Monthly Archives: December 2010

Cosmic Coordination

The universe looks dead. If it is actually teeming with ancient advanced life, why don’t any of them use all those resources we see? Yes, there might be other even more attractive resources we don’t see, but it still seems odd none specialize in using what we do see. Yes everything might be under the control of a unified collective, who agree on a preference to keep the universe looking dead. But pretty much any observation could be explained as due to a vast unified ancient power with an arbitrary preference to make the universe appear a certain way. (more)

I’ve posted before that coordination is harder than most folks realize. Today I’d like to emphasize that coordination on the largest scales of space and time, across the entire visible universe, should be the very hardest. Our far minds tend to assume that stuff at this furthest scale is the simplest, with the fewest relevant details, suggesting easy coordination. After all, if there’s just a few kinds of creatures, each with a few kinds of preferences and ways to act, then a simple mechanism might well be up to the task of coordinating them. But in fact creatures the size of stars or galaxies could have vast complex detail, diverging immensely across the universe, and changing greatly over billions of years. Their ability to monitor each other and enforce any agreements must surely be challenged by the vast distances and times involved. And for agreements to not use ample resources, there would remain great temptations to use such resources secretly, perhaps to support a breakout from the coordination regime.

Yes, billions of years also offer a long time to find and implement the best possible coordination mechanisms. But if those mechanisms must be in place before substantial expansion begins from some central origin, that seems to require maximal development of coordination technology at a cosmically very early development stage. If coordination is hard, that seems an extremely high hurdle.

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Renew Forager Law?

Foragers lived close, in groups of a few dozen. They slept close, and hunted and gathered in groups. They knew each other very well. So when one had a complaint against another, “law” was basically the rumor mill. The group would discuss the problem, taking everything they knew about the parties into account, form an informal consensus on what to do, and then do it. Punishments ranged from warnings to cold shoulders to exile to death.

Farmers developed stronger social norms, and then created formal law to standardize those norms on larger social scales. But since we seem to be returning to foraging ways in many ways as we’ve become rich, it is interesting to consider adopting a more foraging style law.

Imagine that whenever anyone had a complaint about another, we convened a jury of a dozen to study the issue full time for an entire year. (Forget about the cost of this for a moment, and just consider the kinds of decisions that would result.) This jury would have a budget to hire experts of various sorts, could interview all the people involved, and browse ubiquitous surveillance videos. They would have complete discretion to offer any punishments or rewards they thought appropriate; any precedents or written rules would only be suggestions.

Yes, you might want to discourage jurors taking bribes, favoring folks like themselves, or deviating too arbitrarily from precedent, but such complaints would be dealt with through exactly the same system – yet another jury would be convened to deal with each complaint. Same goes for complaints on excessive complaining.

Now let’s deal with the costs. Given a complaint, let’s convene such a jury rarely and randomly, perhaps as one in a thousand times. Before we “roll the dice” to see if a jury will be convened, let us have an open betting market on the jury’s decision. If we happen to convene a jury in this case, the bets will pay off, and punishments will be enacted, according to that decision. If we don’t convene a jury, the bets are called off and we’ll randomly select a punishment using the probability distribution given by the betting market odds.

OK, now that we have the outlines of a workable system, the most interesting question is: would you want a legal system like this? Even setting aside the issue that this might work especially badly for very specialized or technical complaints, I think most folks are rather uncomfortable with the idea. Which just shows how deeply we have internalized certain key farmer values.

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Polls Lie About Votes

In a poll last month, 848 US folk gave a median guess of 25% for “what percentage of the federal budget goes to foreign aid.” In 2009, US “bilateral foreign aid” was 0.6%. The survey’s median “appropriate percentage of the federal budget to go to foreign aid” was 10%. Polls have found similar answers for many decades. (more; HT Rob Wiblin)

Jason Kuznicki comments:

Clearly, then, it’s not enough. But just you try running on a pro-foreign aid platform. Yeah, that’s a winner.

But if the public actually believed what they said, that 10% should go to foreign aid, pro-more-foreign-aid would be a winning platform when combined with explaining how low is the current fraction. Yet politicians clearly believe otherwise, or they’d eagerly adopt such a platform. The obvious conclusion: in polls the public lies about how much foreign aid they’ll support via votes. Voters don’t want to hear about the true fraction of foreign aid, and will punish a politician who shames them by showing how little aid they give, and that they don’t want to give more.

An interesting meta conclusion: votes are not treated the same as polls. We’ll support some policies in polls that we won’t support by votes. This seems a challenge for Bryan Caplan’s view that we treat votes and polls similarly, since both have weak personal consequences re influencing the outcome.

Of course a better test here would be a poll that first informed voters of the true fraction of foreign aid, and then asked them what fraction would be appropriate. I’d bet that if a survey did this immediately after the above two survey questions, poll respondents would say they want more aid.  But without this immediate framing, I’m not sure.

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Berserker Breakout

The universe looks dead. If it is actually teeming with ancient advanced life, why don’t any of them use all those resources we see? Yes, there might be other even more attractive resources we don’t see, but it still seems odd none specialize in using what we do see. Yes everything might be under the control of a unified collective, who agree on a preference to keep the universe looking dead. But pretty much any observation could be explained as due to a vast unified ancient power with an arbitrary preference to make the universe appear a certain way.

Moving to scenarios where many powers compete, one proposed explanation is that we are in a berserker equilibrium, where everyone hides for fear of being destroyed by others in hiding. For example:

The Inhibitors from Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series are self-replicating machines … dormant for extreme periods of time until they detect the presence of a space-faring culture and proceed to exterminate it even to the point of sterilizing entire planets.

Or consider the zoo of competing self-replicators from David Brin’s story Lungfish:

The Anti-Maker … does not waste its time destroying biospheres, or eating up solar systems in spasms of self-replication. It wants only to seek out technological civilizations and ruin them. … Berserkers, … wreckers of worlds, were rare. … And there were what appeared to be Policeman probes, as well, who hunted the berserkers down wherever they could be found. … Harm … did not seek out life-bearing worlds in order to destroy them. Rather it spread innumerable copies of itself and looked for other types of probes to kill. Anything intelligent. Whenever it detected modulated radio waves, it would hunt down the source and destroy it.

I have an open enough mind here that I think Earth should keep quiet until we’ve studied this issue more. But I really have trouble seeing how this could be a stable equilibrium for a billion years among competing space species.

First, when something becomes visible, your killing it would seem a “public good” act which benefits all species, but mainly costs yours. Your killing action takes up your resources, and risks making you visible to be destroyed by others. Unless you think this new visible thing is especially likely to compete with your siblings, relative to other competitors, you’d rather wait and let something else destroy it.

Second, it must be possible to reproduce in order to compensate for wear and tear. After all, if the mere act of reproducing yourself made you so visible that you’d probably be destroyed, on average population sizes would fall to extinction. But if reproducing to compensate for decay works on average, why not reproduce more to grow in number? If observers can’t tell the purpose of a reproduction, then only density dependent death could keep populations in check. The ability to find and kill others without getting killed yourself in the process would somehow have to rise naturally with the density of creatures.

Once the local density of creatures had risen to some local limit, the most common species there could consider attempting a “breakout,” via a burst of rapid aggressive reproduction to overwhelm the ability of other species to contain it. Once enough copies were created in a large enough volume, the low density of other nearby species might be insufficient to stop the breakout species from expanding indefinitely.

There are many more complex strategies that seem attractive, compared to a simple direct breakout.  For example, fake breakout attempts could be created to induce retaliation by other species, depleting their resources and revealing their locations. One might then target them for attack before making one’s main breakout attempt in the now weakened region.

I’m not saying it is obvious that a long term berserker equilibrium is impossible, but I do have great doubts. And I’d love to see (and even help with) attempts to find stable equilibria within computer simulations of such scenarios.

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VCU Futarchy Talk

Last Monday I gave a talk (slides, audio) at VCU econ, on decision markets and futarchy.

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Khan on Forage v Farm

Razib Khan on foragers vs. farmers:

Cultures which are the most developed and least developed have the most equitable relations between the genders, while those in the middle are generally more conventionally male-dominated. … Plough farming societies tend to be more patriarchal [than hoe societies], all things equal. … Immigrants to the United States impart to their descendants the same values. … The majority of the world’s population are no longer primary producers, but most are recent descendants of primary producers.

Ultimately this goes back to the foragers & farmers debate. I have argued for years that the “traditional” and “conservative” values which emerged after the rise of agriculture, and crystallized during the Axial Age, are actually cultural adaptations to existence in the Malthusian mass societies which arose as the farmers pushed up against the production frontier. … Social controls needed to be more powerful so as to keep the masses of humanity in some sort of meta-stable equilibrium. The rise of institutional religions, conscript armies, and national identities, all bubbled up as adaptations to a world where a few controlled the many, and the many persisted on the barest margin of subsistence. …

The above is a rather materialist economic reading of power relations. One could create a narrative of moral evolution over time, and the expansion of the arc of humanity with the spread of universal religions. I think the two variables are related, and in any case the description of what happened remains the same. But now we’re in a third age. We’re not trapped by Malthusian parameters, because gains in economic productivity haven’t been swamped by population growth. Rather, on the contrary a demographic transition has occurred across much of the world, producing mass affluence.

With mass affluence has come liberalism, post-materialism, and all sorts of ideas and movements predicated on self-actualization. The converse is that the traditional values and social controls necessary for the proper maintenance of human civilization during the millennia of the ploughman have come under attack, and those who defend them style themselves conservatives and reactionaries. Ironically the flowering of the individualist ethos has resulted in a reversion to the relative lack of mass conformity, which replicates the diversity across small-scale societies, … e.g., the rise of “urban tribes”.

We should not proliferate categories beyond what is needed. But the story of hoe vs. plough agriculturalists shows that a simple hunter-gatherer vs. farmer narrative does not suffice. In some ways the hoe agriculturalist remains more like the hunter-gatherer, and in some ways more like his or her fellow agriculturalist. The most polygynous societies for example are arguably those of hoe based agriculturalists, as well as nomads. In contrast, hunter-gatherers and ploughman tend to be more monogamous, at least in a genetic sense. We need to evaluate human nature and society at its true joints. That may require more complexity than is pithy, but so be it.

Sound familiar?  Razib seems to present himself as if he’s disagreeing with me, but we largely agree. Yes of course there were many important distinctions within farmers, including herders vs. hoe-folk vs. plough-people, just as there were many types of foragers. There also were many transitional forms during the foraging to farming transition. But acknowledging detail shouldn’t keep us from summarizing key overall patterns.

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Leading Isn’t Helping

A lab experiment suggests groups reward leaders mainly for projecting high status, rather than for raising group payoffs. Perhaps having high status leaders raises the status of other group members, or members compete more with low status leaders in the hope of replacing them. If this pattern applies more generally to organization managers, it helps explain why they pay so little attention to improving the efficiency of their organizations, and so much to infighting and domination displays. Read and weep:

In a repeated public-goods game … players were more likely to mimic the actions of a leader they perceived as a high-status individual; they ignored leaders perceived as low-status and, when they had a chance, punished them for trying to lead. …

In each round … [each of the 80] players … had to decide what portion to keep for themselves and how much to contribute to a group account. Whatever was put into the group account was doubled and then split equally by the group of four. … Each group had a leader whose contributions everyone could see. The leader was determined by scores on an arbitrary trivia quiz. In half the experiments, the leader was the player who had the highest score (high status); in the other half,… the lowest score (low status). …

At the end of each of the 20 rounds, each follower observed his or her own earnings and the leader’s contributions. The leader observed the contributions of each of the followers. On average, players allocated between 40 and 50 percent of their [money] to the public pot, whether they had a high- or low-status leader. However, contributions from followers with low-status leaders dropped off in later rounds even though their leaders began giving more and more. … Groups with high-status leaders showed greater stability, and the followers were more likely to imitate their leaders — even though those leaders … [didn’t increase their] contributions. …

In the 21st round of the game, followers were given the option to punish the leader by issuing points that decreased a player’s profits in the experiment, and vice versa. … Once punishment was introduced, contributions increased significantly for the groups with a low-status leader and only slightly for those with a high-status leader. However, low-status leaders punished others and, in turn, were punished more. They made significantly less money in the experiment than any other player. (more, more; HT Tyler)

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Nation-As-Small-Org Bias

Imagine you had a small business or non-profit with various roles to fill. You might, for example, need an accountant, lawyer, gardener, custodian, cook, driver, and a receptionist. When you filled these roles, you would make two key choices:

  • Who they are – In addition to judging intelligence and competence, you’d also judge their trustworthiness and loyalty to you and your organization. In roles where mistakes are expensive, you’ll want folks to be extra reliable. And in roles where betrayal is costly, you’ll want folks to be extra loyal. If you expect to have accounting “irregularities”, for example, you might want to make sure your accountant is a family member.
  • How they relate – You’ll decide what incentives to give each person and role. You might contract each time with the lowest bidder, choose a supplier with a good reputation but be ready to switch easily, develop a long term supplier relation, hire someone paid via piecework or commission, or hire an employee paid via performance reviews and the hope of promotion. In especially sensitive positions you might hire family members, to pull in stronger family incentives.

Now consider the issue of which industries are nationalized vs. private, and if private how heavily regulated. For example, music is usually private with little regulation, food is private with modest regulation, while medicine is either heavily regulated or provided by government employees. Warriors are mostly government employees, while war machinery comes from private but heavily regulated firms. Teachers are mostly direct government employees. Government employees are rarely paid on commission; they almost always get a straight salary with strong job security.

A great many clever arguments have been offered over the years to explain why various industries should be nationalized or heavily regulated, and why government employees should have such weak incentives. But overall such explanations seem to me to rather weak; they leave a lot of unexplained variation. So I’m tempted to consider a simpler story: perhaps the public unconsciously compares national industries to the personal roles in a small organization.

That is, if security was essential to your small organization, and security folks might need to risk their lives sometimes, you’d want them to be very loyal employees. So we want national warriors to be very loyal. If you’d insist on treating a live-in nanny “like family”, you might want the nation’s teachers to be government employees with job security. If you’d want a personal doctor committed to ethical norms of careful care, you might want your nation to regulate the medical profession into supporting such norms. And if you don’t mind buying your computers from strangers, maybe you think it ok if the computer industry is mostly private.

Of course this analogy has some validity; there are some correlations between personal roles in a small org and industrial roles of a nation. But alas, the correlation is weak; how best to manage a national industry can really be quite different from how best to fill a small organization role. So I fear that a public primed to assume we should treat these similarly leads to a rather inefficient selection of which industries are nationalized and heavily regulated.  Count this as yet another cost of democracy.

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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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