Anita Sarkeesian's TED talk

Anita Sarkeesian, the vlogger behind Feminist Frequency and the Women vs Tropes Kickstarter, has a TED talk, at TEDxWomen 2012, now up on YouTube.  The talk is about the backlash to her Kickstarter -- a huge, organized hate campaign against her and her project. Trigger warning: misogyny.

Unfortunately I didn't have any money at the time all this harassment was going on, so I wasn't able to donate.  As a result, I don't have access to the news updates -- but I do have access to the headlines, which inform me that production started in late July of this year, since which point there have been two further updates.  I can't wait until this series comes out.

TEDxTalk: The Paper Town Academy

How was I unaware that John Green has a TED talk?

This is a fantastic talk.  It gets at exactly how I feel about learning -- it's not about collecting a catalog of disconnected ideas in a great big mental list, it's about mapping out the territory in your mind to guide you in learning new things.

There isn't much else to say about it, it just deserves as many views as it can get.

The minutiae of politics

The first time that we set out to collect data on this and associate it with political or moral beliefs, we found a general pattern -- this is with the psychologists Yoel Inbar and Paul Bloom -- that in fact, across three studies we kept finding that people who reported that they were easily disgusted also reported that they were more politically conservative. Another way to say this, though, is that people who are very liberal are very hard to disgust.

It's getting very close to the election, and I wanted to do a post about politics.  I had a long conversation with my father earlier about immigration and poverty (which was fun...) and I've been trying to stay on top of the issues, but all that I keep coming back to focusing on is how ridiculously big a deal an election is, and how trivial we make it.

This popped up on Reddit earlier today:

The TED talk above is about how stuff like being near a sign reminding you to wash your hands makes you answer questions more conservatively.  I wonder if that means a biological outbreak is good for a conservative candidate?  Did swine flu sway an election?

Not that I can come up with anything better.  I often paraphrase Winston Churchill (who was himself paraphrasing someone or other): Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the other ones we've tried.  I'm terrified of the consequences of next Tuesday's election, because it seems ridiculous to put the future of the country in the hands of the people of that country.  I'm just more terrified of everyone else we could give the power of that decision.

Here's an idea we could try:  Let's swap it around -- rather than Americans electing the American president, everyone in every other country should vote for it.  Same standards: has to be an American, at least 35, and so on and so on, but everybody in a Democratic nation gets to vote for America's new president, except Americans.

We could do the same thing in reverse:  all the other countries' presidents and prime ministers could be elected by the rest of the world around them.  It would force everyone to start paying attention to world politics, and being nicer to other countries -- I think.  If your only way to improve your own country is by putting other countries in a position to do better by yours, I imagine a lot of people would do a better job of looking out for the rest of the world.

But maybe that would backfire horribly.

Oh well.  I'm voting for Obama on Tuesday, and I hope everyone reading this does, too.  Or at least votes.  Please at least get out and vote, if you're allowed.  There's nothing better to do.

Scary questions about medical science

Ben Goldacre has written a new book!  Which I haven't read.  But he wrote a big post for the Guardian outlining the basic point!  Which I got about a third of the way through.  But he's got a TED talk, also covering the same content! This is great, because it's much easier to watch Ben Goldacre talk than to read long articles.  So, here's that video.

The basic point is that Big Pharma is really, really awful.  Like, the drug companies' and medical journals' habits frequently kill people.

Now, this is Ben Goldacre.  He's not suggesting that we run to alternative medicine and eat plants and drink tea and take sugar pills instead of seeing doctors.  But we've hit a point in medical research where the quality of our method is insufficient to keep improving the quality of our drugs.

What happens is, (a.) journals don't like publishing negative studies -- studies that turned out to disprove or not support the hypothesis -- because they're boring, they're not interesting science, so they damage the quality of the reviews.  So, a drug with a few fluke good results, and dozens of bad results, will have a few published good reviews and go to market.  And, (b.) drug companies bury bad results, too.

Particle science is pushing towards a dramatically more open source scientific publication standard.  I think the medical industry needs this, too.

On the benefits and drawbacks of choice

I watched the new David Mitchell's Soapbox today, which was all about how too much choice is bad or you. He points out some very good reasons why having a lot of choice tends to make people unhappy.

It seems to me that it's perfectly sensible that too much choice makes people unhappy. I mean, there have been loads of articles and TED talks about it. But it's not necessarily that obvious, is it? So I thought I'd gather up all the information I know about it in one place.

Starting with the case FOR choice, here's Malcolm Gladwell's famous Spaghetti Sauce TED talk:

The bit at the end, about coffee groups -- "The difference between X and X is the difference between coffee that makes you cringe, and coffee that makes you deleriously happy," -- seems like it ought to shoot a hole in the argument for less choice. But the problem with choice isn't about having 3 kinds of coffee and not knowing which one to choose, it's about having 100.

Increasing choice has a rate of diminishing returns so dramatic that it ends up reversing itself, what Barry Schwartz calls the Paradox of Choice:

But cutting all the choice entirely isn't helpful, as Gladwell covered. So, how do we decide? It seems that choosing when and how to choose is a skill unto itself, and may be one of the significant life skills of the 21st century. Here's my last video embed, The Art of Choosing:

Schwartz covered the ways in which choosing hurts satisfaction -- Iyengar covers the ways in which choosing hurts sales.

There's a description, somewhere on the internet that I couldn't find, of a wine store. They only sold 100 options for wine at any given time -- 50 white, 50 red, subdivided into 5 categories of 10 each.  Once you figured out what kind of wine you were looking for, there was plenty of time to learn about each of the wines available and make a good, informed decision you can feel confident about, and of which you can appreciate the consequences.

I wish I had more access to choices like that -- the kind of handholding choosing that can help an amateur make good decisions, and develop a genuine sense of comprehension within a complex area.

That's all the good content on choosing I know off the top of my head. I hope it helps.

TED talk: Rachel Botsman on Reputation Capital

I was disappointed, watching this 20 minute long TED talk, that Rachel Botsman did not once mention Whuffie, Cory Doctorow's reputation currency in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.  Still, she hit on all the important points -- and she approaches reputation capital from a slightly different angle. In Doctorow's book, reputation had become the medium of exchange because we had achieved post-scarcity -- there was enough stuff for everyone to have as much as they needed.  So value and priority was established, not by an individual's ability to leverage their scarce resources, but by their reputation among their peers and admirers (or enemies.)

In Rachel Botsman's talk, reputation currency isn't a solution for post-scarcity.  It's just a solution for the crappy, rapidly failing system of capital that we've been working with for the last few hundred years.  Technology having caught up to fill the gap in community between small villages and global societies, we can start the process of abandoning the debt-based medium of exchange we use now, and replace it with an inherently positive-sum reputation-based medium of exchange.

The thing I'm most optimistic about in her talk is the fact that she doesn't portray the change as some kind of violent overthrow, or organized and deliberate reshuffling of financial modes.  The reputation economy integrates smoothly into the debt economy in ways that, she points out, are already happening.  Your score on Stack Overflow can get you a job, your reputation on TaskRabbit can earn you work opportunities.  It occurs to me that reputation also figures into the success of Kiva microlending, whereby the reputation of the borrowers is how they get the capital to establish their own businesses and places in their communities.

Change is organic.  It's not easy, and I'm not sure it's possible, to get all of humanity to do something by insisting that it's important.  (Look at climate change.)  There have to be forces that push towards it, and in the case of a reputation economy, the forces of convenience and effectiveness are pushing cash and credit scores aside to make room for star-ranking on eBay and karma on Reddit.

Well, maybe not Reddit.

Aside: the implications of reputation economies on sociopaths

It occurs to me that a lot of horrible people are able to do horrible things because our economy as it exists now rewards them for it.  This thought doesn't really fit into the above post, but I think it's also worth noting that a reputation economy would be more likely to push down people who were likely to hurt others in pursuit of personal gain, which would organically mitigate the ill effects sociopaths would have on their communities, rather than magnifying them.