Tag Archives: Arts

Beware Value Talk

Decisions depend on both values and facts. Values are about us and what we want, while (beliefs about) facts are about everything else, especially the way everything else changes how what we get depends on what we do. Both values and facts are relevant to decisions.

But honestly, facts usually matter far more. Yes, sometimes we err by mistaking our values, and sometimes our values are more complex than we realize. But for the vast majority of our decisions, we have a good rough idea of what we value, and most of our decision problem (on the margin) is to figure out relevant facts. (If you review the last ten decisions you made, I think you’ll see this is obvious.)

Even when learning values is important, talking values with others usually helps less. To learn what we value, we mostly just need to try different things out and see how we feel about them. So compared to thinking about values, talking values seems even less useful for informing decisions. That is, we have better ways to coordinate to discover the world we share than to coordinate to learn our individual values. Yet we seem to spend an awful lot of time discussing values. Especially on grand topics like politics, religion, charity, sex/love, the arts, the future, etc., we seem to spend more time talking values than facts. (We also love to drop names on these topics.) Why?

Such topics tend to put us in a far mental mode, and far modes focus us on basic values relative to practical constraints. Which makes sense if far modes function more to manage our social impressions. That is, value-focused talk makes sense if such talk functions less to advise decisions, and more to help us look good. By talking values we can signal our loyalties and the norms we support, and we can covertly hint about norm violations we might overlook. (Dropping names also lets us covertly signal our loyalties.)

This is what bugs me personally about most discussions of grand topics — they are so full of value affirmations (and name dropping), and so empty of info to improve decisions. The modes that we prefer for such topics, such as stories, music, testimonials, and inspirational speeches, are much better for transmitting values than facts. Worse, people love to revisit the same value topics over and over, even though their values rarely change; it is info about facts that change, and so justify revising topics often. Also, the “experts” we prefer on these grand topics are mostly those whose main celebrated credentials are about their values and their abilities to move values, not about their understanding of facts.

I’m glad to be an academic, since our standard mode of talk is better suited to discerning and sharing facts than values. And I’m especially glad to be an economist, since our using a standard value metric lets us focus most of our disagreement on differing views about facts. Of course even so most academic discussion isn’t very well targeted at improving decisions; we are far more interested in getting better credentialed as being impressive. But at least we mostly talk facts.

If you think you are one of the rare folks who actually cares more about making better decisions than about signaling loyalties, and if you wanted to find other like minded folks to work with, I’d think you’d tend to avoid talking values, as that would be a bad sign about your interests. But in fact most folks who say they are the rare ones who care mainly about better decisions, and who take lots of personal time talk about it, seem in fact to spend most of their time talking values. They even tend to prefer the value focused modes and experts. Why are so few folks willing to even pretend to focus on facts?

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Impressive Power

Monday I attended a conference session on the metrics academics use to rate and rank people, journals, departments, etc.:

Eugene Garfield developed the journal impact factor a half-century ago based on a two-year window of citations. And more recently, Jorge Hirsch invented the h-index to quantify an individual’s productivity based on the distribution of citations over one’s publications. There are also several competing “world university ranking” systems in wide circulation. Most traditional bibliometrics seek to build upon the citation structure of scholarship in the same manner that PageRank uses the link structure of the web as a signal of importance, but new approaches are now seeking to harness usage patterns and social media to assess impact. (agenda; video)

Session speakers discussed such metrics in an engineering mode, listing good features metrics should have, and searching for metrics with many good features. But it occurred to me that we can also discuss metrics in social science mode, i.e., as data to help us distinguish social theories. You see, many different conflicting theories have been offered about the main functions of academia, and about the preferences of academics and their customers, such as students, readers, and funders. And the metrics that various people prefer might help us to distinguish between such theories.

For example, one class of theories posits that academia mainly functions to increase innovation and intellectual progress valued by the larger world, and that academics are well organized and incentivized to serve this function. (Yes such theories may also predict individuals favoring metrics that rate themselves highly, but such effects should wash out as we average widely.) This theory predicts that academics and their customers prefer metrics that are good proxies for this ultimate outcome.

So instead of just measuring the influence of academic work on future academic publications, academics and customers should strongly prefer metrics that also measure wider influence on the media, blogs, business practices, ways of thinking, etc. Relative to other kinds of impact, such metrics should focus especially on relevant innovation and intellectual progress. This theory also predicts that, instead of just crediting the abstract thinkers and writers in an academic project, there are strong preferences for also crediting supporting folks who write computer programs, built required tools, do tedious data collection, give administrative support, manage funding programs, etc.

My preferred theory, in contrast, is that academia mainly functions to let outsiders affiliate with credentialed impressive power. Individual academics show exceptional impressive abstract mental abilities via their academic work, and academic institutions credential individual people and works as impressive in this way, by awarding them prestigious positions and publications. Outsiders gain social status in the wider world via their association with such credentialed-as-impressive folks.

Note that I said “impressive power,” not just impressiveness. This is the new twist that I’m introducing in this post. People clearly want academics to show not just impressive raw abilities, but also to show that they’ve translated such abilities into power over others, especially over other credentialled-as-impressive folks. I think we also see similar preferences regarding music, novels, sports, etc. We want people who make such things to show not only that they have have impressive abilities in musical, writing, athletics, etc., we also want them to show that they have translated such abilities into substantial power to influence competitors, listeners, readers, spectators, etc.

My favored theory predicts that academics will be uninterested in and even hostile to metrics that credit the people who contributed to academic projects without thereby demonstrating exceptional abstract mental abilities. This theory also predicts that while there will be some interest in measuring the impact of academic work outside academia, this interest will be mild relative to measuring impact on other academics, and will focus mostly on influence on other credentialed-as-impressives, such as pundits, musicians, politicians, etc. This theory also predicts little extra interest in measuring impact on innovation and intellectual progress, relative to just measuring a raw ability to change thoughts and behaviors. This is a theory of power, not progress.

Under my preferred theory of academia, innovation and intellectual progress are mainly side-effects, not main functions. They may sometimes be welcome side effects, but they mostly aren’t what the institutions are designed to achieve. Thus proposals that would tend to increase progress, like promoting more inter-disciplinary work, are rejected if they make it substantially harder to credential people as mentally impressive.

You might wonder: why would humans tend to seek signals of the combination of impressive abilities and power over others? Why not signal these things separately? I think this is yet another sign of homo hypocritus. For foragers, directly showing off one’s power is quite illicit, and so foragers had to show power indirectly, with strong plausible deniability. We humans evolved to lust after power and those who wield power, but to pretend our pursuit of power is accidental; we mainly just care about beauty, stories, exciting contests, and intellectual progress. Or so we say.

So does anyone else have different theories of academia, with different predictions about which metrics academics and their customers will prefer? I look forward to the collection of data on who prefers which metrics, to give us sharper tests of these alternative theories of the nature and function of academia. And theories of music, stories, sport, etc.

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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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Why Play Concert Piano?

Concert pianist James Rhodes on the nobility of his lifestyle:

I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. … My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, …

And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper … and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. … And I did that. I do it, to my continual astonishment, all the time. (more; HT Pete Boettke)

For me, he then ruins it with his ending:

The government is cutting music programmes in schools and slashing Arts grants as gleefully as a morbidly American kid in Baskin Robbins. So if only to stick it to the man, isn’t it worth fighting back in some small way? So write your damn book. Learn a Chopin prelude, get all Jackson Pollock with the kids, spend a few hours writing a Haiku. Do it because it counts even without the fanfare, the money, the fame and Heat photo-shoots that all our children now think they’re now entitled to because Harry Styles has done it. … Suicide by creativity is something perhaps to aspire to in an age where more people know Katie Price better than the Emperor concerto.

Alas knowing that it is usually easier to motivate people to be against someone than for something, Rhodes doesn’t stop at saying his life is hard but satisfying to him. He also suggests we share his anger that others do not financially subsidize his favored arts, and that other kinds of musicians get more attention.

Me, I can admire his dedication, but I can’t see much net social value from subsidizing his favored art over others, via money or status, or even from so subsidizing art in general. I can see the point of subsidizing innovation, at least innovation that can accumulate to benefit many future generations. But by great practice getting nearly as good as the best at intuitively understanding a 300 year old composer? How can that accumulate? Pop music at least somewhat more clearly accumulates over generations, though it isn’t clear that’s a net gain over the losses from fighting for top pop status.

Just because something is impressive, even at a very deep visceral level, doesn’t make it worth subsidizing.

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More On Music Function

I read up a bit more on theories of music’s function – quotes below.

For any signal a key question is why observers should believe it. For example, many animal sounds come with clear simple reasons to believe them. A loud roar can show the physical strength of its source, and its willingness to expend energy. A soft coo, in contrast, can show that the source is relaxed and comfortable.

With language we humans can say far more things than we can directly show via the way we say it. Even so, speakers and listeners usually have a common interest in agreeing at least on what was meant by what was said. So a listener can often at least credibly believe that the speaker meant to claim a certain thing, even if that listener doesn’t have further reasons to believe that what was said is true.

Music seems to tell emotions, and sometimes it is enough to tell what emotion you claim to have, even if listeners have no further reason to believe that claim. But we seem to have far more types of music than we have kinds of emotions to tell. And the main music puzzle seems to be on the listener end – why are we built so that hearing emotional music evokes similar emotions in ourselves, at least when we are in a receptive frame of mind. Why does music evoke emotions more reliably than does hearing a simple verbal description of the same emotions?

A similar thing happens with stories, at least when we are in a receptive frame of mind. Story-tellers can make us like some people, things, and events, and dislike others, using simple tricks that we all know are evidentially unfair. Why are we as listeners so often eager to enter story and music receptive frames of mind, allowing others to more directly control our emotions, attitudes, and opinions about people, acts, and events?

Yes going through a process like this together that can bond people, as they end up knowing that they have acquired similar emotions and opinions. But why does such a capacity even exist? Why are our minds so vulnerable to raw back door control over what we think and feel?

Yesterday I suggested that this capacity exists exactly because it lets people see that they acquire similar emotions, attitudes, and opinions, a similarity that goes beyond any similar evidence they may each hold supporting such things. As long as we are confident that our associates’ emotions and attitudes are so manipulable, we can be reassured that their attitudes are similar to ours.

But if so, why haven’t some of us evolved a capacity to fake such vulnerability, appearing to enjoy music and stories, but not allowing them to change their attitudes and opinions toward people, acts, and events? A similar issue arises with wanting our associates to internalize key social norms, such as against murder. If our associates could act horrified by murder, but not actually be reluctant to murder, we’d have to be a lot more wary of them.

While some of us do seem especially good at faking feelings, most of us are lousy liars. That combined with our strong censure of apparent fakers produces an equilibrium where most of us stay pretty close to acting vulnerable to key norms, stories, and music.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "More On Music Function" »

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Moneyball Slavery

Moneyball is a good movie – it is fun to see an underdog economist start a revolution somewhere. (Though I’d be more inspired if I could see more clearly how the world is better because of this revolution. Are fans happier now? Players? Who?)

Along the way, the movie vividly depicts profit-driven buying and selling of people, over which the people involved have little say. If traded, players must immediately move across the country, with little compensation. On the screen, it sure looks a lot like slavery. But I can’t find a single mention of slavery in any of the Moneyball commentary. It seems viewers don’t even notice the issue — even viewers who don’t know or care much for baseball, and doubt baseball makes the world a better place.

This supports the theory that we see “slavery” as low status by definition – so by definition anyone high status can’t be a slave. You may recall that in May I wrote:

Bryan is probably right – we don’t call conscripts slaves, but do call comfort women slaves, because the first is high status and the second low. … On reflection, the main effect here is probably that many people take “slavery is bad” to be part of the definition of slavery. So therefore by definition anything good cannot be slavery. (more)

Here is some detail on trading of baseball players:

Players eligible for neither free agency nor salary arbitration are very seldom offered contracts for much more than the league minimum salary, as the player has no recourse to try to obtain a better salary elsewhere. For this reason, in the first three major league years of their careers (except for the “Super Two” exception above), it is standard practice for players to accept comparatively low salaries even when their performance is stellar. (more)

Added 10a: It is possible to be sold into slavery, or to sell oneself into slavery, so up front compensation is consistent with slavery. The key is that while you are a slave you have little control over what you do. The “degree” of slavery is set by the size of the penalty if you don’t follow orders. A death penalty makes for a strong slave, while merely being fired from your current job with many similar jobs available makes for a rather weak “slave.” In baseball, the penalty is pretty big — never again working in your chosen profession and life-calling, and having almost no prospect for anything remotely as fun or profitable. For an analogy, imagine that if you don’t do what your boss says, you must to move permanently to a poor country where you don’t know anyone and have no unusually valuable skills.  That is a strong enough commitment that I’d be tempted to call it “slavery.” Even though you still have a choice.

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Against Terror

You might have thought that terror was a bad thing, especially terror of death, which is why a war on terror would be a good thing (if it worked). But in today’s NYT, Stephen Cave praises terror:

[In] the TV series “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” … the “miracle” of the title is that no one dies anymore, but it proves to be a curse as overpopulation soon threatens. … [This] is right to be pessimistic about what would happen if this dream were fulfilled — but for the wrong reasons. Materially, we could cope with the arrival of the elixir. But, psychologically, immortality would be the end of us.

The problem is that our culture is based on our striving for immortality. … It has inspired us to found religions, write poems and build cities. If we were all immortal, the motor of civilization would sputter and stop. …

Asked to rule on a hypothetical case of prostitution, … judges who had first been reminded of their mortality set a bond nine times higher than those who hadn’t. …
In more than 400 experiments, … results consistently support … Terror Management Theory — that particular aspects of our outlook are governed by our need to manage our fear of death. In other words, our cultural, philosophical and religious systems exist to promise us immortality.

Such systems … are embodied in the pyramids of Egypt, the cathedrals of Europe and even the skyscrapers of modern cities. … We also find the promise of deathlessness … in the accumulation of wealth; … [and in] immersion in a greater whole, whether a nation or a football team; or even in the pursuit of scientific research, with its claim to enduring truth.

… All our death-defying systems, if there were no more death, … would be superfluous. We would have no need for progress or art, faith or fame. … Action would lose its purpose and time its value. This is the true awfulness of immortality. Let us be grateful that the elixir continues to elude us — and toast instead our finitude. (more)

So we want something so desperately that we delude ourselves to imagine that we’ll get it, and that makes it bad if we actually get it, because then we wouldn’t delude ourselves?! This seems another bout of insanity triggered by the word “immortality.” Once again, with feeling:

A big part of the problem, I think, is that talk of “immortality” invokes an extremely far view. But finite increases in lifespan really have little to do with immortality. Immortality means you never die, ever. But forever is a really really long time! In fact, nothing you can imagine is remotely as long. … A thousand year lifespan would be fantastic, relative to our lifespan. I want it! But it is nothing like immortality. It would have clear stages, and a very real end to anticipate. (more)

True immortality isn’t remotely an option anytime soon. What might be an option is a dramatic increase in lifespan. But death would remain, and with it a terror of death, and the cultural achievements such terror may inspire.  And if less terror leads to fewer cultural achievements, surely that seems be a price well worth paying!

P.S. Today is my birthday, which I like to call not-dead-yet day.

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Beware Morality Porn

“Porn” stimulates strong sexual desire and satisfaction in ways detached from many of the contextual features that usually accompany such desire and satisfaction in real and praiseworthy sex. Critics complain that this detachment is often bad or unhealthy.

Metaphorical applications of this porn concept include food porn, gadget porn, shelter porn, and chart porn. “X porn” refers to stimuli that induce desires and/or satisfactions usually related to X, but detached in possibly unhealthy ways from context that ideally accompanies X. Food porn, for example, might entice you to eat foods with poor nutrition, or distract you from socializing while eating.

Of course how fair it is to call something “X porn” depends on how bad it is to desire X detached from some ideal context. For example, isn’t it ok to sometimes eat really tasty but unhealthy food, as long as you don’t do that too often? And what’s so wrong about loving cool-looking gadgets, even ones that aren’t very useful – everyone’s gotta have a hobby, right?  In fact, many use “X porn” terms not as criticism but to say they like a stimulation even though others may disapprove of its detachment.

But there’s one case where the “X porn” criticism seems to me especially solid: morality.  Let us call a stimuli “morality porn” if it gives people a strong desire to act morally, and a feeling of satisfaction of that desire, but without their actually acting morally. It seems an especially bad idea for people to feel moral, without actually acting moral.

For example, the Lord of the Rings movies are some of my favorites. They let viewers vicariously feel Frodo’s moral quandary – whether or not to sacrifice himself for the greater good – and then vicariously feel Frodo feeling good about himself for doing the right thing. Many war movies function similarly as morality porn.

But is this good? First it might be bad for people to feel good about their morality when they haven’t actually been moral – maybe this will make them feel like they’ve done enough when they’ve hardly done anything. Second, it is way too easy to imagine from the comfort of your seat that you would do the heroic thing in the situation on the screen, when in fact you would do no such thing.

Third, movie morality is often unhealthily detached from important moral context. For example, movies usually focus more on whether characters have the strength of will to do what is obviously right than on whether they have the wisdom to discern what is right. And movie characters rarely have to choose between the praise of associates and doing the right thing – key associates usually support doing the right thing.

I’m not saying all porn is bad, or even that any porn is bad. Or even that morality is good. But if I was going to worry about some sort of porn, I’d worry most about morality porn.

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Hail War And Peace

War And Peace is my favorite novel ever. In contrast to the modern style of appearing only to describe events and leaving interpretations to the reader, Tolstoy interprets openly and heavily. And oh what wonderfully insightful interpreting! He usually describe several levels, including what people say, what they think, and what they are doing without realizing. I see homo hypocritus played out in great detail. Here is a section on agency failures in charity:

[Count] Pierre … sent for all his stewards to the head office and .. told them that steps would be taken immediately to free his serfs- and that till then they were not to be overburdened with labor, women while nursing their babies were not to be sent to work, assistance was to be given to the serfs, punishments were to be admonitory and not corporal, and hospitals, asylums, and schools were to be established on all the estates. Some of the stewards … listened with alarm, supposing these words to mean that the young count was displeased with their management and embezzlement of money …

He discussed estate affairs every day with his chief steward. But he felt that this did not forward matters at all. … Pierre had none of the practical persistence that would have enabled him to attend to the business himself and so he disliked it and only tried to pretend to the steward that he was attending to it. The steward for his part tried to pretend to the count that he considered these consultations very valuable for the proprietor and troublesome to himself. …

The chief steward, who considered the young count’s attempts almost insane – unprofitable to himself, to the count, and to the serfs – made some concessions. Continuing to represent the liberation of the serfs as impracticable, he arranged for the erection of large buildings- schools, hospitals, and asylums- on all the estates before the master arrived. …

On all his estates Pierre saw with his own eyes brick buildings erected or in course of erection, all on one plan, for hospitals, schools, and almshouses, which were soon to be opened. Everywhere he saw the stewards’ accounts, according to which the serfs’ manorial labor had been diminished, and heard the touching thanks of deputations of serfs in their full-skirted blue coats.

What Pierre did not know was … that since the nursing mothers were no longer sent to work on his land, they did still harder work on their own land. He did not know that the priest who met him with the cross oppressed the peasants by his exactions, and that the pupils’ parents wept at having to let him take their children and secured their release by heavy payments. He did not know that the brick buildings, built to plan, were being built by serfs whose manorial labor was thus increased, though lessened on paper. He did not know that where the steward had shown him in the accounts that the serfs’ payments had been diminished by a third, their obligatory manorial work had been increased by a half. And so Pierre was delighted with his visit to his estates and quite recovered the philanthropic mood in which he had left Petersburg. …

The steward promised to do all in his power to carry out the count’s wishes, seeing clearly that not only would the count never be able to find out whether all measures had been taken, … but would probably never even inquire and would never know that the newly erected buildings were standing empty and that the serfs continued to give in money and work all that other people’s serfs gave – that is to say, all that could be got out of them. (more)

Note that even in such a different world (1806 Russia), the three classic “good deeds” were medicine, education, and poverty assistance. This suggests modern liberal obsessions with such areas are not a local historical accident.

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Live Long Or Wide?

One of my favorite science fiction novels is Kiln People, by David Brin in 2003. Not so much for its characters or plot, but because it takes an interesting future/tech scenario seriously. Most fiction with artificial intelligence describes a world with only a few of them, yet one of AI’s most important features is its easy of copying.

In Kiln People, Brin takes seriously this idea of cheaply copying intelligent agents. The key assumption is that in a few minutes and for a modest cost one can copy a person’s mind into a new clay body that lasts about a day. That copy’s memories of its day can also be added back into the original at the day’s end. Brin imagines many details of how this would change society. While he gets some things wrong, and an economist would get more right, Brin does far better than most science fiction.

Assume for the sake of argument that you came to accept that such clay copies really were “you.” So that if on Monday you made six copies and merged them all back in at the end of Monday, and then you slept the rest of the week, you would have lived just as much as an ordinary person in a normal week. You’d remember having lived for seven days that week.

Now imagine that this copy technology is improved let copies last ten years. Then compare two ways to stretch your life:

  • Time Stretched Life: You are able to live for another 110 years before dying.
  • Space Stretched Life: You make nine copies now, and the ten of you live for ten years. Then you merge the memories of all these copies back together, and live for another ten years before dying.

I suspect most people would admire the life stretched across time more than the life stretched across space, similar to the way most people admire a time stretched civilization more than a space stretched one, and to the way they accept time genocide more than space genocide. I again attribute this to the future seeming more far:

The far future seems more far … than situations far away in space, or in the far past. The near/far distinction was first noticed in how people treated the future differently, and our knowing especially little detail about the future makes it especially easy to slip into abstract thought about the future. … We are less practical, more idealistic, and more uncompromising in far mode.

Added 8a:  The time stretched life lets you see more of human history, but the space stretched life lets you help yourself more (e.g., the ten of you could start a business together), is better able to prevent your death, and trades later for earlier decades of your life cycle. As most people seem to discount the future and to prefer earlier life decades, these factors seem to favor space-stretching overall.

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