Monthly Archives: May 2012

Eventual Futures

I’ve noticed that recommendations for action based on a vision of the future are based on an idea that something must “eventually” occur. For example, eventually:

  • We will run out of coal, so we’d better find replacements soon.
  • Earth will run out of stored energy of fossil fuels and radioactivity, so we’d better get ready to run only on sunlight.
  • Earth will run out of place for trash, so we must stop making trash.
  • The sun will die out, so we’d better get ready to move to another sun.
  • There will be a race to colonize other planets and stars, so our group should get out there first so we don’t get lose this race.
  • Chips will use X instead of silicon, so our chip firms must use X now, to not be left behind.
  • There will be no privacy of any sort, so we might as well get used to it now.
  • Some races will win, so we’d best fight for ours before its too late.
  • Firms will be stronger than nations, unless we break their power soon.
  • There will be a stronger world government, so let’s start one now.
  • There will be conflict between China and West, or Islam and West, so we best strike first now.
  • Artificial intelligences will rule the world, so let’s figure out now how to make a good one.
  • We’ll invent all that is worth inventing, so let’s find a way now to live without innovation.
  • We’ll know all the physics there is, so lets find something else interesting now.
  • There will be a huge deadly world war, so let’s stock some bunkers to hide in.
  • Nanobots will give everyone anything they want, so why work now?
  • The first nano-assembler’s owner will rule the world, so we best study nanotech now.
  • More fertile immigrants will out number us, so we best not let them in.
  • The more fertile stupid will make the world dumb, unless we stop them now.

The common pattern: project forward a current trend to an extreme, while assuming other things don’t change much, and then recommend an action which might make sense if this extreme change were to happen all at once soon.

This is usually a mistake. The trend may not continue indefinitely. Or, by the time a projected extreme is reached, other changes may have changed the appropriate response. Or, the best response may be to do nothing for a long time, until closer to big consequences. Or, the best response may be to do nothing, ever – not all negative changes can be profitably resisted.

It is just not enough to suspect that an extreme will be reached eventually – you usually need a good reason to think it will happen soon, and and that you know a robust way to address it. In far mode it often feels like the far future is clearly visible, and that few obstacles stand in the way of planning paths to achieve far ends. But in fact, the world is much messier than far mode is willing to admit.

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Why Is Death Bad?

Shelly Kagan considers: why is death bad?:

Maybe … death is bad for me in the comparative sense, because when I’m dead I lack life—more particularly, the good things in life. … Yet if death is bad for me, when is it bad for me? Not now. I’m not dead now. What about when I’m dead? But then, I won’t exist. … Isn’t it true that something can be bad for you only if you exist? Call this idea the existence requirement. …

Rejecting the existence requirement has some implications that are hard to swallow. For if nonexistence can be bad for somebody even though that person doesn’t exist, then nonexistence could be bad for somebody who never exists. … Let’s call him Larry. Now, how many of us feel sorry for Larry? Probably nobody. But if we give up on the existence requirement, we no longer have any grounds for withholding our sympathy from Larry. I’ve got it bad. I’m going to die. But Larry’s got it worse: He never gets any life at all.

Moreover, there are a lot of merely possible people. How many? … You end up with more possible people than there are particles in the known universe, and almost none of those people get to be born. If we are not prepared to say that that’s a moral tragedy of unspeakable proportions, we could avoid this conclusion by going back to the existence requirement. …

If I accept the existence requirement, death isn’t bad for me, which is really rather hard to believe. Alternatively, I can keep the claim that death is bad for me by giving up the existence requirement. But then I’ve got to say that it is a tragedy that Larry and the other untold billion billion billions are never born. And that seems just as unacceptable. (more)

Imagine a couple had been looking forward to raising a child with their combined genetic features, but then discovered that one of them was infertile. In this case they might mourn the loss of a hoped-for child who would in fact never exist. Not just the loss to themselves, but the loss to the child itself. And their friends might mourn with them.

But since this is a pretty unusual situation, we humans have not evolved much in the way of emotional habits and capacities to deal specifically with it. Our emotional habits are focused on the kinds of losses which people around us more commonly suffer and complain. So naturally we aren’t in the habit of taking time out to mourn the loss of a specific Larry. But there are lots of people far from us whose losses we don’t mourn. That hardly means such losses don’t exist.

It seems to me Kagan’s attitude above amounts to insisting that is impossible to imagine a vastly better state (of the universe) than our own. After all, if a vastly better state that ours is “possible”, then the fact that our actual state is not that possible state is a terrible “tragedy”, which he will just not allow.

But if possible states can vary greatly in the amount of good they would embody, then it is almost certain that the good of our actual state holds far less than the maximum good state. This only seems to me a “tragedy”, however, if we could have done something specific to achieve that much better state.

If we can’t see what we could do to allow substantially more creatures to exist, then it isn’t a tragedy that they don’t exist. It is a loss relative to an ideal world where they could exist, but it isn’t a tragedy not to know to create implausibly ideal worlds.

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Why National Med?

People offer many noble rationales for public education, but the data suggest they were adopted to create patriotic citizens for war. I suspect a similar data analysis could show why so many nations have recently adopted national medical systems:

Even as Americans debate … Obama’s healthcare law and its promise of guaranteed health coverage, … many far less affluent nations are moving in the opposite direction – to provide medical insurance to all nations.

China … is on track to .. cover more than 90 percent of the nation’s residents. … Two decades ago, many former communist countries … dismantled their universal health-care systems amid a drive to set up free-market economies. but popular demand for insurance protection has fueled an effort in nearly all these countries to rebuild their systems. Similar pressure is coming from the citizens of fast-growing nations int Asia and Latin America. …

Some countries have set up public systems like those in Great Britain and Canada. But many others are relying on a mix of government and commercial insurance, as in the United States. …

In countries such as India, politicians have learned that one of the surest says to secure votes is to promise better access to health care.  … The Thai system, set up a decade ago, has survived years of political upheaval and a military coup. “No party dares touch it.” …

Columbia’s universal system, set up in 1993, has cost more than twice what as expected.  (Today’s Post, article by Levey, p. A11; link will go here when available)

My guess: for our distant ancestors, medicine was a way to show that they care about each other. So today there is a demand for medicine to be provided by units of organization toward which we, or they, want us to feel solidarity. But I’m not sure what are the most direct and proximate causes of such a need for solidarity.

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Schools Are For War

The main reason we had rules to force kids to attend primary school was to make obedient soldier citizens to support their nation in time of war. This effect was even stronger for democracies:

Using data from the last 150 years in a small set of countries, and from the postwar period in a large set of countries, we show that large investments in state primary education systems tend to occur when countries face military rivals or threats from their neighbors. By contrast, we find that democratic transitions are negatively associated with education investments, while the presence of democratic political institutions magnifies the positive effect of military rivalries. …

We study historical panel data on education spending and enrollment – for Europe since the 19th century and a larger set of countries in the postwar period – to assess the correlation between military rivalry (or war risk) and primary education enrollment (or the occurrence of educational reforms). … [Our models] show a positive and significant effect of rivalry on primary enrollment, a negative direct effect of democracy, and a positive and significant interaction term between the two. Overall, our empirical results indicate a causal relationship from rivalry to primary educational enrollment. …

An economic literature … finds robust correlations between past wars and current state capacity in international panel data. … [A study] shows that military rivalry raises fiscal capacity in postcolonial developing states. … [Others] find that democracy does seem to have a systematic influence on top rates of estate taxation, whereas wars with mass mobilizations do significantly raise those rates. …

[Prussia pushed schools] to arouse a moral, religious, and patriotic spirit in the nation, to instill into it again courage, confidence, readiness for every sacrifice. …

[France pushed schools to] teach Frenchmen to be confident of their nation’s superiority … It should … eliminate disruptive conflicts and promote the unity of the classes. … The new teaching program … was … designed to teach the child that it was his duty to defend the fatherland, to shed his blood or die for the commonwealth, to obey the government, to perform military service, to work, learn, pay taxes, and so on.

In Prussia, France and Japan … military defeats and/or perceived military threats appear to have prompted an otherwise reluctant ruling class to invest in mass primary education. …In most countries of the sample a war preceded the educational reform, while a democratic transition rarely occurs before the education rise … Most often, the democratic transition instead takes place *after the education reform period. (more)

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Innovation Is Random

A dramatic, and sad, example of how random innovation can be:

A blowtorch flame is barrelling onto its surface to no effect. The egg should have cracked apart within seconds under the blistering heat. Yet after a few minutes, McCann picks it up and holds it in his hand. “It only just feels warm,” he says. He cracks it open and out dribbles a runny yolk. “It hasn’t even begun to start cooking.” That was March 1990, and this remarkable demonstration on the British TV show Tomorrow’s World was about to transform [Maurice] Ward’s fortunes.

The egg itself was nothing special. Its extraordinary resistance to the blowtorch’s heat came from a thin layer of white material that Ward had daubed on its shell. An amateur inventor, … Ward had concocted the stuff with no scientific training and named it Starlite. … Subsequent tests in British and US government labs confirmed that it was the real thing. …

Over the next two decades, Ward made a handful of samples of his material, but always refused to reveal the recipe. Then, in May 2011, he died. … A former hairdresser, in the 1980s [Ward] reportedly ran a small plastics company in northern England. He was also an English eccentric with a white beard, a bow tie and a divergent mind. He told journalists he made some batches of Starlite on his kitchen table in a food processor. ..

Greenbury believes that Ward was never interested in the money. His thinks Ward wasn’t able to relinquish the role of expert. By passing on the responsibility for Starlite to trained scientists, Greenbury suggests, Ward would have lost this coveted status. (more)

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Six Million Visits

According to, sometime in the next day or so we should have the six millionth visit to this blog.

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Taming The Wild Idea

Foragers distinguish between camp and the wild. In camp, things are safe and comfortable, and people should be pleasant. The wild, in contrast, is dangerous and uncontrolled. In camp, some of us must watch out for intrusions from wild, such as storms, wild animals, or hostile tribes.

Some of us must also periodically venture into the wild, to bring back food and other useful materials. But it is important that whatever we bring back be tamed before it gets here. Don’t bring back live dangerous animals, don’t leave poison berries around camp where people might think they are safe, and leave violent aggressive hunt habits out there in the wild. What happens in the wild, should stay in the wild.

Ideas and concepts can be dangerous and disruptive. Ideas influence the status and attractiveness of people and activities, and who is blamed and credited for what outcomes. For a society vulnerable to social disruption, ideas can be wild.

Today, most of the ideas and concepts that we come across have been tamed. They have long been integrated into our ways of thinking, and we have worked out attitudes and opinions to help us avoid being cut by their sharp edges.

But today we must also deal with a steady stream of new untamed ideas. Some of these are the side effect of ordinary people doing ordinary things. Others come from intellectual explorers, who purposely venture into the wild in search of new ideas. How do we tame such ideas?

We celebrate our intellectual explorers, both those who come back with useful ideas, and those whose useless ideas show off their impressive explorer abilities. But we are also wary of their trophies, just as foragers would be way of a hunter bringing a strange live animal into camp. We want people we trust and respect to tame those ideas before let them flow free in our camp of easily discussed ideas. Wild explorers, who may have “gone native”, can be useful in expeditions, but must remain under the control of more civilized explorers.

I think this helps us understand why universities, some of the most conservative institutions we have, are home to our most celebrated intellectuals. Academic institutions such as universities, academic journals, peer review, etc. seem far from ideal ways to encourage innovative ideas. But they seem like better ways to ensure outsiders that ideas have been safely tamed. The new ideas that academics endorse can be safely quoted and an applied with minimal risk of wild uncontrolled disruption. So when ideas originate among wild untamed academic-outsiders, we prefer to attribute them to the safe academic insiders who tame them.

When we are willing to risk being exposed to wild untamed ideas, we turn less to academics, and more to startup companies, passionate writers, activists, etc. And in our youth, many of us are eager for such exposure, to show that we are no longer children who must stay safely in camp – we are strong and brave enough to venture into the wild.

But when we get children of our own, and feel less a need to show off our derring-do, we prefer tamed idea sources. We prefer to hire kids who got their ideas from universities, not startups or activists. And most prefer their news to come from similarly tamed journalists. We applaud wild ideas, but prefer them tamed.

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Stories Are Like Religion

Small children (age 4-6) who were exposed to a large number of children’s books and films had a significantly stronger ability to read the mental and emotional states of other people. … The more absorbed subjects were in the story, the more empathy they felt, and the more empathy they felt, the more likely the subjects were to help when the experimenter “accidentally” dropped a handful of pens… Reading narrative fiction … fosters empathic growth and prosocial behavior. …

Fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place. (more)

People who mainly watched drama and comedy on TV — as opposed to heavy viewers of news programs and documentaries — had substantially stronger “just-world” beliefs. … Fiction, by constantly exposing us to the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place. (more)

Psychologists have found that people who watch less TV are actually more accurate judges of life’s risks and rewards than those who subject themselves to the tales of crime, tragedy, and death that appear night after night on the ten o’clock news. That’s because these people are less likely to see sensationalized or one-sided sources of information, and thus see reality more clearly. (more)

Imagine that all you know about someone is that they have zero interest in stories. Not movies, not novels, not nothing. They prefer instead to stay focused on the real world. The only “stories” they want are accurate histories of representative people. What do you think of this person?

You might want to hire this person. But would you trust them to be loyal? Would you date them? Marry them? Most people feel a little wary of such story-less people, just as they are wary of atheists. People fear that atheists will violate social norms because they do not fear punishment from gods and spirits. Similarly, people fear that story-less people have not internalized social norms well – they may be too aware of how easy it would be to get away with violations, and feel too little shame from trying.

Thus in equilibrium, people are encouraged to consume stories, and to deludedly believe in a more just world, in order to be liked more by others. This is similar to how people have long been encouraged to be religious, so that they could similarly be liked more by others.

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

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Testing My Growth Model

I have suggested that long run growth can be described as a sequence of exponential growth modes, from primates to foragers to farmers to industry, where mode transitions are similar in their degree of suddenness and growth rate change factors. This model will be tested in the future – it suggests that within a century or so we’ll see a change within five years to a new mode where the economy doubles every month or faster.

But my model can also be tested against the past. Our data on the animal, forager, and early farming eras is pretty poor. My hypothesis suggests that the forager era was one big growth mode similar to the farming or industry eras, with a relatively smooth rate of growth in capacity (even if rare disasters temporarily disrupted the use of that capacity), and that the forager to farming transition has a level of smoothness similar to that of the farming to industry transition.

Contrary to my model, many have suggested there was an important comparable revolution in human behavior around 50,000 years ago. My model predicts that growth accelerated smoothly from around 100,000 years ago to the near full speed farming world of about 5000 years ago, similar to the way growth accelerated from 1600 to 1900.

The latest results seem to support my model:

Back in 2000, a now famous scientific paper called “The Revolution That Wasn’t” argued that the then-conventional wisdom that modern human behavior had erupted in a “creative explosion” about 50,000 years ago in Europe was wrong. Rather, anthropologists Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks contended that modern behavior, including creativity, has deep and ancient roots, going back some 300,000 years ago in Africa (Science, 15 February 2002, p. 1219).

At a meeting here last month, researchers heard new evidence that human evolution took a gradual, rather than revolutionary, course during two other key junctures in prehistory. A study of ancient stone tools from South Africa concludes that hunters manufactured spears with stone points—a sign of complex behavior—200,000 years earlier than had previously been thought. And new excavations at a 20,000-year-old settlement in Jordan, laden with artifacts typical of much later sites, suggest that the dramatic rise of farming villages in the Near East also had early and deep roots. … Many archaeologists now think that apparent “revolutions” are due to gaps in the record or to behavioral shifts triggered by changing conditions, rather than sudden advances in cognition. What appear to be precociously sophisticated behaviors are really reflections of what prehistoric humans were capable of all along. (more)

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Illusory Power Transference

“Illusory Power Transference” is the academic name for feeling powerful due to a superficial connection to a powerful person, such as having once been in the same room:

Suppose that one day, an employee at a large multinational corporation attends an event in which the company’s rarely seen chief executive officer (CEO) makes an appearance. As the CEO works the room, the employee greets him with a handshake, followed by a brief conversation in which they exchange pleasantries. The CEO thanks him for being ‘‘part of the team’’ and then excuses himself to deliver his keynote address. When the event is over, the employee walks back to his office and resumes his job as an investment manager. How would this brief association with the company’s most powerful figure affect the employee’s mindset and behavior when he resumes his work? …

We propose that … associating with the powerful CEO suggests that he, too, must be powerful. Moreover, this minimal connection with the CEO would actually lead him to act as if he personally possessed more power when making important decisions on the job and interacting with others. ….

We use two experiments to … demonstrate that men who have a tenuous association with a powerful other (versus a powerless or equal-power other) felt more powerful and were more optimistic, confident, and risk seeking, even though they could not leverage the associate’s power. (more; HT Tyler Cowen)

I have suggested that lot of otherwise puzzling behavior can be explained by strong evolved desires to affiliate with high status (i.e., impressive or powerful) people. Apparently even very weak affiliations can make big differences. This can help explain our preferring live art and sport events, and our uncritical relations to academics, real estate agents, investment advisors, doctors, lawyers, etc.

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