On cultural appropriation

Let’s open the article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_appropriation

“Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by a member or members of a different culture” – because this definition makes me scream and run in circles, and since people actually seem to follow it sometimes, I’ll call is bailey.

“Cultural appropriation differs from acculturation or assimilation in that “appropriation” or “misappropriation” commonly refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from the minority culture by a member of the dominant culture, and then these elements are used outside of their original cultural context – sometimes even against the expressed, stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture” – oh, OK. That seems like a thing we would all agree is bad, unless some exceptional exculpatory circumstance occur. This is motte.

Why I say it’s genuinely motte-and-bailey? Here’s the same website using it as motte – http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/ “That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic” – and as bailey: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/cultural-appropriating-outfits/ (tl;dr: western women, stop wearing Native American headdresses, bindi, chopsticks in your hair, kimono-inspired garments, sexy burkas, and saris). Now wait a minute. One of this things is not like the others. All Native American populations were massively hurt by the colonial genocide, and so were all their cultures (to the point that there’s almost nothing left to appropriate, and what they do now is a rough approximation from historic sources, not unbroken legacy: http://kontextmaschine.tumblr.com/post/122751651518/someone-asked-about-that-german-cosplayers-bit). Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Arabic people, on the other hand, while may be oppressed in Western countries, all have their own places in the world where their cultures are dominant by a huge margin. Incidentally, Chinese economy by some estimates have already outperformed American; India and Japan are the third and fourth world’s top economies; Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the entire world, Kuwait is right above Norway, UAE is above San Marino and Switzerland, and Saudi Arabia is above Ireland and Netherlands. China and India have damn ICBMs and nukes! (Admittedly, they don’t have MAD with the US, since American missile defense was built to protect against Russia, that has 20 times more nukes, but they can totally hit Europe in the second strike) How on earth can one put “subdued culture” and “world’s top economy with nukes” in the same sentence? Note, I’m not talking about particular people living in the West, and facing racism – this is a serious problem – but I’m talking about the culture, of which they’re not only the only bearers, but not even the majority of bearers. Even if you stretch the definition of oppression so far as to include the historical trauma of colonization of India, wars in the Middle East, and the post-WWII American influence in Japan, none of that applies to China. No matter how you twist it, by the motte definition of cultural appropriation, there are zero reasons to protect the Chinese culture against it. And yet people talk about it as it’s a settled debate – settled in favor of protection. That show us that they mean something else – motte.

What’s even more interesting is that Chinese and Japanese example rather clearly demonstrate that the motte definition is decidedly biased against Western cultures, since in this case we observe the exact reflection of the dynamics described above, and no one cares about it.

Is Chinese culture dominant in China? Of course. Do they have prejudice against those far far smaller minorities of non-Asian people living there (compared to the number of Asian people living in mostly white countries)? Oh sure they have. 100% of non-Asian expats living in China, Korea, and Japan (probably other countries too, but I haven’t been following that) when asked “when can you expect to integrate in the society?” will (sometimes politely and obscurely) answer “never”. You just don’t. People may be well-meaning (although this may sometimes translate into asking to take selfies with you; sometimes they aren’t well-meaning, and in the Japanese towns neighboring with either port where Russian sailors are frequent, or with American military bases, establishments where white people are banned aren’t that uncommon – that has been illegal in the US for half a century!), but you’re always gonna be a foreigner, even if you were born there. Do the Chinese and Japanese cultures import and recycle elements of Western cultures? Sure they do, like everyone else in the world. But particularly China, Korea and Japan – when they do it, they do it massively. Like this: http://squid314.livejournal.com/198873.html. Sometimes it gets so massive that in Bay Area you can find multiple bakeries with French names that have nothing to do with France – they’re Chinese. They bake things that are definitely European-inspired, but still Chinese. This is just the textbook motte example of drawbacks of cultural appropriation: the appropriated version gets so popular that a non-trivial number of people (enough to cover the expenses of having a shop in Bay Area) prefer the appropriated version to the original. How many people exactly are deeply concerned about that? Um, none – perhaps because there’s genuinely nothing bad about it, and people realize that. No French people (who are, by the way, a significant minority in San Francisco) are deeply offended, no one’s history is tarnished, everything is cool. Sometimes the results of this appropriation are so good that one of the world’s most renowned pianists performing Western art music is Lang Lang. The same music, by the way, is widely used in Korea (and as far as I understand, Japan, but I can’t be sure not having been there) for all sorts of purposes like elevator music. It’s imported, and it’s taken out of context – nothing like in symphony halls where they give you a booklet with the composer’s biography – and I bet some of the classic music experts will find playing short pieces of poor quality of their favorite works rather distasteful. Who cares? No one, because seriously, musicians getting offended by poor treatment of music are like designers getting offended by poor kerning everywhere – this is unfortunate, but everyone seems to agree that this is what you have to deal with when you get into profession. And although it’s only my opinion, I think Chinese and Korean Western-style casual feminine fashion is so much better than the original thing that no Western designers even come close. And while we’re on topic of fashion, take Lolita fashion. It’s what you get when you collide fashion from Victorian England with that of French Rococo, and shorten the skirts in the resulting trainwreck. It originated in Japan, and was then picked up by Chinese designers too. And this idea was apparently so good (for one, they vastly simplified the dressing process, as opposed to the genuine Victorian fashion) that the number of fans of this fashion in the West seems to start competing with the number of Ren Faire fans. Sometimes though they’re concerned as to whether they’re appropriating Japanese culture, which makes me facepalm. Even a more facepalm-worty moment occurs when Chinese designers bombard this trainwreck with cheongsams, resulting in Qi Lolita style, and Japanese ones add kimono connotations, resulting in Wa Lolita. You know who gets offended? Western Lolitas, being concerned about the Chinese somehow appropriating their own culture. Splendid. But there’s more! Gothic Lolita style widely uses crosses, rosarios, and other Christian attributes. Who gets offended? Well, conservative Christians rarely intersect with any of these things, but when they do, they almost certainly freak out. No one complains about cultural appropriation though. Why? Because the sets “people who know the word ‘cultural appropriation'” and “conservative Christians” are non-intersecting. Furthermore, among the former set, the latter set is a Set Of People Whom It’s Officially Fun To Dislike. No one care about them getting offended, aside from themselves. That pokes a hole in the seemingly strongest and consequentialist argument against cultural appropriation – don’t do it when it actually offends people. Well, offense alone is not enough. It’s not even the news. Homophobes get offended seeing guys kissing all the time. The most charitable response to them is “that’s too bad, but doing this is important for me, so you’d better look away or reconsider your views”. The most expected response is “I will be kissing in front of you to the point then you puke, you shitlord”. It’s a very established (although implicitly) position in liberal ideology that offense is not enough to consider a thing morally wrong – sometimes they even consider offending a virtue. Yet they completely omit this part when it comes to proving their arguments. I’m not saying that this proves that it’s OK to wear Native American headdresses – seems rather distasteful and unnecessary to me – but people have to either massively reconsider their position on things like gay pride parades, or provide arguments against cultural appropriation other than it offends people.

To summarize, when people talk about cultural appropriation, they’re committing a massive motte-and-bailey fallacy all the time. Aside from the part with Native Americans, most commonly cited examples of cultural appropriation don’t satisfy the motte definition AT ALL. Furthermore, I can poke holes even in the motte definition, and I’m willing to speculate that most (if not all) harm cited as the result of cultural appropriation is attributable to racism alone. However, even if we agree to accept the motte definition, we have to conclude that most things people call cultural appropriation aren’t such.

Even beter cryonics – because who needs natines anyway?

I do think that the odds of ever developing advanced nanomachines and/or brain scanning on molecular level plus algorithms for reversing information distortion – everything you need to undo the damage from conventional cryonic preservation and even to some extent that of brain death, according to its modern definition, if wasn’t too late when the brain was preserved – for currently existing cryonics to be a bet worth taking. This is dead serious, and it’s an actionable item.

Less of an action item: what if the future generations actually build quantum Bayesian superintelligence, close enough in its capabilities to Solomonoff induction, at which point even a mummified brain or the one preserved in formalin would be enough evidence to restore its original state? Or what if they invent read-only time travel, and make backups of everyone’s mind right before they died (at which point it becomes indistinguishable from the belief in afterlife existing right now)? Even without time travel, they can just use a Universe-sized supercomputer to simulate every singe human physically possible, and naturally of of them is gonna be you. But aside from the obvious identity issues (and screw the timeless identity), that relies on unknown unknowns with uncomputable probabilities, and I’d like to have as few leaps of faith and quantum suicides in my life as possible.

So although vitrification right after diagnosed brain death relies on far smaller assumptions, and if totally worth doing – let me reiterate that: go sign up for cryonics – it’d be much better if we had preservation protocols so non-destructive that we could actually freeze a living human, and then bring them back alive. If nothing else, that would hugely increase the public outreach, grant the patient (rather than cadaver) status to the preserved, along with the human rights, get it recognized as a medical procedure covered by insurance or single payer, allow doctors to initiate the preservation of a dying patient before the brain death (again: I think everything short of information-theoretic death should potentially be reversible, but why take chances?), allow suffering patient opt for preservation rather than euthanasia (actually, I think it should be done right now: why on earth would anyone allow a person to do something that’s guaranteed to kill them, but not allowed to do something that maybe will kill, or maybe will give the cure?), or even allow patients suffering from degrading brain conditions (e.g. Alzheimer’s) to opt for preservation before their memory and personality are permanently destroyed.

Let’s fix cryonics! First of all, why can’t we do it on living organisms? Because of heparin poisoning – every cryoprotectant efficient enough to prevent the formation of ice crystals is a strong enough poison to kill the organism (leave alone that we can’t even saturate the whole body with it – current technologies only allow to do it for the brain alone). But without cryoprotectants the water will expand upon freezing, and break the cells. But there’s another way to prevent this. Under pressure above 350 MPa water slightly shrinks upon freezing rather than expanding:


So that’s basically that: the key idea is to freeze (and keep) everything under pressure. Now, there are some tricks to that too.

It’s not easy to put basically any animal, especially a mammal, under 350 MPa (which is 3.5x higher than in Mariana Trench). At this point even Trimix becomes toxic. Basically the only remaining solution is total liquid ventilation, which has one problem: it has never been applied successfully to a human. There’s one fix to that I see: as far as I can tell, no one has ever attempted to do perform it under high pressure, and the attempts were basically failing because of the insufficient solubility of oxygen and carbon dioxide in perfluorocarbons. Well then, let’s increase the pressure! Namely, go to 3 MPa on Trimix, which is doable, and only then switch to TLV, whose efficiency is improved by the higher gas solubility under high pressure. But there’s another solution too. If you just connect a cardiopulmonary bypass (10 hours should be enough for the whole procedure), you don’t need the surrounding liquid to even be breathable – it can just be saline. CPB also solves the problem of surviving the period after the cardiac arrest (which will occur at around 30 centigrade) but before the freezing happens – you can just keep the blood circulating and delivering oxygen.

Speaking of hypoxia, even with the CPB it’s still a problem. You positively don’t want the blood to circulate when freezing starts, lest it act like an abrasive water cutter. It’s not that much of a problem under near-freezing temperatures, but still. Fortunately, this effect can be mitigated by administering insulin first (yay, it’s the first proper academic citation in this post! Also yay, I thought about this before I even discovered that it’s actually true). This makes sense: if oxygen is primarily used to metabolize glucose, less glucose means less oxygen consumed, and less damage done by hypoxia. Then there’s another thing: on the phase diagram you can see that before going into the area of high temperature ice at 632 MPa, freezing temperature actually dips down to roughly -30 centigrade at 209~350 MPa. That would allow to really shut down metabolism for good when water is still liquid, and blood can be pumped by the CPB. From this point we have two ways. First, we can do the normal thing, and start freezing very slowly, so minimize the formation of ice crystals (even though they’re smaller than the original water volume, they may still be sharp). Second, we can increase the pressure. That would lead to near-instantaneous freezing everywhere, thus completely eliminating the problem of hypoxia – before the freezing, blood still circulated, and freezing is very quick – way faster than can ever be achieved even by throwing a body into liquid helium under normal pressure. Video evidence suggests that quick freezing of water leads to the formation of a huge number of crystals, which is bad, but I don’t know near-instantaneous freezing from supercooled state and near-instantaneous freezing upon raising the pressure will lead to the same effect. More experiments are needed, preferably not on humans.

So here is my preservation protocol:

  1. Anesthetize a probably terminally ill, but still conscious person.
  2. Connect them to a cardiopulmonary bypass.
  3. Replacing their blood with perfluorohexane is not necessary, since we seem to be already doing a decent job at having medium-term (several days) cardiopulmonary bypasses, but that could still help.
  4. Submerge them in perfluorohexane, making sure that no air bubbles are left.
  5. Slowly raise the ambient pressure to 350 MPa (~3.5kBar) without stopping the bypass.
  6. Apply a huge dose of insulin to reduce all their metabolic processes.
  7. Slowly cool them to -30 centigrade (at which point, given such pressure, water is still liquid), while increasing the dose of insulin, and raising the oxygen supply to the barely subtoxic level.
  8. Slowly raise the pressure to 1 GPa (~10kBar), at which point the water solidifies, but does so with shrinking rather than expanding. Don’t cutoff the blood circulation until the moment when ice crystals starts forming in the blood/perfluorohexane flow.
  9. Slowly lower the temperature to -173 centigrade or lower, as you wish.

And then back:

  1. Raise the temperature to -20 centigrade.
  2. Slowly lower the pressure to 350 MPa, at which point ice melts.
  3. Start artificial blood circulation with a barely subtoxic oxygen level.
  4. Slowly raise the temperature to +4 centigrade.
  5. Slowly lower the pressure to 1 Bar.
  6. Drain the ambient perfluorohexane and replace it with pure oxygen. Attach and start a medical ventilator.
  7. Slowly raise the temperature to +32 centigrade.
  8. Apply a huge dose of epinephrine and sugar, while transfusing the actual blood (preferably autotransfusion), to restart the heart.
  9. Rejoice.

I claim that this protocol allows you freeze a living human to an arbitrarily low temperature, and then bring them back alive without brain damage, thus being the first true victory over death.

But let’s start with something easy and small, like a shrimp. They already live in water, so there’s no need to figure out the protocol for putting them into liquid. And they’re already adapted to live under high pressure (no swim bladders or other cavities). And they’re already adapted to live in cold water, so they should be expected to survive further cooling.

Small ones can be about 1 inch big, so let’s be safe and use a 5cm-wide cylinder. To form ice III we need about 350MPa, which gives us 350e6 * 3.14 * 0.025^2 / 9.8 = 70 tons or roughly 690kN of force. Applying it directly or with a lever is unreasonable, since 70 tons of bending force is a lot even for steel, given the 5cm target. Block and tackle system is probably a good solution – actually, two of them, on each side of a beam used for compression, so we have 345 kN per system. And it looks like you can buy 40~50 ton manual hoists from alibaba, though I have no idea about their quality.


I’m not sure to which extent Pascal’s law applies to solids, but if it does, the whole setup can be vastly optimized by creating a bottle neck for the pistol. One problem is that we can no longer assume that water in completely incompressible – it had to be compressed to about 87% its original volume – but aside from that, 350MPa per a millimeter thick rod is just 28kg. To compress a 0.05m by 0.1m cylinder to 87% its original volume we need to pump extra 1e-4 m^3 of water there, which amounts to 148 meters of movement, which isn’t terribly good. 1cm thick rod, on the other hand, would require almost 3 tons of force, but will move only 1.5 meters. Or the problem of applying the constant pressure can be solved by enclosing the water in a plastic bag, and filling the rest of chamber with a liquid with a lower freezing point, but the same density. Thus, it is guaranteed that all the time it takes the water to freeze, it is under uniform external pressure, and then it just had nowhere to go.

Alternatively, one can just buy a 90’000 psi pump and 100’000 psi tubes and vessels, but let’s face it: it they don’t even list the price on their website, you probably don’t even wanna know it. And since no institutions that can afford this thing seem to be interested in cryonics research, we’ll have to stick to makeshift solutions (until at least the shrimp thing works, which would probably give in a publication in Nature, and enough academic recognition for proper research to start).

Ship your enemies utility

Some utilitarians say or assume that utility function has to be a linear combination of its atomic final values. It is not. Surely you can try to decompose a non-linear function into a linear combination of other non-linear functions, but this is an unrecognizable steelman of what people say when asking to shut up and multiply.

Proof: the existence of https://shipyourenemiesglitter.com/ and the fact that people actually use that.

Imagine that someone’s wellbeing has a negative coefficient in your linear utility function. Would you ship them glitter? Sure. But if you want them to suffer as much as possible (which is true if it’s a negative-valued member of the utility function), you can do much better than that. Do they pirate music and games, do they possess drugs, do they have anything embarrassing in their life? Most likely yes. You can use that to legally and with little effort completely destroy someone’s life. If you chose to ship glitter instead, their wellbeing cannot be a negative value for you.

OK, what if it’s zero or positive? Then why do you ship them glitter in the first place? Maybe you care about them, but something in their behavior is so bad that you want to teach them a lesson. No, this doesn’t work – anonymously shipping glitter, possibly even with a generic message, is obviously and vastly inefficient way to improve someone’s behavior. If you ship glitter to someone, you’re almost certainly want them to be mildly frustrated for the sake of being mildly frustrated.

Let’s go deeper! What if this person is useful to you, and you want to make their life as uncomfortable as possible, but in a way that doesn’t disrupt your getting utility from their other actions rather than just existing? Still doesn’t work – this is far from the most efficient non-life-destroying method of annoying someone.

What fits this behavior perfectly is a model where the utility of an annoying person is a non-linear function, whose maximum is at “mildly frustrated, but pretty OK in broad terms”. If they get terminal cancer, you’ll feel bad for them. If they get a huge raise, you’ll feel angry and wronged by the just world. But if they still have their job, house, and family, but keep finding glitter everywhere, you’ll feel the sweet sweet schadenfreude, which is perfectly explained by non-linear utility, and not at all explained by linear utility.

If transhumanists joined call-out culture

While other people are talking about surfacing the ways in which fairy tales promote sexism, and the ways to edit them or present to children in a non-indoctrinating manner, let us stop for a while and think how we should do the same with stories promoting deathism.

Eliezer took pretty good care of Harry Potter and Greeting the Death Like an Old Friend, while Hezel (https://www.fanfiction.net/u/5933852/hezzel) made an even stronger and harsher point against it. It’s also worth noting that even non-HPMoR Harry Potter fans often ask questions like “why didn’t they just use time turner to save everyone?”

I haven’t read Luminosity, but I hope Alicorn took care of the situation in Twilight where they have the ability to give people eternal youth and very high resistance to physical damage with almost no side effects whatsoever (a little bit of murder intent, which is manageable, and can be easily alleviated), but refuse to give it to people, because it’s so OMG bad to be a vampire, somehow. No explanation needed as to why it’s bad, and why eternal youth doesn’t outweigh it – it’s just bad, and you’re not supposed to want eternal youth anyway, and only bad people do so.

Or take The Picture of Dorian Gray for example. A guy gets if not eternal then very long youth and the resistance to physical damage, but then quickly spins into decadence, and ends up wishing to destroy his “immortality.” See – this is what you end up doing when you don’t need to fit fun in life before your body starts betraying you, and there’s no or little risk of getting killed. Disease, accidents, and murder are wonderful, and immortality is decadence! And people read that, and believe!

Or take anything from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TogetherInDeath – I know that brains (or maybe it’s just cultural – deathism is so prevalent that we can’t really test) tend to anthropomorphize corpses and tombstones, yes. But stories like that are just a memetic hazard that distracts people from the truth that the protagonists aren’t together, they don’t exist anymore, and something that doesn’t exist cannot be separate, together, or any other adjective – because there’s no subject! It should be made crystal clear to everyone, and the idea about being together in death hugely derails any attempt to do so.

Or take at least half of the stories from these:
They’re all stuffed with the idea that death isn’t just a part of the natural order of things (along with defecating, vomiting, not bathing your entire life, etc.), but a liberating, uplifting, and generally very cool experience, and all those immortality seekers are either villains, who are against everything good, and against death among other good things, or very naive and mistaken people, who are taught along the story line how inherently futile and even undesirable their ventures are. Are you surprised that gerontology is hugely underfunded, after all that? I’m not.

We take small kids, and feed them these stories, conditioning them into overriding any thoughts saying that death is bad.If you persuade people that death is good right now, you’re the founder of a dangerous cult, and have to be arrested. But if you persuade them that it’s good 40 years from now, you’re a wise thinker, not distracted by silly thoughts of being young longer.


Consequentialism is awesome, except when it’s not. Particularly, the whole idea “inaction to prevent something from happening = action to make it happen minus the cost of action” is a fantastic tool to improve our ethics, make sanity checks of extraordinary claims like “death or disease is good,” and generally be more efficient. However, it’s also a superweapon that should be banned under the Geneva Conventions or something. No one can possibly live up to this standard, and therefore this argument allows you to bulldoze anyone’s position and decisions. It denies any decent person who don’t want to be a murderer choice and the right to be happy, because most of the things that make us happy aren’t precisely the most cost-effective actions to prevent deaths in the world. What’s worse, once people notice that you have a rhetorical bulldozer, they’ll just start ignoring it (don’t try this in the physical world), and you won’t be able to make any arguments.

But what’s even much much worse is that if you succeed, and convince people that they’re literally Voldemort for merely existing, they may as well give up and start doing other Voldemort things too. Unless you really internalized this argument (in which case you’re not reading this, since you sold your PC and donated money to charity – you wouldn’t kill a person to be able to browse Facebook, which means that it’s unethical to not give up facebooking to save a life either), you probably agree that murdering three-four innocent people to buy a new car in a sense of not donating this money to an anti-malaria charity instead isn’t as bad as murdering then in a sense of breaking into their houses, blowing their brains out, and taking the money. But imagine that you succeeded persuading people that it’s basically the same thing. We already know that you can trick people into believing that cheating on their partner isn’t that big of a deal by simply telling them that they’re statistically likely to cheat. If there’s nothing one can do about being a villain, they will redefine evil. People rationalize even potential actions, and for darn sure they would rationalize actual inaction (even I’m doing that right now). Now imagine you convinced them that any rationalization of inaction they came up with also applies to action, and it’s totally OK to shoot people as long as they can escape the criminal justice system. Oops.

OK, what’s about those people whose moral core prevents them from going Voldemort? Maybe they will start helping others so much that the fact they’re suffering doesn’t even matter? No, they won’t. They will drown in depression and self-loathing, but still not become perfectly rational anti-death optimizers BECAUSE THIS STANDARD IS FREAKING IMPOSSIBLE TO LIVE UP TO.

For practical reasons, we probably need an ethical framework that allows us to distinguish bad actions from good actions, without labeling the whole peacefully living population murderers, and without concluding that murder is a-OK thing if you’re not really enthusiastic about it. Oh, and for sure this ethical framework shouldn’t say that it’s OK for Bill Gates to go on a rampant shooting massacre, and still be a nice guy, while a regular Joe is a cold-blooded murderer, since he hadn’t applied every possible effort to maximize the amount of money donated to charity. And we can totally have all these nice things, if we simply accept one irrational axiom: inaction doesn’t equal action.

On cis misgendering

Observation: Many cis men take extreme offense in being misgendered (usually on purpose, as an insult) as female.

Hypothesis 1: This is because our society hates women, and calling someone who isn’t used to that an entity so much hated is one of the worst things you can say to them. If we eliminate misogyny, they wouldn’t mind.

Hypothesis 2: Cis people (at least not “cis by default”) too hate being misgendered. This is irrelevant to misogyny, and wouldn’t go away unless we eliminate genders.

Observation 2: Many cis women also take offense in being misgendered as male.

That is consistent with hypothesis 2, but not extremely consistent with hypothesis 1, unless you add an extra epicycle “women dislike misogyny, see being misgendered as male a sign of that, and therefore hate it.” That, however, would only explain it for those who explicitly hold feminist beliefs, and from my observations, the set of cis women who are offended by misgendering is by no means limited to that. Besides, Occam’s razor suggests than if we can have either at least four independent hypotheses of why people hate being misgendered (for trans people, for cis men, for cis feminist women, and for cis non-feminist women) or one hypothesis that being misgendered is a terminal negative value for everyone with gender identity, we’d rather choose the latter, unless there’s some ironclad evidence that it’s the former.

Fly me to the moon

[originally from October 12th, 2014]

Craziest lunar mission plan: fly a LOX/LH2 module with just enough fuel to land, and a lot of solar arrays, mine water on the moon, and use electrolysis to refuel.
Apollo ascent stage had 2,353kg of 290s fuel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_Lunar_Module#Ascent_stage). The specific impulse of LOX/LH2 is 451s (http://www.astronautix.com/props/loxlh2.htm), so they would only need 1,513kg of it – or, in ideal 2/16 mass ratio, 168kg of hydrogen, and 1344kg of oxygen.

Hydrogen in 2 kg/kmol, so it would be 84 kmol of H2. Under standard conditions of temperature and pressure (we’ll need this for estimating, not for storing it) it would take 22.414 * 84 = 1883 m3 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_conditions_for_temperature_and_pressure#Molar_volume_of_a_gas). An industrial electrolyser (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electrolysis_of_water#Efficiency) consumes 10.6 MJ/m3 of H2 given 100% efficiency, and is, let’s say 65% efficient. Thus, they would need 3e10J of energy to produce that much fuel.
Very good solar arrays under ideal conditions (and lunar conditions are nearly perfect for solar arrays) can give 2.125 kW per kilogram (http://www.spacefuture.com/archive/early_commercial_demonstration_of_space_solar_power_using_ultra_lightweight_arrays.shtml).
Disregarding the mass of the electrolyser and water-mining equipment, as well as the time to find water and deploy the array (yes, that’s a very rough approximation), if instead of 2,353kg of fuel they brought 2,353kg of thin-film solar cells, THEY COULD HAVE MADE FUEL FOR THE WAY HOME IN 2 HOURS. Or they have brought just 180kg of solar cells, and made the fuel in the same 21 hours they actually spent on the Moon surface.
Even more fascinating is that all that equipment can be placed in the descent stage, which means if you wanna land on a spot nearby for the second time, you don’t even need to bring all that with you.

Vote utilitarian! Maybe

[originally from October 13th, 2014]

Classical liberal (i.e. borderline libertarian) ideas about rights are very deontological in their nature. It is postulated that certain rather abstract ideas about rights are good just because they are (usually they do sounds quite self-evident though), and the legislation is there to protect them. It doesn’t matter how unhappy someone’s executing their rights makes others – as long as they’re not infringing their rights, it may be immoral, but has to stay legal. This is an important point: something immoral can be legal, since the rights aren’t protected in order to make people happy – they’re protected for their own sake. That’s why the conservative position on minimum wages is that the right to make any mutually agreed contract overrides the unhappiness of minimum wage workers (and probably because conservatives are largely protecting the interests of big companies, but I’m talking about the rationale they give, that is consistent with the classical ideals). And that’s why Westboro Baptist Church is allowed to picket funerals – however offended others are, these guys do have the freedom of speech (and probably because they’re Christians, whereas Muslims or atheists doing the same would very likely be beaten up a long ago – but again, it’s about the justifications, not the hidden motivation of people who choose these justifications).

Modern social democratic ideas (more or less corresponding to modern American liberal ones) are generally way more consequentialist. They didn’t go full social engineering (like communists did), but the overall shift of the focus from ideals of rights to people’s wellbeing is very clear. It doesn’t matter whether something protects or infringes rights – if it hurts people, it should be fixed. That’s what justifies gender quotas: the actual position of women in the society matters more than the abstract virtue of gender-blind legislation. And that’s what justifies outlawing Holocaust denial: offending people and harming the society matters more than the abstract virtue of freedom to say anything you want.
What’s interesting though is that in the consequentialist approach to legislation there’s very little reason why something immoral can be legal. Immoral is something that harms people. And things that harm people should be fixed by a legislative action. The only options I see here is either deciding that something is not harmful enough compared to the difficulty of enforcing it, or deciding to leave a margin of error, for the case of the legislators being wrong. The last one is particularly interesting, since admitting that a piece of legislation can be wrong has all sorts of implications on the penitentiary system.

Cake or death, PETA or cockfights

[originally from October 16th, 2014]


what if I were rational, and truly believed that an animal life has exactly the same ethical value as a human life. Or even ten times less. Or one hundred. Generally, this equation:
value(human) = x * value(animal)
For different x, what would I think?

Actually, for all non-zero positive x it’s pretty much the same. When Nazis were putting Jews into death camps to make the whole thing work (I don’t know if they ever had the exact wording of “obviously they’re better off in death camps: if you just throw them in a forest they will die”, but you can imagine how ridiculous this excuse sounds), would you be content boycotting the good they produce, and trying to convince them that killing Jews is bad? No, you would bomb them, you would storm the death camps, killing the guards and freeing the prisoners. And if any of the guards survived, they should be put to trial afterwards. This is what you do. So, the only animal rights organization that actually does something sensible is PETA, although they’re not harsh enough: if they cannot sneak into a farm to liberate the slaves, they should just bomb the entrance, and to the hell the lives of farmers.
How big should x be for this kind of thinking? Well, if “the total number of all animals killed for food in 2000 was 9.7 billion” then believing that animal live costs one thousand times less than a human life (which doesn’t sound like a crazy idea on the first sight) makes farming just as bad as the Holocaust.

Hmm… what if we make x equal to one in ten billion? That definitely sounds like a statement from someone who doesn’t give a single shit about animals, and probably enjoys cockfights. Still, points stands. If to feed the Earth to the same extent we’re doing it now we had to murder one innocent person per year, wouldn’t you take some action? Going below one human per year only gives you murdering one human in several years – still terrible.

Thus, if you’re utilitarian, and x is positive, you shouldn’t go vegan, you should go terrorist.

OK, what if x is zero? Well, as I said about cockfights, but worse: if animal lives worth nothing, then it’s totally ethical to slowly wring a living cat for entertainment. No worse than doing so with a plush toy – the only minor problem is that is could be someone’s favorite toy.

There is a very nice and simple hack to resolve the paradox: simply claim that the value of a human life is ontologically different from the value of an animal life. You can optimize for them separately, but making trade-offs between them is deontologically prohibited. And whereas it doesn’t sound even remotely as crazy as the two options described above for the general non-utilitarian public, unaware of the word speciesism, it covers a deep problem in decision theory: pure utilitarianism doesn’t work. Also, any utility-based AI will be a crapshoot.

[originally from January 10th, 2015]


The picture is just an argument to moderation, which is decidedly not the best way to represent the article. Besides, using the treatment of dogs to illustrate an ethical point about animals isn’t a very good idea either – chickens or cows would work better. If the author’s point is that it’s OK to use and kill animals as long as it’s done in a way that doesn’t cause a lot of suffering, then it’s way more fair to illustrate it with the animals that actually get used and killed at the rate of few billions per year, instead of those that get toys, medications, and surgeries.

But as for the actual argument, it’s not that easy. Sure, conflating animal rights and animal welfare could be a mistake or even malicious equivocation, but it’s not fair to say that they’re completely disconnected either.

Classic libertarian philosophers, when inventing the idea of unalienable human rights, basically justified it by saying “just because”. Well, OK, the justification was a little bit better, but it boiled down to the idea that it’s the natural order of things – IIRC, they even used the idea of soul to argue that humans and only humans have rights. For this kind of philosophy, it doesn’t matter whether certain rights increase or decrease welfare; they’re valuable by themselves (thus, the idea that freedom should never be sacrificed for safety). Within this framework, one may or may not care about the welfare of other humans or animals, but this is indeed a matter of choice, not the universal ethical standard. Descartes, for one, didn’t: http://books.google.com/books?id=_quBG-_aqJsC&pg=PA134&lpg=PA134&dq=Descartes+vivisection&source=bl&ots=EHyJzL1XFi&sig=whAp0SzBZxPDOdjspol206igBcs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=KOl2VLWVMI_joASNgYKQBQ&ved=0CFcQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=Descartes%20vivisection&f=false

The problem is that in the modern social democratic philosophy, within which the author presumably operates, welfare supersedes the rights. Humans are still believed to have rights, but the reason for that is the belief that having rights increases one’s welfare, and human welfare should be cared about, because humans are moral patients. This idea is very important, since otherwise it’s impossible to argue in favor welfare-increasing actions that limit one’s rights, like regulating the economy, thus helping the poor, but limiting the possibility to make any kinds of arbitrary contracts. Also, it’s important that the human welfare should be cared about because of their being moral patients. For example, I care about the state of the oceans and rainforests, but only because their state indirectly affects me and other humans; there’s nothing unethical in cutting down a tree per se. So, within this framework, we can either say that we don’t care about animals at all, or say that we do care about their welfare, and do so not just because the meat of a stressed animal tastes worse [citation needed], but because they are in fact moral patients. In this case, it’s only natural to ask why then we don’t think they have rights, since having rights is a direct conclusion from being a moral patient for humans.

Now, the author may actually have an explanation for why it is different for non-human animals. Intelligence is an obvious candidate, but it’s a rather weak point: we still believe that infants and even patients in coma (unless diagnosed as brain dead) have right to life, which is refused to other animals. Saying that animal welfare is less valuable than human welfare is also an option, but given the sheer number of animals used in farming, to make it look OK we have to tune it so damn low that we’d have hard time arguing why vivisection and cockfights are bad, leave alone zoophilia (in which case it’s often quite hard to argue that the animal is suffering at all; the strongest argument against zoophilia involves the notion that animals cannot consent to sex, which automatically assigns them the right to autonomy).

So, animal welfare is a very slippery slope, that leads to PETA pretty quickly, once you start trying to apply ethical principles in a consistent way. We can possibly set a Schelling fence on that slope (alternatively, either discover that cockfights are OK, or PETA was right all along), but doing so would require far stronger arguments that the author presents.

Utilitarianism of offense

[originally from November 14th, 2014]

“Group X does Y, but that offends a certain group Z, and therefore should be stopped” is actually almost a preference utilitarian statement. To be fully preference utilitarian, it should also consider the degree of offense taken by Z, compare it to the frustration of X for not doing Y, and weigh them with the sizes of the groups. But it does catch the most crucial concept of preference utilitarianism: ethical value is not intrinsic to the actions, but they are rather evaluated by their impact on other people. More poetically, it’s people who matter, not abstract moral guidelines.

The problem is that this rule is seldom followed by those who most often invoke it, and for a good reason: it can backfire in a way that they definitely not approve of (nor do I). In various historical periods there have been people out there offended by all sorts of things: homosexual couple, heterosexual couples kissing or even hugging in public, interracial couples, black people on the front seat of the bus, women is skirts shorter than knee, women in pants, etc. Furthermore, for almost any fight for someone’s rights, on some point there has been a situation where the number of people willing to execute a certain right was smaller than the number of people offended by that execution. Otherwise there wouldn’t even be any struggle – everyone would just agree that the right should be granted.

It is not necessarily true, but still quite likely that in 2014 the number of people who live in an interracial marriage, consider this possibility, or just support it strongly enough to be offended by the opposing position exceeds the number of people who are offended by the interracial marriage itself. Thus, it is strongly preferable to have it legal. But it’s not considered good just because the number of radical racists is small enough. Nor did it change the minds of civil rights activists in 50s. Apparently, by the time that interracial marriage was legalized, it didn’t even have the majority approval: http://xkcd.com/1431/

. The whole point was that the opinion of racists and the offense that they may take is irrelevant to whether interracial marriage should be legal or not.The same idea applies to nearly every other civil rights or social justice issue as well. This idea is impossible to hold on purely offense dynamics basis. One should take a moral realist stance on the issue: “it’s not just bad because it offends someone, but it’s also intrinsically and objectively bad”.

This is actually fine – I would argue that all people implicitly or explicitly hold a lot of ethical opinions that aren’t reducible to preference utilitarianism (even imperfect and irrational). The problem is that if “it offends someone” is not a good enough reason to cease and desist in all these cases, then it’s not a good enough reason in others as well (unless you completely renounce Kant’s ethics, and think that hypocrisy is OK). Offense merely indicates that there is an issue, a moral dilemma, there’s a conflict of interests. But it does not suggest how to resolve this dilemma, in whose favor – for that you would need additional arguments, and possibly ethical axioms.