Monthly Archives: October 2011

Why Weak Charity Rules?

In April I posted on “trailer for David Alvarado’s slick-looking new [3D] film on longevity.” There’s now a new trailer:

The Methuselah Generation; The Science of Living Forever from David Anthony Alvarado on Vimeo.

They are using Kickstarter to solicit funds from folks like you to help them finish the film. The film looks nice, and I’m thrilled to be part of it. But alas I can’t in good conscience say that this is my best guess for the charity that, per dollar contributed, does the most good for the world.

It is interesting that they use an innovative way to solicit donations. Why is there so much more innovation in charity funding than in business funding? Here’s a related question: why do Alvarado and company ask for donors, but not investors, for their film? The film might make money, and if it does, why not offer to give some of that back?

The explanation in both cases is probably that regulatory hurdles are far larger for investors. Regulations set far higher standards for people who can ask for your money, if there is a suggestion that you might get some of it money back later. But why? Shouldn’t it be even more important that your money be spend well, if you won’t ever get any of it back?

This regulatory asymmetry seems to me to be an implicit recognition that we mainly donate to charity to signal our good intentions and loyalties, and that we don’t actually care much what happens to the money we donate.

If you invest money hoping to get it back and more, then you are furious if it is badly managed, perhaps stolen, and want stronger regulations to stop that from ever happening again. But if you donate money and the funds are mismanaged, perhaps stolen, so that your good intentions aren’t realized, well you aren’t actually so mad about that. You don’t as furiously demand stronger regulations. Because you already got most of what you wanted: a chance to show everyone how much you care.

Added 20Nov: David asks folks to vote for his project here.

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In Time Economics

Many praise the new movie In Time for its intriguing premise:

Time is money: Everyone is genetically engineered to stop aging at 25; … after that, people will live for only one more year unless they can gain access to more hours, days, weeks, etc. (more)

In its tone, the movie comes across as shrill class hatred, like They Live. Lazy snobbish aristocrats with inherited wealth live forever young, and conspire to “manipulate” prices so the poor die fast, to keep them motivated to work. Boo mean rich folks, rah poor rebels. Though some think it didn’t hit hard enough:

For a real dose of revolutionary fervor, you’d do better to head down to Occupy Wall Street. (more)

But if you study the movie a little closer, its moral looks rather different.

First, the “time is money” angle can be misleading, leading folks to think in nominal price terms. In real prices, the scenario is equivalent to:

  1. Physical immortality, with no body/mind aging, has been achieved.
  2. Everyone must periodically pay a head tax to the government. Each person pays their tax into a personal tax account, which the government continually drains.
  3. Everyone has a built-in bomb, which automatically kills them if their personal tax account ever gets empty. Most people die either from tax bombs or from murder by thieves, which authorities tolerate.
  4. If a situation arises where most people can reliably pay their taxes, authorities raise prices on widely-needed commodities until enough people die from tax bombs. In the movie, commodity prices are raised via “manipulation,” but that can’t work reliably unless authorities in effect raise taxes on those commodities.
  5. [Added 1p:] The government gives the tax revenue, and more, to favorites.

Now first of all it is extremely expensive to kill off most of your working class, just to motivate them to work. Surely they’d be motivated plenty just to eat and pay rent.

More important, this society’s main problem is being over-taxed, via a severely regressive tax system, with poor law enforcement aside from very well enforced and extreme penalties for failure to pay taxes. How can the outcome of such a terrible tax system be a critique of wealth inequality in our society, where the rich work hard, taxes are progressive, the poor pay few taxes, and penalties for non-payment of taxes are mild?

Yes, once physical immortality is possible, then how long any one person actually lives must depend on their ability to afford rent, food, etc. But this would be true no matter what the tax or economic system.

Added 10a: The main event that drives the plot is when a government detective, apparently without due process, takes all but a few hours from our hero’s tax account. Again, government, and those who profit from it, are the villains in this movie.

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Daniel Sarewitz, Me on BHTV

Daniel Sarewitz and I have a new Blogging Heads TV episode, largely on human enhancement:

I tried a different visual setting, which didn’t work at all (sorry). We agreed with each other more than I expected. If we do this again, which I’d love, I expect we’ll find more disagreements.

Listening to it again, I notice a lot of points that slipped by me at the time. For example, I should have challenged the claim that regulation isn’t what blocks automation from displacing doctors. But that’s the nature of a fast moving wide ranging conversation.

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Bad Sound, Bad Sign

“Please hold on, please set luggage cart brake to on.”

That sound irritates me every minute or so when I ride the SFO airport tram. George Will feels similarly:

You step onto an airport’s moving walkway …. soon a recorded voice says: “The moving sidewalk is coming to an end. Please look down.” … Is that announcement about it ending really necessary? … Passing through a U.S. airport is an immersion in a merciless river of words … clearly they flow from … the assumption is that we are all infants or imbeciles in need of constant, kindly supervision and nudging … all this noise is symptomatic of … an entitlement mentality that … If something bad … happens to us, even if it results from our foolishness … we are entitled to sue someone for restitution. … Almost none of this noise is necessary for people mature enough to be allowed to walk around the block, let alone fly around the country. (more)

Yes this shows an entitlement mentality, but I see worse: common knowledge that we are well aware of problems we don’t intend to fix. We all know these warnings are excessive, bothersome, and counterproductive. But we also know that they are a reaction to lawsuits where jurors give big awards to show their concern and loyalty for accident victims, and hostility and defiance toward big organizations. When we repeatedly see thousands of others notice and ignore this problem, we learn that we have decided to let that symbolic support continue, accepting the useless-bothersome-warnings costs it imposes.

This sets a bad precedent regarding our many other social problems. The better informed among us might hope that the public doesn’t quite understand many of our problems, and that we’ll fix our problems when the public better understands them. For example, when the public better sees the ineffectiveness of our war on terror, the harm to kids when teacher unions block school reform, or the waste from excess professional licensing. But such informed folks also know that such harmful policies arise naturally as symbolism, to show respect for terrorism victims, teachers, professionals, etc.

So the more that informed folks see cases like excess airport warnings, where everyone seems pretty clearly aware that we’d rather accept high costs and bother to let symbolic signals continue, the more they should reasonably conclude that this holds for our other big problems as well. Why try to work to end a wasteful war on terror, for example, if most everyone seems ok with wasting vast sums to continue to signal our support for terror victims?

The US is rich, but we spend an increasing fraction of our economy on wasteful symbolic signals regarding law, war, medicine, school, the elderly, etc. Yes, this trend cannot continue forever, but it can continue for a few decades more. And our unwillingness to limit the waste in cases where it is the clearest that we all see and understand the waste is a bad sign about our willingness to cut back anytime soon on these other wasteful signals.

One reason to come down hard on visible petty crime like vandalism is that people may interpret getting away with petty crime as a signal that they can probably get away with bigger crimes as well. Similarly, by actually fixing these very visible wastes, we might raise hopes that we’ll also fix not quite so visible problems. For now, alas, I’m not holding my breath.

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Me On Ideas In Action

In this half-hour episode, Jim Glassman interviews Martin Ford and I on Will Robots Take Our Jobs?. (I posted on Tyler and Ford here.) You might think we’d go into more argument detail in a half hour show, but alas we seem to just repeat the same top level points. This was in part due to an interview, rather than a debate, format. Glassman also seemed more interested in getting Ford to make dramatic claims than in hearing rebuttals – Ford got to say 40% more words than I.

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Smiles Signal

Many who complain about my signaling stories seem to think human behavior falls into neat and distinct categories, including: things we like, and things we do to show off. So if they introspect and see that they genuinely like to do something, they conclude that it cannot be signaling. But consider the simple smile – while we do genuinely like to smile, our tendency to smile depends on socially context in ways that also help smiles to serve as signals:

The zygomatic major [muscle], which resides in the cheek, tugs the lips upward, and the orbicularis oculi, which encircles the eye socket, squeezes the outside corners into the shape of a crow’s foot. The entire event is short — typically lasting from two-thirds of a second to four seconds. … Other muscles can simulate a smile, but only [this] peculiar tango … produces a genuine expression of positive emotion. … Most [psychologists] consider it the sole indicator of true enjoyment. …

College yearbook … Women who displayed [genuine] expressions of positive emotion in their 21-year-old photo had greater levels of general well-being and marital satisfaction at age 52. … Smiles of professional baseball players captured in a 1952 yearbook, … could explain 35 percent of the variability in [their] survival. … Compared to smiles taped during honest interviews, the nurses gave fewer genuine … smiles when lying. … Women smile more than men. …

A massive meta-analysis … from 162 studies and more than 100,000 participants … isolated three variables that influence sex-smiling disparities. … [1:] When people know they’re being watched … sex differences in smiling are greater. … [2:] When men and women share a task or role that follows rigid social rules — like those requiring flight attendants to smile and funeral directors to remain somber — the grin gap diminishes. … [3:] Embarrassing or socially tense situations cause females to smile more than males, but happy or sad situations have no such effect. …

[Researchers] observed the smiles of test participants told to share some of the fee they received from the study with a friend. When people were engaged in this sharing activity they exhibited more [genuine] smiles than during a neutral scenario. … Some were primed for exclusion through an essay task that required them to write about a time they were rejected. … Excluded participants showed an enhanced ability to distinguish [genuine] smiles from false ones … [and] a greater preference to work with individuals displaying genuine … smiles. (more)

Also consider one more data point: our happiest moments by far are during sexual orgasm, but we rarely (NSFW source) smile at such moments.

Signals can be socially wasteful, as some of each person’s gain from their signaling effort can come at the expense of others made to look worse by comparison. Yes our enjoying things makes their efforts less costly, but even so there are real costs that can be socially wasteful.

Even with smiling. For example, we tend to be happier when we smile, and we smile more when we are around others. But I doubt we’d be better off if forced to be around others more often. Our smiles would come at a needlessly higher cost.

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The Puberty Puzzle

Time magazine considers a big important puzzle:

By the 1980s, the onset of puberty, if not actual menstruation, had gone into free fall–a change so sudden and pronounced that something more than normal evolution must have been at work. In a landmark 1997 study of 17,000 [US] girls … more than 10% of white girls and an astonishing 37.8% of black girls were showing early breast development by age 8. … Later studies, one in 1998 and another in 2010, included Hispanics and produced similar results. On average, 2 out of every 10 white girls, 3 out of 10 Latinas and 4 out of 10 black girls are showing breast development by age 8. (more)

They consider some possible explanations:

Obesity, a well-established puberty accelerant, is high on the list of suspects. … Data from China and India similarly indicate that race by itself isn’t a factor but general prosperity is. Onset of puberty is on a downward march in those countries too. … But even in Europe, where the standard of living has been high for decades and diets haven’t changed much, something strange is going on. A study of girls conducted in Denmark in 2008 found that the average age of breast development there is 8.86 years, which … is a full year earlier than it was for Danes as recently as 1993. … Some investigators are focusing on environmental contaminants like PBBs and … bisphenol A … A number of studies have found that overweight boys may, if anything, suffer from delayed puberty.

Oddly they don’t even mention divorce and out-of-wedlock birth, factors that some theory suggests are crucial:

Father absence is indicative of the degree of polygyny (simultaneous and serial) in society. Polygyny of both kinds creates a shortage of women in reproductive age, and thus, early puberty will be advantageous. Available comparative data indicate that the degree of polygyny is associated with a decrease in the mean age of menarche across societies, as is the divorce rate a presumptive index of serial polygyny, in strictly monogamous societies. (more)

This theory has some empirical support:

As specified by evolutionary causal theories, younger sisters had earlier menarche than their older sisters in biologically disrupted families (n = 68) but not biologically intact families (n = 93). This effect was superseded, however, by a large moderating effect of paternal dysfunction. Younger sisters from disrupted families who were exposed to serious paternal dysfunction in early childhood attained menarche 11 months earlier than either their older sisters or other younger sisters from disrupted families who were not exposed to such dysfunction. (more)

I heard of this theory a while ago, but until now I hadn’t realized its radical implication: humans may have evolved adaptations to make major body/life features conditional on our social environment! If girl brains can order hormones to induce early puberty after seeing lots of nearby polygyny, how else might our bodies be contingent what our brains see about our social world? Do young brains see the level of violence,  prosperity, or work complexity around, and adjust hormone-induced plans for body size, immune system strength, or brain resources? Could this adjustment explain recent trends in mortality, height, or intelligence? So many possibilities to consider!

Anthropologists often say that it is a mistake to look for “the” ancestral human environment or lifestyle, that what most defines humans is variety and adaptability. I’m going to take that view a lot more seriously from now on.

Added 4p: Why are people so much more willing to use strange chemicals to explain earlier puberty that other trens like increasing IQ, lifespan, and height? Is it because chemicals are bad, and therefore can only explain bad things?

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Middle Is Near

We prefer items in the middle of a range:

When participants were presented with a line of five pictures, they preferred pictures in the centre rather than at either end. This applies when the line of pictures was arranged horizontally or vertically and when participants selected from five pairs of identical socks arranged vertically. The results support the centre-stage explanation of location-based preference rather than the hemispheric difference or body-specific accounts. (more)

We attend less to abstract goals for middle items, suggesting we see them more in near mode:

People are more likely to adhere to their standards at the beginning and end of goal pursuit—and slack in the middle. We demonstrate this pattern of judgment and behavior in adherence to ethical standards (e.g., cheating), religious traditions (e.g., skipping religious rituals), and performance standards (e.g., “cutting corners” on a task). We also show that the motivation to adhere to standards by using proper means is independent and follows a different pattern from the motivation to reach the end state of goal pursuit. (more)

This all fits with our preferring to act in near mode:

Not only are we designed to talk a good idealistic talk from afar while taking selfish practical actions up close, we also seem to be designed to direct our less visible actions into contexts where our near minds rule, and direct grand idealistic talk to contexts where our far minds do the talking. We talk an idealistic talk, but walk a practical walk, and try to avoid walking our talk or talking our walk. (more)

So folks who think of their era as the “end of history” or the “start of the future” are more likely to see it in far mode. To get yourself to think more in near mode, for better analysis, try to see the object of your attention as in the middle of a range of possibilities. Of course if you instead want to be more creative about your topic, think of it as an extreme.

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It’s Called “Stock”

There’s something the federal government can do right now to help students caught by our terribly unjust higher-education financing system. … Under an income-contingent loan system, … students pay a fixed percentage of their income toward their loans. Payments are automatically deducted from their paychecks by the IRS. .. After an extended time period of 20 or 30 years, any remaining debt is forgiven. … The concept has been proven to work—Australia and Britain have used it for years— and … the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman proposed the idea all the way back in 1955. …

Because student loans can almost never be discharged in bankruptcy, defaulted loans can haunt students for a lifetime. … That is insane. A similar-sounding federal program, called income-based repayment, is now on the books and is scheduled to become somewhat more generous starting in 2014. But the program is administratively complicated, involving income-eligibility caps and requiring students to reapply every year. (more)

Yup, it can be easier to fund investments via “loans” whose repayment amounts are set to be a proportion the venture’s net income. This is usually called “stock,” however, and proposals for private sector stock in individual future income are usually criticized as “slavery.” Especially if such stock claims on income are exempt from the usual bankruptcy evasions. But to most folks the same policy doesn’t seem like slavery if the government does it, just like we refuse to call conscription slavery.

Some argue that the government needs to make student loans because private loan markets fail in this case. But if they fail, it is mainly because we purposely hobble private investors by not allowing them the tools we are allow governments to ensure a return on their investment. This is how a lot of market failures go these days – they are real failures, but failures caused in large part by refusing to allow private actors all the tools we allow governments.

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Kurzweil Rejects Ems

I posted recently on Allen & Greaves criticizing “the whole brain emulation argument that we can simulate a brain without understanding it.” Ray Kurzweil responds that while he is far more optimistic on AI progress, he doesn’t believe in emulation without understanding either:

Allen mischaracterizes my proposal to learn about the brain from scanning the brain to understand its fine structure. It is not my proposal to simulate an entire brain “bottom up” without understanding the information processing functions. We do need to understand in detail how individual types of neurons work, and then gather information about how functional modules are connected. The functional methods that are derived from this type of analysis can then guide the development of intelligent systems. Basically, we are looking for biologically inspired methods that can accelerate work in AI.

It makes sense that since Kurzweil is so optimistic about rapid progress in so many technologies, such as life extension, he’d be optimistic about rapid progress in modeling the higher level organization of brains. Ems seem more likely to pessimists like myself — although we think emulation should be possible with far less than quantum chemistry detail, since the brain is a robust signal processing system, we estimate that the rate of progress to date suggests a long slow road to understanding brain organization.

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