Monthly Archives: December 2009

Tiptoe Or Dash To Future?

To test who should TA elite classes, new physics grad students at U Chicago in ’81 were asked to pick a physics problem and explain its solution to the group.  I did well by picking the question: should you walk fast or slow if you want to get the least water on your front while moving a certain distance in the rain.  The answer is: move as fast as you can.

On the other hand, I’m told that when working one’s way across a minefield, one is well advised to move slowly; in that case the extra time to look closely for mines pays off in a lower chance of tripping mines.  So whether you want to move fast or slow through a destructive region depends on the details of the region.

Humanity is now moving through a dangerous region in tech/econ growth. It will be very hard to squash us once we are spread across space with strong robust advance abilities, but we are now small, dumb, and weak.  Between here and there is a minefield of disasters that could destroy us; should we tiptoe slow or run fast?  That is, if the world economy now grows at 4% a year, should we prefer to slow it to 2%, speed it to 8%, or what?  The answer depends on which factors dominate:

  • Natural resources – Today’s tech uses certain natural resources most heavily, while tomorrow’s tech will probably use different resources.  If we run out of today’s resources before we can reach the next tech level, we risk not being able to grow to reach that level.  This factor says go fast.
  • Crazy Outbreaks – Our political and business organizations usually work tolerably, but every once in a while some crazy takes over one and all hell breaks loose.  (Similar for natural disasters like asteroids.)  We want a minimum of such events between here and there.  A faster growing economy might release such crazies faster, but as long as that rate less than doubles as growth doubles, this factor says go fast.
  • Pundit Foresight – If we have a limited number of thoughtful pundits who can consider the implications of new upcoming techs and changes, then the fewer changes that arrive per year the more thought our pundits might give to each change.  If more pundit thought per change leads to better policies to avoid terrible change, this factor says go slow.

My guess is that going fast is better.  But it seems an open question.  So what other factors say to grow fast or slow, to survive?

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Long Legacies

How might what we do today influence the lives of our distant descendants, slowly-changing lives well adapted to their world, long after our dreamtime has passed?  I see seven long LEGACIES:

  • L – Lag – We can delay when that future begins in full.  A slower economic growth rate, or a lack of early investment in pivotal techs, could delay by a few decades, while a drastic but not total collapse could delay it for longer.
  • E – Existence – We can do things now to reduce the chance of a full and permanent civilization collapse.  Even if this chance is only 1%, reducing that chance to 0.5% would be a huge benefit our descendants.
  • G – Government – Our institutions of global governance may grow, follow us as we expand, and entrench themselves forever.  On the downside, they might perpetuate themselves even if they hurt our descendants on net.  On the upside, we might use them to overcome key coordination failures.
  • A – Ancients – Particular entities, such as particular people, races, cities, or planets, may over time collect enough resources to perpetuate themselves indefinitely.  If only modestly less efficient than newer substitutes, saved resources could make up for this deficit.  They might hold physical resources with a defensive military advantage, or might own property protected by a shared entrenched legal system.
  • C – Crossroads – We can become so invested in the particular spatial arrangements we use to coordinate our activities, such as particular roads, cities, or communication lines, that we can’t afford to individually switch to more efficient arrangements, and can’t manage to coordinate to switch together.  For example, Earth’s first space elevator location might retain the most off-planet transport, or Sol might remain a hub of galactic fashion news.
  • I – Info – We can save info for them about what actually happened during our epically strange dreamtime era.   They can run sims to guess, but would really want to know.
  • E – Existence – This is mentioned twice, as it matters more than any other.
  • S – Standards – We can become so invested in the conventions, interfaces, and standards we use to coordinate our activities that we each can’t afford to individually switch to more efficient standards, and we also can’t manage to coordinate to switch together. Conceivably, the genetic code, base ten math, ASCII, English language and units, Java, or the Windows operating system might last for trillions of years.

I’ll post more about these over the next few days.

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Meh Transhumanism

I was going to title this “Against Transhumanism,” but then realized I’m more indifferent than against; it distracts some folks from what I think important, but probably attracts others; I can’t really tell if there is much overall effect.

The history of the future is the rise and fall of groups claiming to advocate for the future, with advice that just happens to also raise the social status of their affiliate groups.

When I was very young there was still lots of cold war futurism, about how the future would be ours because our side was more industrious, smart, moral, etc.  Each of us could help make a bright future for the world by by helping our side win, via full support of our heroic governments and big corporations.  Unity yeah, divisiveness boo.

Then there was enviro-futurism, about how the world will go to hell in a handbasket unless we followed their lead and cared less about greedy materialistic dominance, and more about peaceful submissive less-kids-n-stuff harmony with nature. Flowers n drugs yes, SUVs no. There is still lots of this around.

Then arose techno-optimism, about how everything depends on our brilliant engineers, especially heroic ones who risked personal failure to fight incomprehension and entrenched interests to bring us innovative new techs.  We should get government off their backs, celebrate their genius, and maybe sleep with them once in a while.  Those old pesky problems of war, environment, jealosy, etc. will be swept away in a tsunami of new tech changing all.

Then there was transhumanism, a clever appropriation of the reigning academic storyline of defending minorities oppressed by a reigning majority.  Here the minority is not an ethnicity or sexual orientation, but imagined future tech-modified people.  Conservatives who accepted other kinds of diversity could be goaded into opposing this kind, allowing advocates to heroically defend against such prejudice, and get tenure in the process. Rah disliked future folk.

Yes I’d mostly favor letting future folks change themselves, yes tech is powerful, yes environmental problems are real, and yes it mattered who won the cold war.  I’m not so much against the main claims of these groups as I am against their concept of themselves as the main folks who care about the future.  These just won’t be the central issues when the future arrives.  Yet when the media reports on the future, reporters pretty much only ever quote these sort of futurists, who have hijacked the future to support their side of certain current disputes.

Truth be told, folks who analyze the future but don’t frame their predictions or advice in terms of standard ideological categories are largely ignored, because few folks actually care much about the future except as a place to tell morality tales about who today is naughty vs. nice.  It would be great if those who really cared more directly about the future could find each other and work together, but alas too many others want to pretend to be these folks to make this task anything but very hard.

FYI, I’ll be on this futurism radio show tonight at 10-11p EST, in preparation for speaking at this Foresight conference Jan. 17. I’ll also debate Mencius Moldbug there on futarchy Jan 16.

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Santa: Naughty Or Nice?

Imagine you managed an organization that could:

  • Deliver several pounds of goods undetected and unstoppable, into several hundred million homes worldwide all on the same night, and to select which among thousands of possible goods go to which homes.
  • Manufacture many tens of dollars worth of state of the art goods, distributed among thousands of types of goods, for each of those homes.
  • Revamp your manufacturing line yearly, to keep up with changing conditions.
  • Track the behavior of billions of people in detail, and know their parents standards for “naughty” or “nice”, enough to classify as naughty or nice.
  • Estimate what goods people want, as accurately as could their parents.
  • Do all this year after year, always on the same day, whether others liked it or not.
  • Do all this completely “off the grid,” at an undisclosed location in complete secrecy, with unidentified members who never talk to anyone about their activities, who use no noticeable inputs from elsewhere, and who have no noticeable waste emissions.

Now consider what you could accomplish with such capabilities.  Toward the naughty side, you could achieve a military takeover of most of the world, and maintain totalitarian control thereafter.  Cooperative homes get good stuff; uncooperative homes get bombs; pretty soon they’d fall in line.

On the nice side, you could deliver food, medicine, tools, and self-defense weapons to a bottom billion of the world’s poor, sick, or oppressed.  You could also identify and punish the world’s corrupt and criminal, and reward the innovative and generous.  You could take a huge bite out of poverty, crime, corruption, and oppression.

Clearly Santa is one very powerful dude; the whole world pretty much hangs on his choice.  So what does Santa actually do? He gives toys to billions of children, mostly ignoring adults. He gives far more to rich kids than to poor kids, and he greatly favors cultures that celebrate his name over others. He mostly ignores his ability to sort people into naughty and nice; they are pretty much all labeled nice.  (Have you ever even heard of a kid who got coal? Wouldn’t that make the news?)

So where does this put Santa on the naughty vs. nice spectrum?  I’d say “mildly positive eccentric.”  Yes he is clearly far less naughty than he could be, but he is also far less nice than possible. He uses his abilities to help others, and his attention is admirably global. But he helps far less than he could, he chooses his own rather odd way to help, and he prefers to help high status folks who celebrate his eccentric contribution. Apparently even in our dreams this is about as much as we dare hope for from a human, no matter how powerful. Deep down we know human charity is not about help, even if it does sometimes help.

Added 7:30p:  Why, over the last century, do parents lie more about Santa to make kids happy, with kids more dissappointed to learn the truth, and yet finding out more often from those same parents?  Source:

A study from 1896 involving 1,500 children aged 7 to 13, which was repeated in 1979. …  More than 22 percent in the 1896 study admitted to being disappointed compared with 39 percent in the 1979 study. But only 2 percent and 6 percent, respectively, felt betrayed. … Close to 25 percent of children in the 1896 study learned the truth about Santa from their parents, compared with 40 per cent in 1979. … In 1896, 54 percent of parents said they perpetuated the myth of Santa since it made their children happy; compared with 73 percent in 1979 and 80 percent in 2000.

Added 23Dec: Adam Ozimek riffs wittily.

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Ho Hum Nuclear Winter

From the January Scientific American:

Twenty-five years ago international teams of scientists showed that a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union could produce a “nuclear winter.” … killing plants worldwide and eliminating our food supply. … International discussion about this prediction … forced the leaders of the two superpowers to confront the possibility that their arms race endangered not just themselves but the entire human race. Countries large and small demanded disarmament. Nuclear winter became an important factor in ending the nuclear arms race. … Gorbachev observed, “the knowledge of [nuclear winter] was a great stimulus … to act.”

Why discuss this topic now that the cold war has ended? Because as other nations continue to acquire nuclear weapons, smaller, regional nuclear wars could create a similar global catastrophe.  New analyses reveal that a conflict between India and Pakistan, for example, in which 100 nuclear bombs were dropped … would produce enough smoke to cripple global agriculture. … Not only were the ideas of the 1980s correct but the effects would last for at least 10 years, much longer than previously thought. …

More than 20 million people in the two countries could die from the blasts, fires and radioactivity. … A nuclear war could trigger declines in yield nearly everywhere at once. … Around one billion people worldwide who now live on marginal food supplies would be directly threatened with starvation by a nuclear war between India and Pakistan or between other regional nuclear powers.


The effects of a war involving the entire current global nuclear arsenal … [include] a global average surface cooling of –7°C to –8°C persists for years, and after a decade the cooling is still –4°C (Fig. 2).  … Cooling of more than –20°C occurs over large areas of North America and of more than –30°C over much of Eurasia, including all agricultural regions.

So, the first news about nuclear winter was shocking enough to induce cold war adversaries to agree to big cuts.  Today we know the situation is even worse – not only is nuclear winter easier than we thought to trigger, but more nations now have big enough arsenals to trigger it.  Yet today there is far less international discussion or momentum to prevent such disaster.  Why the difference?

Perhaps what triggered Western citizen interest last time was not so much that disaster loomed, but that disaster seemed attributable to our moral failings – to our being too belligerent.  This time, we don’t feel so belligerent to Russia, and other wars seems like someone else’s fault.  Perhaps we care less about anticipating and avoiding disasters, and more about avoiding moral blame for whatever does happen.

Many huge problems loom on a century or so timescale, but the only one that penetrates our public consciousness is global warming.  I suspect that is because people see it as attributable to a moral failing of theirs, something like greed, gluttony, or insensitivity to nature.  If global warming were just as serious a problem, but caused by an inhuman geological process, I suspect it would get a lot less attention.

If you want the West to attend to a looming future disaster, it seems you must blame it on their current immorality.  The disaster I fear most is an unanticipated em transition; how can we blame that on a current moral failing?  Imprudence is a moral failing of sorts, but alas it ranks low as a dreamtime concern.

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China Ascendant

A Post book review:

“When China Rules the World” [is] a compelling and thought-provoking analysis of global trends that defies the common Western assumption that, to be fully modern, a nation must become democratic, financially transparent and legally accountable. Jacques argues persuasively that China is on track to take over as the world’s dominant power and that, when it does, it will make the rules, on its own terms, with little regard for what came before.

China is growing at a tremendous rate. Yet it refuses to follow the Western model of establishing genuine elections, an independent judiciary and a freely convertible currency. In fact, its restrictive currency rules have made China the world’s leading creditor, while the United States sinks ever deeper into debt. And while the United States sacrifices the lives of its soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Chinese make money in both countries without losing a drop of blood.

Yes!  The world has emulated Western policies mainly because those nations were high status, not because their style of law or government was obviously more efficient.  Chinese styles are likely similarly efficient, and if China becomes higher status, the world will emulate it instead. The book reviewer still can’t quite believe:

As a journalist who lived and breathed China for years, I felt sure that the Communist Party, following its loss of credibility at Tiananmen, would fall to ashes. During the boom of the 1990s, I knew that economic modernization would force Chinese institutions to become accountable and democratic. I was wrong again and again. My assumptions were out of date.  Still, one can’t help wondering if China’s trajectory, as unwavering as it may look now, may fizzle. Take, for instance, China’s inability to accept or integrate outsiders — Jacques calls it “the Middle Kingdom mentality.”

Westerners pride themselves on their attitudes on diversity, and yes those may have some advantages.  But if so they are weak advantages, easily overwhelmed by other large Western disadvantages.  If China continues to outgrow the West, it will likely be because they do a few things very right, as did the West before. If China comes to dominate the world, it will likely then also overestimate how many of its peculiar styles give big efficiency gains.

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Shoo Libertarian Knights

Dear libertarian knight seeking to win honor via comment battles with heathen blogger dragons:

I range pretty widely in topics here at Overcoming Bias, and sometimes I consider government policies.  Sometimes I even consider policies that, gasp, violate your favorite libertarian moral axiom, something like no one must ever affect anyone without a notarized consent form.  At which point many of you feel an apparently overwhelming urge to comment on this crucial fact (often smugly).  As if this were some sort of news.

Its not, so please don’t.  I know about your favorite axiom, and I usually notice when something violates it.  I get that you are really really convinced by it, more so than of anything ever.  But listen: I’ve heard that argument and I’m not moved.   Your position is so predictable that I can easily anticipate your response.  I have usually anticipated it, and rejected it.  Liberty is a fine heuristic, but efficiency is more what I want, so I’m willing to consider sometimes violating your liberty axiom.  Like you I am wary of big government, but because of bad consequences that often follow, not a liberty axiom violation.

We get it that you disagree, but when you just declare that fact again (and again and again), intelligent readers, well aware of the existence of libertarian axiomatists, learn only of your continued willingness to impose costs on unwilling others, to signal your continued devotion to your cause (which supposedly relates to preventing imposing costs on unwilling others).

So please, save your breath.  If there must be one post here at OB where you repeat your concerns yet again, thinking we just haven’t heard them enough, about my considering violations of your liberty axiom, please, just make it this one post, and leave the rest be.

Now back to our regularly scheduled wild speculations. …

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Cheater Finder Fee?

Today tort law lets folks sue others for harms outside the scope of a contract. Consider:

If it would have been hard for you to negotiate a deal where someone might pay you for your help, the law might also want to let you sue that person, asking for some estimate of the value of the help you gave.

Half of my recent law & econ final exam was to analyze:

If A informs B that spouse C is cheating on B with D, should A be able to sue B for compensation for this service?

My forty students mostly disagreed; 50% of A students and 75% of below A students said no.  The obvious pro arguments are less cheating and earlier discovery of cheating. Con arguments:

  • Estimating value gained is hard; only count cash gains.
  • They could have paid someone else to check for cheating.
  • Many spouses would rather not know of cheating.
  • The cheating spouse and partner lose if exposed.
  • Some might make fake evidence to gain money.
  • Some might entrap folks into cheating.
  • The legal process is costly, as is law change.

Now fraud and entrapment could be obvious exceptions, and the cost of law argues equally against all law.  The difficulties and signaling penalties of contracting with folks well placed to notice incriminating evidence suggests we apply tort law principles.  And only paying a fraction of cash gained in a divorce settlement would mainly help wives, who get most such cash.

Instead, I’d suggest a standard finder’s fee of 5% of annual income for the first direct clear evidence of cheating in a declared exclusive relation (e.g., marriage) lasting over two years.  This seems to me a conservative estimate of an average value of learning that your spouse is cheating, while still enough to induce lots more stranger efforts.

My students also opposed cuckolded men suing for compensation; some said it was his fault too if she was unsatisfied.  It seems most students think cheating should not be discouraged more than it is; if cheating seems a good bet to you given your chance and level of punishment, they seem to say go for it.  Yes they might not want to say it that directly, but is there any other contrary data out there?

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Why Read Old Thinkers?

Arnold Kling:

Should we approach famous thinkers by digesting distilled versions, or should we study them in the original? … Many great thinkers had some terrible ideas … Many … notoriously lacked clarity. … Much of what I do consists of attempts to contribute to the distillation process.

Tyler Cowen takes both sides, as usual:

I’m for distilling, for reasons Arnold offers, but I’m also for reading the originals. …  Secondary sources … do not capture or understand many of the original insights. … The errors of top thinkers are often more interesting … [They] set our minds racing and … [offer] interesting new questions. … Sometimes the value is in having read common sources … [They help] challenge or reexamine your world view or intellectual ethos. … If you rely on distillation for an inexact science, you will do best at capturing its exact parts.

Honestly, the main reason most people read famous thinkers is to raise their status via affiliation, and to prepare to signal how knowledgeable they are.  And yes reading old thinkers can, like travel, help you explore alien cultures.  But what if you actually wanted to learn about the subjects on which famous old people wrote?

It seems to me that if a famous old thinker were actually the best person to read today on some subject, then humanity just couldn’t be accumulating much insight on that topic.  Either progress there is extremely difficult, or humanity can’t or won’t retain new insights there.  And this famous thinker probably didn’t originate his insights; he or she was likely just the best presenter of much older insights.

Cynicism often seems this way to me.  Finding deep insight in 350 year old sayings by de La Rochefoucauld discourages me, as it suggests either that I will not be able to make much progress on those topics, or that too few will listen for progress to result.  Am I just relearning what hundreds have already relearned century after century, but  were just not able to pass on?

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Naked Promiscuity

Most wives are offended to see their husbands make a direct pass at another woman in front of them.  They mind less if he seems unconsciously attracted to a woman, but does not consciously act on that attraction.  A wife might mind her husband buying a sports car if his conscious intention was to attract other women for short term sex, but mind less if his main conscious reason was to race.  These things depend on how conscious and deliberate are his efforts to attract other women.  Now consider this:  It seems men are eager to visibly help heroically and financially, and to spend on visible status symbols, mainly to seek promiscuous short-term sex!  Data:

Men in the mating condition … said they would spend more money on the conspicuous luxuries. … Women in the mating condition … said they would spend more time on conspicuous pro-social volunteering. … Mating-primed women … said they would spend more on generosity-signalling conspicuous spending; mating-primed men did the same. Also, mating-primed men … said they would do more heroic helping, but not more non-heroic helping. … Moreover, men who were most interested in promiscuous, short-term sexual liaisons showed the largest increase after the mating priming in both generosity-signalling conspicuous spending and in heroic benevolence. …

Only the mating-primed men showed a higher interest in the socially dominant pro-social behaviours, and this effect was carried mostly by highly promiscuous men. … High-promiscuity men were more willing to borrow fashionable clothes from a friend to impress a potential mate rather than a new boss, whereas low-promiscuity men would rather impress the boss. Women showed no difference. …

High-promiscuity men who looked at photos of eight attractive women … said they would spend more money on items such as designer sunglasses or an elaborate car stereo rather than inconspicuous products such as low-cost jeans or a toaster, … [but] this is only the case when the potential mating situation is a short-term hook-up rather than a long-term relationship.  There was no shift for mating-primed low-promiscuity men or for women in either study. … Women rated a man driving a Porsche Boxster as more attractive for a short-term sexual relationship than a man driving a Honda Civic.  But the Porsche did not make the man more attractive as a possible marriage partner. Men rating women were uninfluenced by the type of car she drove.

So what would happen if we all became conscious of the above behaviors being strong clues that men are in fact actively trying for promiscuous short term sex?  Would such behaviors reduce, would long term relations become less exclusive, or what?  Maybe we just couldn’t admit that these are strong clues?

If these clues aren’t strong enough, imagine facial expression reading software could reliably tell when men are actively trying to attract short term sex partners.  How would we deal with such naked promiscuity?

Hat tip to Holden Karnofsky.

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