Why I’m becoming vegetarian (and probably avoiding cheese, too)

August 15, 2011

There is a favorite saying of mine, “There are no twenty-dollar bills lying around on the street because someone’s picked them up already.” In other words, opportunities are hard to come by, because millions are trying at the same time, many more desperate, and what little low-hanging fruit there is has already been plucked.

So with this knowledge in mind, I was thoroughly astounded when I learned about the energy pyramid in ecosystems in my biology class. It states that on each successive level of the food chain, the total energy available in biomass decreases by a factor of approximately 10. In other words, the efficiency of energy transfer by predation is between 5-20%. And therefore, 80-95% of energy at a given level is unavailable at the next.

The reason for this is fairly obvious. Plants, producers at the lowest level of the pyramid, perform the process of photosynthesis to convert sunlight into glucose. This glucose then has two purposes – synthesis into carbohydrate polymers that “build” the plant (contribute to its edibleness) and fuel for cellular respiration, which provides energy for the everyday processes that a plant goes through. At the next level, primary consumers, herbivores, consume the edible parts of the plant, carbohydrate polymers such as starch and glucose, and then use that for the same two purposes – building biomass, or tissues such as muscle and bone, and energy for “maintenance.” So in each case, at each level, we see that an organism takes in energy, which it uses for (a) building biomass for other things to eat for energy, and (b) using energy to fuel processes to keep itself alive. As it happens, (b) is a need that is allocated 9 times more energy than (a).

But all of that is very intuitive. So the major question is…why should humans eat meat? And the simple answer is, that other than for the fact that it tastes really good, there is no good reason. In fact, there are a whole slew of reasons not to do so.

This argument doesn’t delve into ethical considerations, although I do digress to say that my math teacher did say that the reason he stopped eating meat at a young age was because he couldn’t bare to take away the “feeling of life” from any living creature. A puppy might not ponder the reasons and nuances of its existence (and humans don’t do this most of the time, either) but if you hold its head underwater, the puppy feels a very strong sense of “aliveness” coupled with a very strong sense that its “aliveness” is being threatened. So how could you take that away from something?

Of course, people say that it’s only “natural” for people to eat meat, but what’s “natural” about what we do anyway? Multiple levels of the food chain haven’t always been there – presumably there were once only producers and primary consumers (consumers of the lowest level, or vegetarians). At such a point, the “low-hanging fruit” was no longer the literal low-hanging fruit competed for with other herbivores but rather the defenseless herbivores themselves – another level of consumers could emerge, at 10% of the size of the lower energy level. And thus the energy pyramid would develop an equilibrium with each level no bigger than 10% of the level immediately lower and no smaller than 10 times that of the level above (there would be other restrictions as well, depending on resources such as water, space…)

Enter human civilization. As omnivores, humans are generally primary, secondary, or tertiary consumers. The problem is that humans possess far more total biomass than any other species of large mammals, and that our use of complex tools allows us to at least temporarily evade the limits imposed by the energy pyramid, especially predators to check population growth. The other problem is that humans, despite being perfectly able to subsist as primary producers, domesticate large amounts of primary consumers, which is extremely inefficient. It’s basically like going from “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade” to “If life gives you lemons, use those lemons to continually feed some large mammal for years before slaughtering and eating it.” It’s not very difficult to see which is more efficient.

Just for reference, here’s a graph that I found on the NY Times’ Green Blog. It plots the amount of CO2 emissions to produce different types of food:

Lamb’s not such a popular product, but the changes that even a meat-eater can make by switching from livestock to poultry are astounding!

Since I’m doing this from an environmentalist perspective, there’s no reason to be an absolutist. But if as a human race, we’re having trouble feeding each other and squandering our precious resources to add another extraneous level to the food pyramid, and we should really look into vegetarianism. The Amazon rainforest, a carbon sink, is slash-and-burn deforested (releasing CO2) at a startling rate to accommodate cows, which graze short-term on poor-quality soil while emitting methane, another greenhouse gas, resulting in a triple whammy for emission control efforts.

Dennis Avery, Director of the Centre for Global Food Issues, said that “The world must create five billion vegans in the next several decades, or triple its total farm output without using more land.” The clock’s ticking. So yours truly has decided to make a small sacrifice with huge power-of-ten payoffs. Because even if there seem to be no 20-dollar bills lying around on the ground, going vegetarian seems to be a climate change-curbing low-hanging fruit that’s just dying to be plucked.


Memes and Immortality

July 14, 2011

“Resurrection. In the crude form in which it is preached to console the weak, it is alien to me. I have always understood Christ’s words about the living and the dead in a different sense. Where could you find room for all these hordes of people accumulated over thousands of years? The universe isn’t big enough for them; God, the good, and meaningful purpose would be crowded out. They’d be crushed by these throngs greedy merely for animal life.
But, all the time, life, one, immense, identical throughout its innumerable combinations and transformations, fills the universe and is continually reborn. You are anxious about whether you will rise from the dead or not, but you rose from the dead when you were born and didn’t notice it.”

“Consciousness is a light directed outward, it lights up the way ahead of us so that we don’t stumble. It’s like the headlights on a locomotive – turn them inward and you’d crash.”

“And now listen carefully. You in others – this is your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life – your soul, your immortality, your life in others. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory? This will be you – the you that enters the future and becomes a part of it.”

Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak

I like to think a lot about cognition, philosophy of mind, and the material origins and characteristics of consciousness. I also like to blog a lot about them. However, of all the questions that dog philosophers, artists, and scientific researchers the most is the fundamental one – What is it like to unexist?

Read the rest of this entry »

Making fun of IKEA

July 3, 2011

Don’t get me wrong here, I love IKEA. My family’s from Finland so it’s always nice to bring a little bit of Nordic culture wherever we live, which tends to be far away from Northern Europe. At the same time, I never pass up a chance to make fun of the company’s idiosyncratic and occasionally bizarre culture, and by extension, the country of Sweden itself.

Fortunately for me, CollegeHumor did a couple of hilarious fake IKEA instruction manuals. These are amazing:

Sci-Fi Ikea Manuals

If Ikea made instructions for everything

Even the Daily Show recently joined in on the fun:

Swede Dreams

Thank you, Jason Jones.

Saying Goodbye

June 26, 2011

I don’t normally blog about my personal life, nor do I intend to make it a habit. But as I recently moved continents I came to realize something about saying goodbye that I thought was worth sharing.

It’s hard to say goodbye to a very good friend. You’ll spend your last few minutes with them and you gush about shared experiences, realizing what a big part of your life that person was, immediately feeling the bitter sting of loneliness and uncertainty about the future. You leave behind a certain invaluable brand of sharing and companionship and you start to feel the void in your life as you turn away, knowing they won’t be an active part of your life for a while.

But what’s even harder is saying goodbye to a best friend. Of the 30-something people who I had to say goodbye to in the manner detailed above, I was only able to reach this type twice, with people who I had shared and experienced even more with – I felt (and I’m going to assume they felt) almost nothing. Total silence. Just a sort of understanding that you’re going to leave now, and it’s going to be a while.

But why is that? On Wednesday I spent one minute going from one bus stop to the next with my closest friend. Practically the only remark was, “Wow, it’s our last minute together.” My theory is that saying goodbye to someone like that doesn’t really…make any sense. They’ve become such an entrenched and obvious part of your life. When I moved I didn’t think to myself about hobbies I was going to “have to quit now” or something. The friendship just seemed so regular and so important that it was impossible to accept that those were our last moments together for a last time. And thus, they weren’t really significant on their own. Of course, certain parts of your life are transferrable from one location to the next, like your hobbies, but unfortunately, not your friends. And only time will reveal that void.

So if you’re saying goodbye to someone extremely close and realize you can’t say or really feel anything, don’t worry – it’s probably a good sign.

It’s probably useful to know some statistics…

June 3, 2011

This is a fascinating blog. It’s basically a professional statistician who analyzes the use of statistics in major news stories in-depth. Pretty cool to read – it’ll definitely keep me informed.

For example, This article thoroughly deconstructs the cell-phone announcement made by WHO a couple days back. It’s worth a read! (Disclaimer: Overly critical of “progressives.” But that doesn’t distract too much from the stats)

On the title of this blog

May 24, 2011

Some of you might be wondering, what does he mean by “Boundless Rationality?” Does he think that this blog is a Fountain of Truth and Objectivity? Well, let me explain.

Once upon a time, economists made their models based on the assumptions that humans made rational choices with perfect information and attempted to always maximize utility. In other words, they would have their utility function laid out to them with the sum of the products of the expected utilities and their respective probabilities. But alas, it was not so.

It turns out, most humans don’t really think that way. Some of the reasons:

1) Incomplete information and incorrect methods of reasoning lead to highly inaccurate inferences.

2) People have an inconsistent set of beliefs about the world around them.

3) People are emotionally attached to certain choices.

4) People are more likely to remain close to previously proposed solutions than to propose completely new ones.

etc, etc. So somewhere along the way, Herbert Simon proposed a new kind of model, bounded rationality, which took into account all of those aforementioned problems. Therefore, rather than looking for optimized rational models, bounded rationality theory searches for more realistic models on how humans make choices. But you’ll see more on that later.

So essentially, the title is a kind of a joke, or play on words. Boundless Rationality is an irrational thing to hope for. It doesn’t exist, because we can never actually have perfect information about the world around us, and even if we did, it would be far too costly to compute and make sense of it all.

Nevertheless, there are mathematicians and researchers who manipulate inductive probabilities (ie. weather forecasting, “There’s a 70 percent chance of rain tomorrow”) according to mathematical laws. The fact that I’m stating that might seem a bit surprising because it seems obvious. But it’s not. People continue to treat inductive probabilities in a sort of wishy-washy way which ends up in sub-optimal decision-making.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are and have been a number of researchers – Harsanyi, Jaynes, Tversky, Kahneman… – who have specialized in studying the ways that we treat incomplete information and try to come up with coherent and consistent ways to makes sense out of it. And they’ll be discussed a lot here

So that’s basically the idea of boundless rationality. It’s a practically and theoretically impossible ideal but it’s the right direction to look towards.

NB. But don’t worry, that’s not ALL this blog’s about!

Further Reading:

Bounded Rationality – Bryan D. Jones, U Washington

A Perspective on Judgment and Choice – Daniel Kahneman, Princeton University