Monthly Archives: January 2010

Hide Death?

Kübler-Ross took a job as an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago. … She began a series of seminars, interviewing patients about what it felt like to die. … Many of Kübler-Ross’s peers at the hospital felt that the seminars were exploitative and cruel, ghoulishly forcing patients to contemplate their own deaths. At the time, doctors believed that people didn’t want or need to know how ill they were. They couched the truth in euphemisms, or told the bad news only to the family. Kübler-Ross saw this indirection as a form of cowardice that ran counter to the basic humanity a doctor owed his patients. ….

Kübler-Ross began to work on a book … It came out in 1969, and, shortly afterward, Life published an article about one of her seminars. … Angered by the article and its focus on death, the hospital administrators did not renew her contract. But it didn’t matter. Her book, “On Death and Dying,” became a best-seller. …

Her argument was that patients often knew that they were dying, and preferred to have others acknowledge their situation: “The patient is in the process of losing everything and everybody he loves. If he is allowed to express his sorrow he will find a final acceptance much easier.” And she posited that the dying underwent five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. … Today, Kübler-Ross’s theory is taken as the definitive account of how we grieve.

More here.  Pause to see things from those old docs’ point of view.  While we usually prefer to be honest and forthcoming, we make exceptions.  Some of our reasons are selfish, but we also say that telling people some truths only makes them feel bad, without actually helping much to make decisions.

So isn’t imminent death a great examples of a truth that makes folks feel very bad without much helping decisions?  Look how fiercely people avoid thinking about death when it is only a slight possibility, and how more anxious they get as death becomes a larger possibility.

Sure, most folks say they want to be told the truth about imminent death.  But most folks also say they want to know if their partner is cheating, if their career is tanking, if their neighbors hate them, etc.  If you asked folks straight out, most would even say they want the truth on “do I look fat in this.” So if you are going to hide some type of truth from people for their own good, you must do so in the face of the fact that most folks say they want to be told.

Yes, we may like the closure of taking their time in saying goodbye to folks, but don’t similar modestly useful actions correspond to most truths we think of hiding from folks?  Does this gain so obviously outweigh the terror of knowing you will die soon?  I want to be told about my death, but I’m weird and want the truth on most everything.  What is a better example than imminent death of a truth we’d consider hiding from folks?

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Uppity China

He started it!  I was just minding my own business when out of the blue he looked at me funny.  So I had to clock him. (bullies everywhere)

A month ago I reported:

I hear a lot of China bashing these days.  To check, I surveyed the last ten China new articles in the Post and NYT. … Yup, top US newspapers are in full fledged China bashing mode.

Today’s top article at WashingtonPost.com is “China’s strident tone raises concerns”:

China’s indignant reaction to the announcement of U.S. plans to sell weapons to Taiwan appears to be in keeping with a new triumphalist attitude from Beijing that is worrying governments and analysts across the globe.  From the Copenhagen climate change conference to Internet freedom to China’s border with India, China observers have noticed a tough tone emanating from its government. …

“The Chinese find with startling speed that people have come to view them as a major global player. And that has fed a sense of confidence.”  Lieberthal said another factor in China’s new tone is a sense that after two centuries of exploitation by the West, China is resuming its role as one of the great nations of the world.

This new posture has befuddled Western officials and analysts. … Analysts say a combination of hubris and insecurity appears to be driving China’s mood. … What happens next will be crucial. China quietly sanctioned several U.S. companies for participating in such weapons sales in the past. However, it would mark a major change if China makes the list public.

So Western analysts are befuddled that China is surprising uppity – analyst explanations and remedies center on Chinese psychology and actions; surely nothing the West has done could be part of the explanation.  “We were just standing here minding our own business when they just went all crazy …”

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Reward Robustness

Me in October:

In August I reported that economic disasters seem thin-tailed, and so are not existential risks.  Even so, [a new study suggests] we should still devote more attention to them.

What makes the global economy vulnerable to economic collapse, and what can we do about it?  Anders Sandberg explores one key issue:

If we want to increase the resiliency of our society we should work on increasing substitutability.  Devices and software should be able to use alternative infrastructures.  Knowledge of what can be substituted for what should be disseminated (so no time is lost when disaster strikes in trying to figure it out). This is particularly true in areas where many different kinds of inputs are needed.

Anders is right: our economy gets a bit more vulnerable to collapse each time a particular product or service uses a specialized input, available from only a few suppliers, rather than a general and widely available input.  For example, it is easier to replace a cell phone’s battery in a jam if that phone uses AA batteries, instead of a battery built especially for that phone.

Of course as the phone example illustrates, we wouldn’t want to arbitrarily require more general inputs to everything; much of our wealth comes from a division of labor, enabled by specialized inputs.  Regulatory agencies with discretion to declare which inputs must be general sound like a disaster.  Let us instead think like economists, and ask when market (or legal or state) failures may induce overly-specialized inputs:

  • Intellectual Property – many ideas for new products or services are not pursued because investors fear that if a first mover shows the product to be viable, it will be too easy for second movers to take over the market.  Investors prefer business plans centered on a specialized input that second movers cannot easily acquire, such as a key patent.  If we could create better incentives for innovating with general inputs, our economy would be less fragile.
  • Empire Bias – Firms are reluctant to buy specialized inputs, or to sell specialized products, or fear of being subject to extortion once two firms have become dependent on one another.  This fear makes firms either avoid specialized inputs, or merge such matched activities into a single firm.  Since manager empire-building already seems to make firms too large, ways to discourage this, such as enabling raiders, would also make our economy less fragile.
  • Crisis Metrics – Most contracts to buy inputs do not explicitly condition on collapse cues.  For example, the price we pay for electricity or phone service does not change when a collapse looms, even though we are willing to pay more to ensure continued service.  Such providers thus have insufficient incentives to ensure continued service in a crisis.  If we could publish independent metrics that flagged crisis situations, so that contracts could condition prices on such metrics, suppliers could have better incentives to avoid specialization that risked their reliability in a crisis.
  • Missing Standards – Firms often prefer incompatible standards in order to increase customer lock-in and reduce competition.  Policies that discourage incompatible standards would also reduce economic fragility.

While there are many ways to avoid specific disaster scenarios, the main general approaches I know are refuges, to directly protect against the worst case, and the robustness rewards above, which counter-act known problems that distort our world economy toward fragility.

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Swinger Trends

Swinging has switched from a male to a female focus:

Apart from the numeric growth of the phenomenon, swinger behaviour has also greatly changed over the last 25 years. Both in Italy and in the rest of the world. Twenty-five years ago couples sought almost exclusively other couples or single females; now a days couples seek other couples, single males and groups of males. The phenomenon has thus evolved from situations in which the centre of sexual intercourse was the male component of the couple to “harder” situations in which the centre of sexual intercourse is the female component and the male takes his pleasure from sharing his companion with other men. … Now a days an increasing number of single males seek swingers rather than prostitutes, since swinger women are considered more participative than prostitutes.

A swinger party price list:

Couples: $90, MFF Trios: $120, MMF Trios: $170, Single Females $25

Some patterns:

  • Swingers tend to have at least one person per couple with a college degree.
  • The typical rule is that it must be couples, no singles allowed.
  • You must first present a negative STD test, and agree to be routinely tested.
  • Many have restrictions on outside sex … you [may not] “cheat on the group.”
  • [First talk] on the internet for a long … time before anyone will approach you.
  • [Then] several “dates” where they meet the new potential couple.
  • Groups also sort themselves according to their preferences for activity types.

I’m not sure I’ve got the right picture here – not even sure these are the same kind of swingers.  When many men are on one women, the other women are just sitting around being ignored?  Back in the day when men were the focus, were several women on one man while other men were being ignored?

My guess on the focus switch is that women less fear seeming slutty today.  Whereas once swinging women might have been with several men in one night, they drew the line at being seen doing many men at once.  Now that line has moved.

Added 9a: Apparently, men in couples mostly initiate the move to swinging, but some women become very enthusiastic converts, and become the female centers.  In the past such women were less visibly slutty, with one man at a time.  Many men are overconfident, and learn they attract few women at such events.

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Recent Appearances

Links get you audio:

  • Collin Marshall, Marketplace of Ideas radio, Jan 28.
  • Debate with M. Moldbug, Foresight 2010, Jan 16.
  • Colin McEnroe, Connecticut Public Radio, Jan 15.
  • Phil Bowermaster, Fast Forward Radio, Dec. 22.

Added 9Feb: Moldbug vid here; Marshall transcript here.

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Legal Delusions

At most times and places in history, state authorities have had pretty wide discretion to help or hurt folks.  People knew to submit to authorities, and to accept occasional arbitrary applications of authority power.  Thankfully, such applications were limited by the fact that authorities were distracted trying to keep their power via keeping the peace, meeting revenue targets, etc.,

Today folks proudly bask in a glow of higher status by believing that they have more control over their government.  They believe democracy puts them in charge, and that a “rule of law” drastically discourages arbitrary applications of authority power.  They are deluded:

Over the past three decades, it has become routine in the United States for state, local, and federal governments to seize the property of people who were never even charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. …  [An] Act of 1984 … included an earmarking provision that gave forfeiture proceeds back to local law enforcement agencies that helped in a federal forfeiture.” …

The government had only to show probable cause to believe that it was connected to drug activity, or the same standard cops use to obtain search warrants. The state was allowed to use hearsay evidence—meaning a federal agent could testify that a drug informant told him a car or home was used in a drug transaction—but property owners were barred from using hearsay, and couldn’t even cross-examine some of the government’s witnesses. Informants, while being protected from scrutiny, … could receive as much as one-quarter of the bounty, up to $50,000 per case. …

Justice Department’s forfeiture fund … as of 2008 assets had increased to $3.1 billion. … Almost half of surveyed police departments with more than 100 law enforcement personnel said forfeiture proceeds were “necessary as a budget supplement” for department operations. …

Less than 20 percent of federal seizures involved property whose owners were ever prosecuted. … More than 80 percent of federal seizures are never challenged in court. … In many cases the property was worth less than the legal costs of trying to get it back. … Forfeiture defendants can’t be provided with a court-appointed attorney. …

To even get a day in court, owners were forced to post a bond equal to 10 percent of the value of their seized property.  The average DEA property seizure in 1998 was worth about $25,000. In 2000 a Justice Department source told the PBS series Frontline that this figure was also the cutoff under which most forfeiture attorneys advised clients that their cases wouldn’t be worth pursuing. …

In 2000, Congress … raised the federal government’s burden of proof in forfeiture cases. … Problem was, the 1984 law had already spawned dozens of imitators on the state level.

Articles about this stuff have appeared periodically for decades.  Clearly such news has not sparked an irate revolution of concerned citizens demanding the return of their supposed rule of law.  As long as we don’t hear about stuff being arbitrarily taken from someone we know, we can keep believing we are better than those ancients – we still live under a rule of law for those who really matter – people like us.

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Enable Raiders!

A robust, properly functioning market for corporate control is vital to the performance of a free-enterprise economy with public corporations. … Shareholders face an array of collective-action problems that prevent them from coalescing to deal with bad management. … The market for corporate control is the only known antidote for all of these collective-action problems.

More here.  It is hard to exaggerate how very important this is – we’d be so much richer now if it it had long been easier for raiders to take over public firms.  We now put many inexcusable obstacles (listed below) before such raiders, including disclosure, super-majority, poison pill, and merging delay rules.  In fact,

Gains to target shareholders average 40–50 percent above the prices at which target firms’ shares traded immediately prior to the takeover. … [But on] returns to bidders, … studies have shown negligible gains.

So raiders have to wait until they can boost a firm’s profits by ~50% before it is worth trying a takeover!  Imagine our progress if raiders could instead win by improving a firm by only 5% (or 0.5%).  Raiders would replace overpaid and out-of-touch CEOs, the new guys would clean house in upper management, and that would induce better incentives and organization all the way down the line.  It seems to me a complete no-brainer to seek to eliminate all takeover obstacles, and to seek even more ways to encourage raiders.

Amazingly, the main anti argument here is that takeovers might hurt other “stakeholders” such as employees, the environment, or civic pride.  Apparently we must protect over-paid CEOs because they are our heroic public-spirited defenders of the little guy against greedy shareholders.  Where oh where would little folks be if not for protection from CEOs? Continue reading "Enable Raiders!" »

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Prefer Fem Babes?

People often talk as if they are extremely concerned about health, and would give up a great deal of everything else to get just a bit more health.  “When you’ve got your health, you’ve got just about everything.” This sort of justification is often offered for spending vast sums on apparently ineffective end-of-life medicine.

So I think it important to ponder our strong disinterest in big ways we could improve health.  For example, women very consistently live longer than men.  In the US, Australia, Japan, Spain, etc. they live 4-7 years longer; studies that control for many other factors typically find males dying about twice as often.

Yet we see almost no interest in preferring female children on the basis that they will live longer.  We see parents prefer to gender balance their kids, and in some cultures parents prefer males.  Do parents not care how long their kids live, do they think male lives are worth more per year, to compensate for fewer years, or what?

See also Bryan on gender imbalances less harmful than supposed.

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Predictable Failures

The economist Scott Shane, in his book “The Illusions of Entrepreneurship,” … says … failed entrepreneurs … violate all kids of established principles of new-business formation.  New-business success is clearly correlated with the size of initial capitalization.  But failed entrepreneurs tend to be wildly undercapitalized.  The data show that organizing as a corporation is best.  But failed entrepreneurs tend to organize as sole proprietorships.  Writing a business plan is a must; failed entrepreneurs rarely take that step. Taking over an existing business is always the best bet; failed entrepreneurs prefer to start from scratch. Ninety percent of the fastest-growing companies in the country sell to other businesses: failed entrepreneurs usually try sell to consumers, and, rather than serving consumers that other business have missed, they chase the same people as their competitors do.  The list goes on: they underemphasize marketing; they don’t understand the importance of financial controls; they try to complete on price.

More here.  But don’t worry, you are the exception; none of these rules apply to your business.

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Shallow Voter Cures

I wrote:

To the extent that some [voters] have a natural tendency to believe whatever the majority of ads they hear on such topics tell them, such shallow folks are in effect offering to believe whatever the most monetarily-eager advertisers want them to believe.  For such shallow folks, money-wise the loud can indeed drown out the less loud. …

If corporations are silenced … not only would that hinder non-shallow voters from getting info from corporations, the total distortion by shallow voters is not obviously reduced! … Mechanically, it would be straightforward to limit the franchise by age, income, IQ, education, knowledge test scores, etc. … Shallowness can vary with person, topic, and context. If it is rare, we can ignore it, but it is more common than not we need to seriously revise who can vote on what.

Now shallow voters, who just believe whatever a majority of ads say, are probably not a big problem.  After all, campaign spending seems remarkably ineffective.  But we could benefit from better informed and more attentive voters, so it’s worth considering reforms to get that.  Reducing who can vote is only one of many options:

  • Juries – randomly select a small jury of voters to participate in each election.  Each juror chosen would know they have a much better chance of making a difference, and so would pay more attention.
  • Rotation – rotate voters across years and offices, so that they do not always vote on everything.  This would also focus voter attention because they would know they made more of a difference.
  • Topic – divide policies into topics, and let each voter pick their specialty topic.  Votes among topic specialists would somehow set policy on that topic.
  • Jury Foremen – randomly group citizens in each neighborhood into juries of thirteen, and have each jury, well in advance, elect a foreman to vote in the general election.  They’d elect smart foremen, little constrained on how to vote.
  • More ideas?

Why are all those folks, so very concerned that firms with free speech might manipulate shallow voters, so uninterested in these options?

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