Monthly Archives: May 2015

Links 5/29/15

What happens when you wring out a wet cloth without gravity? (h/t: Sydney)

space program: justified.

Weaponized data: How the obsession with data has been hurting marginalized communities.  I really disliked this on my first read through, because what are you going to do, not base your decision on data? But then I realized that I was treating “data”” and “information” as synonymous, and the author was not.  I’m not clear on exactly how she’s defining “data” here, but I agree with most of her examples of bad data or data being misused, and I like most of her proposed solutions.  I also liked her post on trickle-down community engagement.

Worms maintain memories after being cryogenically frozen and revived.  This isn’t my area of expertise, but I noticed a few things:

  • The type of memory they are talking about is imprinting, which is probably more durable than human experiential memory.
  • They used two different freezing procedures, and one had an 80% death rate.  The other one had a 0% death rate.

But for a first study, this is pretty exciting.

Say it wrong first.

Things I’ve learned about academic work from playing Age of Empires.  This is interesting, because it’s all about combat, and what I learned from Age of Empires is that fighting is boring and base building is fun.   Actually now that I think about it that’s  also what I learned from Hardcore History’s series on World War I.  That’s why I play Colonization: there’s a nice long period of supply chain building before you have to do the stupid war, and you can just quit then.

The world of estranged parents forums.  Narcissists kind enough to congregate and share their thought patterns.

GiveWell Summer Fellowship.

Rehighjacking the dopamine system

One of the contentions of The Willpower Instinct is that a lot of things (hyperpalatable foods, lottery tickets, facebook…) are hijacking the system that incentivizes you to be productive*, making you think feel that if you do this one more thing, you will achieve an important goal (nutrition, money, social connection). You can try to stare it down, but what you are really fighting is not the specific action, but the goal, and everything in you believes that goal is good, so it’s an expensive battle you will ultimately lose.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with hijacking back.  Let’s use food as an example.  I noticed that I would feel a very strong drive to eat candy, but eating it alleviated the urge for less than a second.  There was no amount of candy that would move me to a not-wanting-candy state.  Once I had that perspective, I could use higher brain powers to figure out what would  actually scratch that itch.  Moreover, I could use the urgency generated by the proximity of candy to power making real food with actual nutritional value.   And the dopamine system couldn’t really do anything about it, because it had sold candy to my body as a means to an end.

It works for video games too.  Sometimes I play video games because they are fun.  Sometimes I play them because I need the feeling of Doing a Thing, and doing actual things will involve an unpleasant intermediate steps.  Of course video games can’t actually make me feel productive, but the reward system tells me that means I need to play harder.


This is a difficult urge to fight.  But if I pull back and notice doing the thing is not making the urge to do the thing lessen, it becomes obvious I need to do the unpleasant intermediate steps in order to get what I want.

*This is identified only as “dopamine”, but dopamine is a neurotransmitter, so she must mean dopamine in a particular part of the brain.  For simplicity I’ll keep referring to it as the dopamine system.

Dopamine: the tension builder

This is Huey.  He has not met you yet, but he loves you, and he wants you to love him too.  Almost all dogs are human-oriented, but Huey takes it to the next level.  He has been known to hyperventilate with happiness when a friend arrives- and that’s after he’s been at home all day with his work-from-home owner, so it’s not loneliness or separation anxiety, he is just that happy to see you.

Pictured: a dog that would really like to be told he is good.

Sometimes Huey’s desire for affection puts him at odds with himself.  For example if you tell him to stay and walk away, he wants to do what you said, but he also wants to be near you.  He will literally vibrate with the effort it takes to stay in place.  But once you tell him good puppy, all the strain goes out of him.  He rushes over for his well deserved affection, and then he’s done.  He might even go play with a chew for a bit.

If you’d like a more human example, consider the orgasm.  Most humans on the edge of orgasm will do anything to finish it.  Immediately post orgasm, they will do absolutely nothing.  Even people who have multiple orgasms will usually have a final one after which they really don’t care.

According to The Willpower Instinct, dopamine release corresponds to the vibrating-with-effort phase, not the good puppy phase.  Dopamine doesn’t mark pleasure, because pleasure doesn’t need to be marked.  Dopamine tells you pleasure is just around the corner, so keep trying.  Note that this is slightly different than Peter Redgrave’s timestamp hypothesis I talked about before, but either would account for a lot of available data.  For example, people with ADHD (who are energetic and yet somehow unable to get themselves to do the thing to get the results they want) are on average low in dopamine, and almost all ADHD treatments increase dopamine availability*.  Dopamine levels rise copiously during sex until orgasm, at which point they plummet.  Dopamine is also heavily involved in addiction.

When asked for comment on his dopamine levels during training, Huey rolled over and requested tummy rubs.
When asked about his dopamine levels, Huey asked which answer would make me love him the most.

This makes slightly more sense to me than the timestamp hypothesis, but is less interesting.  Normally interesting is a bad sign for a hypothesis (almost anything is more interesting than chance, and chance explains a lot), but I’m not sure that applies in this case.  The timestamp hypothesis is a lot more specific and thus testable, the priming hypothesis seems sort of vague in comparison.  And of course both could be true- dopamine simultaneously says “reward coming soon” and “reward is because of this”.    Those actually make sense to go together, as opposed to some things our body has combined.

I’m never going to be able to conclusively prove one or the other sitting at my computer, but let’s talk about how they differ.  Timestamp hypothesis suggests people with low dopamine will be attracted to things that make it is easy to distinguish what caused a reward, like video games and obsessive facebooking.  Based on my friends and reddit, those are heavily associated with both depression and ADHD.  My literature search turns up some support for this**, but nothing with a design I consider rigorous.

Timestamp covers the H in ADHD better (a low baseline makes a small increase more distracting than it should be), but priming seems more apt for ADHD- inattentive type (ADHD minus H) and depression, where nothing is attractive enough to pull the person out of their focal activity.

So the answer is “some of both plus probably some other stuff”.  But variations in which of these dominate might explain why a given person reacts to low dopamine the way they do.

*In addition to changing other neurotransmitters and hormones.  The brain is complicated and no one understands it.

**Most interestingly the effect of bupropion in treating video game addiction.

Links 5/22/15

Effective Social Justice Interventions: this is a great example of using EA as a technique to address areas the EA-as-philosophy sphere hasn’t touched.

The Last Day of Her Life:  a psychology researcher’s decision to and process of ending her life as her Alzheimer’s progresses.   Fun fact: state-sanctioned euthanasia requires you be mentally competent and have less than six months to live.  Alzheimer’s patients are mentally incompetent years before they die of the disease.

The (crime-related) Broken Window Theory states that low level visible crime (graffiti, litter) leads to more crime, of all varieties. It is most famous for being Rudy Guilani’s method for reducing crime in New York City.  My understanding was that that had been debunked, and NYC’s drop is crime was caused mostly by demographic trends.  But some researchers did some fairly rigorous tests of it and it held up.  Caveat: they tested visible crime’s evidence on other crimes of similar magnitude, not escalations like theft.

This week’s “beautiful theory killed by an ugly gang of facts” award goes to the meditation chapter of The Willpower Instinct, which promises fantastic benefits from the very beginning.  In fact it says that meditating badly is in some ways better for you than meditating well, because it is the practice of refocusing yourself after you become distracted that is so beneficial.  Unfortunately none of the studies cited show that exact things, and what they do show is a small effect on a noisy variable, in a small sample.

[I don’t want to be too hard on The Willpower Instinct.  It encourages you to do your own experiments and stick with what works, I found some of it helpful, and it’s good for getting yourself into a willpower mindset.  It’s just scientifically weaker than it would have you believe.]

Sine Rider: if xkcd was a video game.

Soylent + Blender Bottle = Awesome

Soylent should be more convenient than real food, but the world is set up for real food, so sometimes it is not.  You’re not supposed to carry it warm for hours, but it’s not water-soluble enough to just mix by shaking, or even with a spoon.  You get clumps and those protective cysts of dry powder on the sides of the glass.  Enter Blender Bottle, a normal water bottle with a whisk ball inside it.  As long as you don’t overfill it it mixes extremely well.  Not quite immersion blender well, but it’s pretty homogeneous.  And you can do it anywhere.

Technically you could accomplish this with any water bottle + the whisk ball.  The advantage of the Blender Bottle is 1.  not every water bottle can stand up to that amount of shaking and 2.  the Pro Stak System.  You can buy little ~tupperware containers that interlock with the water bottle.  Unfortunately they don’t hold a useful amount of soylent, I use a ziploc bag for those.  But they are big enough to carry around salt.  I always drink water with salt.  Nothing was stopping me from carrying a salt shaker with me before, but I didn’t, so I didn’t drink enough water out of the house.  Apparently I will carry an attachment to my water bottle filled with salt.  So the blender bottle has solved two problems for me.

Credit to Brian for recommending a version of the Blender Bottle to me.

Bupropion finds its real family

When it comes to anti-depressants, there’s SSRIs, tricyclics, MAOIs, and… bupropion*.  I always wondered why it was that every other anti-depressant** came in a variety of forms, but there was only one bupropion.

Bupropion is metabolized into several different compounds in your body, the most important being hydroxybupropion, which is a norepinephrine-selective reuptake inhibitor***, meaning it causes the neurotransmitter norepiniephrine  to hang around longer so your nerves experience more of it.  “Selective” means it doesn’t affect all receptors equally, but is otherwise spectacularly uninformative.  Bupropion itself and several lesser metabolites also increase dopamine availability, but it’s not clear if that happens to any measurable degree in humans in the doses we take.  So we assume the effects on norepinephrine is the major reason bupropion works, but no one really has idea what it is going on in the brain so we can’t be sure.

Turns out there is another NSRI available, and it is actually quite well marketed. Just not for depression.  Atomoxetine is better known as Strattera, one of very few non-stimulant treatments for ADHD.  Its effects are not identical to bupropion, but they’re pretty similar, and there are studies showing atomoxetine is useful for treating depression.  Why then does no one market atomoexetine as an antidepressant, or bupropion as an anti-ADHD treatment (even though it’s shown promise)?  I don’t want to jump to the worst possible explanation, but the FDA requires new trials for every usage of a drug, and is not wrong when it notes there is more money in treating ADHD and competing with very heavily controlled drugs that work very differently than there is in treating depression and competing with many off-patent drugs, one of which works in a very similar way.  And now that’s its been approved for something, any doctor who wants can still prescribe it for depression.  Meanwhile bupropion went off patent before ADHD was really a thing, so no one has any incentive to pay for additional testing now.

There are a number of other NRIs and NSRIs, few of which made it to the US.  But I hope bupropion takes comfort in knowing it does have a family, even if they spell their name differently.

*Brand name Wellbutrin when marketed as an anti-depressant, Zyban when marketed as an anti-smoking aid.

**Until you get to the really weird stuff they use for treatment-resistant depression.  Every atypical antipsychotic is its own little snowflake.

***The more common name for these is selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, but that has the same acronym as serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, a different kind of drug, so I use NSRI to avoid confusion.

Review: Mindset (Carol Dweck)

I went into this pretty skeptical, based on Scott Alexander’s analysis of the science.  But the reality was worse than I imagined.  First, she never even defines terms like talent or ability.  I would use ability to mean “current level of performance” and talent to mean something like “innate propensity to excel at task, as manifested in initial ability, ease of learning, or ceiling on ability.”  She… maybe uses ability to mean both those things?  She’ll talk about initial ability or talent and then increased ability or talent after practice, but that doesn’t mean the same amount of effort will get everyone to the same place, or all places are reachable by all people.  For that matter, she never defines mindset.  She talks about it like a fairly fixed trait (meaning it stays constant from one situation to another), but her own studies show it being changed by a four second speech.

Second, you can’t just make a list of good things and a list of bad things and wrap all the good things under your label and bad things under it’s opposite.  Here is a list of statements I believe will be uncontroversial:

  • A person who treats failure as a learning opportunity will learn more and be happier than a person who treats it as a mandate to curl into a ball and cry.
  • Ditto for viewing feedback as a source of information, rather than a referendum on you as a person.
  • Sometimes people start out bad at a task, practice, and then get really good at it.
  • This is more likely to happen if the person believes practice can improve their skill.
  • Children (and probably all people) tend to do better when their successes are ascribed to something they can control than to forces outside their control.

These things don’t necessarily go together.  For example, it is entirely possible to believe almost anything is learnable, and then beat yourself up for failure because you should have learned it already.   I’ve seen me do it.  “I’ll do better next time” can just as easily become a mantra to avoid mindfulness as to encourage it.

Third, I can’t even with the chapter on corporations.  Jack Welch brought stack ranking aka “rank and yank” to the masses, and she uses him as an example of not only having growth mindset, but fostering it throughout his company.

[An artist’s rendering of working at GE]

After this I refused to trust her anecdotes, and Scott already took down the studies.   You might think that left the book with nothing, but surprisingly it didn’t.  Her descriptions of the individual facets of growth or fixed mindset and how they affect people were useful and informative, even if I don’t think they have anything to do with each other.  And I think growth vs. fixed mindset might actually be a useful schema for institutions.  It certainly captures a lot of what’s wrong with American schools.

And as inspirational reading, it’s pretty good.  I would love to live in a world where one determined teacher takes 40 students from illiterate to Shakespeare, and stereotype threat is countered with a short speech.  In a world that overvalues innate talent, a push too far in the other direction may still leave us better off.  But that doesn’t make it correct.

Links 5/15/15

Colossal cannibal great white shark would be a great name for a fake band.

On Laziness.

Effective art management.  I think the author is a little harsh here.  Refusing to pay continuous expenses from capital is usually a good plan, and if sales are going to be an influx of cash into the art world as a whole, the art will need to be sold to a private investor, otherwise it’s just a different museum struggling to raise operating costs.  The problem is that every individual following these sensible policies means that in aggregate we’ve got a lot of art locked away that no one can see.

EDIT:  Ben points out that the author was suggesting using the sales of art to fund an endowment, not fund programs directly. This is a substantially better idea.

How to respect people’s boundaries when asking for support.  This is one place crisis chat is helpful- by being a place people can always get help, they can avoid burning out their friends.

An ode to pixel art.  I rankled a bit when he said “people prefer X when Y is clearly superior” for differences that were strictly matters of taste.  But seeing how an artist compares works vs. a layperson is interesting.

The winner of this week’s “Beautiful theory killed by ugly gang of facts” award is Science, who reported that rats will save a distressed friend before getting themselves treats, without mentioning that the sample was 10 rats, total, split into two different treatment groups, and only seven or eight of those rats went for their friend first.  The natural control here would be how often the rats go for the chocolate door when there is no friend or an undistressed friend on the other side of the door, and the fact that they didn’t do that makes me suspicious.  If that experiment is published in a subsequent study, I withdraw my suspicion.

Shorter courses of antibiotics better after all?

Well this is embarrassing.  I made a whole thing about how you should always finish your antibiotics, to the point of using microchips to enforce it, because if you don’t you get antibiotic resistant bacteria, which are the worst things ever.  Then it turns out maybe we take antibiotics for way too long and that doesn’t make us any healthier but it does cause antibiotic resistance (ignore the clickbaity headline, the article is reasonable). Maybe.  The studies they cite, comparing results for treatment of different duration, fail to show a statistically significant difference between different lengths of treatment, but that is not the same as showing there is no clinically significant difference between them (this is the difference between failing to prove Joe murdered Bob and conclusively proving Joe didn’t murder Bob).  Nonetheless, my assertions were unsupported and I should feel unsupported.

The author proposes several mechanisms by which shorter antibiotics courses could help more and cause less resistance, all of which seem plausible, but then so did the mechanisms by which long courses helped.  Further research is needed blah blah blah.  The real concern is how did we go this long with such rigid rules based on nothing more than “eh, this seems about right”

Hey Everyone-  Thanks to a word press/RSS screw up, you may not have seen my post Map of Open Spaces in Effective Altruism.  That one represents a lot of work on something I think is really important, so if you didn’t see it the first time I urge you to check it out.