Asymmetry of passion

Some time ago I first read the phrase “asymmetry of passion” in an article (in Wired via Kottke) about so-called “keyword voids” in internet search engines. The article starts by discussing the internet search results for “vitamin K shots”, a routine injection that newborns get.

This is a routine practice—ask your pediatrician, your obstetrician, or the CDC. “Babies are born with very low stores of vitamin K, and without the Vitamin K shot … they do not have enough Vitamin K in their blood to form a clot,” the CDC says on its website.

But new parents who turn to search engines to understand the practice will find an aberrant—and dangerous—strain of thinking. Google “vitamin K shot” and the first result advises “Skip that Newborn Vitamin K Shot.” It isn’t until below the fold—the fourth result—that the CDC website appears.

This is blamed on an asymmetry of passion; anti-vaxxers put much more effort into writing blogs stating that the shots are unnecessary or even dangerous than government organizations like the US’ CDC do to refute their claims. Hence the search results get populated with all-natural anti-science lies. (I just tried the search and my results page only has a single anti-vax result. The Wired article made more scientifically literate websites write about the shots.)

Asymmetries of passion happen more often. One good example is blockchain technology, which has no use-cases apart from cryptocurrency, and possibly not even that.  Other examples include conspiracy theories and the alt-right.

The “marketplace of ideas” is a cute idea, but it is too bad that you can’t short.

Language policy for this blog

See also: content policy for this blog.

I have a habit of using ableist slurs. I used to think those words weren’t ableist at all, or maybe that ableism in that sense wasn’t bad. I have learned to think otherwise, mainly from this series of blog posts. Those posts highlight one important reason for avoiding certain words: it’s lazy language.

 “stupid” isn’t constructive. You’re not criticizing… you’re just denigrating. The other person can’t learn anything from being told that their idea is “stupid”. Like I said before… it’s lazy. It elucidates absolutely nothing.

Instead, you could be constructive. You could say “that’s a bad idea, and here’s why” or “I think you made a big mistake there. You should have done this, instead” or “I don’t know if I like that choice. Here’s a better one.” Explain why you don’t like whatever it is, instead of just calling it “stupid”.

Don’t have the time to go into specifics? It’s still better to just say something like “nah, that’s a bad idea” or “you know what? No. I’m against that” and move on than to say “that’s stupid”. Even when you’re using it against ideas or actions or such, there’s still splash damage.

Avoiding certain words forces you to be more articulate. To be more constructive in your criticism. To apply a growth mindset towards the outgroup.

(I am NOT saying that intelligence is a completely non-existent property. Some people are mentally impaired in ways that chronically prevent them from functioning normally, and it is harmful to think that this is not the case. I am saying that for most people, most of their usage of those words is inappropriate and harms their communication.)

Not only is there a practical advantage; using inherent properties of people as slurs is not so nice. I don’t feel welcome if I hear people use “gay” as a slur, so I should probably not use ableist language either.

Want to try this as well? Do read a list of alternative words like this one.  My favourite default replacements are:

  • Stupid -> willfully ignorant/frustrating/obnoxious/unfathomable
  • Crazy -> fascinating/amazing/extreme
  • Lame -> bad/awful/inadequate

Book review: The Hunger Games

My favourite book I’ve ever read is by far The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I first read it as a kid back in 2009, but I still love it. The book reframes some big societal issues in a way that makes the reader take a good look at themselves from an outside view. The fact that the setting is fictional and the social commentary is left implicit makes it all the more disarming and convincing.

The book follows Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl from Panem, a country consisting of 12 poor districts that are ruled by the rich Capitol. Katniss lives in the very poorest district 12, in which most people are employed to mine coal for the rest of Panem. The protagonist herself provides for her family by illegal poaching and selling the spoils on the black market.

The plot of the first book revolves around the eponymous Hunger Games, a yearly televised bloodsport involving one teenage boy and one teenage girl from every district, chosen by an ingenious classicist lottery. Katniss and OneDimensionalBoyCharacter1 (ODBC1) are participating in this year’s game.

Katniss and ODBC1 are taken to the Capitol to prepare for the game. The citizens of the Capitol are decadently rich. After finishing dinner they will vomit so that they can get another extravagantly delicious serving, all while they are aware that the people in the poorest districts are literally starving to death.

The Hunger Games themselves take up most of the book. Everyone faces physical hardship, kids get killed. Katniss is doing pretty good, killing a couple of kids herself. Eventually she and ODBC1 team up, and eventually they start acting romantically affectionate towards each other. ODBC1 is sincere, while Katniss is just acting to get the viewers to like her, playing up a “star-crossed lovers” angle that was set up earlier.

Katniss and ODBC1 end up as the last living players and decide to eat deadly poisonous berries together because they don’t want to kill the other to win. The game makers quickly stop the game because they fear that it would ruin the public perception of the Hunger Games as a fun and non-cruel game. Katniss and ODBC1 get to share the win and go home traumatized. The establishment is not pleased about their ploy though, and the visible opposition to the rule of the Capitol is the first spark towards a revolution later in the book series.

What always hit me about the story is how it portrays the Hunger Games as a popular event among the citizens of the Capitol, and how shamelessly the Capitol enriches itself over the backs of the districts. The book implicitly asks “What should a morally conscious Capitol citizen do if they disagreed with the state of the world?” The story is so far removed from the real world that it allows you to ponder this question without immediately grasping the similarity with the countless real-world analogues.

I’ve found the Capitol/district relation very insightful and it got me to critically consider the state of the world. I estimate a decent probability that this book counterfactually made me an EA.