It Did Not Take Matt Bruenig and Jon White Two Days to Make a Good Child Tax Credit Website 24 Jul 2021

I am often voyaging into areas where I am not an expert, and I often get things wrong or overlook subtleties, so it is always nice when the universe grants me the higher ground, so to put it, letting me be the expert pointing out some confusion in the work of a holidaying writer. (The world would undoubtedly be a better place if every conversation, and perhaps even every entry into a journal or diary, was tenderly guarded by an expert in its subject matter.) The occasion this time was my reading a blog post by Matt Bruenig about the U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) Child Tax Credit (CTC) sign-up website for people who haven’t filed a tax report.

I want to be careful here, because Bruenig is, I think, an excellent and insightful writer and policy analyst, as is shown, for example, in his previous posts on the CTC. I agree with most of what is written in this latest post, too. But I think he underestimates the amount of work that goes into a website like the one he is criticising, and I think a more accurate picture will blunt the force of his critique.

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Dimensions of Animal Advocacy Terminology 20 Jul 2021

All of my observations so far have led to very little in the way of conclusion. So, yes, animal advocacy underwent a period of conflict with animal welfarists on one side and animal rights abolitionists on the other, and Effective Animal Advocates (EAAs) may be able to resolve that conflict more or less satisfactorily. But what does that mean for the problem of terminology, the one that the Sentience Institute touches on when it asks whether we, “[w]hen discussing the plight of farmed animals, should […] use terms like ‘rights’ and ‘autonomy’ or ‘welfare’ and ‘suffering’”? After writing my way through this, I am sure I don’t know what terminology EAAs should adopt in such-and-such a circumstance, but I do think I have a pretty good idea of what parameters we can adjust when choosing a terminology or message.

From a pretty cursory look at the research, I gather that several attempts have been made, both by EAAs and other researchers, to understand if some message X persuades more effectively than some other message Y, but that these studies are often underpowered and/or plagued by methodological issues like lack of control groups. What’s more, usually these studies are testing whether people change their diets as a result of having seen new information, but it’s not clear that this is the most important thing to measure; in the long-term, it could for example be better to change attitudes or donation patterns (assuming for the moment that they are not too tightly coupled, in which case it’s kind of all the same). My general impression is that EAAs currently base a lot of their terminology and messaging choices on their experience in advocacy and on their having talked to a lot of people about animal ethics.

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Possible Resolutions to the Rights/Welfare Debate in Animal Advocacy 16 Jul 2021

In a post entitled “Welfarists or Abolitionists? Division Hurts Animal Advocacy”, Jon Bockman, at that point the Executive Director at Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE), argued that the welfare/rights debate is harmful and misses the point, because, to him, welfarist initiatives (he discusses cage-free eggs) can be useful stepping stones to abolitionism; they can allow organisations to “get their foot in the door with the public or corporations”. In other words, the idea is to first get them to agree with a modest request (e.g. flexitarianism or, in corporations, cage-free eggs), and then, after having established a relationship, gradually increase the demands (to vegetarianism and eventually veganism or, in corporations, to replacing meat with fully plant-based alternatives).

The background here was that Gary Francione had criticised the press release of an ACE-recommended charity, Mercy for Animals (MFA), calling the release “morally repugnant” among other things. Animal rights and welfare advocates are in the unenviable position of wanting billions of people to make rather significant lifestyle changes and also wanting for-profit corporations to facilitate this change. Bockman argues that this is best done incrementally – that you nudge an omnivore to eat a little less meat, and a flexitarian to go vegetarian, and a vegetarian to go vegan, all one step at a time. “[Francione] does not agree”, he writes, “with MFA’s use of conventional marketing tactics to meet people where they are rather than to demand a radical change in perspective, and his viewpoint ignores the gains that can be made be using MFA’s approach. Animal advocates who have been immersed in the advocacy movement for long periods of time tend to forget what it’s like to be on the other side.”

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Rights or Welfare for Animals? 7 Jul 2021

It is a great paradox of our time that we are more aware of and in tune with animals’ concerns than at any point in our history even as we cause more of them to suffer than ever before. Like any paradox, this one too has its explanation, or anyway one that seems likely to me: that animal advocacy grew into a large social movement in response to the staggering growth of factory farming, and that factory farming has kept expanding since then because the forces that drive it are stronger than animal advocacy is, at least so far. For animal advocates to achieve their aims, they will ultimately need to persuade basically all people to make significant lifestyle changes by switching to vegan diets. There might not be any getting around that. This puts them in an interesting and kind of unique position where messaging and public perception are really important.

Terminology seems like something of an unresolved question in the movement. For example, the Sentience Institute asks, “When discussing the plight of farmed animals, should we use terms like ‘rights’ and ‘autonomy’ or ‘welfare’ and ‘suffering’?” Of course there are really two questions being asked here, one about what is correct philosophically – which terms best describe the soundest moral system – and the other about what is the best messaging to adopt tactically, in order to persuade people. This distinction is not always made in debates about animal ethics language, and that has muddied the waters somewhat. In a way, the former seems most important because it is most fundamental. We derive the goals that we strive towards from its answer, and we should probably not let our messaging slide too far from what we take to be the truth, partly because the alternative is dishonest, and partly because it seems like a higher-fidelity way of spreading our ideas.

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Interview with Lucia Coulter: Lead Exposure, Effective Altruism, Progress in Malawi 3 Jul 2021

Lead, the most abundant of heavy metals, has been used by humans for thousands of years; there are records of lead poisoning in the ancient world, where it was used in water pipes and earthenware vessels. Still today, lead exposure is a significant global problem, especially among poorer people in the developed world and in the developing world generally. Even exposure to small amounts of lead can have significant and often irreversible health effects, especially in children, including impaired cognition, hyperactivity, cardiovascular disease and so on. Attina & Trasande estimates the yearly cost of lead exposure in low- and middle-income countries to be nearly one trillion dollars, well over one per cent of world GDP when the study was made. One of the main sources of lead exposure in children today is lead-based paint.

Lucia Coulter is a co-founder and co-director of the Lead Exposure Elimination Project (LEEP), a non-profit working to reduce lead exposure via lead-based paint. Lucia was kind enough to answer some questions of mine about lead exposure generally and LEEP’s work specifically; these answers are reproduced with only very minor edits below. (As a declaration of interest, I should note that I have donated a small sum to LEEP, though only after Lucia had sent me her answers.)

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Moral Standing Is Not Moral Agency 26 Jun 2021

Moral standing is the right to have one’s interests factored into others’ moral choices. Moral agency is the ability to make moral choices. By moral choices, I mean choices that are based on judgments of right and wrong. So a thing that has moral standing is a thing that can be wronged, and a thing that has moral agency is a thing that can wrong others. These are like two sides of the same coin. It is important to make this distinction, because some things have, in my view, only one of the two, and also because they ought to be derived from different sources and have different implications.

But I often see people conflating these two. Usually this conflation takes the form of believing that any property of a creature that might confer moral agency also confers moral standing, or conversely that a property that might grant moral standing must also grant moral agency. I think this happens because humans possess both of these: the vast majority of humans have both moral standing and moral agency. I say the vast majority, because most people would agree that some humans, for example infants or some severely mentally ill people, have moral standing but no moral agency, in the same way that they can be protected by some laws even as they are not bound by them. (You could also argue, though I won’t do so here, that some entities have moral agency without having moral standing, for example corporations or autonomous countries.)

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Mysteries of the Unknown and the Unknowable 19 Jun 2021

The first thing you think of when you hear the word mystery is probably the sort you find in detective novels or police procedurals. It’s the kind of thing that Arthur Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler were concerned with. Then, as you delve into the deeper recesses of your mind, you may think of religious or transcendental mysticism. Now it seems like the kind of thing that the Gnostics were concerned with. And the word’s root is religious in nature, descending as it does from μυστήριον (mustḗrion), from μύστης (mústēs), “initiated one”, from μυέω (muéō), “I initiate”, from μύω (múō), “I shut”. But there’s nothing godly about it, nor anything furtive, nor cryptic.

This text is a commentary on H. P. Lovecraft’s story The Call of Cthulhu. And I will get to that one soon enough. But first we must do a little groundwork, by making a distinction between two kinds of mysteries.

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Animal Testing Is Exploitative and Largely Ineffective 13 Jun 2021

You may have heard of a recent scandal where researchers from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities (UMN) intentionally tried to introduce bugs into the Linux kernel codebase as part of a research project. Quoting Ars Technica, the researchers “[emailed] their Trojan-horse patches to Linux kernel maintainers to see if the maintainers detected the more serious problem the researchers had introduced in the course of fixing a minor bug. Once the maintainers responded to the submitted patch, the UMN researchers pointed out the bug introduced by their patch and offered a ‘proper’ patch – one that did not introduce a newly exploitable condition – in its place.”

This upset a lot of people – the Hacker News thread has received over 3000 points and around 2000 comments as I write this. But what was interesting to me was the way in which a lot of people expressed their anger. One user wrote, “Greg [Kroah-Hartman, one of the Linux kernel maintainers,] has all reasons to be unhappy since they were unknowingly experimented on and used as lab rats.” “This is ridiculously unethical research,” another wrote. “Despite the positive underlying reasons treating someone as a lab rat […] feels almost sociopathic.” The implication is that the UMN researchers have treated the Linux kernel maintainers badly and that, unlike lab rats, the maintainers have thereby been wronged.

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Using Scheme to Find the Median of Two Sorted Integer Lists 5 Jun 2021

I have been picking up the basics of Scheme recently as part of reading and working my way through Chris Hanson and Gerald Jay Sussman’s Software Design for Flexibility. Scheme is a dialect of Lisp created in the 1970s by Gerald Jay Sussman and Guy L. Steele. As such, it is older than some other well-known dialects like Common Lisp, Clojure and Racket, all of which have been influenced by Scheme. Specifically, I am using MIT/GNU Scheme – there are apparently pretty large differences between implementations due to the minimalism of the language specification.

I don’t have much experience with Lisps, apart from some noodling with Clojure in our functional programming group at work years ago. So a few months ago, in order to get familiar with the syntax and some of the more basic constructs (leaving the metaprogramming and so on for later), I solved a few problems from LeetCode, one of which was Median of Two Arrays, which I will now proceed to explain.

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Hello, DIE-BRVECKE-003 1 Jun 2021

I suspect that roughly not a one of you knows that, in addition to being a mad-brained blogger at night, and in addition to being a swashbuckling programmer at day, I also dabble in music now and then and even run a small tape label together with my wife. We named it Die Brücke after the expressionist artist group of the same name, the one that counted among its members Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde and Otto Müller among others. Until recently, we had released only two tapes, but today we are releasing our third, Variationer, an album that I’ve been working on for the past few years. Before doing anything else, I suggest you go stream it on Bandcamp. It is available there digitally as well as in all its crackling, physical C-60 glory, should you desire it.

Heaven knows I don’t want to sound like a braggart, but I think it’s pretty good. I think it is dense, detailed, varied and rewards repeat listens. I think it’s ambitious and I hope that it succeeds in its ambitions, though perhaps I am not the man to judge. I think it ends beautifully. I think you might like it. At least if you like ambient or drone music generally, but who doesn’t?

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