Monthly Archives: December 2011

Heads In The Sand

The end of a Boston Globe article on The future of prediction:

But the real question, when it comes to predicting the future of forecasting, may not be whether we can or can’t forecast accurately — it’s whether we want to. Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University and a pioneer of prediction market design, thinks that what’s holding back our ability to predict is not technology or a lack of ingenuity. He believes companies and governments already have much of what they need to be a lot better at predicting the future, and that the reason they’re not taking more advantage of it is that in many cases, having accurate predictions in hand makes managers, CEOs, and government officials accountable in a way that lots of them don’t want to be.

That’s because knowing the future can be a scary thing: It means genuinely answering for the costs of our decisions, confronting the likelihood of failure, seeing that arrows point down as often as they point up. When we’re offered a look into the crystal ball, it may in fact be human nature to turn away.

“We’re two-faced,” Hanson said. “We like to talk as though we wanted better forecasts, but often we have other agendas. When the opportunity to know the future presents itself — as, increasingly, it will — we may end up discovering that we’d rather stay in the dark.”

When projects fails, project managers like to say “No one could have foreseen that. We did the best we could.” This strategy doesn’t work so well when prediction markets or other credible methods create clear public track records showing consensus estimates of a high chance of failure, and perhaps also what could have been done to reduce that chance.

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Me-Now Immortality

Immortality would be a great help for my distant future selves – they’d get to exist. But it wouldn’t do so much for me now. As my future mind evolved away from who I am now, who I am now will get more and more forgotten and irrelevant. Me now would basically be dead.

Is there a better option? Imagine a copy of my current mental state is saved, and then revived for brief periods on special occasions, like major ceremonies, consultations, and votes. These revivals might decline in frequency with time, but spread over hundreds or even billions of years. When the accumulated effects of these revivals threatened to cause too much divergence from the original me-now, that original could be revived instead, to start another cycle.

That seems to about as much life as is feasible for me-now to have. And this sort of me-now immortality seems cheaper that the usual sort. That is, the (likely future) cost to give this sort of immortality to a me-now seems substantially less that the cost to ensure that a mind continues to evolve at something like its current rate and capacity for trillions of years. Of course this cost is still high, too high to offer to all me-nows. But neither is it ridiculous.

Yes, there is an ambiguity in how big a mental difference would count to create a different me-now. But the ordinary concept of immortality is also ambiguous when minds can be copied and run in parallel — how many of parallel copies need to last forever (or a very long time) for “me” to be “immortal”?

I expect a few future ems to be “immortal” in the sense of a single copy that continues on for a very long time. But I expect far more me-now-immortality, archived minds brought back with declining frequencies for rare ceremonies and consultations. This approach is cheaper, better serves the needs of others, and may even offer more of a reward to ems who identify more with me-now than their distant changed descendants.

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Low Status Workers Are NOT More “Exploited”

Russ Roberts once told me that when he lived in Asia he felt reluctant to hire a maid, even though they were very cheap there, and well worth the price. This makes sense to me — I suspect he felt that people would blame him for the poverty of his maid, even if he paid above market wages. It is sad that such feelings discourage beneficial trades.

I recently noted that we mainly limit work hours for low status workers, leaving doctors, lawyers, managers, financiers, artists, writers, athletes, academics, and software engineers to work crazy hours. Responses reminded me of how eager folks are to blame non-poor associates of the poor. Many said that only low status workers need protecting from employer “exploitation”: Continue reading "Low Status Workers Are NOT More “Exploited”" »

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Most Are Consequentialist

A new survey suggests that most Swedes think an act’s consequences matter most for whether it is ethical, and the young, rich, well-educated think this even more than most. Men are especially unlikely to think that violating someone’s rights matters. Young, well-educated, and big city folks are especially unlikely to think that it matters what is natural.

The survey:

The survey was mailed to 2,450 randomly selected adults above the age of 18 years in Sweden during the spring of 2004; the overall response rate was 45%.

The main answer distribution:

How bad an action is, from an ethical point of view, depends primarily on:
5.3% How bad the consequences of the action are for myself
62.7% How bad the consequences of the action are for other people and for society 
17.5% The extent to which the action infringes upon someone else’s natural rights
10.6% The extent to which the action violates what is natural
3.7% The extent to which the action violates Christianity according to the New Testament in the Bible
0.3% The extent to which the action violates the rules given by any other religion (such as Islam or Buddhism)

How answers varied with type of person:

Added noon: Bryan is skeptical:

When you pose specific moral questions, Jonathan Haidt and others show that almost no one is remotely close to pure consequentialism.

Yup, as Bryan emphasizes, on abstract political and moral topics where they have a weak personal stake, most people are confused and contradict themselves. Few folks are closely pure anything. So the best we can do is to see their tendencies amid the noise.

Added 5Jan: Bryan points out that I mistakenly added the word “natural” to the rights option. My apologies.

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Steps Up The Ladder

While not all change has been positive, there is one big way in which humanity has “progressed” over the long run — we have grown vastly more capable, able to support a larger population, and recently a larger economy.

How far have we come, and how far might we go? Imagine this progress as climbing a ladder on the side of a tall building, where at each new floor we get ten times more capable. If floors are ten feet apart, and ladder steps are one foot apart, then each ladder step represents a decibel of growth, i.e., a factor of 1.26.

From a population of perhaps a thousand folks two million years ago, humanity has so far climbed about nine floors, or 87 steps, up the ladder. We climbed 36 steps as foragers, taking fifty millennia per step, 23 steps as farmers, taking three centuries per step, and so far 28 steps as industrialists, taking five years per step. (All estimates rough.) How much further might we climb?

An em civilization might climb even faster, at least for a while, taking a step per day! A few months ago I estimated population sizes for very advanced em civilizations:

[Using] android ems … a two kilometer deep Earth city could hold a … thousand billion billion ems. And a solar system civilization might fit a billion billion billion ems.

Reaching this last level would require us to climb about fifteen more stories, or 150 steps. And since the observable universe contains a thousand billion billion stars, to reach a universe-spanning civilization with this density we’d need to climb an additional twenty-one stories, or 210 steps. So, we’ve climbed nine floors as humans, but have perhaps another thirty six floors to go, to reach the “top” forty-fifth floor. That’s four times as far to go as we have come.

Yes, we might find ways to grow more after that, and our pre-human ancestors must have also done a lot of growing. But my main point is that we hope to climb much further than we have climbed so far.

What more can we say about this future climb? Our biggest fear should be falling off the ladder to the ground below, never to rise again. To avoid such a fall we must find the right tradeoff between climbing slower to carefully inspect each new step, and climbing faster to avoid the hailstones, wind gusts, etc. that we expect from time to time, and which we expect are less problematic further up.

Of course we should also wonder what we may become as we rise. We are no longer the foragers who began this climb, nor the farmers who climbed just a few floors below, and those ancestors would probably not be pleased with everything we have become. We’ll probably also have misgivings about what our descendants become. But hopefully we will on net be proud of them, just as our ancestors would probably be proud of us.

Attempts to see more clearly up the ladder tend to fall to two extremes. Many folks study trends over the last few steps, and tentatively conclude that such trends may continue for another few steps. And many such folks also declare it to be impossible, as a matter of principle, to see further. They often respond to concrete arguments about more distant forecasts with “that must be wrong, since we can’t see that far,” as if that were some sort of law of physics.

At the other extreme, some folks claim to see all the way to the ladder’s top. We’ve been getting less fertile and more green, rich, peaceful lately, so very advanced civilizations must be idle rich zero-population-growth leave-nature-be peaceniks. Or we’ve been getting more into movies and video games lately, and like fast net connections, so very advanced civilizations must be virtual reality navel-gazers crushed into tiny balls. Or because an AI might improve itself, one AI will soon take over the world and then live on forever as indisputable ruler of the universe.

Now I do suspect that a few of the basic physics limits we now see apply to our universe’s true physics, of which the physics we see is only an approximation. For example, if light speed and entropy limits persist, then growth and innovation must eventually slow way way down. And evolutionary theory seems robust enough to embolden me to estimate that in the absence of strong central coordination, competition must force our descendants to be well adapted to their environments, in an evolutionary sense.

But I don’t yet see how to say much more about the very long run. That isn’t impossible, but it does seem very hard. So I prefer to focus on trying to see into the next era, beyond our industry era. While that does take more than a simple projection of current industry-era trends, it takes far less than is needed to see life in the very distant future, way up on floor forty and beyond. To see into the next era one needs only good general theories about how societies work, and a good guess regarding the key changes by which the next era will differ from ours.

We can imagine progress as climbing a ladder on the side of a tall building, where at each new floor we get ten times more capable, and each one-foot-apart ladder step represents a decibel of growth. We’ve climbed through three or so floors of foraging, two and a bit of farming, and may climb through three to six floors of industry, before coming to a new era, which may last through two to seven more floors. It seems to me that at least some of us should try to use our best social science and guesses on the biggest upcoming changes to try to understand this next post-industry era, even if we don’t know how to envision the five to ten or more eras which may follow after.

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Why Exempt The Hard To Catch?

I often post on why we make some behaviors illegal, while leaving similar behaviors legal. For example, yesterday I posted on why low status jobs get work hour limits, and high status jobs don’t. When I post on such topics, many commenters suggest that the explanation is it is harder to enforce laws against the now-legal behaviors. So I thought it might be worth pointing out how little of our legal variance is explained by difficulty of enforcement.

First, note that we now tolerate huge variations in the ease of catching law violators, without exempting hard-to-catch cases. For example, sales tax must be paid not only when using a credit cared at a chain store, but also for cash purchases at flea markets. Income tax must be paid not only for full-time employees of big firms, but also when paying cash to a transient to do some yard work. It is just as illegal to shoplift a dress from Macy’s as it is to nap a trinket from some’s house you visit. Putting trash in the wrong recycling bin is against the rules even when there’s almost no chance of catching you. Rape can be quite hard to prove, yet few are sympathetic to legalizing rape in the situations where rapists are hardest to catch.

Second, note that it usually makes more sense to adapt to hard-to-catch cases by increasing punishments, rather than exempting them from punishment. They hung horse thieves in the old wild west not because horses were more valuable than other items whose theft didn’t induce a death penalty, but because it was much harder to catch horse thieves. Punishment is often reduced for criminals who turn themselves in, as that increase the chance of catching them.

Third, note that we often require changes to common behaviors to make it easier to catch law violators. For example, we require visible license plates on cars, and require publicly traded firms to keep careful accounting records. We do this even when such rules may prevent many related behaviors. So the fact that changes might be required to make it easier to catch violators of some proposed law hardly makes it obvious that we wouldn’t adopt such a law, or those changes.

For example, if we wanted we could limit the number of hours per week that students study for classes. Yes, that rule might be hard to enforce without other supporting changes. But we could require that studying only be done in approved study halls. Or we could increase the punishment for violations. Or we could just accept that the law would be evaded often. But it seems to me far more likely that we don’t actually want to limit student hours per week of study.

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Why Work Hour Limits?

Many laws discourage and limit work hours. Laws require holidays and vacations, limit hours per day and week, and require extra payment for work over these limits. And of course income taxes discourage work more generally. The standard economic explanation for these limits is to prevent inefficient signaling. People motivated to gain relative status, to show their extra dedication to success, and to appear more able, work extra hours, for a net social loss. Work hour limits can reduce such losses. (Academic articles here, here, here, here, here.)

This argument makes some sense, but it would make a lot more sense if we set broader and more consistent limits. Yet we don’t at all limit housework, and place few limits on self-employed work. Furthermore, high status occupations are especially exempt. Doctors, lawyers, managers, financiers, artists, writers, athletes, academics, and software engineers often work crazy hours. Yet the signaling argument would seem to apply nearly as well if not better to such high status work. Why are we so selective in our limits?

One explanation is a battle for relative status between professions and activities. Areas where work hours are limited produce less, and so look less impressive. Ambitious folks who want to show their high abilities then choose other areas, leading to an equilibrium were observers reasonably less respect folks who work in limited areas. On this story, work hour limits were set in manufacturing and manual labor in order to reduce the status of such activities.

A second related explanation is that each society is eager to look good to other societies. So each society prefers to encourage, not discourage, activities that are especially visible to outsiders. When outsiders evaluate societies more on the basis of their athletes than their shop technicians, societies naturally subsidize the former relative to the latter.

Another third explanation is that voters support limits on work hours in some jobs mainly as a way to defy and “stick it to” employers, who are seen as evil and in need of taking down. Firms who employ low status workers may themselves seem lower status and “exploitive,” and thus more acceptable targets of ire. Work hour limits serve as a quantity limit which raises wages and thus employer expenses. Any reduction of signaling losses is nice, but mainly a side effect.

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Beware Inspiration

From a review of William Gavin’s book Speechwright:

Gavin became [Nixon's] speechwriter … [and] came to share [his] suspicion of stirring, soaring speechifying and his preference, instead, for what Gavin calls “working rhetoric” — plain, forceful, purposeful prose. Words that bear down instead of lift up. “The desire to be inspired,” Gavin writes in “Speechwright,” “to be uplifted, to be made to feel deeply, to be swept away, and thrilled is the mark of jaded citizens who have forgotten that the major goal of political rhetoric should be to make good arguments, clearly and honestly.” For Gavin, the original sin had been committed by John Kennedy, whose inaugural address begat “the modern cult of thrill-talk.” That speech was “magnificent,” Gavin allows, “but it wasn’t true, because it wasn’t achievable.” (more)

The reviewer disagrees:

He is mostly right that politicians should “stop trying to get us to stand up and cheer” and “start persuading us to sit down and think.” But … the basic purpose of political rhetoric is to “move men to action or alliance.” … Yes, “thrill-talk,” as Gavin insists, often gives wings to “impossible dream[s]” and “inevitable disappointment.” But the words that excite us are also the words that can change us — words that stretch our national sense of self, that make us believe we really can end Jim Crow and win a war and put a man on the moon. Not every dream is an impossible one.

Yes, inspiring idealistic far-mode talk can motivate cooperative and idealistic acts in ways that realistic near-mode desire, fear, practicality, etc. talk cannot. But know that you will let yourself believe more lies and impossibilities in that mode. You may coordinate to take more actions, but actions that are more likely than you think to be useless or even harmful.

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Construction Peaks At 60Hr/Wk

Yesterday I puzzled over:

I have found many studies, conducted by businesses, universities, industry associations and the military, that support the basic notion that, for most people, eight hours a day, five days per week, is the best sustainable long-term balance point between output and exhaustion. Throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s, these studies were apparently conducted by the hundreds. … Somehow, Silicon Valley didn’t get the memo. … Five-day weeks of eight-hour days maximize long-term output in every industry that has been studied over the past century. (more)

The most recent study this cites is from ’80 on construction. But I just dug a bit deeper, found some recent papers, and I can now say that this claim is just wrong, at least for construction.

First, an ’01 review found total product peaking at 60 hours per weak:

Now some claim that added product only comes in the first few weeks of long hours, after which exhaustion sets in. But an ’05 paper looked at 88 long construction projects, many over fifteen weeks duration, and it still found max product at 60 hr/wk. Also, an ’11 paper gives an integrated model that explicitly includes exhaustion effects, and it also has max product at 60 hr/wk.

So averaging over many construction projects, and including long-run exhaustion effects, total product tends to be highest at sixty hours of work per week. This leaves plenty of room for higher hours-per-week peaks 1) for especially hardy individuals, and 2) in less physically demanding industries.

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Work Hour Skepticism

In the comments John Maxwell links again to a presentation claiming that folks who work more than about 40 hours a week don’t actually produce more:

Working more than 40 hours a week leads to decreased productivity. … >60 hour work week gives a small productivity book. The boost last 3 to 4 weeks and then turns negative. … Ford … [ran] dozens of experiments. As a result … he and his fellow industrialists lobbied Congress to pass 40 hour a week labor laws. Not because he was nice. He wanted to make the most money possible. … Performance for knowledge workers declines after 35 hours, not 40. … Past this they start becoming tired and making dumb decisions. (more)

The claim that Ford needed regulation to get his workers to work only 40 hours is clearly wrong. But the other claims are intriguing, and appeal to my contrarian tastes. These claims were also historically important:

During the first decades of the twentieth century, … a new cadre of social scientists began to offer evidence that long hours produced health-threatening, productivity-reducing fatigue. This line of reasoning, advanced in the court brief of Louis Brandeis and Josephine Goldmark, was crucial in the Supreme Court’s decision to support state regulation of women’s hours in Muller vs. Oregon. Goldmark’s book, Fatigue and Efficiency (1912) was a landmark. In addition, data relating to hours and output among British and American war workers during World War I helped convince some that long hours could be counterproductive. (more)

Now, the most productive people I know, including self-employed folks and those with a huge personal stake in their own productivity, tend to work tons of hours. Either these claims are just wrong about such folks, or they are right on average but don’t apply to the most productive folks, or these folks and their associaties consistently make a huge mistake (as did most of the working world before 1920). Which is it?

The presentation above cites this, which cites this, which cites books from 1894, 1908, 1909, 1913, 1926, and says:

I have found many studies, conducted by businesses, universities, industry associations and the military, that support the basic notion that, for most people, eight hours a day, five days per week, is the best sustainable long-term balance point between output and exhaustion. Throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s, these studies were apparently conducted by the hundreds; and by the 1960s, the benefits of the 40-hour week were accepted almost beyond question in corporate America. In 1962, the Chamber of Commerce even published a pamphlet extolling the productivity gains of reduced hours. But, somehow, Silicon Valley didn’t get the memo. .. Five-day weeks of eight-hour days maximize long-term output in every industry that has been studied over the past century.

This article quotes a 1980 article “Scheduled Overtime Effect on Construction Projects” as saying:

Where a work schedule of 60 or more hours per week is continued longer than about two months, the cumulative effect of decreased productivity will cause a delay in the completion date beyond that which could have been realized with the same crew size on a 40-hour week.

I couldn’t find that source, but I found a 2001 review article:

Based on the foregoing overview of available studies it is evident that only a few are based on original data. Moreover, less than reliable data have been published and republished over and over giving a false appearance of originality. Finally, data are available for a limited number of trades only. Figure 16 compares the reported efficiency from various studies for the 50-hour, 60-hour and 70-hour work weeks with the majority based on 10-hour workdays and an overtime schedule of four consecutive weeks. (more)

That figure 16 estimates a max total productivity over four weeks at 60 hours per week. But the study it cites that looked longest, found that by sixteen weeks median per hour productivity had fallen by 30%, 50% and 62% for 50, 60, and 84 hour work weeks. (Though for that source “The origin of the data and the work environment are unknown.”) So yes, the basic claims above do weakly check out, at least for the construction industry. But basic questions still remain: How solid is the data here, does this apply to all industries, and does it apply to our most productive workers?

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