Sunday, December 30, 2018

A new charity for 2018

I'd previously written about year end charitable giving.  This year I'm giving money to a new organization, though I'm giving a lot to Givewell too.  The Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters, or ALLFED, is researching ways to rapidly scale up food production in the case that traditional means might suddenly become less viable.  Say a super-volcano erupts, or a huge meteor strikes, or a nuclear winter happens, or something along those lines.  Humanity would have to get through years of reduced sunlight that would make growing plants very hard.

Crop failures would naturally lead to massive starvation but ALLFED is looking into ways to turn biomass we might have laying around into edibles via routes such as fungus or methane eating bacteria.  Food produced this way wouldn't be especially tasty but it would hopefully be enough to keep people alive until the dust settles out of the atmosphere and normal farming can start back up.

The idea here is to research the technology needed ahead of time with emphasis on techniques that can be ramped up quickly in an emergency.  This is an area that nobody has really looked into before so small donations can go a long way.  And while we should hope to never need any of this technology this sort of insurance for our civilization isn't something that should be neglected.  So a portion of the 10% of my pre-tax income that goes to charity every year is going to ALLFED.

Also, I'm going to be moving to monthly charitable donations going forward since I'm not going to be doing the tax year shenanigans I was up to previously.  Charitable organizations say that makes it easier for them to plan, and it will make it easier for me to budget too.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Ways of thinking and remembering names

So, imagine someone is walking along, down a street.  They see the store their going to and they enter through the shop door.  So, when you were imagining this, did you see it?  Which direction was the person walking, relative to your mind's eye?  Did they turn to the left or right to enter the store?  What color was everything?

When someone first did this exercise with me they were walking away from me and turned to the left.  I could still see them inside the shop through the wall because nothing in my visualization had any color.  For other people they might be imagining it more like a video where things have color and you can't see people after they move behind walls.  Some people don't form mental images of the scene at all, here's a widely shared Facebook post by someone who was surprised to discover that other people actually did form mental images in their minds.  Francis Galton was the first person to study this in 1880.

A related topic is the notion of how people go about their thinking.  That is, some people will talk to themselves inside their head when they're thinking about a problem and other people won't.  According to this article this is another property of people that varies quite a bit between individuals with some people having no inner monologue and some people talking inside their head almost all the time.  For myself, I do have an inner monologue sometimes but mostly only when I'm thinking of what I'm going to say - for example I've done quite a bit of it in organizing this blog post.  Other than that I mostly just use single words inside my head when I need the concept behind the word but I'm not practiced with it enough to just use the concept directly.

This is all interesting and has led me into some speculation.  Do people who use words inside their heads use people's names when they're thinking about that person?  I almost never do but it makes sense that that would be common.  And if so then does this correlate with people's abilities to remember names?  It seems that if you're using a name inside your head all the time you should have an easier time remembering the name.  This seems like just the sort of thing an enterprising grad student could create a study for and I hope someone does.  Or it might just be that someone already has and I haven't heard of it.  If any of you reading know or have your own related experiences please let me know.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Danger of Going Up

Every year people climb up Mount Everest.  Generally the number keeps growing.  Not everybody makes it up.  Some people turn back.  Other people die on the mountain.  Generally around 1 in 100 of the people who attempt to climb it.  K2 is another mountain nearby.  For a little bit people thought it might be taller than Everest.  It isn't taller, but it is deadlier and about 1 in 10 of the people who try to climb it die.

Why do people climb dangerous mountains?  To test themselves.  For the sense of achievement.  And despite the danger nobody is seriously proposing that we stop people from attempting these summits.  If they want to risk their lives they can.  They know the risks.  We should stop people who don't know what they're doing but you'll never even get to base camp without serious dedication and preparation.

If we allow mountain climbers to face severe dangers for the sake of achieving something few others have why don't we allow this with astronauts?  We did once, it was almost amazing that none of the Mercury 7 were killed in accidents.  Gus Grissom nearly was and the Apollo 1 astronauts were killed in a fire during spaceflight tests.  When we were locking in competition with the Soviets these risks seemed bearable but they don't any more.

Certainly astronauts are as aware of the dangers present as any mountaineer contemplating K2.  NASA requires them to toe the safety first line to remain in the program but it's clear to everyone watching that if riskier missions were offered there would be no shortage of volunteers.

Perhaps the difference is that astronauts are doing something for us.  They're exploring the cosmos on our behalf in a way that people looking to climb some mountain aren't.  And that instills in us a sense of obligation to shield them from risk even if they would bear that risk willingly.

The limitations of blindsight

Blindsight, made famous by a book of the same name in science fiction circles by Peter Watts, is a disorder caused by damage to the primary...