The Fireplace Delusion by Sam Harris

Sam Harris posted an article on his blog that I feel the need to share. He rightly begins: “It seems to me that many nonbelievers have forgotten—or never knew—what it is like to suffer an unhappy collision with scientific rationality. We are open to good evidence and sound argument as a matter of principle, and are generally willing to follow wherever they may lead.”

Harris goes on to describe the detrimental effects of burning a fireplace, claiming that doing so is more harmful that smoking cigarettes for everyone around you, and causes so much pollution that “even libertarians should be willing to pass a law prohibiting the recreational burning of wood in favor of cleaner alternatives (like gas).” This claim, at least to me, is extraordinary, and thus requires extraordinary evidence. His claim seems to be supported by at least three published journal articles:

The toxicology of inhaled woodsmoke. “…exposure to woodsmoke, particularly for children, represents a potential health hazard.”

Woodsmoke health effects: a review. “It is now well established, however, that wood-burning stoves and fireplaces as well as wildland and agricultural fires emit significant quantities of known health-damaging pollutants, including several carcinogenic compounds. Two of the principal gaseous pollutants in woodsmoke, CO and NOx, add to the atmospheric levels of these regulated gases emitted by other combustion sources. Health impacts of exposures to these gases and some of the other woodsmoke constituents (e.g., benzene) are well characterized in thousands of publications.”

Respiratory health effects associated with exposure to indoor wood burning in developing countries. “Inhalation of these pollutants may have serious consequences, which are highlighted in this paper, for the respiratory health of the people who have been exposed.”

I find a certain romanticism in the project of hauling a felled tree from a friend’s yard, chopping and stacking it in neat rows, and then building a warm air of sentimentality during the winter. Yet, regardless of the health implications, the point of Harris’ article is to highlight the visceral reaction to a hard-truth of science when it flies in the face of our long-held and sentimental beliefs:

“Of course, if you are anything like my friends, you will refuse to believe this. And that should give you some sense of what we are up against whenever we confront religion.”

Occupy Wall Street: Fallacies and Misconceptions

You’d have to be living in a cave if you still haven’t heard of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. After numerous conversations with friends about the protests, I’ve decided to write this article. I’ll cover the origin of the protests, what the protesters stand for and want (as hard as that is to discern),… Continue reading Occupy Wall Street: Fallacies and Misconceptions

From Summation by Auren Hoffman:

Entrepreneurs tend to be street-smarter than strategy consultants. Entrepreneurs are more practical, more focused on the bottom line, and more attuned to real-world contingencies.

A typical strategy consultant job interview might go something like this:

“I toss a coin. Heads you win $10,000. Tails you lose $6,000. Do you play this game? Why?”

And a typical strategy consultant answer would go something like this:

50% chance I win, 50% chance I lose. So my decision calculation goes something like:

Winnings: (0.5) * $10,000 = $5,000

Loses: (0.5) * $6,000 = $3,000

My net value of this game is $2,000

Therefore, even if I am very risk averse, I’ll still play this game, because I can afford to lose $6K when the payoff is so much higher.

A typical entrepreneur would look at this game totally differently and would ask a series of questions:

1. How do I know the coin is fair? Maybe tails is much more likely to come up. Can I test the coin by flipping it 500 times to see if it is consistent? Do I really want to waste my time performing and recording 500 coin tosses?

2. How do taxes affect my wins and losses? Is Uncle Sam going to take a huge chunk of my winnings but not recognize my losses? Can I only apply my losses to gambling gains? How are state and city taxes affected?

3. Do I have to pay in cash if I lose and do I get cash if I win? If that is the case, are we going to show up at the location with all the money? Will I be secure? Can I pay by credit card to get frequent flyer miles?

4. How can I be sure I will collect from you? Are we going to hold the money in a third-party escrow? How much will that cost?

Auren Hoffman, Summation

It’s interesting to note that Nassim Taleb gives a similar example of the coin toss scenario when discussing the thought processes of The Nerd and the street-smart common-sensical Epistemocrat.

Here, however, Auren Hoffman is describing the typical entrepreneur. I’m sure Taleb (and most entrepreneurs) would agree that, despite the typical risk associated with entrepreneurship, creating your own business and liberating your finances—that is, putting your wealth in your own hands—changes the nature of the question so that you have ultimate control over the amount of risk that you choose to take on. Otherwise, your entire stream of income would be dependent on the decisions of the establishment that hired you.

Picture entrepreneurship like a pyramid, a large base and a fine point on the top; the large base represents multiple opportunities for streams of income. A typical job, however, would look like an inverted pyramid, in which you only have one source of income—the point of the pyramid. If that one source fails, the entire pyramid would collapse on you.

Facebook & Video Games: An Introduction to the Narrative Fallacy

“I am a god. Level ten all alone!” My brother’s face glowed blue from the television as he completed another level in the Call of Duty minigame. The fact that most people sleep at 3 a.m. didn’t phase his concentration as he simultaneously killed zombies and trashed talked his friends. His confidence rose as he… Continue reading Facebook & Video Games: An Introduction to the Narrative Fallacy