Effective Altruism: an outsider perspective

As readers know, I like to take retrospective looks at the New Atheist movement. What can I say, I was involved for ten years and I have grievances. But there’s another adjacent community I think a lot about, even though I was never personally involved: the Rationalist community, also known as the LessWrong community.  I also think about Effective Altruism (EA), a significant spinoff community that focused on philanthropy.

I always had issues with the Rationalist community, as well as personal reasons to keep my distance. But looking back, I honestly feel like Rationalism left a better legacy than either the Skeptical or New Atheist movements did, and that legacy came in the form of EA. I keep my distance away from EA, but at the end of the day they’re doing philanthropy, and encouraging others to do philanthropy, and I really can’t find fault with that.

[Read more…]

Intrinsic value of choice

I know that this question has practical and political implications, but for now, I’m treating it as a “just for fun” philosophical question.  Just wanted to be upfront.

What is the value of freedom of choice?  Does it have intrinsic value, or is its value purely instrumental?

A thing has “intrinsic value” if it is valuable in itself.  It has “instrumental value” if it is valuable because it is a means to get something else of value.  For instance, suppose we have a choice between mushroom and cheese pizza.  This choice has instrumental value, because it’s a means for people to have the kind of pizza they most prefer.  But does the choice also have intrinsic value?

Under an initial analysis, I thought the answer was “no”.  If I’m presented with a one-time choice between A and B, and I choose A, did the other option B do any good?  At least within a consequentialist ethical framework, it sure doesn’t seem like it.  After all, option B had no bearing on the consequences.

[Read more…]

Chess involves luck, and other propositions

I find the concept of luck vs skill in games to be fascinating, because the common intuitions are just so wrong. The common intuition is that some games involve more luck, and some games involve more skill. On the extreme end of luck, we have the lottery; on the extreme end of skill, we have chess. The orthodox view was best expressed by a Vox article/video, which included the following image:

An image depicting a continuum, with lottery and roulette being on the left "luck" end, and chess being on the right "skill" end. In the middle, we have hockey, football, baseball, socker, and basketball in that order. Each sport is depicted with an image of the ball/puck, and the name of an associated league.

The Vox image also shows several sports, and the position of each sport is based on the statistical analysis of Michael Mauboussin.  The details of analysis aren’t explicitly described, but it’s basically analyzing the national tournaments for each sport, and estimating how much of the variance in outcome is explained by luck or by skill.

Mauboussin did not analyze chess.  Vox added chess in themselves, pulling a claim out of their ass.  Without doing any analysis, I can guarantee that if you applied the same statistical analysis to chess, you would not find that chess was 100% skill.  The analysis will only show that a game is pure skill if the same people consistently win all their games.  I quickly checked the US Chess Championship winners, and while some names show up repeatedly, it is not 100% consistent, and therefore would not be deemed a pure skill game by this analysis.

So what gives?  Is the statistical analysis bogus, or is the claim that chess is 100% skill bogus?  Trick question.  Both of them are bogus.

[Read more…]

On trans athletes

Lately people have been talking about the downturn of the Austin Community of Atheists (see video explaining timeline, or transcript). But the point of me leaving the atheist movement was so I didn’t have to concern myself with all the bullshit that goes on in atheist groups, so I’m not going to talk about it. Instead I’ll address an issue that came up in relation to the drama: the right of trans athletes to compete in athletic events. HJ Hornbeck has been talking about it for literally months, and this is my independent take.

I’ll admit upfront that I don’t care about athletics. The only sports I personally care about are video game speed running and competitive Dominion. I only care about athletics to the extent that I have empathy for things that other people care about.

So a good place to start is with someone else who cares more, and has more expertise. I present Dr. Rachel McKinnon, who is not only a trans athlete, but also a philosophy professor who teaches courses about sports ethics!

[Read more…]

“Cat Person or Dog Person?” survey explained

Picture of a cat with sciencey stuff. "Survey says 75% are cat people ... and 25% are wrong"

Several weeks ago, I published the “Cat Person or Dog Person?” survey.  It’s a silly survey that asks the same question over and over again in different ways, and then you see the results.  It’s basically an interactive art piece, and your interpretation of it is as valid as mine.

Now that several weeks have passed, I’m going to explain some of the thought process behind the survey.  This should be thought of as “explaining the joke”–the survey was funny, this explanation will not particularly (cat meme excepted).

[Read more…]

The ethics of music in public spaces

On multiple occasions, I have toyed with the idea that it is unethical to play music in public places. It’s an idea that is difficult to take seriously, because it’s just so contrary to the culture we currently live in. Current norms surrounding public music seem to work just fine, so why try to fix what ain’t broken? And yet, it’s difficult for me to say exactly why the status quo is okay.

What follows is my argument as to why playing music in public spaces might be wrong. The goal is not to persuade you of the argument’s conclusion, especially when it’s a conclusion I don’t believe myself, but to persuade you that it’s a nontrivial question.

[Read more…]