Monthly Archives: September 2010

Doubting My Far Mind

A while back I was discussing long term future values, i.e., what we want our descendants to be or achieve, and I realized that pretty much any simple description of such values seems crazy. With a little effort it is easy to find counter-examples, or at least discomfort-examples, to most any description much beyond “I hope future folks get what they want.”

I’ve also noticed that among smart folks, the most successful keep their smarts on a short leash. They use their smarts to make the sale, win the case, pass the test, get published, etc., but they don’t use much smarts to consider whether they really want to make the sale, win the case, etc. Oh sure they might express some angst at a Saturday dinner, but come Monday they are back on the job.

In contrast, on average smart folks gain far less success when they seriously apply their smarts to big pictures, reconsidering what they want, what we really know, how the world is organized, what they can do to make the world a better place, and so on. They go off in a thousand directions, and while some might break new ground, on average such smart folk gain much less personal success, and may well do less to help the world.

I count myself in this smart sincere syndrome. I’m often distracted by what I see as important neglected topics, which offer fewer academic or other rewards. These topics have included future robot econ, foundations of quantum mechanics, prediction markets, and much more. Lately I find myself obsessed by a homo hypocritus account of human nature. I’m not at all clear on the best route to pursue this, but no route seems especially promising for success in ordinary terms, or to rely heavily on skills I’ve previously invested in developing.  Yet on I go.

Applying these observations to myself, I think I have to conclude that I just don’t know much about what I really want, or what I should do to get it, in general far terms, and can’t trust my far mind to tell me much.  Lacking a good basis for challenging ordinary concepts of success, I should accept them. If I’m feeling insecure, where success matters more, I should follow the example of smart successful folks in positions similar to me. You know, write academic papers or books, or do business consulting.

In contrast, if I’m feeling rich and comfortable, and so less in need of success, well then I should enjoy myself by doing whatever seems appealing at the time, as long as that doesn’t threaten my basic stable position in life. I’m capable of doing a lot more abstract thinking about what is good for me or the world, but at the moment I just don’t trust that thinking much.  What I most enjoy may well be to think on big far topics, but I shouldn’t presume I have a coherent integrated account showing their true global importance.

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Track Records

More evidence that a huge way to improve your accuracy is track records: simply write down your forecasts and check their accuracy later:

In the context of a Super Bowl loss (Study 1), a presidential election (Studies 2 and 3), an important purchase (Study 4), and the consumption of candies (Study 5), individuals mispredicted their affective reactions to these experiences and subsequently misremembered their predictions as more accurate than they actually had been. … This recall error results from people’s tendency to anchor on their current affective state when trying to recall their affective forecasts. Further, those who showed larger recall errors were less likely to learn to adjust their subsequent forecasts and reminding people of their actual forecasts enhanced learning. These results suggest that a failure to accurately recall one’s past predictions contributes to the perpetuation of forecasting errors. (more)

What we need are techs to make it very easy for record our forecasts as we go about our lives, and to review them later for accuracy.

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Against Trade War

I’m a huge fan of Robert Samuelson’s long repeated harping on the coming Medicare train wreck – tell it brother! But I much oppose his war-mongering:

No one familiar with the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 should relish the prospect of a trade war with China — but that seems to be where we’re headed and probably should be where we are headed. Although the Smoot-Hawley tariff did not cause the Great Depression, it contributed to its severity by provoking widespread retaliation. Confronting China’s export subsidies risks a similar tit-for-tat cycle at a time when the global economic recovery is weak. This is a risk, unfortunately, we need to take. …

The trouble is that China has never genuinely accepted the basic rules governing the world economy. … China’s worst abuse involves its undervalued currency and its promotion of export-led economic growth. …. China’s underpricing of exports and overpricing of imports hurt most trading nations. … One remedy would be for China to revalue its currency, reducing the competitiveness of its exports. … [Some say] a revaluation of 20 percent would create 300,000 to 700,000 U.S. jobs over two to three years. …

If China won’t revalue, the alternative is retaliation. This might start a trade war, because China might respond in kind. … More realistic would be a replay of Smoot-Hawley, just when the wobbly world economy doesn’t need a fight between its two largest members. Economic nationalism, once unleashed here and there, might prove hard to control. But there’s a big difference between then and now. Smoot-Hawley was blatantly protectionist. Dozens of tariffs increased; many countries retaliated. By contrast, American action today would aim at curbing Chinese protectionism. (more)

Relative currency values set relative prices. China’s current currency level now sets low prices for the stuff it sells to others, and high prices for the stuff it buys from others. You might dislike this if you compete with China to sell stuff, but you should mostly love it if you buy stuff from China, or compete with them to buy stuff.  Often you should love it if you sell stuff to China. Low China prices do not obviously hurt the non-Chinese overall.

Fear of being outcompeted in selling stuff is a terrible reason to start a war! If someone is outcompeting you in selling stuff, well either step up your game or step aside. That is how supply and demand should work. We want a system where stuff is produced by the lowest cost suppliers and goes to the buyers who value it the most. If some supplier offers to sell stuff to folks at a lower price, well then we want folks to switch to buying from that supplier. If a supplier offers an unsustainably low price, it will soon go broke and buyers will switch away.

This logic applies just as well to distant nations as it does to a convenience store down the street.  Don’t be fooled into treating China differently because you were built to fear foreigners.  Wars are not needed or wanted as part of our supply and demand adjustment process!

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Jobs Explain Lots

Different people do different things; why? When we look features of individuals to explain their differing individual behavior, there are a few favorites: age, gender, race, income, education, IQ, and personality-type. Some people look at location, such as zipcode or nation. But it seems to me that one’s job (i.e., occupation) is a neglected strong predictor of many interesting things. For example:

  • A few days ago I blogged on a recent study of how jobs predict the chances of divorce. Job risk-ratios range over about a factor of two, after controlling for age, gender, race, and income.
  • I start my health econ class with this ’99 study of how jobs predict death rates. Job risk-ratios range over about a factor of two, after controlling for age, gender, race, income, and education. (Key chart below the fold.)
  • A February analysis found occupation strongly predicts the direction of political contributions, and an ’07 study said academic discipline strongly predicts professor political affiliation. This page of aneqdotes suggests that jobs often predict political affiliations well.

More generally, I’d love to see a factor analysis seeking the few strongest job factors that can simultaneously predict variations in divorce, mortality, political affiliation, and whatever else interesting one can throw into the mix. Seems like a great project for a data-oriented grad student. Continue reading "Jobs Explain Lots" »

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Opinion Warning Signs

Signs that your opinions function more to signal loyalty and ability than to estimate truth:

  1. You find it hard to be enthusiastic for something until you know that others oppose it.
  2. You have little interest in getting clear on what exactly is the position being argued.
  3. Realizing that a topic is important and neglected doesn’t make you much interested.
  4. You have little interest in digging to bigger topics behind commonly argued topics.
  5. You are less interested in a topic when you don’t foresee being able to talk about it.
  6. You are uncomfortable taking a position near the middle of the opinion distribution.
  7. You are uncomfortable taking a position of high uncertainty about who is right.
  8. You care far more about current nearby events than similar distant or past/future events.
  9. You find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid.
  10. You are reluctant to change your publicly stated positions in response to new info.
  11. You are reluctant to agree a rival’s claim, even if you had no prior opinion on the topic.
  12. You are reluctant to take a position that raises the status of rivals.
  13. You care more about consistency between your beliefs than about belief accuracy.
  14. You go easy on sloppy arguments by folks on “your side.”
  15. You have little interest in practical concrete implications of commonly argued topics.
  16. Your opinion doesn’t much change after talking with smart folks who know more.
  17. You are especially eager to drop names when explaining positions and arguments.
  18. You find it hard to list weak points and counter-arguments on your positions.
  19. You feel passionately about a topic, but haven’t sought out much evidence.
  20. You are reluctant to not have an opinion on commonly discussed topics.
  21. More?

Of course you may want your opinions to mainly signal loyalty and ability.

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Who Cares Re Bygones?

It really is easier to get forgiveness than permission:

In 7 studies, participants judged future bad deeds more negatively, and future good deeds more positively, than equivalent behavior in the equidistant past. In addition, participants thought that future unfair actions deserved more punishment than past unfair actions, and were more willing to sacrifice their own financial gain to be treated fairly in the future compared with in the past. These patterns were explained in part by the stronger emotions that were evoked by thoughts of future events than by thoughts of past events. (more)

This is a form of hypocrisy, in that we pretend to be more offended by the fairness or morality of actions than we will actually be after they occur and can reward or punish them.

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Low-Divorce Jobs

A recent study … explores the correlation of various occupations and rates of separation and divorce. … Dancers and choreographers registered the highest divorce rates (43.1 percent), followed by bartenders (38.4 percent) and massage therapists (38.2 percent). Also in the top 10 were casino workers, telephone operators, nurses and home health aides.  Three types of engineers — agricultural, sales and nuclear engineers — were represented among the 10 occupations with the lowest divorce rates. Also reporting low marital breakup rates were optometrists (4 percent), clergy (5.6 percent) and podiatrists (6.8 percent). (more)

The study takes a simple regression predicting the “divorced” rate (% of once-married folks now divorced or separated) from income, age, gender, and race, and then for 500 different jobs collects a table of its actual divorce rate, the rate predicted by this regression, and the ratio between these two rates. (Yes these stats ignore remarried folks, but they still seem informative.)

Before you browse their divorce rate vs. job table to see what it says about your job, ask yourself: what do you infer about people who do a job associated with a low divorce rate?  Are you impressed and attracted by their reliability, or do you snicker that they are losers no one wants to tempt away from their marriage? How do you think most folks react? Continue reading "Low-Divorce Jobs" »

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Jumping To Joy

I recently talked with a Christian college student who had just attended a wild party at another school, and who lamented that while folks there seemed to be having “fun” it wasn’t the “real joy” that she knew.  I’ve heard similar feelings from folks who really like their favorite drug or sex style.  I wonder, what fraction of folks feel smugly superior that favorite way of happiness/pleasure/joy/etc. is intrinsically superior to what most others have found? What evidence would it take for this to be a reasonable conclusion?

I also wonder: why are so many of us (including me) so reluctant to experiment with so many joys with strong fans? After all, fans argue, their suggested drug, sex style, or religious experience would only take a few hours to try, and could give us a lifetime of joy if we liked it.  It seems we see far larger costs than the time for a trial. My guess: we value our current identity, integrated as it is into our job, hobbies, friends, etc.  We fear that if we try new joys, we will like them, and jump to practicing them, which will change us.  We fear that by jumping to juicy joys, we won’t be us anymore.

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Why Is USA Different?

An excellent article back in June reviewed the many ways psychologists mostly get data from a very unrepresentative sample of humanity, what they call the WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. In the process, they review ways the US is exceptional:

Americans are, on average, the most individualistic people in the world. … American parents, for example, were the only ones in a survey of 100 societies who created a separate room for their baby to sleep. …

[In 1996], compared with other Western industrialized societies, Americans were found to be the most patriotic, litigious, philanthropic, and populist (they have the most positions for elections and the most frequent elections, although they have among the lowest voter turnout rates). They were also among the most optimistic, and the least class-conscious. They were the most churchgoing in Protestantism, and the most fundamentalist in Christendom, and were more likely than others from Western industrialized countries to see the world in absolute moral terms.

In contrast to other large Western industrialized societies, the United States had the highest crime rate, the longest working hours, the highest divorce rate, the highest rate of volunteerism, the highest percentage of citizens with a post-secondary education, the highest productivity rate, the highest GDP, the highest poverty rate, and the highest income-inequality rate; and Americans were the least supportive of various governmental interventions. …

In a survey of people from six Western countries, only Americans preferred a choice from 50 different ice
cream flavors compared with 10 flavors. Likewise, Americans (and Britons) prefer to have more choices on menus in upscale restaurants than do people from other European countries. … Americans respond more defensively to death thoughts than do those from other countries. …

Perhaps it is this extreme tendency for Americans to punish free-riders, while not punishing cooperators, that contributes to Americans having the world’s highest worker productivity. American society is also anomalous, even relative to other Western societies, in its low relational focus in work settings, which is reflected in practices such as the encouragement of an impersonal work style, direct (rather than indirect) communication, the clear separation of the work domain from the non-work, and discouragement of friendships at work.

In their main article the authors don’t speculate on why WEIRD folks act so differently, but when pressed by comments they suggest:

[Consider] the relative strangeness, in a broad global and historical context, of modern middle-and upper-class American beliefs, values, cultural models, and practices vis-a`-vis childrearing. … These practices impact cognitive, linguistic, and motor development, including long-term cognitive outcomes. …  We speculate that in the context of mobile, meritocratic societies, … cultural evolutionary processes rooted in our evolved tendencies to imitate successful and prestigious individuals will favor the spread of child-rearing traits that speed up and enhance the development of those particular cognitive and social skills that eventually translate into social and economic success in these populations. This kind of cultural evolutionary process may be part of what is driving the dramatic increases in IQ observed in many industrialized nations over the last century, along with increases in biases toward analytical reasoning and individualism. It would also explain the obsession with active instruction of all kinds shown by middle- and upper-class Americans.

It sure seems that these Canadian authors are suggesting that the US (which on a world scale is almost like Canada) is different mainly because the US is better: stronger US competition has more quickly selected for kid-raising norms that make more successful kids, and work norms that are more productive. Seems a remarkably self-centered interpretation for an article claiming that US psychologists are too self-centered.  Doesn’t make it wrong of course, but it is noteworthy that they didn’t even notice its self-centeredness.

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Disaster Shelters

I am in awe. I didn’t realize how mature was the bomb shelter industry.  From the October 2010 Wired (p.112, not yet online):

Kennedy-era fallout shelters were little more than cement boxes filled with cans of spinach. Modern end-time housing structures, like those from Radius Engineering, are smart and stylish. Take the [$160M] Trongonia 8, a modular, self-sufficient, radiation-proof colony – complete with fitness center, restaurants, and city hall – that will keep as many as 2000 people safe and snug for up to five years. …. Radius’ shelters start at $200,000; the [36 person] multifamily pod shown below goes for $2 million, plus about 25 percent for shipping and installation. They all have fiberglass shells. … The bunkers can run for [4] years entirely off the grid. … And they’re buried far enough underground to be impervious to radiation. … The sealed and pressurized units come with specially designed air filtration that uses three different physical purifiers and an ultraviolet-radiation sterilization system. Radius has installed more than 1000 shelters worldwide over the past 30 years; most are intended to protect key people in the government, military, insurance industry, and medical services.

Check out the impressive attention to detail at the Radius Engineering website.

To me, this is all good news about humanity’s ability to survive severe disaster.  And it makes me sad that the usual reaction to stories like this is to make fun of the people who would want such a shelter. Apparently, being concerned about disaster is taken to be a bad sign; they might believe in 2012 Mayan calendar prophesies, for example, or worry too much about their precious bodily fluids. But regardless of the impressiveness of their motives, the act of creating a shelter which might make the difference in preventing humanity’s extinction is a kind and generous act toward vast future generations which might not otherwise exist.  If charity was about help, rather than signaling loyalty or wealth, we would celebrate such people.

I wonder where it would be legal to rent out a bed in such a shelter, to support refuge futures. Radius says:

The smaller shelters have no foundation and are therefore not considered a permanent structure and therefore DO NOT require a building permit.   The larger  shelters have a concrete foundation however it is poured in a fiberglass tray.  Since the concrete is within the Radius structure, the foundation is not considered permanent.

Could one rent it as a “campsite”?

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