Monthly Archives: January 2013

Personal experimentation: context specific?

A last way that personal experimentation could be worth it for me, yet not already completely covered by others, is that most of the facts one is likely to learn are quite context-specific. That way, everyone in history might have figured out for themselves what the best time and sugar-content for lunch is, and it would be worthless to me.

This also seems quite plausible. It could either be that people are so varied that there is just no good answer to whether it is better for productivity to eat snacks throughout the day or a few big meals for instance. Or it could be that which value of one parameter is best depends on all the other ones, so if you tend to eat more sugar than me and sleep less and laugh more, exercise might make you less sleepy than I.

The latter possibility bodes poorly for those who would experiment a lot. After you have determined the best quantity and timing of exercise, you might go on to try to optimize your sleep or sugar intake and make the original finding worthless.

This explanation would also seem to explain the observations in the last post: that many people do seem quite keen advise on the details of one’s life, but that the content of such recommendations seem a bit all over the place. Perhaps each person’s discoveries really do work well for them, but just look like a sea of noise to all the other people.

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Rah Simple Scenarios

Scenario planning is a popular way to think about possible futures. In scenario planning, one seeks a modest number of scenarios that are each internally consistent, story-like, describe equilibrium rather than transitory situations, and are archetypal in representing clusters of relevant driving forces. The set of scenarios should cover a wide range of possibilities across key axes of uncertainty and disagreement.

Ask most “hard” science folks about scenario planning and they’ll roll their eyes, seeing it as hopelessly informal and muddled. And yes, one reason for its popularity is probably that insiders can usually make it say whatever they want it to say. Nevertheless, when I try to think hard about the future I am usually drawn to something very much like scenario planning. It does in fact seem a robustly useful tool.

It often seems useful to collect a set of scenarios defined in terms of their reference to a “baseline” scenario. For example, macroeconomic scenarios are often (e.g.) defined in terms of deviation from baseline projections of constant growth, stable market shares, etc.

If one chooses a most probable scenario as a baseline, as in microeconomic projections, then variations on that baseline may conveniently have similar probabilities to one another. However, it seems to me that it is often more useful to instead pick baselines that are simple, i.e., where they and simple variations can be more easily analyzed for their consequences.

For example even if a major war is likely sometime in the next century, one may prefer to use as a baseline a scenario where there are no such wars. This baseline will make it easier to analyze the consequences of particular war scenarios, such as adding a war between India and Pakistan, or between China and Taiwan. Even if a war between India and Pakistan is more likely than not within a century, using the scenario of such a war as a baseline will make it harder to define and describe other scenarios as variations on that baseline.

Of course the scenario where an asteroid destroys all life on Earth is extremely simple, in the sense of making it very easy to forecast socially relevant consequences. So clearly you usually don’t want the simplest possible scenario. You instead want to a mix of reasons for choosing scenario features.

Some features will be chosen because they are central to your forecasting goals, and others will be chosen because they seem far more likely than alternatives. But still other baseline scenario features should be chosen because they make it easier to analyze the consequences of that scenario and of simple variations on it.

In economics, we often use competitive baseline scenarios, i.e., scenarios where supply and demand analysis applies well. We do this not such much because we believe that this is the usual situation, but because such scenarios make great baselines. We can more easily estimate the consequences of variations by seeing them as situations where supply or demand changes. We also consider variations where supply and demand applies less well, but we know it will be harder to calculate the consequences of such scenarios and variations on them.

Yes, it is often a good idea to first look for your keys under the lamppost. You keys are probably not there, but that is a good place to anchor your mental map of the territory, so you can plan your search of the dark.

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US laissez-faire serves a greater global good

Liberals across the developed world are very concerned by inequality within the United States, as demonstrated by global interest in the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is peculiar because poverty within the United States is less common, and less severe, than it is in most countries around the world. The US does have a high level of inequality for a developed country, but it is not extreme by global standards Unfortunately, this disproportionate concern for Americans leads to attempts to narrow income inequality that may increase poverty and inequality worldwide. [1] I’ll explain how.

The US has long been one of the most innovative countries in the world, and exports the technologies it develops everywhere it can. This is, at least in part, due to its relatively cut-throat culture and laissez-faire economic system. Low taxes and ungenerous welfare mean the benefits of working hard, taking risks and making it big, are higher in the US than most other developed countries. More importantly, weaker regulation in the US means incumbents are less protected from competition, and talented people can more easily start new firms and overturn the status quo. Conversely, daring entrepreneurs are less rewarded in countries which redistribute a great deal of wealth to the poor, or build thickets of regulation that unintentionally (or intentionally) slow down disruptive businesses and technologies. While tempering the ravages of the market may on balance improve the welfare of current Americans, doing so is likely to lead to less experimentation in science, equipment, software, art, business models and so on.

Such innovation generates enormous and enduring positive externalities because the successes are copied at low cost across the world and enrich everyone’s lives. Economic theory would predict that coordinating to stimulate more of these costly but invaluable innovations would be a major concern in international diplomacy. But for some reason it is not, and so it is up to individual countries and the people within them to take these risks on behalf of us all.

Miserly social security and weak regulation in America at most harm 0.3 billion people as long as such policies persist; any resulting innovation spillovers help the remaining, poorer 6.7 billion for centuries to come because improvements in technology persist and compound over time. We all continue to benefit from the hard work of those who developed the telephone and prompted the development of an ever-growing number of related products.

This is not to say that the Occupy movement does not have some important points; it is crucial to oppose the US’s many ‘crony capitalist’ policies which enrich the wealthy while also stifling competition and creative destruction. [2] Nor would the ideal necessarily be a minimal government; there is a prima facie case that government investment in education, R&D, natural-monopoly infrastructure, and so on, can spur technological change. Unfortunately, a higher and higher share of US government spending is going to the opposite: the military, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment benefits and pensions. These programs are not investments in the future, and generate few if any positive spillovers for future Americans and the rest of the world. And because these programs are funded by taxes on the hard-working and successful, they blunt the incentives to invent things that help the whole of humanity.

Anyone who cares about lowering poverty and inequality, and doesn’t believe that American citizens are dramatically more important than everyone else, should think carefully before encouraging the US to follow the European economic model. If the US were go even further and slip into the sclerotic ‘extractive‘ economic model found in most of the developing world and some of southern Europe, it would be a global catastrophe. Resisting any movement in this direction is one way that heartless US conservatives are inadvertently more compassionate than they look.

Update: Turn out I’m I’m not the first person to notice this problem!

Update 2: Many people below doubt whether the US is more laissez-faire, and whether a laissez-faire model does as a general rule foster innovation. If you doubt these things, at least take away the point that whichever policies you think do stifle innovation, whichever countries they are found in, are much more harmful than they first seem. I will research and write up more on the topic of which broad economic settings lead to the most innovation in the future.

[1] The effect on wealth inequality is unclear, but the effect on ‘welfare inequality’ is likely to be negative.

[2] Though perversely, lousy healthcare policies have led to very high prices for medicine in the US, which has driven investments in new procedures and drugs, which have been borrowed by other countries. My guess is that effort probably would have been better directed at other industries.

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Personal experimentation: not shared?

I’ve been talking about how personal experimentation could be worth it for people like me, without relevant info being depleted long ago.

My next potential explanation is that people do experiment, but results aren’t aggregated and spread, so everyone has to reinvent everything.

This is exactly what you would expect in a simple model where people benefit from information, but bear a net cost from spreading it. Without incentives to contribute one’s own findings to others, there is no reason information should spread. But on closer inspection this is roughly the opposite of what the world looks like. There is a lot of advice about how to run the details of a life. Sometimes it is offered for money, but often so enthusiastically and freely as to make the most curious life-optimizer want to run away. The problem seems to be more that there is so much advice, advising pretty much the full range of behavior. There are apparently incentives for spreading such ‘information’, but not incentives to actually find any information to begin with.

This is doubly puzzling. It’s not surprising if all the possible self-help books exist. But for folks volunteering their own time to tell me about whatever relaxation technique or diet, spreading random misinformation seems low value. And again we have the question of why it wasn’t worth it, for their own benefit, to get some actual information to begin with.

A plausible explanation to me for both of these things is that just about any random innocuous change makes life seem better, and people are genuinely trying to be helpful by telling others about such ‘discoveries’. So the problem then would be widespread use of informal data collection, which is much more unreliable than people think. In which case, my own experimentation is just as likely to fail if I rely on such data collection. Experimentation in general would not be as useful as suspected – continually experimenting would make you feel like things were good, but none of your efforts would have long term payoffs.

This leaves the questions of whether and why people would be misinformed about their abilities to casually collect information about the effects of interventions on their lives. What say you?

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Hypocritical Fairness

Arvind Narayanan puzzled over this fact:

Online price discrimination is suspiciously absent in directly observable form, even though covert price discrimination is everywhere. … The differential treatment isn’t made explicit — e.g., by not basing it directly on a customer attribute — and thereby avoiding triggering the perception of unfairness or discrimination. (more)

So he read up on fairness:

I decided to dig deeper into the literature in psychology, marketing, and behavioral economics on the topic of price fairness and understand where this perception comes from. What I found surprised me.

First, the fairness heuristic is quite elaborate and complex. … A particularly impressive and highly cited 2004 paper reviews the literature and proposes an elaborate framework with four different classes of inputs to explain how people decide if pricing is fair or unfair in various situations. …

Sounds like we have a well-honed and sophisticated decision procedure, then? Quite the opposite, actually. The fairness heuristic seems to be rather fragile, even if complex. … More generally, every aspect of our mental price fairness assessment heuristic seems similarly vulnerable to hijacking by tweaking the presentation of the transaction without changing the essence of price discrimination. …

The perception of fairness, then, can be more properly called the illusion of fairness. … Given that the prime impediment to pervasive online price discrimination is a moral principle that is fickle and easily circumventable, one can expect companies to do exactly that. (more)

Of course all of our perceptions are subject to framing to some degree. But Narayanan seems to be saying that fairness perceptions are much more subject to framing than usual. And I agree. But then the key question is: why are fairness perceptions so much more fragile and subject to framing?

A homo hypocritus perspective accounts for this nicely I think. If humans evolved the habit of pretending to follow social norms while covertly coordinating to evade them and use them to social advantage, we should expect the psychology of social norms to be flexibly able to come to whatever conclusions a winning covert coalition desires.

What does 2+2 equal in fairness? The main question we privately ask is, what do we want it to equal?

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Personal experiments: fueled by innovation?

Another way personal experimentation might be worth it for me, yet not used up by those before me: there is so much innovation that there are constantly new things to test, even if people experiment a lot. Beeminder and Workflowy are new. The abilities to prompt yourself to do things with a mobile phone or eat Japanese food or use your computer in a vast number of ways are relatively new.

I doubt this explains much. The question applies to many things that have been around and not that different for a long time, e.g. wheat, motivation, reading, romantic arrangements. And even if Beeminder is new, many of the basic ideas must be old (e.g. ‘don’t break the chain‘). As a society we don’t seem to have a much better idea of the effects of wheat on a person than we do of Beeminder.

Another way innovation could explain the puzzle is if all kinds of innovations change the value of all kinds of ancient things e.g. prevalence of internet use changes the effects of going to bed early or sitting in a certain way or doing something with your hair or knowing a lot of stories. If this is the case, experimentation is worth less than it seems, as the results will soon be out of date. So this goes under the heading ‘I’m wrong: experimentation isn’t worth it’, which would explain the puzzle, except the bit where everyone else perceives this and knows not to bother, and I don’t. I will get back to explanations of this form later.

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Ask Questions That Matter

I know a lot of people who think of themselves as intellectuals. That is, they spend a substantial fraction of their free time dealing in ideas. Most of these people are mainly consumers who take in ideas, but don’t seem to do much with them, at least as far as anyone else ever sees. But others are more outward facing, talking and writing about ideas, often quite eagerly.

Oddly however, most of these idea dealers seem to define themselves mostly in terms of the answers they want to promote, instead of the questions they want to answer. Most idea-oriented Facebook status updates seem like this – saying yay for some answer they agree with. The few that deal in questions also seem to be mainly promoting them, saying yay for the sort of people who like that question.

Now yes, in addition to question-answering the world also needs some answer indexing, aggregation, and yes, sometimes even promotion. And yes, sometimes the world needs people to generate and even promote good questions. But my guess is that most intellectual progress comes from people who focus on a question to which they do not currently know the answer, and then try to answer it. Yes, people doing other things sometimes stumble on a new answer, but in general it helps to be looking in order to find.

I also know lots of academics, and they all have one or more research topics. And if you ask them they can usually phrase these topics in terms of questions they want to answer. And this is a big part of what makes academics more intellectually productive. But alas, few academics are able to articulate in much detail why it is important to the world that their questions get answered. They usually just invoke some vague associations, apparently considering it sufficient that some journal is willing to publish their answers. They seem to think it is someone else’s job to decide what questions are important. Unfortunately, most academic journal articles are answering pretty uninteresting questions.

So the important intellectual progress comes down to the rather small fraction of intellectuals who both define their focus in terms of a question, rather than an answer, and who bother to think about what questions actually matter. To these, I salute, and bow. They are the sweet thirst-quenching fount of progress.

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Life on farms may be worse than death

Robin has long had a possible moral defence for meat consumption on his personal site. The basic idea is this:

  • If everyone switched to vegetarianism/veganism, we would convert land that currently supports farm animals into land that supports plants.
  • This would result in fewer living animals, or at the limit, no animals at all.
  • Though the lives of farm animals aren’t great, they would still prefer to exist than not. [1]
  • Therefore we are actually doing farm animals a favour by consuming meat and in so doing funding their, albeit brief, existence.

This general argument is called the ‘logic of the larder‘. It is a clever defence of meat eating, though perhaps it is more a rationalisation, coming most often from people who have previously shown little concern for farm animals.

Personally, I am glad I was created, even though I will suffer at times, am enslaved (by physics and my biology, if not by a conscious agent) and will eventually be murdered (by ageing, if not a butcher), so am willing to go along with the argument in principle. But in practice, it is not a compelling defence of meat consumption today.

It is far from obvious that “most farm animals prefer living to dying; they do not want to commit suicide.” How do we know they do not want to commit suicide?

  • Most farm animals do not have the mental faculties to weigh up the choice of whether to commit suicide or not, and make a reasoned decision based on their quality of life.
  • Even if they did, evolution should strongly bias animals against deciding to kill themselves, because doing so could never serve the interest of their genes. In addition, committing suicide is itself unpleasant, so your experiences could be worse than nothing and you might still prefer to stay alive.
  • Further, even if farm animals could think through such a decision, and were not too biased, they do not have the knowledge or tools necessary to commit suicide.

Unfortunately then, we have no choice but to make our own judgements about their welfare. Surprisingly, Robin doesn’t cite any evidence on this point, instead suggesting those in doubt visit a farm.

It is quite hard to visit a farm, or find an impartial account of animal lifestyles, because commercial farms and slaughterhouses, especially factory farms, do not want consumers to know about the living conditions of the animals they eat. This itself seems fairly damning. As a result, advocates end up doing most of the reporting. Nonetheless, such reports are still informative and paint a dim picture of quality of life in a typical farm. Many animal lives, particularly those of caged chickens, pigs and farmed fish feature little freedom of movement, high rates of stress, discomfort and disease, and from videos appear worse than nothing to me. Certainly, we would regard someone who treated their pets this way as contemptible. More impartial accounts are apparently to be found in the book Compassion by the Pound (buy), which I have bought but not yet read. Given what I currently know, I would rather stop existing than become an enclosed chicken, fish or pig, and so do not eat those products, in particular caged chickens.

It is a harder call for dairy and meat cows. Their quality of life looks better than that of most other farmed species. They also raise a significant complication Robin also briefly mentions. On the margin, farming animals requires many more grain crops, because farm animals must consume many calories of feed to produce a single calorie of meat. As such, farm animals displace wild animals through the conversation of wilderness to cropland. This effect is especially dramatic for cows, because their conversion rate of feed to meat is less than one in ten. If feedlot cows enjoy better lives than the numerous wild animals they displace –  many of them small creatures with tiny life expectancies – this could be an argument in favor of consuming beef or milk. However, such products have other drawbacks,

  • they are probably bad for health (though it pays to be skeptical about the reliability of such research)
  • feeding grain to animals raises food prices (good for poor farmers, but bad for poor non-farmers)
  • livestock farming alone contributes some 18% of anthropogenic greenhouse gasses.

I would appreciate someone trying to weigh up these harms to see which are most worth worrying about. Working out the true effects of our actions is sometimes challenging, but we should make a collective effort, and so I would be keen to learn from your comments.

[1] I have even heard people claim that all creatures would necessarily rather live than die. I trust such people have never weighed death against a lifetime of torture.

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A History Of Foom

I had occasion recently to review again the causes of the few known historical cases of sudden permanent increases in capacity growth rates in broadly capable systems: humans, farmers, and industry. For each of these transitions, a large number of changes appeared at roughly the same time. The problem is to distinguish the key change that enabled all the other changes.

For humans, it seems that the most proximate cause of faster human than non-human growth was culture – a strong ability to reliably copy the behavior of others allowed useful behaviors to accumulate via a non-genetic path. A strong ritual ability was clearly key. It also helped to have language, to live in large bands friendly with neighboring bands, to cook and travel widely, etc., but these may not have been essential. Chimps are pretty good at culture compared to most animals, just not good enough to support sustained cultural growth.

For farming, it seems to me that the key was the creation of long range trade routes along which domesticated seeds and animals could move. It was the accumulation of domestication innovations that most fundamentally caused the growth in farmers, and it was these long range trade routes that allowed innovations to accumulate so much faster than they had for foragers.

How did farming enable long range trade? Since farmers stay in one place, they are easier to find, and can make more use of heavy physical capital. Higher density living requires less travel distance for trade. But perhaps most important, transferable domesticated seeds and animals embodied innovations directly, without requiring detailed copying of behavior. They were also useful in a rather wide range of environments.

On industry, the first burst of productivity at the start of the industrial revolution was actually in the farming sector, and had little to do with machines. It appears to have come from “amateur scientist” farmers doing lots of little local trials about what worked best, and then communicating them to farmers elsewhere who grew similar crops in similar environments, via “scientific society” like journals and meetings. These specialist networks could spread innovations much faster than could trade in seeds and animals.

Applied to machines, specialist networks could spread innovation even faster, because machine functioning depended even less on local context, and because innovations could be embodied directly in machines without the people who used those machines needing to learn them.

So far, it seems that the main causes of growth rate increases were better ways to share innovations. This suggests that when looking for what might cause future increases in growth rates, we also seek better ways to share innovations.

Whole brain emulations might be seen as allowing mental innovations to be moved more easily, by copying entire minds instead of having one mind train or teach another. Prediction and decision markets might also be seen as better ways to share info about which innovations are likely to be useful where. In what other ways might we dramatically increase our ability to share innovations?

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Machiavelli On Listening

In 1505, Machiavelli advised leaders to let a few trusted advisors tell them the truth when answering specific questions in private, but to never let anyone advise them in public, especially at those people’s own initiative:

There is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you; but when every one may tell you the truth, respect for you abates.

Therefore a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, and then only of those things of which he inquires, and of none others; but he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions. With these councillors, separately and collectively, he ought to carry himself in such a way that each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred; outside of these, he should listen to no one, pursue the thing resolved on, and be steadfast in his resolutions. He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so often changed by varying opinions that he falls into contempt. (more)

Machiavelli was very smart and insightful on such subjects. So I’m reluctant to disagree with him. But his advice seems to tell leaders never to listen to prediction markets, and I’m not quite ready to give up on that idea yet. So what I want now is to better understand Machiavelli’s advice: why exactly should leaders not let themselves be seen as listening to public advice others initiate?

Some possible theories:

  1. Advice givers are higher status that advice receivers, and leaders must seek maximal status.
  2. There are standard embarrassing truths and audiences take one’s ability to keep people from voicing them as a costly signal of dominance.
  3. If people can influence you by telling you things, they will spend too much effort trying to do so, at the expense of other useful activities.
  4. What else?
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