James Bond is a psychopath

Another interesting observation from the Paul Bloom psychology course I have been following concerns this fictional character, as well as real-life individuals who share some of his features:

They’re typically male. They are defined as selfish, callous, impulsive, they’re sexually promiscuous. They seem to lack love, loyalty, normal feelings of affiliation and compassion, and they get into all sorts of trouble because they’re easily bored and they seek out stimulation. Now, when you hear this, you’ve got to realize that this sort of person is not necessarily an unattractive person to imagine or think about or even under some circumstances to encounter. You have to avoid the temptation when you think about psychopath to think about a guy like this, to think about Hannibal Lecter. The most famous psychopath, of course, is James Bond who is a perfect psychopath in every regard as played… by Sean Connery.

Bloom elaborates in talking about real-life individuals, and whether psychopathy is an illness:

[P]sychologists study psychopaths but the psychopaths that they study are by definition unsuccessful psychopaths. And what some people have argued is the real psychopaths, the successful ones, are the ones that run the world, that excel in every field because they are successful enough that they don’t look like psychopaths. They have no conscience, no compassion, love, loyalty. They are cold-blooded and ambitious but they don’t go around making this so obvious that we throw them in prison. And so, it’s an interesting and subtle and complicated case.

It does seem inherently plausible that the kind of people who can attain positions of great power have these tendencies, and also have the ability to conceal them from others. This is where the wisdom behind Douglas Adams’ insightful perspective on politicians: “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

What lessons can we draw from this? Perhaps it tells us something about the nature of authority and power dynamics in human societies. Perhaps it should inform us to some extent about what to expect from elected officials, as well as those who attain power by other means (such as leaders of coups). It may be even more applicable to the world of business or the military than to democratic politics. In those cases, the number of people who you need to impress with your competence is smaller, and the people who you are impressing are likely to be more tolerant of ruthlessness and a lack of empathy.

The cultural significance of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Louie Miller, director of the Mississippi state Sierra Club, had this to say about the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico:

Unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle with this oil spill, and I don’t think I’m overstating the case by saying this is America’s Chernobyl.

The incident certainly contains all the psychological triggers that human beings seem to required to get concerned about things. It is happening right now. It is visible. There are specific people to whom the disaster can be attributed.

It would certainly be nice to see an event that clarifies for people some of the many hidden costs associated with fossil fuel dependence. While fourteen years passed between the Chernobyl disaster and the shutdown of the last reactor at the Chernobyl site, the incident made people around the world acutely aware of the dangers associated with nuclear power.

It is slightly ironic, perhaps, that those environmentalists who joined the movement around the time of Chernobyl seem to be those that maintain a reflexive fear and distrust of nuclear energy. At the same time, environmentalists today who are overwhelmingly concerned with the threat from climate change seem much more likely to view nuclear power as part of the solution to our most pressing environmental problem.

Alternatively, rather than being ironic, perhaps this is just a sign of how our environmental problems are deepening and growing more threatening. What people worried about just twenty or thirty years ago now looks like small potatoes to us.

[Update: 2 May 2010] See also: Obama expands US offshore drilling

Timing an Ignite presentation

I am in the process of preparing an Ignite presentation on climate change, expressing the basic point that the amount of climate change we experience will depend primarily on what proportion of the world’s fossil fuels we burn.

The Ignite format is an odd and challenging one. Each person speaks for five minutes. At the same time, each has a set of 20 slides which automatically advance every 15 seconds. These factors make it challenging to express yourself clearly and effectively.

The earliest drafts of my presentation suffered from my natural tendency towards digression. I am moving forward now more confidently, having timed myself reading four examples of text for five minutes each. Two were written by me, two were speeches written by others.

I found that I read text similar to that in my presentation at a rate just over 180 words per minute. That translates to about 45 words per slide. To compensate for any issues with shuffling notes or distractions, I will write 40 words of pre-prepared comments to accompany each slide, reducing the risk that the unusual Ignite format will leave me unable to express my point fully.

[Update: 5 May 2010] You can see my final presentation on BuryCoal.com.

Alcohol as fuel and drug

I occasionally encounter people who are surprised to learn that alcohol itself contains many of the calories contained in alcoholic drinks. In some sense, the surprise is understandable; after all, we think of alcohol as a drug and a poison more than as a food. That being said, when ethanol enters the human body, it “is converted into acetaldehyde by alcohol dehydrogenase and then into acetic acid by acetaldehyde dehydrogenase.” Both of these reactions produce energy that your body can use.

In another sense, it is a bit obvious that ethanol is full of energy. Remember, alcohol has been used before as a fuel for vehicles, and even for rockets. Gasoline contains about 32 megajoules of energy per litre. By comparison, pure ethanol contains 23.5 megajoules: 73% of what is in the gasoline.

As a consequence, vodka (40% ethanol) contains 9.4 megajoules per litre: about 30% of what is in gasoline. So, to get a sense of the energy content of your drink, multiply the quantity of pure ethanol it contains by 0.73. Then, think about the energy that volume of gasoline would release, when burned. A six pack of beer (two litres at 5% alcohol) contains about as much energy as as two shotglasses (70mL) full of gasoline. A bottle of wine (750mL at 12% alcohol), is about the same.

Expressed another way, a bottle of wine contains enough energy (2.1 megajoules) to lift a small apple 2.1 million metres. It also represents the same amount of energy as a 2.1 tonne vehicle going 160km/h. A drop of beer contains 100 joules.

Doctors and conditional probabilities

While it is not surprising, it is worrisome that doctors have trouble with statistics, particularly conditional probabilities. 25 German doctors were asked about the following situation. It is clearly a tricky question, but it is surely a type of question that doctors are exposed to constantly:

The probability that one of these women has breast cancer is 0.8 percent. If a woman has breast cancer, the probability is 90 percent that she will have a positive mammogram. If a woman does not have breast cancer, the probability is 7 percent that she will still have a positive mammogram. Imagine a woman who has a positive mammogram. What is the probability that she actually has breast cancer?

The results of this small trial were not encouraging:

[The] estimates whipsawed from 1 percent to 90 percent. Eight of them thought the chances were 10 percent or less, 8 more said 90 percent, and the remaining 8 guessed somewhere between 50 and 80 percent. Imagine how upsetting it would be as a patient to hear such divergent opinions.

As for the American doctors, 95 out of 100 estimated the woman’s probability of having breast cancer to be somewhere around 75 percent.

The right answer is 9 percent.

You would think that this sort of quantitative analysis would play an important role in the medical profession. I am certain that a great many people around the world have received inappropriate treatment or taken unnecessary risks because doctors have failed to properly apply Bayes’ Theorem. Indeed, false positives in medical tests are a very commonly used example of where medical statistics can be confusing. It is also a problem for biometric security protocols, useful for filtering spam email, and a common source of general statistical errors.

The proper remedy for this is probably to provide doctors with simple-to-use tools that allow them to go from data of the kind in the original question to a correct analysis of probabilities. The first linked article also provides a good example of a more intuitive way to think about conditional probabilities.

Psychology and romantic attraction

The psychology course I have been following features a Valentine’s Day lecture about love. Mostly, it is about what seems to make people attracted to one another, as demonstrated by psychological experiments.

Professor Peter Salovey, the guest lecturer, argues that we have empirical evidence for seven major causes of attraction. Three of them are fairly obvious, but very demonstrably important. The next four are more subtle, but are also supported by experimental investigation.

The big three:

  1. Proximity – we are more likely to get romantically involved with those who we live near
  2. Familiarity – the more we see a person, the more likely we are to get involved with them
  3. Similarity – apparently, opposites do not attract

The practical utility of this is obvious, for those looking for a romantic partner. Move to an area with people who you find attractive, and participate in social events with like-minded people, so as to improve your odds of being similar to and familiar with attractive people.

The more subtle four:

  1. Competence – the people who we like the very best are those that strike us as highly competent, but who make some sort of humanizing blunder
  2. Physical attractiveness – many people underestimate how important a factor this is for themselves
  3. An increasingly positive view – if someone seems to be warming towards us, it is highly interesting
  4. Mis-attribution of good feelings – we feel good or excited for a reason unrelated to a person, but wrongly attribute the feeling to them

These all also suggest dating strategies. The last two seem particularly easy to manipulate. It is also worth noting that we are most attracted to people who seem to be very exclusive in their choice of partners, but who we do not expect to be picky or difficult in our case. That may not be enough to constitute a Revolutionary New Dating Paradigm, but it might be helpful for some people.

Murdoch on climate change

People certainly respond to climate change in odd ways.

Rupert Murdock – owner of the climate denying Fox News channel – now believes that “we can’t afford the risk of inaction” when it comes to climate change, and has decided to make his News Corporation carbon neutral (probably will dubious offsets).

Naturally, Fox News barely reported on their owner’s change of heart, and are unlikely to change their editorial stance. This seems to illustrate how, in many ways, the public discourse on climate change is a sort of self-serving theatre. This seems to indicate just how far away we are from really grasping the magnitude of risk associated.

Climate change and the seal hunt

Over the weekend, I found myself wondering about the relative impact of Canada’s extremely controversial seal hunt and climate change, when it comes to the prospects for Grey Seals and Harp Seals.

Given that it seems highly likely that climate change will eventually eliminate summer sea ice, and given that creatures including seals seem to be critically dependent on sea ice, it does seem possible that climate change will render these seal species extinct, eventually, or will sharply curtail their numbers.

Stage one of a comparative analysis would be developing an estimate of how many seals would have lived between the present and the non-human-induced extinction of the species. They could potentially endure until the end of the carbon cycle, or until the sun expands into a red giant. More plausibly, they might exist in large numbers until the next time natural climate change produces a world too hot to include Arctic sea ice.

If we had an estimate of how far off that probably is, and an estimate of the mean number of seals that would be alive across that span, then we can estimate how many seals would be lost if humanity eliminates summer sea ice and, by extension, wipes out or sharply curtails the number of these animals in the wild.

It is possible to imagine a chart showing seal population year by year, extending far into the future. There could be one shaded segment showing the projected seal population in the absence of human intervention, and others showing possible population crashes resulting from anthropogenic climate change. A third shaded area could show the number of seals taken annually by hunters. The relative area of the shaded regions would show the relative magnitude of hunting and climate change, as causes of seal mortality. If you think of all the seals that would have lived, if we hadn’t locked in the eventual disappearance of summer arctic sea ice, the number killed by hunters is probably quite small.

My suspicion is that hunting would be a tiny blip, compared with climate change. If so, the environmentalist campaign to end seal hunting seems misdirected. Even if protesters are more concerned about animal cruelty than about species sustainability, this argument seems to hold up. Surely it is cruel for the seals to suffer and slowly die off as their habitat loses the capacity to sustain them.

I think it would be well worth some serious organization producing an quantitative version of the argument above. Like ducks, it seems quite possible that seals are distracting us from the environmental issues we should really combating, or at least encouraging us to respond to those issues in a less effective way than we could.

The market knows best, except when it comes to green technology

In another demonstration of how many conservatives are hypocrites when it comes to the environment, we have the sorry example of Canada’s billion dollar green energy fund.

Contrast these two situations:

  1. You oblige people to pay a fee when they emit greenhouse gases, and pay other people a reward if they can remove these gases permanently from the air.
  2. You set up a giant fund of cash, and give it away to some companies because they think they might find a costly way to maintain business as usual (carbon capture and storage) and then give the rest to whoever can get the most political traction.

The former approach demonstrates faith in innovation and market mechanisms. The latter approach suggests that the indefinite combination of government analysis and lobbying can somehow do better.

If we want to address climate change in a fair and effective way, we should be making firms and individuals pay the true costs of what their actions impose on everyone, while banning the most destructive activities. We should not be setting up weird mechanisms for political patronage.

More on Vancouver bike lanes

My father is quoted in a recent Vancouver Sun article about bike lanes: Council considers more bike lanes downtown.

He points out how bike lanes make cyclists feel safer, encouraging the use of bikes in urban areas. He also highlights the two greatest dangers to cyclists: people opening car doors in front of them, and drivers making right hand turns into them. Both have come up here before.

In addition to physical protective measures, I think both educational and legal strategies should be pursued. Both of these types of collisions are caused by people not checking their blind spots for incoming cyclists. Driver training should put more emphasis on the importance of this. In addition, I would advocate making it the legal responsibility of someone making a turn or opening a door to check for cyclists. If they fail to do so and cause a collision, they should have to pay compensation to the cyclist and have a penalty applied to their driving license. In egregious cases, perhaps criminal charges should be pursued.

In any event, I very much hope Vancouver continues to make itself a more appealing city for cyclists, and that other cities follow the lead from places like Vancouver, Portland, or the Netherlands.