Tag Archives: Status

Delay Cosmology

We live in an age of unusually rapid fundamental discovery. This age cannot last long; it must soon slow down as we run out of basic things to discover. We may never run out of small things to discover, but there can be only so many big things.

Such discovery brings status. Many are proud to live in the schools, disciplines, cities, or nations from which discovery is seen to originate. We are also proud to live in this age of discovery. While this discovery divides us to some extent, making us jealous of top discoverers, it unites us more I think, in pride as part of this age of discovery.

This ability to unite via our discoveries is a scarce resource that we now greedily consume, at the cost of future generations to whom they will no longer be available. Some of these discoveries will give practical help, and aid our ability to grow our economy, and thereby help future generations. For those sorts of discoveries the future may on net benefit because we discover them now, rather than later.

But many other sorts of discoveries are pretty unlikely to give practical help. By choosing to discover these today, we on average hurt future eras, depriving them of the joy and pride of discovery, and its ability to unite them around their shared status. This seems inefficient, because many kinds of discovery should get cheaper over time, because there are probably diminishing returns to the joy of more discoveries in the same generation, and because the future may have stronger needs for ways to unite them.

This all suggests that we consider delaying some sorts of discovery. The best candidates are those that produce great pride, are pretty unlikely to lead to any practical help, and for which the costs of discovery seem to be falling. The best candidate to satisfy these criteria is, as far as I can tell, cosmology.

While once upon a time advances in cosmology aided advances in basic physics, which lead to practical help, over time such connections have gotten much weaker. Today, the kinds of basic physics that cosmology is likely to help is very far from the sort that has much hope to give practical aid anytime soon. Such basic physics is thus also a sort of discovery we should consider delaying.

I’m not saying we create strong international law to prohibit such discovery. Much could go wrong with that to turn net gains into net losses. But we might at least locally offer more social disapproval and less status to such discoveries, in recognition of their greedy grab from future generations. Why praise the discoverers of today, who help little else and take glory and unity away from the future?

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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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Real Drama

I’ve now seen all nine of the 2013 Best Picture Oscar nominees. Metacritic.com rates Zero Dark Thirty highest at 95, but gives second highest at 94 to my favorite, Amour. (Intrade gives Argo, rated 84, a 72% chance, and Lincoln, rated 86, a 23% chance, to win.)

There’s an apt old curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Which highlights the fact that while we like stories with drama, we don’t actually want drama in our lives. If you ignore the very end, and the fact that the characters are very high status artists, Amour is quite realistic and by far the drama most likely to actually be experienced by many of you. Which is why most folks don’t like it, because they don’t actually want to see realistic ordinary drama.

Amour is about a women who gets sick and then dies. I was stuck by the fact that what most bothered her and her husband were the insults to her pride. They could mostly handle the pain, the drudgery, and the loss of opportunity. But the loss of status, oh that stung.

I was struck by something similar lately while reading the classic Studs Terkel book Working, in which dozens of ordinary workers tell how they feel about their jobs. While they sometimes complain about being bored or tired, they seem mostly ok with this. What really bothers them is when other people don’t give them as much respect or pay as they think they deserve. Again, it is status that seems to drive them most.

I found this quote interesting:

I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, the name of every electrician, with all the names. So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and say, “See, that’s me over there on the forty-fifth floor. I put the steel beam in.” Picasso can point to a painting. What can I point to? A writer can point to a book. Everybody should have something to point to. (Studs Terkel, Working)

I’d guess that if building makers could get this if they were willing to take a 5% pay cut to pay for it, and that it doesn’t happen because such workers don’t want it that much. Anyone know how much of a pay cut people take to get their name in the credits of a movie? How much of a pay cut to get your name shown as author of a novel? Do artists care more about getting visible public credit more than construction workers? If so, why?

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Is Paper Low Status?

“Virginia has a lot of electronic voting and in general has an election system where it’s very hard to get recounts,” says Dill. “So I might worry about Virginia, depending on how close it is.” … It’s a lot easier to modify electronic records than to modify paper records which is why banking and a lot of other critical activities like that still rely on paper when there’s an ultimate disaster and electronic records are lost or corrupted. (more)

When I voted this morning in Virginia I noticed a line of 6-8 people waiting to use the electronic voting machines, but one could vote immediately on paper. Yet paper voting is less corruptible. I asked Alex Tabarrok and he said he puzzled over the same thing when he voted: why is paper voting so unpopular?

A fb comment noted that it is mostly old folks voting on paper. And that was true at my place as well. Which leads me to suggest that this is a status effect – people stand in line to vote less securely in order to signal that they aren’t old folks scared by or incompetent at electronics. Yes, it seems surprising that people are willing to spend an extra few minutes just to look hip to strangers. But what other explanation is there?

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On Play Hell

Our activities split into work and play. And positive and negative extremes are described as heavens and hells. So there are four possible work-play extremes: work heaven, work hell, play heaven, and play hell.

Among common scenarios we discuss and imagine, we know of many work hells, such as galley slaves. We have fewer work heavens, such as where one gets work credit for a play-like activity. We also have a great many play heavens. But we rarely talk about play hells.

But consider: it might take you years to find out that you are embarrassingly bad at your chosen hobby or sport. The radical science theory you pursue for decades could just be just wrong. You might go out dancing every evening hoping to catch someone’s attention, only to always see him or her go home with someone else. Your so-called best friend could spread nasty rumors about you. Your kids could despise you. Your lover could cheat on you. You could get divorced. These are play hells, most every bit as hellishness as typical work hells.

In the US today, only 14% (24/168) of adult hours each week are devoted to formal work. Since we devote far more time to play than work, I’d guess that most of the actual hells around us are play hells. Yet such play hells seem neglected. There are far fewer charities devoted to helping folks cope with them. And there are far fewer regulations designed to reduce them. The law also slights them – rarely can one sue about harms that arise from romance and friendship. Storybook heroes sally off to rid the world of work hells far more often than play hells.

I suspect we inherited this tendency from our foragers ancestors. Foragers have many rules about fights, hunts, and sharing the product of work, but far fewer rules on romance and friends. To foragers, work was more overt, play more covert.

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The Functions Of Faith

Lyrics from 3 of the most popular Christian songs of 2012:

I fall into Your arms, Right where I belong, Your everlasting arms. And where would I be Without You. I’d be packin’ my bags when I need to stay.

I want to live like that. Am I proof That You are who you say. You are That grace can really change a heart.

Bless the Lord, O my soul. O my soul. Worship His holy name. Sing like never before. O my soul. I’ll worship Your holy name. (more)

Lyrics from 3 of the most popular Christian hymns ever:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see.

Thou canst hear though from the wild, Thou canst save amid despair. Safe may we sleep beneath thy care, Though banish’d, outcast and reviled.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee; Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty! (more)

A few weeks ago I attended a Christian church service, where my dad gave the sermon, and my brother ran the music. My other brother gave a sermon at an evening service, and my mom continues to write and publish Christian novels for tween girls. Yeah, we are a pretty religious family.

I’m an atheist, and atheists usually emphasize their reasons for disagreeing with religious dogma. But attending the service, I was reminded that church is mostly not about dogma. Church services, and religion more generally, serve many useful functions for their participants. Browsing the song lyrics above helps one see such functions:

  • Acceptance – With unusual eagerness and sincerity, churches adopt the classic forager norm of heart-felt acceptance and inclusion, on nominally equal terms, of anyone who supports their community and its norms. Its ok to violate such norms sometimes, as long as you try not to. People really do deeply crave belonging somewhere.
  • High Status Ally – We are truly stressed by our conflicts with higher status others. We’d rather have even higher status allies, so we can say “He told me to do this; if you don’t like it, take it up with him.” God can be such a comforting high status ally. Christians affirm this ally relationship by showing their eagerness to submit to God’s dominance. They praise the nice things he’s done, and apologize for ways they may have disappointed him. We humans don’t just enjoy dominating others – we also sincerely enjoy submitting, at least if our target seems worthy. Especially if such an ally has a reputation for severely punishing those who oppose him.
  • Self-Control – Religion evolved from forager spirituality to help farmers resist temptations to forager-natural behaviors. Church highlights such temptations, assures folks that everyone suffers them, and offers concrete suggestions for resisting. A balance is struck between celebrating those who succeed and not overly rejecting those who fail. Gratitude toward, and a reluctance to disappoint, one’s high status ally and community, helps with self-control. Atheists often seem surprisingly lacking in such self-control.
  • Ritual – While we don’t understand how exactly rituals help and comfort it us, it seems pretty clear that they do.

When atheists try to make substitutes for religion, they often do pretty well on acceptance, and on collecting specific self-control mechanisms. But they find it hard to substitute for the high-status ally, the added comfort and self-control this allows, and the rituals this makes more powerful. Yes, if there isn’t a God, and you don’t believe in him, you win points for having more true beliefs. But you may well lose in your ability to get things done that you want done. There is simply no general guarantee that humans will get more done when they believe more truths.

I’d like to know more about how industry era religion differs from farmer era religion. This might help me to project how em era religion might differ yet again.

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Fragmented status doesn’t help

David Friedman wrote, and others have claimed similarly:

It seems obvious that, if one’s concern is status rather than real income, we are in a zero sum game. If my status increases relative to yours, yours has decreased relative to mine. … Like many things that seem obvious, this one is false. …

…what matters to me is my status as I perceive it; what matters to you is your status as you perceive it. Since each of us has his own system of values, it is perfectly possible for my status as I view it to be higher than yours and yours as you view it to be higher than mine…

Status is about what other people think your status is, but Friedman’s argument is that you at least get some choice in whose views to care about. People split off into many different groups, and everyone may see their group as quite important, so see themselves as quite statusful. Maybe I feel good because I win at board games often, but you don’t feel bad if you don’t – you just quit playing board games and hang out with people who care about politics instead, because you have a good mind for that. As Will Wilkinson says:

I think that there are lots of pastors, PTA presidents, police chiefs, local scenesters, small town newspaper editors, and competitive Scrabble champions who are pretty pleased with their high relative standing within the circle they care about. Back where I come from, a single blue ribbon for a strawberry rhubarb pie at the State Fair could carry a small-town lady for years.

This is a popular retort to the fear that seeking status is zero sum, so any status I get comes at the cost of someone else’s status. I think it’s very weak.

There are two separate issues: whether increasing one person’s status decreases someone else’s status just as much (whether status seeking is constant sum) and whether the total benefits from status come to zero, or to some other positive or negative amount (whether status seeking is zero-sum in particular).

That people split into different pools and think theirs is better than others suggests (though does not prove) that the net value of status is more than zero. Disproportionately many people think they are above average, so as long as status translates to happiness in the right kind of way, disproportionately many people are happy.

The interesting question though – and the one that the above argument is intended to answer – is whether my gaining more status always takes away from your status. Here it’s less clear that the separation of people into different ponds makes much difference:

  1. One simple model would be that the difference between each person’s perception of the status ladder is that they each view their own pond as being at the top (or closer to the top than others think). But then when they move up in their pond, someone else in their pond moves down, and vice versa. So it’s still constant sum.
  2. Another simple model would be that people all agree on their positions on the status ladder, but they care a lot more about where they are relative to some of the people on the ladder (those in their pond). For instance I might agree that the queen of England is higher status than me, but mostly just think about my position in the blogosphere.  Here of course status is constant sum (since we don’t disagree on status). But the hope would be that at least the status we care more about isn’t constant sum. But it is. However much I move up relative to people in my pond, people in my pond move down relative to me (a person in their pond). So again involving ponds doesn’t change the constant-sumness of people gaining or losing status.
  3. But perhaps changing the number or contents of the ponds could increase the total status pie? Increasing the number of ponds could make things better – for instance if people measure status as distance from the top of one’s favorite pond. It could also make things worse – for instance if people measure status as the number of people under one in one’s favorite pond. It could also not change the total amount of status, if people measure status as something like proportion of the way up a status ladder. Instead of one big ladder there could be lots of little parallel ladders. This would stop people from having very high or very low status, but not change the total. It seems to me that some combination of these is true. The maker of the best rhubarb pie at the State Fair might feel statusful, but nowhere near as statusful as the president of america. Probably not even as statusful as someone at the 90th percentile of wealth. So I don’t think we just pay attention to the number above us in the group we care about most. Nor just our rank on some ladder – being further up of a bigger ladder is better. So it’s not clear to me that increasing the number of ponds should make for more status, or more enjoyment of status.
  4. Maybe moving people between ponds can help? Will Wilkinson tells of how he moved between ponds until he found one where he had a chance to excel. It seems likely that he feels higher status now. However the people in the ponds he left now have fewer people under them, and their ponds are smaller. Either of these might diminish their status. In his new pond, Will is probably better than others who were already competing. This lowers their status. It’s unclear whether everyone’s more statusful or better off overall than if they had all been in one big pond.

It might sound intuitive that more ponds mean more status for all, but in most straightforward models the number of ponds doesn’t change the size of the status pie.

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Work, Play Extremes

Humanity’s mix of work vs. play has varied over the millennia. Farmers played less less than foragers, and with industry we’ve moved back to, and even past, forager levels of play. In the future, the work-play mix could move in either direction, possibly to extremes.

Pause for a moment to ask yourself: which extreme do you most fear, a mostly-work future, or a mostly-play future? Yes, all else equal play is probably better than work, but all else may not be equal – ask yourself what knowing that a world is mostly-work or mostly-play would tell you about the rest of that world.

Me, I more fear a mostly-play future. I fear a world of people so overwhelmed by the pleasures of music, movies, games, virtual reality, drugs, etc. that they don’t build for the future, or even maintain support structures inherited from the past. Failing to invest in capital or children, humanity shrinks and falls into oblivion.

Yes, there are things to fear about a mostly-work future. Mainly, the opportunity cost of fun not had. Play is often more fun, and even fulfilling, than work. Given a momentary choice, we tend to choose play over work, and for good reason. Even so, I’d expect a mostly-work world to continue to invest and grow, building to a larger population and capacity. So that if later that world devolves into most-play, at least more people will have more fun on the way down.

Notice that this issue suggests that status isn’t such a bad thing. Locally, the possibility of efforts to gain status seem to cause a market failure, as your status gains come at the expense of the status of others. This would seem to make us work too hard to gain status. But since we can more reliably gain status via work than via play, the existence of status pushes us toward work, and away from the more dangerous mostly-play extreme.

I’m not thrilled that the em future I envision is a mostly-work world. But it at least seems safer than the other extreme to which the work-play mix could have evolved.

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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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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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