Monthly Archives: May 2010

Treme Dissapoints

A while back I called The Wire:

My favorite TV show ever.  It presents a vivid and believable world of Baltimore drugs, police, politics, etc. … I findThe Wire’s world unusually consistent with everything I know.  … “The overall moral of the story seems to me largely libertarian.

Though I was puzzled that its producer, David Simon, didn’t agree with me about its overall moral. If The Wire was the best show ever, then it was quite unlikely that Simon’s new show, Treme, would nearly as good. And after watching six episodes now, I can assure you it isn’t.  (Newsweek agrees). Oh its better than average, and I’m sure it is cutting-edge and ground-breaking in many ways.  And in terms of the details of personal lives, Treme may be even more realistic than The Wire.

But in terms of the larger social forces, Treme seems to be setting up a standard political fantasy: colorful warm-hearted salt-of-the-Earth plunky outranged citizens “take back their town” from corrupt leaders.  Oh they may well fail and get squashed in the end, but their idealism and passion toward their heart-warming noble cause is way way over the top.

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How Long A Leash?

While prediction markets on project completion dates often give spectacular accuracy improvements over official forecasts, hearing about this doesn’t make most organizations interested in adopting them. A plausible explanation for this is that managers often try to induce employee effort by manipulating the perceived chances of making the deadline. Employees will slack off if either the deadline seems impossible, or if it will be easily achieved; they work hardest when there is only a decent chance of success.

Similarly, it seems to me that many women (often unconsciously) try to keep their men maximally motivated to please them by giving them some but not too much sex. Men who think getting sex is easy, or impossible, don’t try as hard. At a party this weekend, I heard two middle-aged women lament that they had given away sex too easily in college; they envied the high prices young high-class prostitutes command.

This is why I predict the new “pink Viagra” will sell far less than its blue cousin. This new drug will be demanded by women who find it hard to offer their men enough sex to keep him near that optimal most-hungry point. But most women do not find this difficult.  In fact, I suspect some high-libido women have affairs in part to help them offer less sex to their men. Also, many women avoid sex with their man because they’ve decided (often unconsciously) that he’s just not good enough. Consider:

A German pharmaceutical giant wants to sell … “flibanserin.” … The company has sponsored studies involving more than 5,000 premenopausal women ages 18 to 50 in the United States, Canada and Europe in whom HSDD had been diagnosed. A 100-milligram daily dosage increased the number of satisfying sexual experiences that women had reported from the previous month — a key benchmark the FDA has set for such drugs — from an average of 2.7 to 4.5, compared with 3.7 among those taking a placebo. …

Critics say … “People think they are sick when they are not.” … For many women, waning sexual desire is a normal part of aging. For others, it could be a sign of other medical problems, a dysfunctional relationship or even an abusive partner. … “Is this going to make women desire an abusive partner?” asked Liz Canner, a documentary filmmaker who produced “Orgasm Inc.,” about the pharmaceutical industry’s role in developing drugs for female sexual disorders. “Is it going to make us desire every guy who walks by?”

I very much doubt men were as concerned that blue Viagra would make them too attracted to abusive women.

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Selective Discrimination

In the US we supposedly:

prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or age in hiring, promoting, firing, setting wages, testing, training, apprenticeship, and all other terms and conditions of employment.

I am struck by several related facts:

1. We allow such discrimination by employees choosing jobs,
2. We allow such discrimination in other relations, e.g., marriage.
3. We aren’t much interested in banning looks-based discrimination, though the evidence for bias there is as strong as anywhere:

According to a national poll by the Employment Law Alliance in 2005, 16 percent of workers reported being victims of appearance discrimination more generally — a figure comparable to the percentage who in other surveys say they have experienced sex or race discrimination. …

When people are asked to rate an individual’s attractiveness, their responses are quite consistent, even across race, sex, age, class and cultural background. Facial symmetry and unblemished skin are universally admired. Men get a bump for height, women are favored if they have hourglass figures, and racial minorities get points for light skin color, European facial characteristics and conventionally “white” hairstyles. … Unattractive people are less likely than their attractive peers to be viewed as intelligent, likable and good. …

Unattractive people are less likely to be hired and promoted, and they earn lower salaries, even in fields in which looks have no obvious relationship to professional duties. … For lawyers, such prejudice can translate to a pay cut of as much as 12 percent. When researchers ask people to evaluate written essays, the same material receives lower ratings for ideas, style and creativity when an accompanying photograph shows a less attractive author. Good-looking professors get better course evaluations from students; teachers in turn rate good-looking students as more intelligent. …

In studies that simulate legal proceedings, unattractive plaintiffs receive lower damage awards. … [Researchers] gave students case studies involving real criminal defendants and asked them to come to a verdict and a punishment for each. The students gave unattractive defendants prison sentences that were, on average, 22 months longer than those they gave to attractive defendants. …

Already, one state (Michigan) and six local jurisdictions (the District of Columbia; Howard County, Md.; San Francisco; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Madison, Wis.; and Urbana, Ill.) have banned [appearance] discrimination. … All make exceptions for reasonable business needs. Such bans have not produced a barrage of loony litigation or an erosion of support for civil rights remedies generally. (more)

Consider Matt Zeitlin:’s argument for not banning such discrimination:

Tall people can expect a substantial earnings premium over shorter people on account of their height. … genes that make them tall; well proportioned facial features and so on — have, in themselves, no real moral content and thus people’s claims to the goods gained due to these features are weaker than they think they are. But the disparities exist anyway, and are probably too deeply entrenched to be redressed through discrimination suits. So this just leaves us with, to evoke Yglesias, “higher taxes to finance more and better public services.”

What, racial and gender disparities are not deeply entrenched?  And how exactly do the ugly benefit more from public services?  The evidence cited above shows government provided law and education discriminate against them.  Sigh.

I despair of finding a way to see our general pattern of which discriminations we allow as an application of some general moral principle. Instead it seems more likely that recent cultural [i.e., media, academic, law] elites preferred to discourage the types of discrimination that favored their cultural/political rivals, while retaining the types that favored them, their existing allies, or natural “enemy of my enemy” allies.  For example, since today’s cultural elites tend to be pretty, they have little interest in preventing discrimination against the ugly.  Prohibiting discrimination against the ugly would not give those elites more or stronger allies.

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My Funeral

I attended a memorial service today, for someone I hardly knew. His family was wealthy and full of energy and passion and creativity. At the service folks wore nice clothes, and were pleasant and polite. Nice food was served in a scenic setting, beautiful music played, and idealistic speeches given, talking about family, dedication, caring, bonding, and intelligence. It was noted, for example, that he did the crossword puzzle daily, in ink.

Such services seem designed to affirm the shared far values of attendees, and to affirm the status of those who achieve such values. But the idea of service like the one I attended appeals less to me, since I put less weight on the values it affirmed. So what kind of service might better affirm the values I hold high, raising the status of people like me who most affirm those values?

Well one thing I value greatly is insight. So I’d like it if service attendees would each share an insight they’d had that day, or perhaps in the last week. Anything about themselves or the world around them they hadn’t quite understood as clearly before.

Another thing I value is honesty. So I’d like it to be clear to everyone that they need not say only nice things about the deceased.  Finally, I value grand ambition, so I’d like folks to talk about how exactly they hope to have a huge impact on the world.

Of course mostly I hope to never die, or at least to put it off for as long as possible.

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Is Fear Near, Anger Far?

Fear may contribute to the ideal of informed voting by enhancing detailed processing (Tiedens & Linton, 2001), whereas anger may detract from this ideal by promoting less careful processing and reliance on heuristics (Bodenhausen, Sheppard, & Kramer, 1994). Consistent with this possibility, work in political science (e.g., Marcus, Neuman, & MacKuen, 2000; Valentino et al., 2008) suggests that anxiety (fear) motivates citizens to learn, which may lead them to become better informed voters. … We … test[ed] the prediction that fear would lead participants to use specific issue-based information when choosing a candidate, whereas anger would lead participants to rely on general criteria (e.g., party loyalty). (more; HT Barker)

Yet fear of (thinking about) death seems quite effective at preventing critical thinking. Is fear of death different?

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Review: Rational Optimist

On Thursday Matt Ridley presented his new book The Rational Optimist at CATO, and I commented (vid available).  Here’s roughly what I said:

The formula for a successful popular non-fiction book these days is a sandwich: meat between bread slices. The bread is a general thesis that can be explained in a paragraph, with both a normative part to let readers take sides, and a positive part to let readers display sophistication. The meat is 400 pages of entertaining and vaguely-related but mostly unnecessary detail. Most readers would be overwhelmed if all this material were actually required to understand the thesis, but would also be insulted by a 40 page book.

Ridley achieves this formula well, and his meat is unusually dense and informative; I learned lots. But since reviews are supposed to focus on the bread, so let’s go there.

Ridley’s positive thesis is that specialization and trade among non-relatives was the key driver of innovation that let humans advance far beyond other animals. We have good evidence of trade over 100 mile distances about 80,000 years ago, and it may go back much further.  I completely agree with Matt here; trade was a key. And since people tend to think that whatever made humans unique must be great, since we humans are of course great, this should lead folks to think trade is great.

Ridley attributes the farming and industry growth speedups to humans recruiting more living species via domestication, and then recruiting dead species via fossil fuels.  I instead attribute those speedups to percolation transitions that increased network scales, first for trade and then for expert talk.

Ridley’s normative thesis is optimism, that things have long been getting better, and this will long continue. While I mostly agree, Ridley overstates his case. For example:

Knowledge … is genuinely limitless. There is not even a theoretical possibility of exhausting the supply of ideas, discoveries, and inventions. This is the biggest cause of all for my optimism. … The combinatorial vastness of the universe of possible ideas dwarfs the puny universe of physical things. (p.276)

Well possibilities may be inexhaustible, but their value is not. Within a million years we’ll find pretty much all combos that give value to creatures like us, and for trillions of years thereafter they’ll be little net gain.  Balking at paying large costs to avoid small risks of climate change catastrophe, Ridley says:

The trouble with this reasoning is that it applies to all risks, not just climate change …. Why are we not spending large sums stockpiling food caches in cities so that people can survive the risks from North Korean missiles, rogue robots, alien invaders, nuclear war, pandemics, super-volcanos? (p. 333)

But we should spend such sums. Just as we get more careful with our kids as we live longer, the more optimistic we are about our long term future, the more we should spend now to safeguard it.

Ridley is also too tempted to conflate optimism about the total power of our civilization with about optimism about individual quality of life.   While he accepts that totalitarian governments have at times reduced quality of life, and may do so again, he doesn’t directly acknowledge that farming reduced life quality, via wars, slavery, nutrition constraints, etc. And I envision that, within a century or so, new em tech will allow far more rapid population growth, reducing per capita wealth.

Overall though, Ridley is right: optimism is rational, even if uncool.

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Near Picts/Voices, Far Words/Faces

[Pictures Near, Words Far] – People better process pictures that represent proximal objects and words that represent distal objects than pictures that represent distal objects and words that represent proximal objects. These results were obtained with various psychological distance dimensions (spatial, temporal, and social), different tasks (classification and categorization), and different measures (speed of processing and selective attention). … Pictures thus impart a sense of closeness to the referent objects and are preferably used to represent such objects, whereas words do not convey proximity and are preferably used to represent distal objects in space, time, and social perspective. (more)

[Voices Near, Faces Far] – When in love, people typically focus on a long-term perspective which enhances global [far] perception, whereas when experiencing sexual encounters they focus on the present which enhances a perception of [near] details. … In two studies participants were primed with concepts and thoughts of love versus sex. Compared to control groups, recognition of verbal material was enhanced after sex priming, whereas face recognition was enhanced after love priming. In Experiment 2 it was demonstrated that differences in global versus local perception mediated these effects.  (more)

Unless these results are in conflict, then to absorb talking heads in near mode, listen to them on the radio, instead of watching them on TV.  But to absorb a story in near mode, watch a movie instead of reading a book.

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Yawn, World Remade

What dramatic new events are in store for humanity? Here we contemplate 12 possibilities and rate their likelihood of happening by 2050. … They all have the power to forever reshape how we think about ourselves and how we live our lives.

That is the June Scientific American, which doesn’t seem to realize that one of their 12 possibilities matters far more than the rest. They assign a greater than 50% chance to advanced AI by 2050!

LIKELY: machine-selfawareness
What happens when robots start calling the shots?

Artificial-intelligence (AI) researchers have no doubt that the development of highly intelligent computers and robots that can self-replicate, teach themselves and adapt to different conditions will change the world. … Computers with adaptable and advanced hardware and software might someday become self-aware. … When machine self-awareness first occurs, it will be followed by self-improvement. … Improvements would be made in subsequent generations, which, for machines can pass in only a few hours. In other words, Wright notes, self-awareness leads to self-replication leads to better machines made without humans involved. “Personally, i’ve always been more scared of this scenario than a lot of others” in regard to the fate of humanity, he says. … Not everyone is so pessimistic. … This emergence of more intelligent AI won’t come on “like an alien invasion of machines to replace us,” agrees futurist and prominent author Ray Kurzweil. Machines, he says, will follow a path that mirrors the evolution of humans. Ultimately, however, self-aware, self-improving machines will evolve beyond humans’ ability to control or even understand them, he adds.

The other eleven possibilities:

cloning of a human (likely), extra dimensions (50-50), extraterrestrial intelligence (unlikely), nuclear exchange (unlikely), creation of life (almost certain), room-temperature superconductors (50-50), polar meltdown (likely), pacific earthquake (almost certain), fusion energy (very unlikely), asteroid collision (unlikely), deadly pandemic (50-50).

Scientific American seems unaware that the AI possibility’s expected effects far outweigh all the rest.  If accurate, this one forecast deserves vastly more attention than a 700 word comment.  If they really took it seriously, they might devote an entire issue to the subject, or perhaps even their entire future magazine.  Either they don’t really believe their >50% number, they don’t understand its enormous civilization-remaking consequences, or they (and their readers) don’t find such vast consequences several decades hence of much interest. Which is it?

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Wanted: Cynic Textbooks

People have a variety of motives for their actions. Actions vary in how verbal or symbolic they are, and motives vary in how explicit, conscious, and proximate to action they are. Motives also vary in being “high” vs. “low” on a standard ranking of the nobility of motives.

“Cynics” vs. “idealistic” beliefs differ in how high are the motives they assign to acts. (Cynical moods are another matter.)  We can probably agree that explicit, conscious, and proximate motives tend to be higher, as do motives behind verbal and symbolic acts. We also tend to be more idealistic about “us”, and more cynical about “them.” Even so, there is room to disagree on if cynical or idealistic beliefs are be more accurate descriptions of reality.

It seems to me that idealistic views dominate official views, especially views visible to many and expressed by the powerful. (After all, power is far, and far is ideal.) Idealism dominantes most official speeches, especially for funerals, weddings, award acceptance, politicial stump, and movie hero speeches. Idealism also dominates most ads, product brochures, vision statements, legal rulings, textbooks, and song lyrics. Cynical views are found in private conversations, e.g. at a bar or water cooler, in porn, from stand-up comedians, in movie villan speeches, and in political rants about certain sorts of “them.”

Formal education relentlessly pushes idealistic views on kids, and censorship “protects” them from hearing cynical views. Whatever cynicism kids learn “on the street”, they know teachers will not want to hear it in class. Cynical views may be expressed in hushed tones to co-workers, but modern workers know to avoid such views in official memos, or even in private emails, for fear of hurting their firm if exposed in a lawsuit.

Alas, this seems nothing remotely like a fair rhetorical fight. To give kids a fair chance to believe whatever the evidence best supports, they should have access to textbook-like presentations of cynical views that are as clear and accessible as for idealistic views. But few such texts exist, and we’d probably censor any that were created.  I’m interested in helping to create such texts, but the ideologues most willing to fund the creation of contrarain texts prefer to frame them in idealistic terms; cynical framing seems the kiss of death.

When people defend our habit of emphasizing idealistic views, they almost never say that such views are just plain more accurate. They talk instead about how it is good for the world if folks are taught idealism, or that it is empowering, motivating, or impressive to believe in idealism. Or maybe that if we repeat idealism enough then someday it may really become true.  All of which seems to me to basically admit: idealism, as usually spoken, is mostly a lie.

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Regulation Ratchets

Yesterday I heard politicians talking sagely about how the gulf oil disaster shows we need stronger drilling regulations. I’ve recently heard similar musings about how the financial crisis shows we need stronger financial regulations. Makes sense, right?   But stop for a moment and ask:  Aren’t there lots of areas where we haven’t seen a big disaster in a long time?  (E.g., when was the last big hairdressing disaster?)  How strong would regulations have to be before you’d say that a prolonged period of no big disaster suggests we need weaker regulations? When did you last hear someone using this reason to suggest we weaken a particular regulation?

Look, in any area where we let humans do things, every once in a while there will be a big screwup; that is the sort of creatures humans are. And if you won’t decrease regulation without a screwup but will increase it with a screwup, then you have a regulation ratchet: it only moves one way. So if you don’t think a long period without a big disaster calls for weaker regulations, but you do think a particular big disaster calls for stronger regulation, well then you might as well just strengthen regulations lots more right now, even without a disaster. Because that is where your regulation ratchet is heading.

What if you can’t imagine ever wanting to weaken a regulation, just because it was strong and you’d gone a long time without a big disaster? Well then you apparently want the maximum possible regulation, which is probably to just basically outlaw that activity. And if that doesn’t seem like the right level of regulation to you, well then maybe you should reconsider your ratchety regulation intuitions.

Added 8p: I’m not saying there there aren’t many other reasons/factors influencing regulatory changes, and I’m not saying regulation never gets weaker.  I’m saying that this particular factor, the existence or not of a recent disaster, is often a ratchet factor, since many folks seem unwilling to consider reducing regulation because of a lack of recent disasters, yet are willing to increase it because of a recent disaster.  This is a clear bias, though it might of course be countered by other opposite biases.

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