Monthly Archives: March 2010

Movie Manipulation

Today, public perceptions about which new movies will be how popular is formed in a complex jumble of explicit advertising, word of mouth rumor, independent media evaluation, and paid ads masquerading as independent media.  This process is little like neutral analysis; it is packed full of vigorous attempts to manipulate our perceptions.

Two firms propose to augment this system with speculative markets forecasting movie sales. And the movie industry is horrified; this might let someone purposely influence perceptions of movie popularity!:

A growing coalition of entertainment industry workers, creators, independent producers and distributors, business organizations and theater owners today announced opposition to two proposals to establish online wagering services based on speculation over box office receipts for motion pictures. … The groups said that the proposal by MDEX and a separate plan by Cantor Futures Exchange, L.P. “are based on faulty understanding of the film industry and create a risk of rampant speculation and financial irresponsibility. … Now is not the time to open up new and highly speculative marketplaces that could end up costing jobs and harming legitimate businesses … We will address whether any exchange infrastructure is capable of surveying the box office marketplace to detect and address potential market manipulation.

My research suggests that speculative markets are remarkably robust to manipulation attempts; the more folks try to manipulate, the more accurate market estimates get on average!  But with limited funding, I’ve only done a limited number of experiments; I can’t prove no one will ever use a speculative market to purposely influence movie perceptions.  And alas this mere possibility of manipulation may seem intolerable.

An enormous double standard favors existing ads and mass media over proposed speculative markets.  No one has to run experiments showing that manipulation is impossible with existing institutions; in fact, we all know such manipulation is rampant.  But many will call it irresponsibly risky to let speculative markets permit further manipulation, even if the ratio of error to solid info is far lower there.

Robust movie markets would in fact give the public more reliable estimates of movie popularity, estimates more resistant to movie industry manipulation.  Could it be that what the movie industry fears most is not more manipulation, but less?

Hat tip Trey Kollmer.

Added 1Apr: Some say that a model based on Twitter can predict movies better than the HSX prediction market.  Let’s set aside the level confusion here (HSX could do better if its traders had access to this model).  Does anyone doubt that, if this model’s predictions were taken seriously, Twitter could be used to manipulate movie perceptions?  Does anyone expect the movie industry to therefore request regulators to ban movie tweets?   Still can’t see the double standard?

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Govt Muzzles More

Sponsorship [of pharmaceutical research and drug trials] by manufacturers has been found to be associated with a reduced likelihood of the reporting of adverse results.  Likewise, a significant link has been found between industry funding and the likelihood that results of a randomized trial will support a new therapy. … One proposed solution to this problem is to increase public funding for the conduct of research on therapeutic effectiveness. Ironically, that may well aggravate the problem. In July 2007, AcademyHealth, a professional association of health services and health policy researchers, published results of a study of sponsor restrictions on the publication of research results. Surprisingly, the results revealed that more than three times as many researchers had experienced problems with government funders related to prior review, editing, approval, and dissemination of research results.  In addition, a higher percentage of respondents had turned down government sponsorship opportunities due to restrictions than had done the same with industrial funding. Much of the problem was linked to an “increasing government custom and culture of controlling the flow of even non-classified information.”

Of particular concern is a provision of the Senate-passed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, [regarding] the … new Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute to conduct comparative-effectiveness research.  The bill allows the withholding of funding to any institution where a researcher publishes findings not “within the bounds of and entirely consistent with the evidence,” a vague authorization that creates a tremendous tool that can be used to ensure self-censorship and conformity with bureaucratic preferences. This appears to be an effort in part to bypass the court order in Stanford v. Sullivan, a case involving federal contractual requirements that would have banned researchers from any discussion of their work without pre-approval by the Department of Health and Human Services. The order held that such blanket bans are “overly broad” and constitute “illegal prior restraint” on speech.  The language in the Senate bill attempts to overcome this hurdle by eliminating prior restraint, but using the threat of post hoc punishment as an incentive for self-censorship.

That was written Feb 8; I just contacted its author and he doesn’t know if this made it into the final med bill or not.  Alas this bodes poorly for the new comparative-effectiveness research program.

Added: Steven says this was in the final bill!  You’d better agree with the government’s interpretation of your findings if you want any future money.

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“Knowing” Too Much

Page 1,617 of the 2,400-page law signed by President Barack Obama … creates an institute, funded with $500 million or more annually, to spur studies of which drugs, devices and medical procedures work best. … The health bill’s funding builds upon $1.1 billion approved by Congress last year for effectiveness research. The new legislation creates a nonprofit Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute … run by a 19-member board of governors with three representatives of drug, device and diagnostic-testing companies as well as patient advocates, doctors and the National Institutes of Health. … Its funding will start at $10 million this year and reach about $500 million in 2013.

More here.  10% of this annual budget would pay the cost of an updated RAND health insurance experiment; will they do it?!  Alas, probably not; they’ll probably say that would cost too much to confirm what they already “know,” medicine’s fantastic value.  Megan McArdle has been similarly failing to get Obamacare proponents to make clear predictions about what they previously suggested were its huge health benefits.  Austin Frakt illustrates a further mental block:

The gold standard of the randomized experiment is not without deficiencies. Such experiments are “time consuming, expensive, and may not always be practical.” … They are also not always decisive. Even the RAND health insurance experiment (HIE) has been critiqued (and defended). That is not to suggest that it is certainly flawed (or certainly perfect), it is merely to say that variations in interpretation exist for results of randomized experiments just as they do for non-experimental studies.

Indeed, Angrist and Pischke (and I) agree with Leamer that “randomized experiments differ only in degree from nonexperimental evaluations of causal effects.” The authors add that “a well-done observational study can be more credible and persuasive than a poorly executed randomized trial.” It is for this and the other foregoing features of randomized experiments that I believe the half-billion dollars or so that some advocate spending on another RAND HIE would arguably be better spent funding well-conceived observational or natural experiment-based studies. (A half-billion dollars could found on the order of 1,000 observational studies.)

The main complaints today about the RAND experiment are that it was done too long ago and contained too few people over too short a time.  The outcome of the experiment was very clear on its initially defined health measure: those with more medicine were not significantly healthier.  The main disputes arise from folks not liking that result, and offering other outcome measures after the fact.  The more time passes, the more folks feel free to dismiss the RAND experiment as hopelessly out of date.

No doubt a thousand “well-conceived” observational studies, neutrally executed and interpreted, could in principle give more total info than one big experiment.  But since a great many funders, researchers, publishers, and meta-analysts seem much more willing to accept pro than anti-medicine results, then having a thousand varied studies would give many thousands of opportunities for such biases to skew their results.

Given the scope for biases, funding a thousand observational studies simply cannot give a clear decisive answer.  The main hope for such clarity is from just a few big experiments focused clear health outcomes agreed on ahead of time.  This is feasible, and would cost only a tiny fraction of the two trillion a year we spend on medicine, but alas probably won’t happen, because people “know” too much.

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Lord of the Factories

Lord of the Flies is an allegorical novel. … Using as an example a group of British schoolboys stuck on a deserted island, … the book portrays their descent into savagery. … Left to themselves in a paradisiacal country, far from modern civilization, the well-educated children regress to a primitive state. …

The central theme is the conflicting impulses toward civilization—live by rules, peacefully and in harmony—and towards the will to power. … Jack endeavours to empower himself instead by turning his choir group into “hunters”, who are responsible for hunting for meat and taking care of the fire. … Jack’s tribe gradually becomes more animalistic, emphasising the practice of applying face paint from coloured clay discovered by Samneric and charred remains of trees. The narrative voice in the story reveals to the reader that these painted faces represent the hunters’ masking their more civilized selves in order to liberate their inner “savages”. … The pig head … the “Lord of the Flies” … discloses the truth about itself — that the boys themselves “created” the beast, and that the real beast was inside them all.

This famous novel suggests that it is only our “civilized” rules and culture that keep up from the fate of our “savage” ancestors, who were violent dominating law-less animals.  But though this may be true regarding our distant primate ancestors of six or more million years ago, it is quite unfair slander regarding our face-painting forager ancestors of ten thousand or more years ago.

While our kids are segregated into schools where light monitoring lets them terrorize each other and form dominance hierarchies, forager kids are mixed among forager adults, who enforce their strong social norms against violence and domination.  At school, our kids are rated and ranked far more often than most adults will tolerate, even though this actually slows their learning!

It seems that modern schools function in part to help humans overcome their (genetically and culturally) inherited aversions to hierarchy and dominance.  Modern workplaces require workers who are far more accepting than are foragers of being told what to do when, and of being explicitly ranked, and our schools prepare kids to accept this more primate-like environment.  It is “primitive” social norms that overcame the violent domination of our primate heritage, and our “civilized” schools teach us to repress such prudish forager norms.

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Ems Like Alters?

In ’08 I forecasted:

A [future] world of near-subsistence-income ems in a software-like labor market, where millions of cheap copies are made of a each expensively trained em, and then later evicted from their bodies when their training becomes obsolete.

This will be accepted, because human morality is flexible, especially given strong competitive pressures:

Hunters couldn’t see how exactly a farming life could work, nor could farmers see how exactly an industry life could work.  In both cases the new life initially seemed immoral and repugnant to those steeped in prior ways.  But even though prior culture/laws typically resisted and discouraged the new way, the few groups which adopted it won so big others were eventually converted or displaced. …

Taking the long view of human behavior we find that an ordinary range of human personalities have, in a supporting poor culture, accepted genocide, mass slavery, killing of unproductive slaves, killing of unproductive elderly, starvation of the poor, and vast inequalities of wealth and power not obviously justified by raw individual ability. … When life is cheap, death is cheap as well.  Of course that isn’t how our culture sees things, but being rich we can afford luxurious attitudes.

Our attitude toward “alters,” the different personalities in a body with multiple personalities, seems a nice illustration of human moral flexibility, and its “when life is cheap, death is cheap” sensitivity to incentives.

Alters seem fully human, sentient, intelligent, moral, experiencing, with their own distinct beliefs, values, and memories.  They seem to meet just about every criteria ever proposed for creatures deserving moral respect.  And yet the public has long known and accepted that a standard clinical practice is to kill off alters as quickly as possible.  Why?

Among humans, we mourn teen deaths the most, and baby and elderly deaths the least; we know that teen deaths represent the greatest loss of past investment and future gains.  We also know that alters are cheap to create, at least in the right sort of body, and that they little help, and usually hurt, a body’s productivity.

While unproductive humans can look like the sort of person we might have been, alters seem like the sort of demons sorcery says possess people.  So while we might plausibly have evolved (genetically or culturally) a tendency to show concern for unproductive humans, to signal our empathy, we plausibly also evolved a tendency to show revulsion of alters, to signal our hatred of sorcery.

Since alter lives are cheap to us, their deaths are also cheap to us.  So goes human morality.  In the future, I expect the many em copies in an em clan (of close copies) to be treated much like the many alters in a human body.  Ems will tend to adopt whatever attitudes most support clan productivity, and if that means a cavalier attitude toward ending em lives when convenient, such attitudes will come to dominate.

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Is Curing Sybil Murder?

Sybil supposedly had sixteen distinct personalities.  “Curing” such patients by eliminating or merging their personalities isn’t obviously good:

The cognitive fragmentation that characterizes DID [Dissociative Identity Disorder] far outstrips … self-deception and akrasia.  Indeed, … it becomes difficult not to regard each alter as a distinct locus of experience, thought and agency.  As Wilkes points out with respect to the Beauchamp case,

[Prince] firmly (for example) ticked Sally off for her tricks follies, and would lecture her sternly; he criticized or approved of B4’s plans for finding a job, or for taking a holiday; and he commended B1’s sweet and self-sacrificing nature. All the alternate personalities were thus treated as moral and prudential agents, with respect to other people, with respect to each other, and with respect to their own selves. Prince is by no means alone in taking such an attitude to the diverse personalities of a patient – it is practically impossible to avoid.

There are two standard therapeutic approaches to DID. … [Restoration] involves the installation of a particular alter as the unique `owner’ of a body.  … An alternative … [is] integration of the various alters into one self, a single agent with a (unified) stream of consciousness and a unified psychological profile. …

Assuming the strong model of DID and a psychological account of full moral status, restoration would seem to involve the involuntary elimination of an entity with a right to continued existence. (I assume that – as is in fact often the case – the alters in question do not want to be eliminated. …). Restoration may not amount to murder … but it would seem to involve an act of comparable moral gravity. …

Enforced integration does not appear to be as wrong as restoration, but it does seem to be deeply problematic nonetheless. It is not clear that integration should be thought of as the `elimination’ of an alter, but it may well approach that (especially as the number of alters that are integrated increases).

More here and here.  Our future will contain a much wider range of creatures, and we will have to decide when it is good or bad to create or destroy them.  We should at least prepare by coming to terms with the creatures we have today.

Added 18Mar: The fictional Borg merged humans into a larger more-integrated collective mind.  If merging alters is good, why isn’t a Borg better?

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Further Than Africa

Imagine you asked people whether they cared about poor Africans, and if so, what were they doing to help.  Imagine your heard following answers:

  1. Africa is so far away, and some Africans are much richer than I am.  The process of sending money to such a distant place is so complex that I fear anything I gave would be stolen along they way, especially by rich Africans.  So I don’t give.
  2. I contribute to the world economy just by doing my job and buying stuff.  Eventually that ends up helping everyone in the world, including Africans.
  3. I donate to my local hospital, volunteer at my local school library, and buy cookies from local girl scouts.  All charity helps the world, and so helps everyone in the world.
  4. I buy fair coffee to save the rain forrest, march to stop nukes, and drive a Prius to stop global warming.  When I save the world in these ways that helps Africans, who also live in this world.
  5. If I gave directly to Africans, that would cheat all the folks between here and Africa from the chance to help their neighbors.  My plan instead is to give to a local neighbor and have faith that this neighbor will then give to his neighbor, and so on until far away Africans are helped.

Which of these folks would you conclude really did care about Africans? What if you offered to match their donated funds by a factor of a million or trillion, and they still fell back on these excuses? Would you still think they cared?

A few weeks ago at Oxford I talked on “We Don’t Donate To The Distant Future; Do We Care?” (slides here).  I pointed out that no one tries, like Ben Franklin, to use compound interest to donate huge sums to the distant future, at a tiny cost to themselves.  When I suggested that this fact suggests few care much about the distant future, people responded with arguments like the above.  They donate to charity, try to save the world, do their job that builds the world economy, they fear donations would be stolen and many future folks will be rich, and its better to just give to their kids with faith that each generation will give to the next.  So of course they care about the future – how dare I suggest otherwise?

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Sex Prizes

Many organizations say their purpose is to do good.  Many of these do good by trying to entice other people to do good.  And some of these organizations entice by offering prizes and awards; they commit ahead of time to giving cash or attention to those who achieve particular things, or to those chosen by some committee as the best in a category.

People also do a very wide range of things to support their causes.  They sacrifice cash, attention, time, status, and comfort.  They suffer dirt, ridicule, exhaustion, and risks of death.  They forgo desired careers, homes, friends.  Some are willing to be seen naked, or to withhold sex from specified disapproved folks.  Some are even willing to hurt or kill other folks.

But to my knowledge, no (non-prostitute) group has ever explicitly offered sex as a prize or reward for doing good.  Any group that declared a regular public sex prize would no doubt get lots of publicity, they wouldn’t violate any laws, nor pay much beyond the sex itself, and yet no one has done this.  Why?

Consider how repelled most people today are by arranged marriages, or by a woman agreeing to have sex with her husband at unspecified future times of his choosing.  We also much more respect prostitutes who can veto customers, and who often exercise this power.  And we are surprisingly accepting of most any sex as long as it “felt right” to the parties at the time.

It seems to me we accept something close to a moral principle that one’s subconscious must always have the option to veto sex.  Especially for women, this principle seems to have a far greater priority than any pro-charity principles, and even than self-preservation principles.  It is far more acceptable to risk your life than to offer sex for a good cause, no matter how great that cause.

From a conversation with Rob Wiblin and Katja Grace.

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Firms Won’t Experiment

I’ve often tried to help [convince] companies do experiments, and usually I fail spectacularly. … Companies pay amazing amounts of money to get answers from consultants with overdeveloped confidence in their own intuition. Managers rely on focus groups — a dozen people riffing on something they know little about — to set strategies. And yet, companies won’t experiment to find evidence of the right way forward.  I think this irrational behavior stems from two sources. One, … experiments require short-term losses for long-term gains. … Second, there’s the false sense of security that heeding experts provides.

More here (HT Tyler).   Wow – and I was puzzled by firms disinterest in prediction markets; experiments have a much better intellectual pedigree.  Hiring consultants allows one to affiliate with prestigious folks, while focus groups allow one to brag about “listening to the people” (which is in fact how prediction markets are usually sold).  Apparently actually improving decision quality is way way down in the manager priority list.

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Inventors’ Two Cents

Even in societies in which markets were relatively free and developed, there was rarely any proportionality between the contribution of an innovator and the rewards he or she reaped.  At least in that sense, the situation was not different from what it is today: Nordhaus (2004) has estimated that in modern America only 2.2 percent of the surplus of an invention is captured by the inventor him/herself.  Things surely looked no better in the eighteenth century. … If ever there was a divergence between social and private net benefits, the Industrial Revolution was it.  The impact of the technological elite on the rest of the economy was thus vastly larger than proportional to their size.

That is from Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850 (p.88).  Not sure I believe the fraction is as low as 2%, though I expect it is well below 1.  We need better ways to encourage innovation!

Mokyr gave a talk at GMU yesterday, which I found disappointing.  His book convinces me that Britain’s exceptionally skilled workforce and high farm productivity were important enablers of the industrial revolution, but his claim that this was due to “enlightenment ideology” seems to me too vague to evaluate.

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