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In Favor of Electronic Cigarettes

Smoking kills 6 million people per year, cutting lives short by 13 years on average. While it's less common in the US than it was, cigarette consumption is still 40% [1] of peak (1960s) usage. Because smoking so addictive and the health effects are delayed by decades it's been very hard for people to stop. The effect of smoking is also much stronger on poorer people within the US and people in poorer countries, making it a substantial economic justic issue.

Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) give people the option to take nicotine in a way that feels similar to smoking, but without inhaling smoke from smoldering dried leaves. Nicotine in liquid propylene glycol and glycerine is vaproized and inhaled like you would traditional cigarette smoke. They're only a few years old so we don't have the decades of collected evidence we have with cigarettes, but from what we know about how they work they should be much safer, both for the smoker and people around them. Almost all the known health effects of tobacco come via effects of smoking plants as opposed to the nicotine consumption.

Opponents of e-cigarettes argue that "people are using them to enable smoking habits, not to quit", but this isn't a bad thing! Smoking tobacco is so deadly and so hard to quit that if someone switches to smoking vaporized nicotine that's a huge improvement. We have this idea that alternative nicotine products should be for smoking cessation only, but that's entirely unjustified. As smokers switch to e-cigarettes we expect millions fewer deaths every year, which makes e-cigarettes one of the biggest public health breakthroughs in years. more...

Baby Sleep

Our five-month-old, Lily, had been waking up more and more often during the night and wouldn't fall back asleep without comforting. It was getting worse and worse until she was waking up after nearly every ~40min sleep cycle. This was not working, and we were all exhausted. I wrote to Julia:

I've been reading more about sleep, and I think the "your baby needs to learn how to fall asleep on their own" people are right. She can go to sleep when we bounce her on our shoulder, or pat her stomach, or bounce the crib mattress a bit, but she can't just fall asleep on her own. It looks like at her age most babies can, and "my baby wakes up in the night and needs to be put rocked to sleep" seems to one of the most common sleep problems. So I think we should be putting her to bed and letting her fall asleep, and then if after N minutes she's not asleep picking her up, comforting her, and putting her back down. We could start with N=5 and then slowly lengthen it. I think we should start this soon, probably tonight. She's not sleeping well as it is, we're not either, and we don't want her expectation that we will comfort her back to sleep to get stronger.

Julia thought that if we tried this Lily would probably learn to fall asleep on her own, but that it would be very painful for all of us while she learned. Occasionally we had tried leaving Lily to cry for a few minutes to see whether she calmed down, and her cries tended to escalate and keep escalating. And reading things like this made me very nervous:

For an hour and forty-five minutes every night we tried, Wood fled outdoors to walk halfway from the Ocean to the Bay and I paced through our one-bedroom apartment, searching for some audial deadspot to escape her screams but I couldn't. It's just too small. Her screams were everywhere. And they didn't stop like Weissbluth said they eventually would. They just never stopped. —Sweet Juniper

While cry-it-out still seemed like something we might try at some point, it seemed to me that the real problem is that the environment in which Lily was going from awake to asleep was different than the one in which she would wake up. Falling asleep one of us would be there, patting or bouncing her, but when she woke up she would be on her own. So I decided to try something else. During my turns putting her to sleep, where I had previously been patting her until she was well asleep I switched to stopping as soon as she stopped crying. Several times in a row she would start crying, I would pat her stomach, she would stop, I would stop, and we'd begin again. But then she would close her eyes and go to sleep, on her own, without any touch or movement! It seemed she was learning to fall herself asleep. more...

Persistent Idealism

When I talk to people about earning to give, it's common to hear worries about "backsliding". Yes, you say you're going to go make a lot of money and donate it, but once you're surrounded by rich coworkers spending heavily on cars, clothes, and nights out, will you follow through? Working at a greedy company in a selfishness-promoting culture you could easily become corrupted and lose initial values and motivation.

First off, this is a totally reasonable concern. People do change, and we are pulled towards thinking like the people around us. I see two main ways of working against this:

  1. Be public with your giving. Make visible commitments and then list your donations. This means that you can't slowly slip away from giving; either you publish updates saying you're not going to do what you said you would, or you just stop updating and your pages become stale. By making a public promise you've given friends permission to notice that you've stopped and ask "what changed?"
  2. Don't just surround yourself with coworkers. Keep in touch with friends and family. Spend some time with other people in the effective altruism movement. You could throw yourself entirely into your work, maximizing income while sending occasional substantial checks to GiveWell's top picks, but without some ongoing engagement with the community and the research this doesn't seem likely to last.
more...
Conservation of Expected Jury Probability

The New York Times has a calculator to explain how getting on a jury works. They have a slider at the top indicating how likely each of the two lawyers think you are to side with them, and as you answer questions it moves around. For example, if you select that your occupation is "blue collar" then it says "more likely to side with plaintiff" while "white collar" gives "more likely to side with defendant". As you give it more information the pointer labeled "you" slides back and forth, representing the lawyers' ongoing revision of their estimates of you. Let's see what this looks like. more...

32-bit Chroot on CentOS

Let's say you want to build some 32-bit binaries for distribution but only have a 64-bit OS. You could try to set your build system up to make 32-bit builds, but if your build system is as complicated as ours is that sounds likely to go wrong. What if we just set up a 32-bit chroot? On Debian/Ubuntu this isn't very hard because this is how they generally build packages, and debootstrap and schroot can do most of the work for you. On CentOS/RHEL this is much more annoying, and I can't find anyone out there who has documented how to do this. So I figured I should at least write up what I did, in case someone (or me) later is trying to do the same thing: more...

Baby Time Inequality

The distribution of baby time is unequal in a way that seems amenable to pareto improvement. There are lots of young adults without children who would like baby cuddles, and there are lots of new parents who would love someone to play with their baby a bit while they have a nap or shower. People in my cohort tend to have their first kid at around thirty which is ~10 years after people would have historically had their first, and that leaves lots of potential years of being pushed biologically to have babies but not being socially or economically ready for that yet. When people used to live together more closely this was also probably less of an issue; now it's more each couple being off in their own house with their infant. And in fact living with family as Julia and I do, we really don't so often find ourselves in the "if only there were someone to take Lily for a moment" situation: her grandparents and especially her aunts are often pretty excited to get to spend some time with her. Our family seems to get along atypically well for the US, however, as most people in my cohort seem to be pretty sure living with extended family wouldn't work for them at all. Something similar that might work well would be living with friends? Most people who live together after college seem to split up into separate houses as they get married and have kids, but perhaps more people should consider continuing to have one big household? more...

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