Monthly Archives: January 2008

Voters Want Simplicity

Another Post gem from Shankar Vedantam:

In an unusual study analyzing State of the Union addresses like the one President Bush will give tonight, psychologists found a curious pattern in the speeches delivered by 41 U.S. presidents. … The study found that in the first three years after a new president takes office, his speeches displayed higher levels of complexity compared with addresses in the fourth year in office. In the first three speeches, presidents were more likely to acknowledge other points of view, potential pitfalls and unintended consequences. In the fourth year, however — as they were about to run for reelection — the complexity of their speeches plunged. 

Not only that, but American presidents who showed a sharper decline in complexity were more likely to be reelected than those who continued to acknowledge that the challenges facing the nation were complex. …  So the next time you hear presidential candidates say simplistic things that people want to hear, remember that they are merely responding rationally to the incentives that voters give them. The disturbing question is not why politicians pander, but why pandering works — and for that we need to look in the mirror.

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Today, Michael Abramowicz’s book Predictocracy is published.  This is my blurb for the cover:

Decision markets will one day revolutionize governance, both public and private, and Michael Abramowicz”s Predictocracy is the first book length exploration of them – a wild roller coaster ride through the many strange wonders to be found in this vast new territory.

And what a wild ride it is.  Abramowicz has let his imagination run free searching for ways we could use prediction markets in governance.  His book goes rapid-fire through dozens of such mechanism concepts, sometimes briefly illustrated with possible applications to corporations, regulation, public administration, courts, and legislatures.  Abramowicz is hopeful but claims not to actually endorse any of these possibilities:

This book is a technical manual, not a manifesto.  I have included radical examples to illustrate the power of prediction markets as building blocks in decision-making institutions, not to argue that we should or will displace our existing institutions. 

It is as if he is trying to teach folks who only knew the few types of Lego blocks available my youth about a bunch of the Lego types now available.  For each new block type, Abramowicz describes its possible uses, its potential problems, and ways one might use other blocks to mitigate those problems.  "This thingy could make that part go whoosh.  And if it’s too floppy, you could add that thingamajig about here." 

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Rationality Quotes 9

"A world ought to have a few genuine good guys, and not just a spectrum of people running from bad to worse."
        — Glen Cook, A Shadow of All Night Falling

"You couldn’t get a clue during the clue mating season in a field full of horny clues if you smeared your body with clue musk and did the clue mating dance."
        — Edward Flaherty

"We all enter this world in the same way: naked; screaming; soaked in blood. But if you live your life right, that kind of thing doesn’t have to stop there."
        — Dana Gould

"Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come."
        — Matt Groening

"Things do get better, all the time, maybe just not as fast as I’d like. I do what I can. Don’t ask me to hate, too."
        — Michael Wiik

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Knowing your argumentative limitations, OR “one [rationalist’s] modus ponens is another’s modus tollens.”

Followup to: Who Told You Moral Questions Would be Easy?Response to: Circular Altruism

At the most basic level (which is all we need for present purposes), an argument is nothing but a chain of dependence between two or more propositions.  We say something about the truth value of the set of propositions {P1…Pn}, and we assert that there’s something about {P1…Pn} such that if we’re right about the truth values of that set, we ought to believe something about the truth value of the set {Q1…Qn}. 

If we have that understanding of what it means to make an argument, then we can see that an argument doesn’t necessarily have any connection to the universe outside itself.  The utterance "1. all bleems are quathes, 2. the youiine is a bleem, 3. therefore, the youiine is a quathe" is a perfectly logically valid utterance, but it doesn’t refer to anything in the world — it doesn’t require us to change any beliefs.  The meaning of any argument is conditional on our extra-argument beliefs about the world.

One important use of this principle is reflected in the oft-quoted line "one man’s modus ponens in another man’s modus tollens."  Modus ponens is a classical form of argument: 1. A–>B.  2.  A. 3.  .: B.  Modus tollens is this: 1.  A–>B.  2. ¬B.  3. .: ¬A.  Both are perfectly valid forms of argument!  (For those who aren’t familiar with the standard notation, the horizontal line is meant to indicate negation.)  Unless you have some particular reason outside the argument to believe either A or B, you don’t know whether the claim A–>B means that B is true, or that A isn’t true! 

Why am I elucidating all this basic logic, which almost everyone reading this blog doubtless knows?  It’s a rhetorical tactic: I’m trying to make it salient, to bring it to the top of the cognitive stack, so that my next claim is more compelling.

And that claim is as follows:

Eliezer’s posts about the specks and the torture [1] [2], and the googleplex of people being tortured for a nanosecond, and so on, and so forth, tell you nothing about the truth of your intuitions.

Argument behind the fold…

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Problems With Prizes

In Today’s Financial Times, Tim Harford reviews the promise and problems of prizes, quoting me along the way:

Champions of prizes see them as a component of a wider system to promote innovation, rather than as an outright replacement either for grants or patents. Instead, the hope is that prizes will help to compensate for the specific weaknesses of those alternatives. …  In an ideal world, prizes could replace patents. … But to explain that idea is to see its limitations. How could the government know enough about the costs and benefits – and even the very possibility – of an innovation to put a price tag on it and write the terms of reference for a prize competition? …

Prizes were once the standard way of encouraging basic research. According to Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, more than twice as many 18th-century scientific societies paid for results using prizes or medals than paid for effort with grants. As that changed, scientific societies sometimes ignored the wishes of donors, or even had the wills of deceased donors voided, in order to hand out grants rather than the prizes specified.

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Rationality Quotes 8

"Like a lot of people in the computer industry, Keith Malinowski had spent his whole life being the smartest person in the room, and like most of his fellows the experience left him with a rather high opinion of his opinions."
        — Rick Cook, The Wizardry Quested

"The fact that we can become accustomed to anything, however disgusting at first, makes it necessary to examine carefully everything we have become accustomed to."
         — George Bernard Shaw

"Beware `we should…’, extend a hand to `how do I…’"
        — Alan Cox

"I assign higher credibility to an institution if liberals accuse it of being conservative and conservatives accuse it of being liberal."
        — Alex F. Bokov

"An open mind is a great place for other people to dump their garbage."
        — Rev. Rock, Church of the Subgenius

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Acceptable Casualties

Follow Up to Bias Against Torture and Kind Right-Handers

Imagine that one month after the 9/11 attacks the U.S. conducted a massive bombing campaign against terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.  Further assume that (1) the U.S. knew Bin Laden was well hidden and so the attacks would have no significant chance of killing him, (2) the U.S. military had estimated that about 5,000 innocents would die because of the bombings and indeed around 5,000 innocents did die, and (3) the bombings were conducted mainly to deter future terrorist attacks against the U.S.  Such a bombing campaign would have been widely supported in the U.S.  Most Americans would assign the moral blame for the civilian deaths to Bin Laden.

But now imagine that instead of conducting a bombing campaign President Bush ordered the assassination of Bin Laden’s closest relatives.  Assume that 500 people were killed including all of Bin Laden’s parents, grandparents, children, uncles, aunts, and first cousins who were alive on 9/11.  President Bush, lets assume, announced that although those killed were innocents their deaths were necessary to deter future terrorist attacks against the U.S.  My guess is that for ordering such assassinations Bush would have been impeached, removed from office and sentenced to either death or life in prison. 

The relative expected responses to the bombing campaign and assassinations seem inconsistent because fewer innocents would die with the assassinations and the assassinations might well have a greater deterrence effect on future terrorists.  We would be less bothered by the bombings, I suspect, because we could claim that we didn’t want the innocents to die.  But if we estimate that X number of innocents will die because of a military strike, why should it morally matter whether we actually wanted these X people to perish?

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Rationality Quotes 7

"People don’t buy three-eighths-inch drill bits. People buy three-eighths-inch holes."
        — Michael Porter

"I feel more like I do now than I did a while ago."
        — Arifel

"Know thyself, because in the end there’s no one else."
        — Living Colour, Solace of You

"Student motivation? I’m gonna start hooking you all up to electrodes."
        — Kevin Giffhorn

"A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral."
        — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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CFO Overconfidence

A recent NBER paper:

We test whether top corporate executives are miscalibrated, and whether their miscalibration impacts investment behavior. Over six years, we collect a unique panel of nearly 7,000 observations of probability distributions provided by top financial executives regarding the stock market. Financial executives are miscalibrated: realized market returns are within the executives’ 80% confidence intervals only 38% of the time. We show that companies with overconfident CFOs use lower discount rates to value cash flows, and that they invest more, use more debt, are less likely to pay dividends, are more likely to repurchase shares, and they use proportionally more long-term, as opposed to short-term, debt.

It would be relatively easy to measure overconfidence in CFO candidates, and choose less overconfident ones.  Since this doesn’t happen, I suspect that CEOs, like bosses of software managers, prefer overconfident CFOs.

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Rationality Quotes 6

"Gnostic: Knowledge that is so pure that it cannot be explained or proven wrong."
        — Glossary of Zen

"I haven’t been wrong since 1961, when I thought I made a mistake."
        — Bob Hudson

"Sometimes I envy that groundless confidence."
        — Vandread

"I remember when I first learned the word ‘omniscient’. I thought that was a reasonable goal to aim for."
        — Samantha Atkins

"Our language for describing emotions is very crude… that’s what music is for, I guess."
        — Ben Goertzel

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