Pope Endorsing Violence?

First, I agree with Pope Francis on many things he says and does (unlike his predecessor), and the direction in which he is taking the church. However, he has expressed an opinion that I strongly disagree with, and think is inappropriate for someone in his position. According to this report:

Gesturing towards Alberto Gasparri, a Vatican official who was next to him on board the plane, he said: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch on the nose”.

Throwing a pretend punch, the Pope said: “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others.


To a layperson, it seems that he is saying that if Face-Punch-4e0e4c3b2acd1_hiressomeone insulted his mother, he would punch him in the nose. That sounds like the Pope is endorsing violence against one who is not violent, simply because his feelings were hurt. Perhaps recognizing this misstep, the Vatican spokesman tried to do damage control:

Obviously he wasn’t justifying violence. He spoke about a spontaneous reaction that you can have when you feel profoundly offended. In this sense, your right to be respected has been put in question.

Ah, the good old “figurative”, “that’s not what he meant despite what he said” defense.

And Rev. Robert Gahl tries to further weasel out by saying,

Francis didn’t say that HE would have punched his friend for insulting his mother. He said his friend could expect to be punched, given that he should know that he had crossed a moral line in lobbing the insult and should be more careful and courteous in not causing offense.

Let’s see if this makes any sense by taking the holiness out. Imagine a drug lord telling an associate, “if dat punk ever *expletive, present participle* comes into mah territory again, he can expect a bullet through his *expletive, present participle* head”, while simultaneously making a gun gesture with his hand, pressing it against someone’s forehead, and fake-pulling the trigger. The intention of the drug lord – violence – seems more than clear, and the method – perforation of bone and thinking organ with metal pellet – is not ambiguous. Whether he does it personally or not, one can reasonably conclude: the drug lord does not merely passively condone, but actively endorses the threat of violence, and is ready to act if needed.

The example clearly shows that the Vatican spokesman was correct. The Pope obviously wasn’t justifying violence. He was ENDORSING violence. Ideas should be judged on merit alone; the person who expresses them should be irrelevant. Even if you are the Pope.

The line of argument taken by the Vatican spokesman and Rev. Gahl reminds me of the former President Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky case. Mr. Clinton narrowly avoided successful impeachment and perjury, by exploiting the incompetence of the prosecutor and creative but tortuous logic. He questioned the meaning of “is”, and came to the conclusion that even though Ms. Lewinsky was fellating him, she had sexual relations with him, but not vice versa! According to the declaratory definition, maybe. That’s getting off on a technicality, a distinction without a difference. For non-lawyers, think about how absurd that is for a moment. If one is getting serviced orally and concludes that he is not in a sexual relation, then what, exactly, is the nature of the act? For hygiene? For the taste?

Rev. Gahl argued that the Pope never said that HE would personally commit violence, despite the Pope himself gesturing with a flying fist to the victims nose. Technically he is correct. One is left to ponder, if not by the Pope himself, then by whom exactly? The Holy Secret Service? A Papal hitman? The Holy Mafia? None of these scenarios are any better than the Pope taking a swing himself. FacePunchOne often overlooked but exciting possibility is, perhaps the Pope’s mother, unhappy at being offended, flies from Argentina to find the person whom she likely does not know, and punches him in the face for an insult she did not hear. This would make the Pope merely unable to stop violence from happening, however if that is what the Pope meant, he needs to work on his communication. In any case, we are talking about a technicality. When others are trying to get you out of trouble, and the best they can do is rely on a technicality, you are on thin ice indeed. Especially if you are the Pope.

Contrary to what one might think, and as Dr. Pinker has shown in his highly recommended book, violence has greatly declined. Violence should rarely, if ever, be the response to non-violence in a civilized society. We have been moving in the right direction. We teach our children to “use words”, instead of fists, when they disagree. In a fight, we punish the one who threw the first punch. Disappointingly, this could be the Pope.

Freedom of speech is a basic human right, under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN. Unless the speech present a “clear and present danger”, all forms of expression should be protected, as unsavory or hateful as they may be. The problem is not with expression itself. It is with those who resort to violence when confronted with ideas they find offending; and to a lesser extent, those who feel that this type of violence is justified.


Update: The Pope, perhaps realizing the problematic situation he has created, backtracked somewhat.

Cancer in the News

Two separate articles about cancer hit the news recently, both of which elicited a strong reaction. One was about the occurrence of certain types of cancer often being due to chance rather than environment or lifestyle, and the other about cancer being the “best” way to die.

Reactions to the first article range from “dangerous viewpoint” “irresponsible” “garbage in, garbage out” “nihilistic” “bad science” to “smoke away” “time to binge” “told you so”. The article was published by researchers at John Hopkins University in Science, a top-tier peer reviewed journal. Although that does not automatically mean that the study is correct, it does imply that the study has been reviewed and vetted by people a lot more knowledgeable than myself and the typical commenter. It is irresponsible to dismiss a study as “garbage in, garbage out” or “bad science” simply because the implications do not fit one’s worldview.

Speaking of implications, what exactly are they? The typical strawman conclusion is that a healthy lifestyle doesn’t matter. However, that is not at all what the study concluded. The study stated that about 1/3 of the cancers studied could be attributed to genes and environmental factors. It did not look at all cancers (notably breast and prostate cancers), nor at other medical conditions, such as diabetes, which are very much linked to lifestyle. Not everyone gets cancer (much less the subset studied), not all cancers are incurable, and not all deaths are due to cancer. The “dangerous viewpoint” seems to be a kneejerk reaction to an imagined conclusion, a simplistic caricature of what the study actually says. Even at face value, putting the many obvious benefits of a healthy lifestyle aside, isn’t it worth it to improve one’s chances, even if the potential is a fraction of 1/3?

Reactions to the second article seem even more extreme, and mostly negative. Dr. Smith uses Mr. Bunuel, a well-planned end-of-life cancer case, to argue that compared to the other ways of dying, cancer is preferable. It gives the patient an opportunity to reflect and wrap up. Dr. Smith did not say that cancer is good, or that dying is good, a concept many of the commenters seem to be unable to grasp; he did make a case that out of all the different ways to die, cancer is less bad than the others.

We all must face death, and not enough of us have thought about it as carefully as we should. It is an event that greatly affects many, something too important to ignore because of a visceral aversion.  It’s not like we’re getting out of this alive.

Let’s see if an analogy can help take the visceral reaction out of the equation. If one were to be downsized from a company, would it be preferable to be given a month’s notice so one could tie up loose ends and handover work in progress, to be fired on the spot and escorted to the door immediately, or to gradually have your salary cut and be abused by supervisors until you leave in disgust?

End-of-life is not so cut and dry. Cancers, treatments, and circumstances vary widely, and perspectives are very different. A doctor is trained to be detached out of professional necessity, and it seems to be this perspective that most of the commenters find offensive. The commenters seem unaware that Dr. Smith has likely seen more cancer deaths than them combined, and a view from that perspective is probably worth considering with one’s brain rather than dismissing with one’s gut. I largely agree with this first portion of his post – I would choose time and manageable pain over sudden death.

I cannot agree with the last sentence, however. He states, “…. and let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death”. Even in the context of his post, it is difficult to see how such a blanket statement could be considered reasonable. He specifically said not to waste money trying to “cure cancer” – not drugs with astronomical cost but merely extend suffering by a month or two, which would have been a more defendable position. Yes, a blog post is meant to be informal, but this is something that should have been taken out or properly qualified before hitting the “post” button.

Thought Experiment – Honest Deception

I had this idea about a decade ago, and actually seriously considered it for a while. Even though I’ve long abandoned it, it is quite interesting as a thought experiment as it exists in a moral grey space.


I have been fascinated with placebos. It is explicitly designed to be ineffectual for the condition in question, yet it often induces an effect psychologically. Although the “Placebo Effect” is likely really due to the medical intervention and interaction, “Intervention Effect” just doesn’t sound as good. It is by nature deceptive, which is usually acceptable in a controlled trial; but in a real life doctor-patient relationship, it is difficult to get informed consent without sounding like a quack (except perhaps in this weird study).

I will share an anecdote about an ENT physician I know well. He owns and operates a clinic in a relatively rural area in East Asia. The clinic is extremely popular, with 300+ patients per day during cold and flu “high season”. As your incredulity sets in, the clinic record is over 500 patients/day (yes, for a single physician). This was decades ago, when clinics had their own pharmacies. There were several keys to success. One was managing expectations. For patients that came in after other doctors “failed” to rid them of their cold, he would tell them they would get better in a few days, and sure enough they would (duh). If the person just caught the cold, he would say it was more serious and wouldn’t be over for 10-14 days. The important part is that he would always give the patients a good dose of pills and capsules, which turn out to be mostly vitamins. According to his “market research”, the locals perceived the efficacy of the pills based on size (larger is better), color (more colorful the better, bonus points for two-toned capsules), shape (round is boring), and quantity. The pharmacy would already have cartons of individual combo packages of many large, colorful, shaped pills, which would be conveniently prescribed as “A” or “B” to save time. Not all placebos are created equal; back in those days, placebo discrimination was rampant.

Nowadays it is ethically questionable for placebos to enter a doctor-patient relationship, for obvious reasons.

Thought Experiment

Here is the thought experiment. It is difficult for a physician to take advantage of the placebo effect. Is it possible for a company to ethically sell placebos to the general public?

Currently there are already companies that sell pills with no active ingredients, but those pills are actually marketed as medicine. I consider those to be double placebos, with the giver and taker of the pill both receiving the placebo effect.

Imagine a company Obecalp Inc. It makes its pills and capsules, which contain no active ingredients, at FDA-approved GMP facilities. Aside from providing the medical field with placebos, it also has a consumer arm that sells to the general public. The consumer market is mainly for relatives of terminally or chronically ill patients with subjective symptoms such as pain.

The company provides full disclosure on its ingredients (or lack thereof). It also provides relevant literature and a summary of the latest research. Customers are explicitly told to expect that the pill will likely do nothing, and the placebo effect, if any, are likely to be for subjective symptoms only.  They are told that it may be detrimental to relationships since deception is involved, and should be used in addition to, and never replacing, proven treatments. In short, it requires informed consent.

The customers, not the doctors, would provide these placebo pills to their terminally or chronically ill relatives. This address several problems. It takes away the deception between the doctor and patient, and the accompanying financial dilemma (placebos must be charged the same as regular pills to deceive properly, even though they cost significantly less). It is by definition compatible with the principle of non-maleficence (“Do No Harm”), and may offer subjective improvements even without objective changes in the underlying condition.

Although arguably unnecessary, the company can address ethical issues about the price of the placebo by operating on a voluntary pricing model. That is, the company provides the placebos free of charge initially, and rely on the customer to pay whatever they think it is worth based on the outcome, perhaps with a suggested amount and a maximum cap (personal anecdote: I once used a voluntary pricing model at a garage sale, and people were confused without a suggested price).

I read somewhere that for controlled studies, placebo composition is not regulated nor is disclosure required; some are simply sugar pills, while others are designed to have the same appearance and even mimic possible side effects. For the consumer market this is obviously unnecessary. However, the company is free to provide a wide range of completely inert placebos in different shapes, sizes, and colors. The consumer can be confident that the pills are safe. It would be considered a “dietary supplement”, of which government approval is not required. Even the standard disclaimer “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease” seems redundant but wouldn’t hurt.

What do you think? Could this Obecalp company ethically sell placebos to the general public?

Fake Eggs

I rarely talk about anything personal on this blog; this will be an exception since I feel it is better told from a first person point of view. It combines poor storytelling with worse writing skills while diminishing neither.

I have lived in southern China since 2002. As a long time listener of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, I was pleasantly surprised when Dr. Novella did a “Science or Fiction” on China. One of the unused questions was about the existence of a fake chicken egg industry in China, something I had heard countless reports about and taken for granted to be true.

In a later episode, I heard that Rebecca Watson was invited to Hong Kong and Dongguan by David Young to speak at Skeptics in the Pub.  Of all places, I thought, Dongguan, the manufacturing capital of the world – a place best described as “If they wanted to give the world an enema, this is where they would stick the tube”.  As a surprise, I decided to get some fake eggs and bring them to the Dongguan event.  I mean, where else would it be made?

I sent different people to various local markets to get fake eggs. Knowing that these are supposedly sold alongside or mixed in with real eggs, and not expecting truthful labeling, I asked them to buy the cheapest eggs possible, if all attempts fail.

In the end I was given a bag of eggs that were very cheap, and was told that they were “questionable” and “probably fake”. I examined them very carefully, and could not immediately tell which one/ones were fake. Well, when in doubt, Google (actually in China, Baidu). Bingo! Lots of search results showing how to distinguish fake eggs from real ones. They all say roughly the same:

  1. The fake shell is shinier, but not by much. (yeah, thanks a lot)
  2. The fake shell is slightly rougher. (uh huh)
  3. Noticeable sounds when shaken due to water seeping from coagulant. (testable!)
  4. A real egg will have a faint smell/stink. (subjective but testable!)
  5. A fake egg will have a duller sound when tapped lightly. (uh huh)
  6. The white and yolk of a fake egg will quickly mix together once cracked open, since they are made of the same material. (testable, but unsure why it wouldn’t mix in the shell)
  7. When pan-frying a fake egg, the yolk will break by itself because the artificial sac membrane can’t withstand the heat. (kinda testable)
  8. A fake egg has a rubbery mouthfeel when cooked. (subjective but testable)
  9. A real egg will have crack-like patterns when opened which disappear when cooked. (testable)
  10. A real egg’s yolk will be powdery when cooked, a fake egg’s will be rubbery (testable)
  11. A real egg will start to coagulate around 45 degrees Celsius, a fake egg will not when steamed. (questionable but testable)

Putting the eggs to the test without cooking, nothing was obviously wrong except for a few that had a noticeable sound when shaken. The shells did not feel, smell, or sound any different when tapped.

I decided to look at how fake eggs are made, and perhaps that would offer some insight on how to tell them apart. Thankfully there was no shortage of material online, such as this, this, and this. Apparently the yolk and white are made of the same material, with the yolk dyed. Strangely enough, no one shows how to make a seamless shell, which to me, seems like the most difficult part of the process.  I deal with molds on a daily basis, and making a shell without a parting line is not only difficult but expensive. I had always wondered how it was made, and this was disappointing.

I looked more closely at the material on hand, and it didn’t add up. Why would the white and yolk have different properties when cooked, if they are made of the same material? Why would the yolk and white mix when opened and not in the shell? Why does nobody show how the shell is made? And then it hit me. I had been searching for “how to tell a fake egg from a real one” and “how to make a fake egg”. Is it possible, that I had been begging the question all along?

Surely enough, after some further digging, it turns out that truth is stranger than fiction. The real scam, ironically, is that scam schools are scamming prospective scammers, by promising to teach them how to make something that can’t be done.  As I realized that, my eyes rolled back so far I saw my own amygdalae.  The entire fake egg story is nothing but a “Keyser Soze”, a myth sold on fear, a meme that fits the narrative. It exists right on the edge of plausibility, seemingly tangible but just out of reach. The existence of the scam schools further embellishes and lends credence to the story, even if those schools were simply exploiting the situation opportunistically.

There is a report of a government employee (ZHU, Bao Li) who wrote to then Premier Wen in 2008 about the fake eggs and receiving an official reply 5 months later, stating that an extensive investigation in Hunan, Shandong, and Guangdong provinces uncovered no fake eggs on the market. He subsequently posted an open reward of 1000 RMB for a verifiable fake egg in the local newspaper, which has gone unclaimed since April 2009. However, it should be taken into account that no reference links were provided despite the specific claims, and I was unable to find archived material. Anecdotally, I have not been able to find anyone in China, expat or local, who has personally seen and examined a fake chicken egg.

Many have pointed to abnormal/malformed eggs as proof of fake eggs. In fact, I had personally bitten into a strange yolk, and immediately jumped to that same conclusion. This article explains the different egg abnormalities, with links to actual scientific papers.

I had always told my friends about fake eggs in China, and made the observation that it probably originated as a dare or a challenge, since a lot of ingenuity is required to make a fake egg, not to mention profitably. After all, eggs are unbranded and generic, not exactly a favorite to be counterfeited. The local counterfeit industry typically targets:

  1. Name brand items with high added value, such as luxury watches, designer bags, and footwear.
  2. Unbranded items with high market value, such as gold plated lead ingots, shark fin, bird’s nest (swiftlet spit), and O. sinensis (fungus on mummified larva).
  3. Items that can be adulterated easily, such as adding melamine to diluted milk, injecting meat with water, mixing waste oil into cooking oil.
  4. Intellectual property, such as music, software, books.

This industry calls for a much higher profit margin, being illegal and all. All of the above involve very large profit margins. Would it make sense to counterfeit (not adulterate) a low value, generic item that is fragile, tricky to make, and difficult to transport? Let’s perform a quick reality check.

Local wholesale egg price is around 5 RMB/500g. A medium sized egg is around 50 g, or about 0.5 RMB/pc (about 8 cents/pc). Let’s disregard the widely quoted figure of 4x profit and use a conservative 2x profit, a dismal return for a slammer-worthy offense. That puts us at 4 cents wholesale, or about 3.5 cents ex-factory, per PIDOOMA estimate method. For a rough comparison, let’s look at prices of some similarly made components, at container-load export quantities, which should be far cheaper than wholesale. An artificially made egg should be close to the price of a jelly (which is what it is) plus a cheap shell, which is like a ping pong ball. A 16.5g jelly candy (5 ton minimum) costs at least 5 cents, and a hollow ball (10k minimum) costs at least 6 cents. This does not take into account the fact that one has to be encased in the other, seamlessly. Even if you take away the jelly packaging and flavoring costs, things do not look good. The component material price alone (11 cents) already exceeds the wholesale price (8 cents). Keep in mind, these prices are for factory level mass production; smaller operations likely lack the production efficiencies and raw material pricing advantages.

Another major cost is labor. Once I looked at the actual alleged production process, it was obvious that the daily production potential per person is optimistic bordering on delusive. The inner and outer sac membranes are tricky to make and labor intensive, taking up to a few minutes to form. Let’s say the scammer can put in 10 solid hours a day, or 600 minutes, with no breaks or mistakes. That’s at most 300 eggs, without any time to make the shell. Let’s assume the scammer is both talented and ambidextrous. That’s 600 eggs per talented ambidextrous scammer per day. Considering that normal, slammer-free work pays at least USD$16-20/day, labor cost per egg could easily constitute 4 cents. That’s before anything else is calculated such as rent, utilities, overhead, transportation, and raw material.

Technical problems notwithstanding, a simple look at the cost could have exposed the myth. However I had blindly accepted it as fact without examination, since it seemed to fit the narrative perfectly. I had wanted it to be true, and that was enough to obscure the warning flags. It is an example of how powerful our own biases can be, and despite wishful thinking, a humbling reminder of my own credulity.

Update (2015/02/25): Getting some heavy traffic from imgur today.  Here is additional information on the raw material cost for those interested:

From a weight perspective, 1,500 eggs would weigh around 90kg.  Let’s say it’s 90% water and 10% bought materials (reports of fake eggs being 99% water is BS; an egg shell easily comes in at 10+% of the weight).  Assuming free water and an impossible 100% manufacturing yield, that’s 9kg of purchased material, which according to the articles, allegedly costs around USD$2.25/kg.  Sodium Alginate itself costs over 3x than that, paraffin wax, calcium carbonate and gypsum powder can be close to that price, for industrial grade (not food grade) raw material, ex-works, in container loads.  i.e., even in factory quantities, the raw material costs far exceed what was stated in the articles.

Counterfeiters cannot be stopped by police; however they can be stopped by a lack of profit.  Given the methods and ingredients described, it is highly unlikely that anyone could produce counterfeit eggs at break-even, let alone at a profit margin enticingly enough to risk jail.

Roko’s Basilisk

Warning: this post is laden with jargon.  Start with this story as a soft introduction to the convoluted way of thinking, then read this article to get up to speed.  Read this last.

A strange but fascinating thought experiment has emerged from the site Less Wrong some time ago, called the Roko’s Basilisk. David Auerbach called it the “Most Terrifying Thought Experiment of All Time” in Slate. In essence, it is a secular version of Pascal’s Wager, with a twist of “The Game” mixed in (for those that do not wish to be exposed to a mental virus, do NOT click on the link forThe Game”).

I will not repeat the article here, as David does a great job of explaining the thought experiment, along with some introductory concepts on Timeless Decision Theory and acausal trade (in narrative form here).  Apparently some Less Wrong users suffered enough mental anguish that it was banned outright by the site founder Elizier Yudkowsky, calling it an “infohazard”, an action he later regretted because of the Streisand Effect.

The main problem with Roko’s Basilisk, is that it seems to be specifically tailored for those who have adopted (and applied blindly) certain thinking tools. The foundation for these tools to work is built on layers upon layers of speculative, conjunctive reasoning. Jumping out of the system (JOOTSing per Dennet) and examining the premises, it becomes obvious that it is a shaky house of cards. Ironically, the inability to grasp the miniscule probability of these interdependent, chained assumptions, is an example of the scope insensitivity that Less Wrong strives to address, and is similar to Pascal’s Mugging. I prefer Alexander Kruel’s analysis (archived) to the one on Rationalwiki.

Kruel describes it quite nicely as follows (archived article is here):

A textbook example of what is wrong with New Rationalism is Roko’s basilisk. It relies on several speculative ideas, each of which is itself speculative. Below is an incomplete breakdown.

Initial hypothesis 1 (Level 1): The human brain can be efficiently emulated on a digital computer.

Initial hypothesis 2 (Level 1): There exists, or will exist, a superhuman intelligence.

Initial hypothesis 3 (Level 1): The expected utility hypothesis is correct. Humans either are, or should become expected utility maximizers. And it is practically feasible for humans to maximize expected utility.

Initial hypothesis 4 (Level 1): Humans should care about what happens to copies of them, even if it occurs in a time or universe totally disconnected from this one.

Dependent hypothesis 1 (Level 2): At least one superhuman intelligence will deduce and adopt timeless decision theory, or a similar decision theory.

Dependent hypothesis 2 (Level 3): Agents who are causally separated can cooperate by simulating each other (Acausal trade).

Dependent hypothesis 3 (Level 4): A human being can meaningfully model a superintelligence in their brain.

Dependent hypothesis 4 (Level 5): At least one superhuman intelligence will want to acausally trade with human beings.

Dependent hypothesis 5 (Level 6): At least one superhuman intelligence will be able to obtain a copy of you that is good enough to draw action relevant conclusions about acausal deals.

Dependent hypothesis 6 (Level 7): People will build an evil god-emperor because the evil god-emperor will punish anyone who doesn’t help build it, but only if they read this sentence (Roko’s basilisk).

Final hypothesis (Level 8): The expected disutility of level 8 is large enough that it is rational to avoid learning about Roko’s basilisk.

Note how all of the initial hypotheses, although accepted by New Rationalists, are somewhat speculative and not established facts. The initial hypotheses are however all valid. The problem starts when they begin making dependent hypotheses that rely on a number of unestablished initial hypotheses. The problem gets worse when the dependencies become even more fragile when further conclusions are drawn based on hypotheses that are already N levels removed from established facts. But the biggest problem is that eventually action relevant conclusions are drawn and acted upon.

The problem is that logical implications can reach out indefinitely. The problem is that humans are spectacularly bad at making such inferences. Which is why the amount of empirical evidence required to accept a belief should be proportional to its distance from established facts.

It is much more probable that we’re going make everything worse, or waste our time, than that we’re actually maximizing expected utility when trying to act based on conjunctive, non-evidence-backed speculations. Since such speculations are not only improbable, but very likely based on fallacious reasoning.

As computationally bounded agents we are forced to restrict ourselves to empirical evidence and falsifiable hypotheses. We need to discount certain obscure low probability hypotheses. Otherwise we will fall prey to our own shortcomings and inability to discern fantasy from reality.

Less Wrong seems to attract an audience who likely possess above average intelligence and reasoning abilities, as reflected in the comments on the site. It is a reminder of how intelligence does not preclude one from falling victim to mental traps, and the toughest trap to escape from is of the self-dug variety. And although more nuanced and subtle, the God like nature of the thought experiment suggests that the vestigial superstition can rear its ugly head, even in groups one would least expect.

Strangely enough, even though Roko’s Basilisk is expressly forbidden at Less Wrong, a similar version of this thought experiment popped up and was discussed extensively here. Suppose that someone developed extremely advanced artificial intelligence, and it is “locked in a box”, with you as the “gatekeeper” (details and protocol here). The AI and you converse through a text terminal only, and you can decide on your own free will, whether to let the AI out of the box and into the wild – the equivalent of opening Pandora’s Box. I admit that the AI makes a very compelling argument, if it ever comes to that point. It sounds like a solution in search of a problem, or a dilemma constructed for dilemma’s sake. I consider it the futurist’s version of the philosophical Giant Robot with a Swampman twist (Dennet, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking); philosophically interesting but of limited use in real life.

Thinking tools and thought experiments are useful, but can go awry and taken too far if not applied carefully.  Knowing folk psychology (ToM) does not mean that it is a good idea to go full meta and negotiate with yourself.  Some common sense can often keep oneself from burrowing into a philosophical existential depression.  After all, our brains and cognitive capacity are limited (Bounded Rationality), and the mere ability to imagine something does not make it any closer to reality than science fiction.

Doomsday Machine

My blog posts are mostly about rationality and careful thinking.

This is not one of them.

In a hypothetical world where everyone is rational, one would expect better outcomes with careful, calculated actions. In reality, we are far less rational than we would care to admit; and sometimes irrationality wins.

In the classic Kubrick film “Dr. Strangelove”, the Soviets create a Doomsday Machine, which will automatically and irrevocably set off nuclear bombs and destroy Earth if one of their key targets is hit. Obviously this Doomsday Machine provides immense deterrence value. Ironically, the Soviets kept it a secret, utterly defeating its purpose.

A Doomsday Machine is the ultimate manifestation of irrationality, a willingness and commitment to go all the way. It is greatly effective as a deterrent, as the outcome is certain, terrible, and irrevocable. The key, of course, is to make everyone aware of the consequences.

Another example: in a game of chicken, two cars speed towards each other and the one who swerves away first, loses. The best way to win is to break off your steering wheel and throw it out the window conspicuously, ensuring your opponent sees it. It is worth noting that, although imitation is a form of flattery, adopting the same strategy after you see your opponent do it, is suboptimal.

Curiously, by taking away one’s own freedom to choose, the opponent’s freedom to choose is taken away as well, assuming the opponent is rational. In this case, irrationality wins.

It comes in handy on the poker table. Going all-in takes away your opponent’s freedom to bluff. Similarly, by calling a large bet early on in the game with a less than premium hand, the other players will hesitate to bluff you later, knowing you might call the bluff.

However, what is most interesting to me is not how irrationality applies to game theory, but to human emotions such as revenge (and by extension, patriotism), love, and grief. My previous post on revenge focused on the revenger’s state of mind; the omission of publicity is atypical and likely pathological, but more effective and nuanced.

To me, the most surprising of all is how it applies to grief. It seems like such a strange thing to require an explanation; after all, grief happens when you lose someone or something you love dearly. The more you love, the deeper the grief. Yet it does not explain why grief is so debilitating and intense, to the point where one cannot eat, think, or function properly. Evolutionarily this makes little sense, as one would be more vulnerable to become food for predators. Some animals seem to grieve, but not to the extent of humans. Some propose that grief forces one to plan for life after the change; this is unsatisfying as it is too intense and lasting to be useful, not to mention that it impairs one’s ability to plan.

What parent has not worried sick that something bad might happen to his/her child? That is the byproduct of love, a reminder to protect and cherish what we have. Perhaps that’s what grief is: a deterrent, an emotional Doomsday Machine. Pointless once it goes off – certain, terrible, and irrevocable. An unusual explanation, but so far the best I’ve seen.

Credit: most of the observations are from How the Mind Works by Dr. Steven Pinker, one of my favorite authors.

Let’s Break Homeostasis!

A common view on health, especially in Asian cultures, is that the root cause of maladies and diseases, especially cancer, is from an “acidic” body type, and that the key to good health and longevity is to achieve an “alkaline” body type through diet. This is often shared and spread on social media without second thought.

There are entire industries devoted to making products, such as alkaline water, based on this concept, along with countless internet memes and articles.

This view has been popularized by a Japanese doctor, who allegedly tested 100 cancer patients and found their blood to be acidic. The details are not known, however this sounds like a small retrospective cohort observational study. It is unclear if this study has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, or replicated independently, as I could not find it. Supposedly from this he infers causation and declares that an acidic body type is the root of all evil. Really? Assuming that his findings are true (doubtful for reasons to follow), an observational study by definition shows at most correlation. It cannot prove causation.

For example, say you look at a bunch of bad golfers, and you find that they share some common traits, such as poorly fitted, beginner clubs and a towel stuck in their back pockets. You look at the pro golfers and they all have pro clubs and no towels. It would be foolish to conclude that one is a poor golfer because of cheap clubs and tastelessly hanging towels, instead of other more plausible explanations such as luck, caddie, conspiracy, and minor details such as practice/skill level and hand-eye coordination.

OK, say the 100 known cancer patients all had acidic blood, and for some unknown reason were still alive. Since they were known cancer patients, most likely they were undergoing treatment (chemotherapy, radiation, etc.). It is possible that the acidic blood is a side effect from the therapy. It is also possible that the acidic blood was caused by the cancer, and not the other way around. Perhaps the instrumentation lacked calibration, or the author’s intentions were misaligned.

Let’s turn to an article oft attributed to and allegedly written by Dr. Kuo at the Veteran’s General Hospital in Taiwan. The claims are outlandish, but since it was reported by state run TV, it is likely that he actually did write this article. The claims are not automatically true because he is a medical doctor (argument from authority); nor are they automatically false because they do not fit my worldview. Each claim deserves to be looked at carefully and critically.

First the author commits the same logical fallacy about correlation and causation. Since this is the entire premise of the article, it should be dismissed. It’s like discussing the best strategy for surviving the zombie apocalypse.

The author claims specifically:

1. Acidic blood is the root of most diseases, based on information of unknown veracity and logical fallacy;

2. Clinical manifestations of acidic blood, without citation;

3. Four causes of acidic blood, without citation or reasoning;

4. Four categories of diseases causes by acidic blood, with no citation;

5. Six causes of acidic blood despite previously listing four;

6. Blood pH can be effectively influenced by food intake, with no citation;

7. People should attempt to increase blood pH level by eating specific foods;

8. Six categories of food from highly acidic to highly alkaline, without quantification;

9. Four types of people who are at higher risk;

10. Twenty three criteria to check if your blood is acidic (!) other than a pH test.

Let’s use the standard, universal definition of acidic being pH < 7.0 and alkaline being pH > 7.0. The central claim, of course, is that acidic blood is not healthy. Regular blood pH is between 7.38-7.42. Below 7.35, acidosis occurs, above 7.45, alkalosis occurs. To have acidic blood (pH <7.0) for an extended amount of time, would mean that your whole body acid-base buffer, i.e., homeostasis, is broken. It is technically true, however meaningless, that acidic blood is not healthy, since a termination event would likely occur quickly.

The truth is, everyone already has alkaline blood.

The clinical manifestations of acidic blood that the author states: “An acidic body type manifests itself in the following ways: dull complexion; athlete’s foot; lethargy; poor cardiovascular shape; obesity” are likely moot, as a dull complexion or fungal feet seem less important, especially when you are in a coma or dead.

To break acid-base homeostasis, it turns out, is not an easy task. One would think that bad things can happen if blood pH wanders outside of this very tight range; anybody that has taken chemistry knows that it doesn’t take much to alter pH levels. Wouldn’t it logically be easier to kill someone by injecting acid instead of, say, cyanide then? Actually, someone tried that. Enter Van Slyke and Cullen, who for some sadistic reason, injected a ridiculous amount of sulfuric acid directly into the bloodstream of a poor dog. The dog not only lived, but its blood pH level did not change by much. Presumably emboldened by this experiment, many others have proceeded to test the body’s acid-base buffer with a variety of acids and alkali, not only in dogs and cats, but in humans as well. All this happened in the early to mid 1900s, presumably before the time of IRB ethics reviews.  The body is really, really good at regulating blood pH levels.

It turns out, the easiest way to make your blood pH level higher, at least temporarily, is by hyperventilating. It is certainly more effective than the foods that the author claims, which are both inconsistent and have no prior plausibility. Whether you can keep hyperventilating constantly is a different story.

Out of curiosity, let’s look at some of the other claims.

Foods that are highly or moderately acidic: Egg yolk, cheese, white sugar, bread, tuna, chicken, cream, horse meat(!). I have strong doubts that these foods are in any way acidic, except for horse meat which I have not consumed, at least not knowingly. Even if you use the special pleading logical fallacy and say that these foods break down into something strongly acidic, it makes no sense because in order to do so, something strongly alkaline must be formed at the same time. It’s like pushing on the steering wheel to make the car go faster; it cancels out.

Foods that are highly or moderately alkaline: wine, grapes, egg whites, strawberry, carrots, lemons(!!!). Lemons are alkaline, so the author claims. Maybe that’s why I see all the heartburn sufferers instinctively reach for the lemon instead of the Tums at a frequency of well, exactly never. Perhaps the author really meant lemon-colored Tums; otherwise the thought that a scientifically trained medical doctor working in a top government hospital could believe that a lemon is alkaline would make me very, very depressed. And wary.

It is never made clear as to how these foods, when ingested in normal amounts can influence pH value of blood, after passing through your stomach, which is more acidic than Coke (pH 1.5~3), and then passing through your intestines, which is alkaline. Food is mostly digested and absorbed in the intestines, an alkaline environment.

How about some other claims. “Excessive intake of acidic foods result in acidic blood, which makes the blood sticky, causing poor circulation, cold hands and feet, stiff shoulder, and insomnia”. In other words, food affecting blood pH (not established with low prior plausibility) is further stretched to also increase viscosity of blood. Asserted as fact without citation or evidence, I did a quick search on the literature, and surprisingly did find a study from 2002 supporting the viscosity claim, but not the symptoms. No studies validated the premise of normal food intake having hemorheologic effects.

Let’s look at the 6 asserted reasons behind acidic blood:

1. Improper balance between acidic and alkaline foods.

2. Lack of exercise.

3. Psychological stress.

4. Acidic habits such as smoking and drinking.

5. Irregular daily routine.

6. Environmental pollution, especially water and air.

Let’s see….wine was touted as a highly alkaline food, but here it suddenly becomes acidic. I’m confused. Environmental pollution is a head scratcher, as the amount of ingested water necessary to influence homeostasis would probably be deadly on its own. And unless you’re living next to an active volcano, air affecting homeostasis is probably the least of your concern.

I am not saying that whatever the author is recommended is invalid. On the contrary, a lot of it is good, reasonable, common-sense advice on a healthy lifestyle. However, the pity is that a lot of this sound advice is given under the pretense of nonsensical, magical thinking. Sound advice should stand on its own, with evidence to back it up.

It is unnecessary to package it with misleading and factually incorrect medical conditions. An analogy can be made with say, murder. One should not murder, simply because it is morally unacceptable. Some claim that murder is unacceptable because a book from the bronze/iron age threatens that murderers will be tortured for an infinite duration, in a location with uncomfortably high temperature after death.  Convoluted, and simply unnecessary.


This is a loose English version of my Facebook post.

This thought experiment is based on Daniel Dennett’s Library of Mendel (originally from Fechner), although he used it to illustrate something completely different.

Imagine a library that has all the possible books ever written. Suppose each book is 500 pages with 40 lines each, with 50 spaces for each line. Each page will then consist of 2000 characters per page (including spaces). Say there are 100 possible characters (including space and punctuation marks), which should cover upper and lower cases of English and European variations of the alphabet.

Somewhere in the library, there is a book consisting of nothing but blank pages, and another book consisting of nothing but obscenities. It is a large, but finite, library.

Within this library you can find every book ever published, and their translations in all languages, including long-lost ancient ones. If the book you are looking for is longer than 500 pages, it can be found in the library, properly split and numbered into different volumes.

Fascinatingly enough, here you can find your biography that is 100% accurate, not only for your past, but also perfectly predict everything in the future, to the day you die. In fact, you can find it written in regular English, ebonics, limericks, or with obscenities scattered throughout.

You can also find the correct value of pi (3.14159265358979…), up to infinite precision, volume after volume. You can find it spelled out as well, like three point one four one five nine two six five and so on. Paradoxically, pi itself is infinite, however you can find it in this large but finite library.

In this library, you can find anything you want to know about the universe, from Mozart to your innermost thoughts.

Everything I have written so far is technically true. It is also completely misleading and deceptive.

  1. Choice of words. The use of “library” and “books” primes you to think of them as what you commonly encounter. In fact, the vast majority of “books” contain nothing but gibberish. The chance of you finding a volume that contains English words is astronomically small. Among these volumes, the chance of you finding a volume that contains grammatically correct sentences is also astronomically small. Among these volumes, the chances of you finding a volume that makes sense is again, astronomically small. Among these volumes, the chances of you finding a volume that is correct, is again, astronomically small. This is very different from the concept of “book” or “library” that you are used to, where every volume is meaningful and deliberately written to convey a thought. An analogy would be me pointing to a bunch of numbers and proclaiming, “within these numbers you can find the winning combination of the next 100 lottos”. The difference being that the odds are better finding the lotto numbers.
  2. The example of pi is also completely misleading. You need to know pi to the precision you want in order to find the volumes, not the other way around. Yes, pi is infinite, and the volumes are technically finite, so how does that work? It works because sooner or later, you will reuse the volumes. Specifically, a volume will be reused when a 1,000,000 digit sequence repeats and aligns. Sounds crazy, but it is a mathematical certainty.
  3. Using “your biography” induces you to be emotionally invested. It uses your narcissism against yourself. After all, who doesn’t want to know their own future? The problem is, even though such a biography exists, you wouldn’t know which one is correct, even if you could find it.

To break away from this nonsense, we need to adjust the parameters and see what happens. In Dennett’s terms, it is “turn the knobs on the intuition pump”. What happens when we reduce the number of pages from 500 to just one page? Well, the library becomes much smaller, and you are simply retrieving pages instead of volumes. What happens when we reduce it further, to just one line of 50 spaces? What happens when we reduce it to just one character?

One character? That’s easy. It’s just the original 100 character set. Everything is simply built from this character set.

In fact, we can further reduce it to 0 and 1, if we encode into ASCII or Unicode.

This thought experiment shows how framing can mislead one into thinking a certain way, how cherry picking special cases can paint a rosy picture, how the brain is not equipped to deal with large numbers (scope insensitivity), how easy it is to see meaning in randomness, and how getting emotionally involved can cloud one’s judgment. Politicians use these dirty tricks, as do weight loss commercials.

Sharpening one’s thinking tools, along with some understanding of psychology, can come in super handy.  Especially when you need to deceive others effectively.

How Long Would You Want to Live?

At birthdays, I’ve heard people wish others they live to 120. It’s a nice thing to say, since everyone wants to live a long life, no? Well, let’s see.

Other than the possible but statistically unlikely age of 120, let’s not make any unfounded assumptions about the rest of the world. That means, no anti-ageing miracle breakthrough, no cyborg-like mechanical integration, no brain-in-a-jar virtual reality, no special pleading.

Imagine Longoria, a 30 year old female born in a developed country, married with 2 kids, ages 1 and 4. According to the United Nations World Population Prospects, 2012 Revision, her life expectancy is around 80, and her children’s life expectancy is around 85 or so.

Cognitive Impact

Some say age-related cognitive decline starts in the 50s, while a more recent study shows that it starts in the 20s-30s. They all agree that cognitive decline accelerates towards the end. By 60 there usually is some objectively noticeable effects despite the self-delusion, and it is hard to imagine what an additional 60 years of decline will do after that. At 110 there is unlikely to be much of a mentally functioning “self” left, nor a veridical memory of it. And then come 10 long years to deteriorate. If Alzheimer’s/dementia sets in, which will for 1 in 5 reaching 80, the remaining decades would be more of a burden.  Unfortunately even if one does not have it by then, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every 5 years after 65 simply due to age.  It is hard to extrapolate to 120 due to low sample size, but the odds are not in one’s favor.  There is little joy in living to 120 if one cannot reasonably make sound decisions.

With the ability to learn, think, and remember diminished, it is likely that Longoria will spend decades behind the technology curve. Imagine an average 90 year old today in the digital, wireless, always connected world, marveling at how much the world has changed in a few short years, and how detached that must feel. Longoria will have 30 years of continued mental decline on top of 30 years of rapid technological advance, after she hits 90. Of course the premise is that keeping up with society in general is desirable. An alternative is to keep up with her peers rather than the larger general society; however this option is no longer available as all of Longoria’s peers would be dead for decades.

Physical Impact

The ageing process is brutal and unrelenting. Few if any machines can run for 100 years without major overhaul; similarly, virtually every piece of original equipment in the body will experience wear and tear, breakage and replacement. From vision, hearing, mobility, strength, endurance, to any other objective measure of health, Longoria will be on a steady decline.

Most seniors end up losing mobility and consequently their independence. For many, that happens around 85-90. Let’s give it the benefit of a doubt and say that happens to Longoria at 100. She will spend 20 long years using a walker, wheelchair, or in bed, needing assistance for even the most basic daily needs.

Social Impact

Undoubtedly, Longoria will outlive her spouse, her children, and her friends by decades. There is a very real possibility that she will outlive most of her grandchildren as well, and those grandchildren that have not died will likely be quite old and not in a position to be caregivers themselves.

All of Longoria’s old friends will have long died, and any new friends that still survive will be decades younger than her, and probably have a few generation gaps. It is unlikely that real, meaningful companionship will be attainable, especially with the cognitive decline. It is lonely at the top.

Financial Impact 

Most people plan for retirement and build their nest egg for 20-30 years at most. When the savings run dry, and obviously unlikely to generate new income, the situation becomes rather dire. Medical costs generally increase as people age, and senior care is not cheap. Most likely Longoria will run out of retirement savings, and become a significant financial burden on the children and grandchildren. On the bright side, she will have received more than her fair share of whatever social benefits exist at the time. If any.


Sometimes death is not the worst thing. I’ve heard of the victim’s family asking the judge to spare the killer’s life; they wanted life in prison without parole instead for him, preferably with big black dudes with testosterone squirting out their pores as roommates, and they wished him a long, eventful life. Seems a lot more vicious than death.

Intentions aside, I consider living to 120 a curse.

Yet Another Thinking Meat Project

As a secular humanist, I have been thinking about what I can contribute to society that would have the largest impact with my limited resources.

Before I get to that, I will give a bit of personal background (and anecdote). I grew up in both Taiwan and America, and was exposed to both education systems. My personal experience is that the Asian education system tends to emphasize rote learning, math, and respect for authority. Science is taught as a collection of facts, rather than a method. What is in the textbook will be on the exams, and the only correct answer is what is in the textbook. There is very little interaction in the classroom, much less intelligent discourse. Traditional views and values are taught without critical examination. There is very little questioning and a lot of blind accepting, which I suspect is mostly cultural. Not a stretch, since in the old days questioning the emperor generally resulted in meat separation. Specifically, at the neck.

I attended a Catholic school and then a Christian school until 9th grade. I do not remember when I no longer believed, but I do remember that the hypocrisy clearly turned me off, and contributed to my subsequent wholesale rejection of religion. The way I saw it back then, if everything glorious were to be attributed to their preferred deity, then they better have a good explanation for things not-so-glorious. As no one could convincingly do so then, and insisted that the problem was with yours truly instead, I could only conclude that this deity in question was cruel, vain, vengeful, and jealous, or the school staff didn’t know what they were preaching. Neither case was worth my time. As a kid it was a simple dichotomy and I was quite firmly on the opposing side. Today, older but not much more mature, armed with the illusion of thinking more clearly, my view on anthropomorphized, monotheistic religion has not changed much.

As I moved on to study in the US, what struck me most was not what was taught, but how it was taught. It was obvious to me that having critical thinking skills was important, if not indispensable, at least in my experience. The odd thing is that by the time you are in college, it is already assumed that one has this skill; however looking through most high school curricula, it is unclear if this need has been adequately addressed.

My father, who recently passed away, had a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Stanford. His career, however, was mainly excelling as an outstanding businessman. He was asked if he regretted the years spent pursuing that PhD. Not one bit, he said, as it was through the rigorous PhD program that he learned how to think. That resonates with me in particular, as I had felt the same about my time spent there.

That, is also what bothers me.

Why, does it take years of toiling away in the sciences or academia to learn how to think carefully and critically? Shouldn’t this be a prerequisite, not only for the scientifically inclined, but for everyone in general? Is there a particular reason why this is not taught explicitly in schools? Perhaps this would offend religious or cultural feelings, be considered too advanced, abstract, boring, or of limited usefulness? I do not know. But I guess I won’t know until I try.

I believe what sets us apart is the amazing 3 pound chunk of thinking meat between our ears. Evolutionarily, it is the ultimate manifestation of intelligence over muscle. It is highly adaptable, extremely good at pattern recognition, approximations and heuristics; however it also filters, distorts, deceives, and confabulates, all behind the scene. What our brain can do that other species likely cannot, is the ability to think about thinking (metacognition), from something as innate and seemingly simple as theory of mind/folk psychology, to more advanced concepts such as morality and philosophy. In particular I believe the ability to think systematically and critically is one of the most significant advantages, as it can make us arrive at better approximations of the truth through careful reasoning, and override our primitive evolved responses such as fight-or-flight, in-group tribalism, or other primal emotions.

The world has changed significantly and will continue to change. In the past people relied on books and libraries and newspapers for information; doctors had their PDRs and were rarely questioned. However in this age of information, everything is a simple query away on the interwebs. People self-diagnose and question doctors all the time. Jenny McCarthy attended the University of Google. One major difference that I see is that the books of past were typically better fact-checked, newspapers better edited and their sources vetted, as opposed to the current environment, in which anyone can put up any type of information on the internet, accurate or not. I believe that now, more than ever, one needs to have a great BS detector to navigate this sea of misinformation. Unfortunately this is not an innate skill that we have evolved to have; it needs to be learned, developed, and practiced. A natural predisposition alone does not suffice, as evidenced to a music prodigy still requiring the due practice to achieve greatness.

Therefore, what I want to accomplish with my limited resources, hopefully of significance, is educating people on not what to think, but how to think. Specifically, I would like to start a guest lecture series on critical thinking skills for international high school students, here in the southern China/Hong Kong area. My personal guess is that high school students would have the intellectual curiosity and cognitive capacity for this, if presented appealingly. This is, of course, not based on any observable evidence but rather wishful thinking and fallible personal recollection. So far so good for what I will temporarily dub Yet Another Thinking Meat Project.

I would like the series to be fun and thought-provoking, as I believe that this is a subject that is best thought through, not taught through. I would like it to be hands-on and entertaining, with demonstrations and experiments that leave a lasting impression. I have looked at some of the existing material, such as “Your Deceptive Mind – A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking” by Dr. Steven Novella, and as excellent a course as it is, it may be less appealing to high school kids.

Maybe it could start out with a magic show, to highlight the fact that perceptions are easily fooled and what the brain constructs is not always veridical. Perhaps get a license to show some clips from “Brain Games (National Geographic)”, with its entertaining and insightful experiments. Show the cognitive biases and how they affect one’s thinking, from a third-person point of view for amusement; and through a first-person experiment for impact. With real life examples, show the difference between science and pseudoscience, evidence and anecdote, argument and assertions, motivated reasoning and intellectually honest thinking, and how not to make false dichotomies like this one. Explore the various logical fallacies, with examples and thought experiments.

There are several challenges:

  1. A course outline with the appropriate breadth and depth. How many lectures can reasonably cover the topic? Dr. Novella’s course has 24; what can it be reasonably condensed to?
  2. An instructor or instructors, available over a period of time for the lecture series, in the general area of southern China/Hong Kong
  3. Buy-in from international schools
  4. Keeping the audience interested

Perhaps JREF can help?

Update: David Young is interested, hopefully we can make something happen together 🙂

Update 2: I have decided to start writing a “Skeptic’s Corner” monthly column in a local expat magazine called Hubhao, and also start a program for ISD high school students in the form of an interesting problem every month to think about

Update 3: Sadly, David Young has passed away

Update 4: Hubhao has gone belly up, and the monthly question to think about (Thinking Corner) was never really popular at ISD