fear of speaking their mind. Even if their opinion is extremely offensive to almost everyone. On the other end is a world where no one can freely speak their mind for fear of consequences. Every word must be chosen carefully because society has no tolerance for unpopular or controversial opinions, and you would be subjected to public humiliation or banishment for sharing those opinions.

Both extremes have a number of problems. On the end of no consequences people would never be denounced for truly awful opinions. Social pressure seems likely to be a significant force for change. Look how fast opinions have shifted on the subject of same-sex marriage. Racism still lingers, but we went from a time of widespread belief in justified inequality based on skin color to the vast majority believing that everyone is equal. My guess is that a lot of this had to do with the social pressure against bad opinions. Sometimes when so many people disagree with you so strongly it can lead you to re-examine whether your opinion is good. And not only that, but complete freedom to express offensive opinions can lead to people on the receiving end of the offense feeling unwelcome in certain parts of society. Prejudices and hate can sometimes be common in regions or groups of like-minded people. In a society without resistance to these opinions, those regions and groups could effectively prevent those on the receiving end of prejudice from accessing a certain region, group, or profession.

But on the other end, if you have to tailor your every word to avoid offending anyone or going against the current popular opinion how free are you really? Suppressing genuine beliefs for fear of backlash encourages conformity and discourages critical thinking. Sometimes you have to question conventional wisdom to advance. A society that suppresses individual thought suppresses the forces that have the potential to change it for the better.

In my opinion we currently lean a bit too far toward suppression of controversial opinions. It seems we're a little too quick to label an opinion as unfit for society. Sometimes when someone presents a controversial opinion our first reaction is to try to purge that person from all public platforms. We might be better served to try to better understand why someone holds that opinion before denouncing them. If the opinion is based on a logical and well-meaning view of the world, we should be more tolerant of it. However, if it's based on hate or prejudice, denouncement is probably the best option.

But I don't think we lean all that far into the bad side of suppression, maybe just a little more than we should. A bit more tolerance I think would give us a healthy balance. But I'm curious what everyone else thinks. Do you think we're too quick to suppress controversial opinions? Or should we be doing more to denounce offensive opinions?

The Circle deals a lot with what the extreme end of suppressing unpopular opinions looks like. The book has some downsides, as a lot of the characters seem like caricatures of a certain type of person, and it's really uncharitable to humanity in general because hardly anyone in the story seems capable of truly critical thinking. I get why he did it that way, because otherwise his point would have been harder to make, but having to suspend disbelief that much takes you out of the story. But it definitely presents some interesting questions about privacy, social media, and technology. If you can tolerate frustrating and unrealistic/ignorant characters and some pretty unrealistic changes to society I'd say it's worth checking out for the thought-provoking topics it covers.
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Really good paper about how there is no contradiction between free markets and strong welfare programs, and how we should remove the stigma from programs that help people who get left behind in a free market economy. I highly suggest following the first linking and reading the full paper.
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I don't believe in free will, and I think the concept of free will has been detrimental to society.

If you're going to talk about free will it's useful to define it, because it seems that people think of it in different ways. When I talk about free will I mean the real possibility of making a different choice in a certain situation. So my definition of free will is that if a situation were to replay itself with every detail down to the sub atomic level exactly the same, everyone involved would be able to act differently than they did the first time. I don't believe this kind of free will exists.

The reason I don't believe it exists is because every decision we make can only be based on the contents of our brains, and those contents are defined by the information our brains were previously exposed to and our genetic makeup. At birth your brain has not received much outside information, other than what it's learned in the womb. To learn new things a baby has to be exposed to them enough times for it to sink in. If a baby were only provided with food and basic care and nothing else its whole life without any education do you think it would learn to talk, to read, to understand math, what it means to be nice, how to be polite, or how to do anything else that is common in modern society? No, it would only learn what it can figure out on its own through trial and error. As an adult this baby would hardly be similar to a normal person. So I think we all accept that who we are as people is largely defined by what we learn in life. And our learning will be largely impacted by the genes that define what our brains are like and how we perceive information.

If our brains receive a signal, such as an image from our eyes, that signal will be processed based on the contents of our brains. Signals that seem familiar will be compared to other information stored in our brains. The way we process new information is dependent on the previous information we've been exposed to. A regular person is going to process an image very differently from the hypothetical Tarzan child. And our response to that image is going to depend on the way our brain processed it. Tarzan might see a toaster and, having never seen a toaster before, be confused and hesitant. A more average person will see a toaster, their brain will recognize that they've seen it before and knows what it does, and then decide if the toaster is useful to them at the moment. The decisions we make are dependent on the information our brains have previously absorbed.

So when you're presented with two options, your brain will evaluate them based on the information currently stored in it. Say you choose option A. If time were to repeat and everything was exactly the same with your brain and all the information you receive, you would choose option A again. There's no new information in your brain that would cause you to make a different choice.

We don't choose the information we're exposed to in our lives. At birth that information is provided by our parents. We don't choose the things we see as we walk around the world. Even when we do "choose", such as what book to read, that choice is dependent on the information we've received earlier in our lives, information we didn't choose to expose ourselves to. That's why I don't believe in free will. Every choice we make is based on a series of circumstances outside our control.

I think if you really look at someone you can often see a lot of these influences. Sometimes you can see how someone is just like their parents, or how their friends influenced them, or how some other information may have influenced them. But of course we can't know every aspect of a person's life, every little thing they've ever been exposed to, and even if we could we don't have the processing power to trace those experiences down to the way that person is now. So free will still seems plausible to people, because we can't recognize all the influences in another person's life, or even our own thanks to our limited memory. And no one wants to believe that they're anything but self made. They want to believe that everything they have is thanks to their own hard work and grit.

The reason I think the concept of free will is detrimental is because we often blame people for not making different choices. But to me it seems likely that it was not possible to make a different choice. So blaming people for their actions is like blaming the sun for coming up in the morning. I think accepting a lack of free will means being more compassionate and understanding towards others. This doesn't mean we shouldn't try to discourage behavior that is detrimental to society. We still want to make sure people don't commit crimes or aren't mean to others or don't chew with their mouths open. But by accepting a lack of free will, instead of revenge or punishment perhaps we can instead focus on why people behaved poorly and how we can get them to stop behaving poorly. It's not easy, and in some cases maybe nearly impossible. But maybe instead of thinking punishment will solve our problems we can instead focus on trying to prevent future problems by promoting positive influences in people's lives.
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I can almost feel the animosity when I have a Vox tab and a National Review tab open next to each other.
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I have changed my mind about free college. But not because I think it's a bad idea. In short, it would not fix what I think is most in need of fixing, and the money would be better spent elsewhere.

The long version is that there are a lot of really interesting arguments and research showing that free college would not have the impact most supporters hope it would. To understand why that is, it's useful to list why people think free college is a good idea in the first place. Below is a list of the problems I was hoping free college would help solve. I've listed them in order of importance to me, and the rest of the discussion will be based on the priorities in this list.

1. Make college accessible to the poor, which would hopefully reduce poverty.
2. Increase the amount of minorities attending and graduating college (somewhat related to 1)
3. Avoid starting young people off with a bunch of debt, which could help them get on track with retirement savings faster and help them establish themselves earlier.

One and two I think are extremely important. In my opinion the amount of poverty we have is shameful, and we don't do enough to fix it. It's extremely hard to escape, and those who are raised in poverty are very likely to remain in poverty the rest of their lives. This fact leads me to believe that society needs to intervene. How can we stand by while poor kids are destined to grow into poor adults, all because of the circumstances of their birth? We have to break the cycle, and a college degree greatly increases the chances of having higher incomes. Minorities are under-represented in colleges, and part of that is because they are over-represented among the poor. So originally I had thought that free college could be a good way to make college accessible to the poor.

But that thinking is wrong. Middle and upper class people make up the majority of college students. So by making college free you're really just subsidizing people who can mostly pay for it already (we'll get back to point 3 from the list later). This is a regressive policy. It's like tax breaks for the rich, and it doesn't help the people who need it the most. Additionally it seems that there's evidence that people in poverty have access to college through grants and loans, but often don't take it or don't have the skills necessary for college. So making college free wouldn't increase the proportion of poor people who attend, it would just subsidize the people who can already afford to go. (See link A at the bottom for a good discussion of college attendance and poverty and why making it free wouldn't help)

But if free college won't work, how do we fix the problem of poverty and low educational attainment of those in poverty? It seems the answer is that we should focus our efforts at an earlier stage. There's a lot of evidence that indicates that poverty causes poor educational outcomes. This starts early on in life, and by the time the kids graduate high school they don't have the skills or knowledge necessary to attend and succeed in college. There are many reasons that poverty causes poor educational outcomes. One reason is that parents have lower educational attainment. Another is just that having less money means there are a lot of things that distract you from succeeding in school (hunger, busy parents, etc.). Another is that you're likely going to a poorer quality school. What's really telling is that SAT scores correlate extremely well with family income. The more your parents make, the higher you're likely to score on your SAT. One extremely interesting study has found that even if you control for the parents education and the student's success in high school (so comparing kids have gotten similar grades in high school and who have parents with similar education) SAT scores are still lower for students with lower family income. They find that success in high school is the most important factor, but success in high school is likely also related to family income and parental education, so it's hard to separate the causes. I have only read the conclusions to the study, but it's really fascinating and I highly suggest reading the conclusions (see link B at the bottom. Also see link A for more information about SAT scores and income).

Knowing this, it seems that the most effective way of improving educational attainment and chance of attending and succeeding in college for kids in poverty is by boosting incomes and high school achievement. Providing poor families with more money is likely to increase the educational attainment of children, which is important to their future income. And the best way to increase success in high school is by focusing early on in school. A charter school known as the Harlem Children's Zone has been established with this very mission. It accomplishes its goals through a number of focused policies, such as all day pre-k (giving the kids a constructive environment while parents work), workshops for parents to learn how to better teach and care for their kids, extended all day school (same reason as pre-k), among other services. You'll notice that a lot of these have to do with the social aspect of education. Basically, that providing a good environment for the kids is important, which goes hand in hand with the effect poverty has on education.

So is the Harlem Children's Zone effective? There is evidence that it is, though it's still too new to fully evaluate everything. But a paper about it (see link C at the bottom) concludes that the student's scores are better than those of comparable students in the area after a few years at the school.

But this is just one school. To truly have an impact on poverty, education, and college attendance we would have to get serious about providing these resources and reducing poverty. So I no longer think free college is a good idea. Instead we should use that money and the political effort to provide more schools like the Harlem Children's Zone, more services for poor families, and to supplement the incomes of poor families. It seems to me that the evidence suggests this would have a much bigger impact on increasing the amount of poor people attending college and reducing poverty overall.

Finally, what about point 3 in the goals of free college, that it seems bad to be starting students out with all this debt? I still think this is important! I'm not against the concept of free college, as I do think the country would be more productive and better off without student debt. But we don't have unlimited money and we don't have unlimited political influence. So we should focus on the people that really need help in our society, and on the policies best suited to help these people. Free college does not meet that criteria. After we've improved the lives of the people most in need, then we can turn our attention to making things better for the people who don't need it as much.

And with regard to fixing the college system, making college free will not make it more accessible for everyone. More people will want to go to college, but the universities won't be able to accommodate them. Already colleges have extremely high demand. That's much of the reason prices are so high. So what's one of the best ways to reduce prices? Build more colleges. Right now the universities are full to capacity and trying to expand to keep up with demand. They can charge whatever they want and people will pay it. So to reduce the price, we should open more universities. Increased competition will drive down prices and students will be able to shop around easier for the best deal.

Think how far the 75 billion dollar price of free college could go towards revamping struggling schools to be more like the Harlem Children's Zone and making them more up to date with the best research. I don't know the price of that, but I would be surprised if that didn't cover all or most of it. Increasing incomes for the families of these kids would most likely take some more money, but this seems to be the most effective way to improve outcomes. We should focus our money and political effort on the policies that are most effective and help the people that need it most. Our current policies are failing the least fortunate among us.

Link A:

Link B:

Link C:

Most of the information and background for this post came from this thread, which I highly recommend checking out:
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My Earth Day resolution is to start bringing bags to pick up trash on walks. Make Earth Day a commitment instead of a one day event.
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I highly suggest reading this. We should assess research on the quality and assume the authors are impartial, unless there's a really good reason to believe otherwise.

The only thing I dislike about this is Tabarrok's removal of the flow inhibitor in his showerhead. Buy a decent one and you can have plenty of pressure while conserving water.
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