Monthly Archives: May 2012

Grace-Hanson Podcasts

Katja Grace and I just recorded two more podcasts, on:

We’ve recorded four podcasts before, on Signaling, Idealism, School, and Future.

Added 2June: I guess I wasn’t clear enough in the Saving The World podcast about the focus of my skepticism. I wasn’t saying that actually caring isn’t a part of the usual mix of charity motives, nor was I claiming that you can’t have reasonable evidence that your personal charity style is unusual. My skepticism was about too quickly assuming that a major source of your unusual style is that you just care more than most people about helping the world. This seems suspiciously self-serving, especially given all the other possible ways you could be weird.

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Work Face Signals

Imagine that a firm required its employees to be constantly monitored by the new rapidly-improving techs for reading face/body/voice tones. Employees must also wear body sensors to measure their heart rate, skin sweat, etc., to further read their mood and emotions. This firm argues that this will let them better measure who is working how hard, who is really engaged in their work, etc. Are you outraged? Will laws be passed to stop this?

Now consider how much we now waste on commuting, so firms can monitor employees better via face-to-face interactions:

Americans spend a ton of time commuting. According to happiness researchers, commuting is the low point of the typical day. If you look at the jobs that people actually do, though, it’s hard to understand why so many workers continue to commute. Given a computer and high-speed Internet, most desk jobs could now be done from home – or so it seems. Telecommuting wouldn’t just save workers time, frustration, and fuel; it would also let firms drastically reduce their overhead – and pass the savings along to their customers. … [Alas,] workers physically commute for signaling reasons. Employers can monitor your productivity better when you actually come to the office. Workers who telecommute put themselves on the slow track to success – if they can even get hired in the first place. (more)

Not outraged by this? The added cost of the tone readers is far less than the added cost of commuting. So if you think the value of the signals found by seeing people face to face is worth the huge added cost of commuting, how can you object to getting even more info at a far lower added cost?

This seems to me an obvious example of a status quo bias. Because face-to-face monitoring has long been the status quo, it seems ok. But adding tone monitors and body sensors would be new, so they are horrible intrusions on our natural privacy.

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Work Signals

The average American worker gets 14 vacation days a year and only uses 12 of them. That adds up to 226 million unused vacation days, or approximately $34.3 billion dollars of work. That’s amazing. It’s not that surprising though as we are in one of the worst periods of unemployment in quite some time and many people are probably cutting back on vacation days in order to be more productive. It’s not exactly fair but it’s human nature, if I’m concerned about getting fired then the last thing I’m going to do is take a vacation day. (more)

For workers ages 55 and older, the survey found that nearly 30 percent have between five and 10 vacation days left over at the end of each year. Further, it found that only a quarter of workers 55 and older had used up all of their allotted vacation time by year’s end. (more)

66% of employees failed to use up their vacation days last year. … “Tons of people feel they don’t have the discretionary spending to take vacation, so they just stay at work.” That’s a very bad idea, experts say. “The research is clear that failing to take a vacation creates higher levels of stress and greater levels of disengagement at work,” Matthews reports.

“It’s silly to think that giving up vacation is going to make your colleagues think how important you are,” says … a career services expert. … “Take your vacation and let them miss you.” After all, you can never get back those days you didn’t use–or the once-in-a-lifetime memories they might have produced. “Vacations are underrated,” agrees Joan Kane, a Manhattan psychologist who has worked as a therapist for 22 years. … They satisfy a deep need to feel that you’re in control of your own time. “On vacation you have no boss to satisfy.” (more)

Oddly, most who comment on unused vacation time both note that there exist signaling incentives to work more than required, and tell people that taking vacation time would be good for them, as if they were ignorant of such advantages. This seems a common idealistic message – exhorting people to do what they would if there were no signaling incentives. If the point were to give people useful info this would be pointless, but if the point is to reaffirm shared sacred values, it works fine.

While many commenters lament the presumed inefficiency of this signaling equilibrium, it is worth noting that employees often also inefficiently go out of their way to signal defiance of employers. Most employers are reluctant to cut wages in a downturn, to give employees frequent direct negative feedback, or to require them to wear uniforms, sing corporate songs, etc., all because employers know that employees would respond badly with signals of defiance. These signaling equilbria can be just as inefficient as taking too little vacation, but few commenters lament these distortions. Because the sacred shared values we want to affirm are more about defying firm authorities, rather than submitting to them.

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Slang Signals

From a review of the new book “The Life of Slang”:

“The arguments in favor of slang [are] about slang itself: it is vibrant, creative, and so on,” she writes. “These qualities might be attributed to slang-creators. The arguments against [are] largely about slang-users: they’re unintelligent and have limited vocabularies. And that’s one of the reasons why I find it hard to take sides in this argument: slang words often are witty and appealing, but not all slang-users are. On the other hand, slang-users might be perfectly charming were it not for their irritating repetition of tired slang words. …

What really sets slang apart from Standard English is the way it functions in social contexts: communicating meaning is often a secondary function for slang; it’s really for communicating attitudes and cementing relationships.”

Slang “creates in-groups and out-groups and acts as an emblem of belonging.” To Coleman, “the importance of slang in creating and maintaining a sense of group or personal identity” is paramount, and all the evidence supports her. Groups that have developed slang as a way of cementing their identity include the military, especially in the lower ranks. …

In sum, according to Coleman, “slang is an attitude (insolence, for example, coolness, disdain, admiration, or a desire for conformity) expressed in words.” … “Slang was once considered a sign of poor breeding or poor taste,” Coleman writes, “but now it indicates that the speaker is fun-loving, youthful, and in touch with the latest trends.” (more)

I suppose this helps explains why I’m not into slang. I want to talk to the widest possible audience, and to focus on timeless issues and insights, as opposed to the latest fashionable topics. I can see why people want to signal loyalty to their groups, especially in the military, but I have little confidence that this is good for the world as a whole.

While I have fun talking the way I do, that isn’t really what people mean by “fun-loving, youthful” – they mean more that if you were young you’d be sending the right signals about your being a good person for others to have fun with. You’d be a good person for the typical young person to have as a friend, associate, or lover. And that, I’m not.

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Teacher Remembered

Andrew Lo remembers an inspiring teacher from his childhood: “The best third-grade teacher ever.” So I paused to recall memorable teachers from my childhood.

One does stand out, though I can’t remember her name. Somewhere about eighth grade my English teacher arranged a special English class for me. It was very simple. Every day I was to go to the library, sit in an isolated booth, and just write. About anything. Which I did. She’d quickly look over what I’d written, and give me some feedback. I don’t recall much about the feedback – it may not have mattered much. What mattered is that I wrote and wrote, with a learned audience in mind.

This is a story both about the difference a teacher can make, but also about how teaching may not matter much. If you want to learn to write, well, just write and write.

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Experts Agree

Mental health diagnoses are evaluated in part by the consistency with which professionals assign diagnoses. Turns out, there is often a low correlation between the diagnoses different folks assign to a patient:

The DSM-5 revision has been intensely controversial, with critics … charging that poorly drafted changes would lead to millions more people being given unnecessary and risky drugs. The field trials used a statistic called kappa. This measures the consensus between different doctors assessing the same patient, with 1 corresponding to perfect diagnostic agreement, and 0 meaning concordance could just be due to chance. In January, leaders of the DSM-5 revision announced that kappas as low as 0.2 should be considered “acceptable”.

“Most researchers agree that 0.2 to 0.4 is really not in the acceptable range,” says Dayle Jones of the University of Central Florida in Orlando, who is tracking DSM-5 for the American Counseling Association.

One proposed diagnosis failed to reach even this standard. Some patients turning up in doctors’ offices are both depressed and anxious, so mixed anxiety/depression was tested as a new category: the kappa for adults was less than 0.01.

Attenuated psychosis syndrome, meanwhile, was intended to catch young people in the early stages of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. While field trials gave a kappa of 0.46, the variability was so large that Darrel Regier, APA’s head of research, told the meeting that the result was “uninterpretable”. Both disorders are now headed for DSM-5’s appendix …

The low kappas recorded for major depressive disorder and generalised anxiety disorder – 0.32 and 0.2 respectively in the adult trials – raise serious questions. (more)

Similarly low levels of agreement are found in academic peer review – referees judging papers submitted to journals, for example, rarely agree on whether the paper should be accepted. Yet, not only are academics and mental health professionals still considered experts, expert agreement remains one of the main ways the public uses to judge who is an expert.

In the public eye, experts on X are people who tend to agree when outsiders ask them questions about X, such as the meaning of special words or phrases about X, or who is an expert on X.  After all, this is pretty much the only concrete data they have to go on. It helps if these experts also do some things that outsiders see as impressive, but this usually isn’t necessary to be considered an expert.

I have two observations:

  1. On the one hand, this is a depressingly low standard. For example, even if religious priests can agree on what statements are religious heresy, we wouldn’t necessarily want to empower them to torture such heretics. So the fact that psychiatrists can agree on how to diagnose certain types of mental illness doesn’t by itself mean we should empower them to detain such patients against their will. Yet in practice mere agreement among experts is the main criteria the public uses to decide which experts to empower.
  2. On the other hand, given how important expert agreement is to expert reputation, it might seem surprising that experts don’t try harder to find simple ways to agree with each. For example, mental health experts could coordinate on hair color, weight, or vocabulary as simple ways to make sure they assign the same labels to the same patients. Yes, they’d have to do this on the sly, and overtly pretend to be using other criteria. But how hard could that be for homo hypocritus to do? Apparently, the fact that they agree enough on who is an expert gives them some slack to disagree about some other things. Their pride and beliefs about the basis of their expertise prevent them from coordinating too consciously on simple ways to agree, such as diagnosing mental illness based on hair color, etc.
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We Have Comment Likes

Blog comments vary greatly in quality, and often low quality comments drive away readers and high quality comments. This blog is no exception.

We now have a “like” button in our comments section. If the people willing to like a comment have on average better taste than the people willing to write a comment, readers and authors could avoid low quality comments by focusing on the most liked comments. It isn’t obvious why this assumption should hold, but I thought likes probably couldn’t make comments much worse, so, why not give it a try.

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War Games Are Fake

Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02) was a major war game exercise conducted by the United States armed forces in mid-2002, likely the largest such exercise in history. The exercise … cost $250 million, involved both live exercises and computer simulations. MC02 was meant to be a test of future military “transformation”—a transition toward new technologies that enable network-centric warfare and provide more powerful weaponry and tactics.

Red, commanded by retired Marine Corps Lt. General Paul K. Van Riper, used old methods to evade Blue’s sophisticated electronic surveillance network. Van Riper used motorcycle messengers to transmit orders to front-line troops and World War II light signals to launch airplanes without radio communications. … In a preemptive strike, Red launched a massive salvo of cruise missiles that overwhelmed the Blue forces’ electronic sensors and destroyed sixteen warships. This included one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five of six amphibious ships. An equivalent success in a real conflict would have resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 service personnel. … Another significant portion of Blue’s navy was “sunk” by an armada of small Red boats, which carried out both conventional and suicide attacks that capitalized on Blue’s inability to detect them as well as expected.

At this point, the exercise was suspended, Blue’s ships were “re-floated”, and the rules of engagement were changed. … The war game was forced to follow a script drafted to ensure a Blue Force victory. … Red Force was ordered to turn on all his anti-aircraft radar in order for them to be destroyed, and Red Force was not allowed to shoot down any of the aircraft bringing Blue Force troops ashore. … They also ordered Red Force not to use certain weapons systems against Blue Force and even ordered that the location of Red Force units to be revealed. This led to accusations that the war game had turned from an honest, open free play test of America’s war-fighting capabilities into a rigidly controlled and scripted exercise intended to end in an overwhelming American victory. …

Due to his criticism regarding the scripted nature of the new exercise, Van Riper resigned his position in the midst of the war game. … Navy Capt. John Carman, Joint Forces Command spokesman, said the war game had properly validated all the major concepts which were tested by Blue Force, ignoring the artificially imposed restrictions placed on Van Riper’s Red Force which led them to succeed. (more)

War colleges, where people learn to be soldiers, often have war simulations where different people play different parts of a war between “us” and “them.” Students and others are told that these are realistic, or at least as realistic as is feasible given the simplifications that simulations and games require.

But I’ve now heard personally from enough independent expert insider sources that I’m willing to post it: the above example was not a rare exception; war games are mostly fake.

They are designed so that our side wins, and so that the official strategy that we teach students actually prevails. Every once in a while some joker plays “them” cleverly and wins, and then their career is over. The games also make sure terrifying outcomes never happen, even in a game where “we” win. For example, it is forbidden to sink an aircraft carrier.

I’m told that that fake war games and simulations are common in the rest of the military too. Simulations that show realistic levels of outcome uncertainty and variance tend to be rejected in favor of low variance ones that suggest outcomes just can’t get very bad.

You might have thought that because in the military most everyone’s freedom and lives are on the line, the military at least would try hard to create realistic estimates of the outcomes of their policies. But you’d be wrong. Organizational disfunction plagues them as well. Apparently military leaders think it is more important to instill confidence in the troops and citizens than to actually find out how wars would go.

Now ask yourself: since your freedom and lives aren’t on the line in your organization, just how much more dysfunctional might be your outcome estimating processes?

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Forager, Farmer Morals

Looking for insight into farmer-era world views, I just read the 1931 novel The Good Earth, about Chinese farmers. It is of course more a morality tale than a documentary, and the main character soon gets rich, and is then no longer a representative farmer. But the story illustrates differences between farmer vs. forager style morality.

Foragers live in close egalitarian bands, with behavior well adapted to their environment. So forager morality issues are mostly about well-adapted personal behavior in conflict with group interests. Foragers sin by bragging, not sharing, being violent against associates, etc.

Farmer morality, in contrast, is much more about conflicts within people than within groups. Farmers sin by being lazy, wanting overly fancy foods, taking drugs, having sex with prostitutes, wanting status markers that cost too much in the long run, etc. Farmers need to resist internal temptations to do things that might make sense for foragers, but which can ruin farmers. These can also ruin one’s family and friends, so farmer sins also have shades of selfishness.

Of course farmers also care about bragging, violence, etc. In some sense farmers have more morality – more and stronger rules, to fight against stronger natural inclinations. So farming culture introduced religion and stronger social pressures to enforce their rules, to keep farmers from relapsing into foragers.

This helps me make sense of Jonathan Haight’s observations that liberals, who I’ve called forager-like, rely on fewer moral principles than conservatives, who I’ve called farmer-like:

The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the Care/harm foundation, with additional support from the Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression foundations. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all six foundations, including Loyatly/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. (more)

I’ve suggested that as we’ve become richer, we’ve become more forager-like. If our descendants get poor again, they’ll probably need stronger social norms again, to get them to resist temptations to act like foragers and do what is functional in their world. Their morality would probably rely on a wider more-conservative-like range of moral feelings.

In the em scenario I’ve been discussing here, sex would be unimportant except as a possible way to waste too much time. So em morality would be pretty liberal on sex. But money, work, and reputation would be important – ems would probably have pretty conservative attitudes on keeping their word, doing their job, obeying their boss, and not stealing. When mind theft or virus corruption are big risks, they’d also probably have strong purity feelings about avoiding acts that could risk such harms. And they’d probably feel strong clan loyalty, even beyond what farmers feel, to the clan of copies of the same original human.

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Closer Horizons

A few curious folks took 250 science fiction stories across thirteen decades and looked at whether the stories were set <50 , 50 to 500, or >500 years in the future. The long term trend is that fewer stories are set in the more distant future:

(Given the small dataset, I wouldn’t take decade to decade fluctuations seriously.)

Some of this effect is probably our expecting faster rates of change, and so any given amount of strangeness is expected to arrive sooner. But I’d guess most of this effect is that we are just less interested in the distant future.

Early in the industrial revolution people were very aware of there being in a great transition, from farming to industry, and they were curious about where it all might lead. Now that we are well into the industrial era, we have a better sense for what industry is like, and are less concerned about there maybe being a new post-industrial era.

Added 1p: I did a regression of their fraction of >500 year stories vs. time, and the relation is 2% significant for both linear and log versions of the fraction. There is enough data here to see this effect. Also, both the linear and log versions of the <50 year fraction are 5% significant.

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