Monthly Archives: June 2013

Imagine Farmer Rights

Yesterday I criticized proposals by George Dvorsky and Anders Sandberg to give rights to ems by saying that random rights are bad. That is, rights limit options, which is usually bad, so those who argue for specific rights should offer specific reasons why the rights they propose are exceptional cases where limiting options helps strategically. I illustrated this principle with the example of a diner’s bill of rights.

One possible counter argument is that these proposed em rights are not random; they tend to ensure ems can keep having stuff most of us now have and like. I agree that their proposals do fit this pattern. But the issue is whether rights are random with respect to the set of cases where strategic gains come by limiting options. Do we have reasons to think that strategic benefits tend to come from giving ems the right to preserve industry era lifestyle features?

To help us think about this, I suggest we consider whether we industry era folks would benefit had farmer era folks imposed farmer rights, i.e., rights to ensure that industry era folks could keep things most farmers had and liked. For example, imagine we today had “farmer rights” to:

  1. Work in the open with fresh air and sun.
  2. See how all  food is grown and prepared.
  3. Nights outside are usually quiet and dark.
  4. Quickly get to a mile-long all-nature walk.
  5. All one meets are folks one knows, or known by them.
  6. Easily take apart devices, to see materials, mechanisms.
  7. Authorities with clear answers on cosmology, morality.
  8. Severe punishment of heretics who contradict authorities.
  9. Prior generations quickly make room for new generations.
  10. Rule by a king of our ethnicity, with clear inheritance.
  11. Visible deference from nearby authority-declared inferiors.
  12. More?

Would our lives today be better or worse because of such rights?

Added: I expect to hear this response:

Farmer era folks were wrong about what lifestyles help humans flourish, while we industry era folks are right. This is why their rights would have been bad for us, but our rights would be good for ems.

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Random Rights Are Bad

Food truck and fast food meals can be pretty skimpy. So wouldn’t it be great if we passed a diner’s bill of rights law, requiring all prepared food to come with free unlimited drinks, a fast human waiter, cloth napkins and tablecloths, and a seat by a window? Well no, that wouldn’t be great. All those food trucks and fast food places would go out of business, leaving diners only with the option to eat at expensive fancy restaurants.

It might feel good to play Santa for free, handing out stuff that costs you little yet appears to benefit others lots. But something-for-nothings are usually illusions. Rights limit options, and that is generally bad.

Yes, sometimes we can benefit strategically from having our options limited, but such situations are rare. Random limits on options are usually bad. So if you propose limiting options, you should be prepared to offer particular arguments for why your particular cases are in fact strategic exceptions.

George Dvorsky says we should give lots of rights to ems:

If we’re going to be making minds, we sure as hell need to do it responsibly. … This was the topic of Anders Sandberg’s talk … about the harm that could be inflicted on software capable of experiencing thoughts, emotions, and sensations. … Sandberg proposed that virtual [lab] mice be given virtual painkillers. Another issue is time-rate rights. Does a human emulation have the right to live in real-time, so that it can interact properly with non-digital society? …

Back in 2010, … I proposed that the following rights be afforded to fully conscious human and human-like emulations:

  • The right to not be shut down against one’s will
  • The right to not be experimented upon
  • The right to have full and unhindered access to one’s own source code
  • The right to not have one’s source code manipulated against their will
  • The right to copy (or not copy) oneself
  • The right to privacy (namely the right to conceal one’s own internal mental states)
  • The right of self-determination

… I’d like to include Sandberg’s idea of time-rate rights.

In the comments Dvorsky also likes a “right to have a body and senses.”

But just as with a diner’s bill of rights, limiting options is in general bad. Ems would usually choose each new life, by negotiating with employers, landlords, etc. for a job, place, etc. for a new copy to live. So just as requiring free drinks with a meal can take away that meal as an option, requiring an em life to come with “a right to live in real time” may take away that life as an option. Since the cost to run an em is roughly linear in speed, prohibiting ems that can’t run faster than a thousand times slower than human speeds can in effect raise the cost of such ems by a factor of a thousand. That might greatly reduce the demand for such ems, and hence their number.

Yes, there may be particular situations where limiting options helps ems, but we should expect to hear arguments for why particular cases are exceptions to the usual rule. Dvorsky offers no such arguments, and given how little we know about the em world it is hard to believe he’s worked out detailed arguments that he forgot to mention. Maybe Dvorsky just likes to play Santa for free?

Btw, here’s a post where I criticize a similar effort by Greg Egan to give ems rights. See also Alex on harmful rights.

Added: Just as we have good reasons to stop people from being forced to eat meals that they didn’t choose, we also have good reasons to stop ems from being forced to live lives they didn’t choose. We know lots about why property rights are often useful. More examples of bad random rights:

  • The right to a bookstore that has certain random books.
  • The right to a kitchen holding certain random spices and utensils.
  • The right to a home with certain random furniture items.
  • The right to a movie with certain random plot elements.
  • The right to a laptop with certain random features and accessories.

Added 10a: Anders’ talk is based on this paper; key quote: Continue reading "Random Rights Are Bad" »

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Is Govt Over-Regulated?

I heard a talk recently by Jal Mehta on his new book Allure of Order, where he says how he’d reform US (pre-college) schools. He wants the US to do like Finland where schools are great: select smarter folks as teachers, train them more, and give them more respect, time to prepare, and freedom to structure classes. When I asked him directly how he would pay for all this, he said to cut administration.

It seemed to me that Mehtra’s main complaint is that US teachers are over-regulated. And it occurs to me that this is a common complaint about US government. For example, we hear that US police are over-constrained by rules. And a similar problem would befall US single player health plans — while the UK National Health Service has lots of discretion that is mostly accepted by the UK public, US versions would instead be regulated in great detail.

If you think that private actors in the US tend to be over-regulated, you should wonder why. Perhaps it is because government regulators just act spitefully toward non-government actors, but more plausible are over-confidence and do-something biases. When problems occur, people want something done, and more regulations are something to do. Voters and regulators both overestimate their ability to anticipate future problems and what would help them.

But if this is why US private actors are over-regulated, then US government actors should be over-regulated too. For example, people should see things go wrong in schools, and so add more rules to “do something,” rules that assume too much about what rules can do, and that require too many administrators to implement.

This view suggests that being pro- or anti-regulation isn’t the same as being pro- or anti-government, and it suggests a possible left-right deal: reduce regulation in both private and public sectors. Have more trust in private competition to deal with the problems we leave to the private sphere, and in smart well-trained civil servants to deal with the problems we leave to the public sphere. And have less trust in lawyers, judges and rule-specialists of all sorts to fix our problems with more rules.

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Why Not Non-Fiction Lyrics?

Debenhams Bans Retouching of Its Lingerie Models (more)

We expect news photos to be unretouched, but art gallery photos are fair game. Lingerie ads are in between – some think retouching is fraud, others don’t care. We also formally distinguish between fiction and non-fiction in books, and put them in clearly different sections in libraries, and we similarly formally distinguish documentaries from fiction movies. People get upset when they see fiction presented as if it were non-fiction.

I think the idea is while we know that all these things can persuade us via their styles and associations, non-fiction makes an additional bid to persuade us via its explicit reasoning or evidence. This added bid makes it a valid target for criticism; the non-fiction label tells us to hold it to this higher standard, complaining more loudly if it fails, and believing and celebrating it more if it succeeds.

We do not usually explicitly distinguish sculpture and paintings as fiction vs. not, though some of those are seen as “realistic” in the sense that they should be criticized more if found to be unrealistic. Yet for music, not only do we not explicitly distinguish fiction from non-fiction lyrics, there aren’t even some kinds of song whose lyrics are expected to be more realistic.

Why don’t we bother with the fiction vs. not-fiction distinction for music? That is, why isn’t there a distinguished subset of music which we hold to a higher persuasion standard, to be criticized more if it fails that standard, but accepted more if it meets the standard, as with books and movies?

One theory would be that we don’t think people can critically evaluate arguments in lyrics when the unreasonable persuasive powers of music are involved, so we just give up on that. But documentary movies add both music and images, which would seem to offer even more unreasonable persuasive powers; why do we think people can critically evaluate them? Another theory would be that songs are too short to encompass persuasive arguments. But many news stories are shorter than songs, yet are still explicitly distinguished as non-fiction.

I’m just puzzled.

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School Status Stops Kids

More support for the theory that fertility has fallen because status now puts more weight on having well educated kids:

Discussions … typically assume that the poor have more children than the rich. Micro-data from [62,146 women in] 48 developing countries suggest that this assumption was false until recently. …

In earlier birth cohorts (mostly of the 1940s and 1950s), both the number of ever-born siblings and the number of surviving siblings are positively associated with years of education in 25 countries and negatively associated in two. In contrast, in later birth cohorts (mostly of the 1980s), 20 countries exhibit negative associations between both measures of sibship size and education, while seven show the opposite. …

Changes in women’s labor force participation, sectoral composition, GDP per capita, [urbanization,] and child mortality do not predict changes in the education-sibship size association. Instead, one variable stands out …: the average educational attainment of the parent generation. …

Two explanations … stand out. … The first involves subsistence consumption constraints. … This explanation is somewhat difficult to square with the finding that economic growth is uncorrelated with changes in the education-sibship size association. … The second explanation is … that mass education induces widespread change in fertility norms … [and so] increases the importance of child quality relative to quantity in the utility function, [with] the preferences of the most educated couples [being] most sensitive. (more)

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Whistleblowers Think Far

Rita Handrich:

The “highly conscientious” … are more likely to work hard to achieve their goals [both personally and on behalf of their organization] and often have organizational abilities that help them succeed. In other words, these are the people actually doing the work to help the organization survive and thrive. Why, you might wonder, would those “organizational darlings” blow the whistle on negative practices or leadership failures in a group they so vigorously support? …

Conscientiousness is much more related to performance and our pursuit of goals than it is to conformity. And sometimes the conscientiousness is a commitment to principles that the hard worker can feel were betrayed by the conduct about which they blow the whistle. … The findings from two separate studies support [this]:

Highly conscientious group members with high-level construal (e.g., abstract or “far”) were more willing to articulate (in Study 1) and to express (in Study 2) criticism of the group, even when others did not.

In other words, they were more likely to not only formulate critical positions but more willing to also express them even when they knew other group members would not want to hear it.

(Those studies are here.) Interestingly, Rita mainly applies this to getting cross-examined witnesses to say what she wants them to say, without discussing if that is actually good for the legal system or world. Seems Rita is firmly in near mode here.

This seems another example of far mode being designed more for making good social impressions than good decisions. We might want other people to be whistle-blowers, especially people in other groups, and admire them abstractly, and so people want to give the impression that they’d be whistleblowers too should the occasion arise, at least to people outside their organization. But most people who actually become whistle-blowers suffer substantially because of it. People who actually do it probably suffer from the smart sincere syndrome, not realizing how much the rest of us are just hypocritically pretending to support them.

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Future Story Status

Orson Scott Card on story characters:

Four basic factors … are present in every story, with varying degrees of emphasis. … milieu, idea, character, and event.

  • The milieu is the world surrounding the characters, the landscape, the interior spaces, the surrounding cultures the characters emerge from and react to; everything from weather to traffic laws.
  • The idea is the information that the reader is meant to discover or learn during the process of the story.
  • Character is the nature of one or more of the people in the story – what they do and why they do it. It usually leads to or arises from a conclusion about human nature in general.
  • The events of the story are everything that happens and why. …

Each factor is present in all stories, to one degree or another. Every factor has an implicit structure; if that factor dominates a story, its structure determines the overall shape of the story. …

All [these] factors are present in The Lord Of The Rings, but it is the milieu structure that predominates, as it should. It would be absurd to criticize The Lord Of The Rings for not having plot unity and integrity, because it is not an event story. Likewise, it would be absurd to criticize the book for its stereotyped one-to-a-race characters or for the many characters about who we learn little more than what they do in the story and why they do it, because this is not a character story. …

Character stories really came into their own at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both the novelty and the extraordinary brilliance of some of the writers who worked with this story structure have lead many critics and teachers to believe that only this kind of story can be “good.” … [But] other kinds of stories have long traditions, with many examples of brilliance along the way. ….

It is a mistake to think that deep, detailed characterization is an absolute virtue in storytelling. .. If you choose not to devote much time to characterization in a particular story, this won’t necessarily mean you “failed” or “wrote badly.” It may mean that you understand yourself and your story. (more; pp.62,63,74,75; see also)

Card suggests that the current high status of character stories is a temporary historical accident, which suggests that it will eventually decline. Someone will write such a damn impressive milieu, idea, or event story that others seeking to look impressive will try their hand, making that structure the ideal of a “good” story.

I’d guess that rising incomes contributed to the rising status of the character story. Rich self-indulgent folks are more likely to be obsessed with their own internal feelings, and our wealth has allowed us the slack to often have dramatically dysfunctional character features. Also, our psychological aversion to seeing ourselves clearly has made those who can overcome such aversions more clearly impressive. However, if our descendants are less rich, less free to change their social roles, or if they can more easily see themselves clearly, character stories may seem less compelling. My weak bet is on the eventual rise in status of the milieu story, as I’ve recently come to see how very hard it can be to describe a coherent yet different world.

Added 8:30p: I went searching for criticism of Card’s framework here, and couldn’t find any. Odd.

Added 7a: On reflection, it is also pretty plausible that increasing density, size, and specialization has only recently created a niche for cognitive elites to write for other cognitive elites, which let writers focus on impressing such elites. Impressively realistic character stories are mostly impressive to other cognitive elites, and much less so to ordinary readers.

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My Critique Of Drexler

My last post quoted Drexler on science vs. engineering. Here he is on exploratory engineering:

Exploring, not the time-bound consequences of human actions, but the timeless implications of known physical law. …. Call it “exploratory engineering”; as applied by Tsiolkovsky a century ago, this method of study showed that rocket technology could open a world beyond the bounds of the Earth. Applied today, this method shows that atomically precise technologies can open a world beyond the bounds of the Industrial Revolution.

Drexler’s most famous book was his ’86 Engines of Creation, but his best was his ’92 Nanosystems, which explored nanotech engineering. The book shows impressive courage, venturing far beyond familiar intellectual shores, impressive breadth, requiring mastery of a wide range of science and engineering, and impressive accomplishment, as little in there is likely to be very wrong. This makes Drexler one of my heroes, and an inspiration in my current efforts to think through the social implications of ems.

Alas, Drexler also deserves some criticism. His latest book, Radical Abundance, like several prior books, goes well beyond physical science and engineering to discuss social implications at length. Alas, though his impressive breadth doesn’t extend much into social science, like most “hard” sci/tech folks Drexler seems mostly unaware of this. He seems to toss together his own seat-of-the-pants social reasoning as he can, and then figure that anything he can’t work out must be unknown to all. Sometimes this goes badly. Continue reading "My Critique Of Drexler" »

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Drexler on Engineering

Most of my economics colleagues know little about engineering. Yet much of what they actually want to do in the world, i.e., get people to adopt new better institutions, is better seen as engineering than as science. To help educate them, I quote from Eric Drexler in his new book, explaining the difference between science and engineering:

The essence of science is inquiry; the essence of engineering is design. Scientific inquiry expands the scope of human perception and understanding; engineering design expands the scope of human plans and results. …

•     Scientists seek unique, correct theories, and if several theories seem plausible, all but one must be wrong, while engineers seek options for working designs, and if several options will work, success is assured.
•     Scientists seek theories that apply across the widest possible range (the Standard Model applies to everything), while engineers seek concepts well-suited to particular domains (liquid-cooled nozzles for engines in liquid-fueled rockets).
•     Scientists seek theories that make precise, hence brittle predictions (like Newton’s), while engineers seek designs that provide a robust margin of safety.
•     In science a single failed prediction can disprove a theory, no matter how many previous tests it has passed, while in engineering one successful design can validate a concept, no matter how many previous versions have failed. ..

Simple systems can behave in ways beyond the reach of predictive calculation. This is true even in classical physics. …. Engineers, however, can constrain and master this sort of unpredictability. A pipe carrying turbulent water is unpredictable inside (despite being like a shielded box), yet can deliver water reliably through a faucet downstream. The details of this turbulent flow are beyond prediction, yet everything about the flow is bounded in magnitude, and in a robust engineering design the unpredictable details won’t matter.  …

The reason that aircraft seldom fall from the sky with a broken wing isn’t that anyone has perfect knowledge of dislocation dynamics and high-cycle fatigue in dispersion-hardened aluminum, nor because of perfect design calculations, nor because of perfection of any other kind. Instead, the reason that wings remain intact is that engineers apply conservative design, specifying structures that will survive even unlikely events, taking account of expected flaws in high-quality components, crack growth in aluminum under high-cycle fatigue, and known inaccuracies in the design calculations themselves. This design discipline provides safety margins, and safety margins explain why disasters are rare. …

The key to designing and managing complexity is to work with design components of a particular kind— components that are complex, yet can be understood and described in a simple way from the outside. … Exotic effects that are hard to discover or measure will almost certainly be easy to avoid or ignore. … Exotic effects that can be discovered and measured can sometimes be exploited for practical purposes. …

When faced with imprecise knowledge, a scientist will be inclined to improve it, yet an engineer will routinely accept it. Might predictions be wrong by as much as 10 percent, and for poorly understood reasons? The reasons may pose a difficult scientific puzzle, yet an engineer might see no problem at all. Add a 50 percent margin of safety, and move on.

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What Do We Know That We Can’t Say?

I’ve been vacationing with family this week, and (re-) noticed a few things. When we played miniature golf, the winners were treated as if shown to be better skilled than previously thought, even though score differences were statistically insignificant. Same for arcade shooter contests. We also picked which Mexican place to eat at based on one person saying they had eaten there once and it was ok, even though given how random is who likes what when, that was unlikely to be a statistically significant difference for estimating what the rest of us would like.

The general point is that we quite often collect and act on rather weak info clues. This could make good info sense. We might be slowly collecting small clues that eventually add up to big clues. Or if we know well which parameters matter the most, it can make sense to act on weak clues; over a lifetime this can add up to net good decisions. When this is what is going on, then people will tend to know many things they cannot explicitly justify. They might have seen a long history of related situations, and have slowly accumulated enough relevant clues to form useful judgments, but not be able to explicitly point to most of those weak clues which were the basis of that judgement.

Another thing I noticed on vacation is that a large fraction of my relatives age 50 or older think that they know that their lives were personally saved by medicine. They can tell of one or more specific episodes where a good doctor did the right thing, and they’d otherwise be dead. But people just can’t on average have this much evidence, since we usually find it hard to see effects of medicine on health even when we have datasets with thousands of people. (I didn’t point this out to them – these beliefs seemed among the ones they held most deeply and passionately.) So clearly this intuitive collection of weak clues stuff goes very wrong sometimes, even on topics where people suffer large personal consequences. It is not just that random errors can show up; there are topics on which our minds are systematically structured, probably on purpose, to greatly mislead us in big ways.

One of the biggest questions we face is thus: when are judgements trustworthy? When can we guess that the intuitive slow accumulation of weak clues by others or ourselves embodies sufficient evidence to be a useful guide to action? At one extreme, one could try to never act on anything less than explicitly well-founded reasoning, but this would usually go very badly; we mostly have no choice but to rely heavily on such intuition. At the other extreme, many people go their whole lives relying almost entirely on their intuitions, and they seem to mostly do okay.

In between, people often act like they rely on intuition except when good solid evidence is presented to the contrary, but they usually rely on their intuition to judge when to look for explicit evidence, and when that is solid enough. So when those intuitions fail the whole process fails.

Prediction markets seem a robust way to cut through this fog; just believe the market prices when available. But people are usually resistant to creating such market prices, probably exactly because doing so might force them to drop treasured intuitive judgements.

On this blog I often present weak clues, relevant to important topics, but by themselves not sufficient to draw strong conclusions. Usually commenters are eager to indignantly point out this fact. Each and every time. But on many topics we have little other choice; until many weak clues are systematically collected into strong clues, weak clues are what we have. And the topics of where our intuitive conclusions are most likely to be systematically biased tend to be those sort of topics. So I’ll continue to struggle to collect whatever clues I can find there.

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