Monthly Archives: July 2011

Sleepy Kids Learn Less

I’ve posted before that ever though most homework doesn’t seem to help learning, I predict we’ll keep assigning it, “to get kids used to doing a lot of work, in preparation for their future industry era jobs.” Similarly, I predict we’ll keep making kids start school early, even though that hurts learning:

This study identifies the causal effect of school start time on academic achievement by using two policy changes in the daily schedule at the US Air Force Academy along with the randomized placement of freshman students to courses and instructors. Results show that starting the school day 50 minutes later has a significant positive effect on student achievement, which is roughly equivalent to raising teacher quality by one standard deviation. (more)

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Why Men Are Bad At “Feelings”

Mating in mammals has a basic asymmetry – females must invest more in each child than males. This can lead to an equilibrium where males focus on impressing and having sex with as many females as possible, while females do most of the child-rearing and choose impressive males.

Since human kids require extra child-rearing, human foragers developed pair-bonding, wherein for a few years a male gave substantial resource support to help raising a kid in trade for credible signs that the kid was his. Farmers strengthened such bonds into “marriage” — while both lived, the man gave resources sufficient to raise kids, and the woman only had sex with him. Such strong pair-bonds were held together not only by threats of social punishment, but also by strong feelings of attachment.

Such bonds can break, however. And because they are asymmetric, their betrayal is also asymmetric. Women betray bonds more by temporarily having fertile sex with other men, while men betray bonds more by directing resources more permanently to other women. So when farmer husbands and wives watch for signs of betrayal, they watch for different things. Husbands watch wives more for signs of a temporary inclination toward short-term mating with other men, while wives watch husbands more for signs of an inclination to shift toward a long-term resource-giving bond with other women. (Of course they both watch for both sorts of inclinations; the issue is emphasis.)

This asymmetric watching for signs of betrayal produces asymmetric pressures on appearances. While a man can be more straight-forward and honest with himself and others about his inclinations toward short-term sex, he should be more careful with the signs he shows about his inclinations toward long term attachments with women. Similarly, while a woman can be more straight-forward and honest with herself and others about her inclinations toward long-term attachments with men, she should be more careful with the signs she shows about her inclinations toward short term sex with men.

For both men and women, carelessly strong signs of an inclination toward betrayal could needlessly break their marriage. Of course it may sometimes be in one’s interest to show weak signs of such an inclination, as a threat to induce better terms of trade in the relation. But such brinksmanship should be done very carefully.

Men and women may have evolved, either genetically or culturally, to adapt to these pressures on their appearances. If so, then we should expect men to be more self-aware, transparent, and simple regarding their feelings about short-term sexual attractions, while women have more complex, layered, and opaque feelings on this subject. In contrast, women should be more more self-aware, transparent, and simple regarding their feelings about long-term pair-bonding, while men have more complex, layered, and opaque feelings on this subject. By being more opaque on sensitive subjects, we can keep ourselves from giving off clear signals of an inclination to betray.

Standard crude stereotypes of gender differences roughly fit these predictions! That is, when the subject is one’s immediate lust and sexual attraction to others, by reputation men are more straight-forward and transparent, while women are more complex and opaque, even to themselves. But when the subject is one’s inclination toward and feelings about long-term attachments, by reputation women are more self-aware and men are more complex and opaque, even to themselves.

So let’s sum up. Why don’t men express their “feelings”?  (At least about “love” – they easily express “feelings” about sex.) And why don’t women know when they are “horny”? Perhaps because such knowledge is dangerous – if you know it, then others may learn what you know from you. Which might destroy your marriage. So our feelings may be most opaque to us when we need them to be opaque to others. Homo hypocritus mates.

Added 10a: Similar incentives apply in the gradual creation of a long-term bond. He slowly becomes more inclined to devote resources to her over a long term, while she slowly becomes more inclined to become sexually exclusive with him. Neither side should too easily give all they have to offer before the other side has given all it has to offer. Opaque feelings help to manage such a slow matched escalation in feelings.

This whole story requires that given ambiguous signals people tend to assume the best, rather than assume the worst. Seems to apply to people, though I’m not sure why.

Added 1Aug: As I commented, “husbands having outside sex, and women breaking off the long term relation, are both weaker forms of betrayal than vice versa. As a weaker form of betrayal, people feel more free to do them.”

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Expats Like Cryonics

At the end of that ABC Good Morning America segment on cryonics, they pointed viewers to a poll on “Would you have your body cryonically frozen after death?”  Out of 15,335 answers so far, 78% said “No, that’s too weird!”, 14% “I’m not sure”, and 8% “Yes, I believe in the science.” Of course these are mostly made up opinions; far less than 8% of the show’s 4.6 million viewers of the show will actually sign up. (Over forty years, only two thousand have signed up worldwide.)

Interestingly, the poll website shows a graphic that breaks votes down by location, and the 274 who live outside the US, probably expats, like cryonics the most – 18% say yes and 19% not sure. Arizona, where the cryonics provider Alcor is located, is second at, 13% yes, 14% not sure, out of 146. (I ignore Rhode Island, with only 26 votes.) Are people more comfortable with moving to foreign lands also more comfortable with moving to the future?!

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Rah Efficient IP

On this blog I’ve long favored economic efficiency.

Economic efficiency is our best wide general analysis tool for finding win-win deals that get people what they want. That isn’t everything, but it is a lot. (more)

On this efficiency basis, I’ve defended many controversial policies, such as blackmail or polygamy. But oddly, I seem to elicit the most opposition by defending the mere possibility of efficient intellectual property! A widely held position and one embodied in law today. If you recall, I argued:

Before barbed wire, it make less sense to farm, or to enforce property rights in land against roaming animals. But after barbed wire, farming and land property rights made a lot more sense. … I’m happy to admit that today intellectual property (IP) is not obviously a good idea. Such property can create large “anti-commons” transaction and enforcement costs … Today, it is often better to rely on other social incentives to innovate. … [But] just as farmers developed barbed-wire, someday I expect IP advocates will develop better forms of intellectual property, and better technologies for marking, sharing, and enforcing such property. Using such innovations, I expect we will allow more and stronger intellectual property. … Which, like barbed-wire, will mostly be a good thing. (more)

Brad Delong responded:

Robin Hanson appears to think that people have the right to send killer robots off to hunt down people who use their ideas without paying. Me? I think this is an example of how thinking too much about property rights can madden the mind. (more)

(Scott Sumner says this “mischaracterizes” me; I agree.)

Matt Yglesias responded:

Robin Hanson is apparently the kind of libertarian who believes in government-created monopolies over the use of ideas: … Are we sad that Isaac Newton was unable to patent a method for calculating instantaneous rates of change? Does Hanson think he should be paying royalties to Michael Spence every time he writes about signaling? … The idea that a person, having shared his ideas with the world, now has the right to call the cops and have people arrested for taking inspiration from the idea without paying for a license in advance seems odd. Which is exactly why historically government regulation of idea-copying has been the exception rather than the rule. (more)

Yes IP’s high costs now make us use it sparingly. But as such costs fall, my guess is that efficient economic institutions will eventually include more ways for users to pay creators of innovations. I make no claims, however, about the exact forms such property and payments will take.

To reduce transaction costs, property rights may expire after a time, and both “usage” and “authorship” may be evaluated at large crude granularities, rather than “every time he writes about [Spence-style] signaling.” There may be random auditing of innovation usage, and folks may buy access to large bundles owned together by those who worked on related innovations. I don’t know if paying for access will be done before or after usage. I also don’t know if such property will be enforced by government monopoly or private law – perhaps people will voluntarily opt into property rights regimes.

What I do know is that enormous value is at stake in getting good innovation incentives and access, value that can probably be increased by better property rights. Economies show a weak a long-term tendency to adopt more efficient institutions, and that tendency is mostly a very good thing.

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A Galaxy On Earth

Our galaxy has about three hundred billion stars, and Earth today has about seven billion people. Assuming only half as many useable planets as stars, we could combine these two numbers into an initial crude guess for the size of a galactic civilization, and define a “galaxy of people” to be a thousand billion billion (or 1021) people. Now consider some famous galactic civilizations in science fiction.

One of the most popular science fiction stories ever was Issac Azimov’s Foundation series. It tells of the fall and rise of a galaxy-wide civilization, whose capital, Trantor, was a planet-wide city a kilometer deep into the ground. Trantor’s population was said to be forty billion, in a galaxy with millions of populated planets and a total population of a million billion (or one millionth of a “galaxy” as defined above).

Star War‘s Coruscant is also a planet-wide city and capital of a galaxy wide civilization, with planetary population of a thousand billion, in a galaxy also of millions of planets and a total population of a million billion. Some say Coruscant’s buildings averaged two kilometers tall. In Star Trek‘s Federation of 150 planets a few centuries hence, which controlled a few percent of the galaxy, each planet had no more than about our Earth’s seven billion, though some say the Federation held ten thousand billion people.

These all seem like dramatic underestimates to me. If Earth were paved over with a city the density of Manhattan today (1.6 million in 59 square kilometers), Earth would have a population of 14 thousand billion. Since Manhattan now has an average building height of 25 meters, a two kilometer deep version could hold a million billion people, and a two thousand kilometer deep version (Earth’s radius is 6400km) could hold a billion billion people.

There is roughly another thousand times as much useable material nearby, in other planets, comets, and the sun itself, allowing a solar-system population perhaps a thousand times larger. This brings us to a thousand billion billion, or a “galaxy” of people, the same as my initial crude population estimate for an entire galaxy above, and vastly larger than most science fiction galaxy estimates.

Furthermore, android ems (whole brain emulations in simulated bodies) could take up a lot less space than humans. I once somewhat conservatively estimated that an em might stand at 1% of human height (and run one hundred times faster). Since such an em would take up only one millionth of a human’s volume, a two kilometer deep Earth city could hold a “galaxy” (or thousand billion billion) of ems. And a solar system civilization might fit a billion billion billion ems, or a million “galaxies.”

Of course we have a long long way to go, not only to generate such huge populations, but also to develop the energy, manufacturing, heat-dumping, etc techs to allow us to support them. And yes, eventually we would run out of energy and material near our Sun, and need to go elsewhere to grow.

But we have strong economic reasons to stay close to one another as long as there is enough energy and material nearby, and especially as long as we continue to innovate. So most of our descendants’ economy should stay close to our sun until congestion here gets severe. We may well have a solar system population of a billion billion billion before the time comes when most of our descendants are closer to other stars.

Most science fiction seems to vastly underestimate the population that a single planet or star can hold, and the strength of the economic pressures to keep an economy close together, rather than spread across vast distances. Someday we will learn to tell stories that treat planets and stars as the vast spaces of possibilities that they really are.

Added 11a: Even an unmodified sun radiates enough energy to cover the calorie consumption of over a hundred “galaxies” of humans, and far more ems.

The timescale to grow from today’s population to a “galaxy” of descendants would be 600 years at an industry-style 15 year doubling time, 40 millennia at a farming-style thousand year doubling time, and four years at at next-singularity-style monthly doubling time.

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Whence Better Brains?

The cover story of the July Scientific American is on brain physics. It persuades me that raw brain hardware was more important than I’d thought in our history.  Here is my current best guess on brain history.

Across diverse species we see strong convergence in brain organization, especially conditional on brain size. Species differ more in their brain hardware components, and their energy sources. For example, primates have innovative cell designs allowing higher neuron density. Given access to such cells, primates could afford to evolve bigger brains, and then bigger pair-bond-based social groups.

Humans found a way to use big primate brains to support big-group far-traveling long-life versions which could access richer energy sources, which in turn supported large energy-hungry brains. Humans found a way to use those huge old social brains to support robust accumulation of culture, which is our main advantage over other primates. This was probably supported by only minor changes in brain organization.

While the brains of smarter humans today may use a better set of long term connections, probably most of their advantage comes from using more energy-intensive brain hardware. So it probably wasn’t until our recent cheap energy era that high IQ humans gained large advantages. The tendency 0f smarter humans to choose lower fertility lowers their advantage today.

Many quotes from that article: Continue reading "Whence Better Brains?" »

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Me On Good Morning America

Tomorrow morning at 8a EST I’ll appear on ABC’s Good Morning America, talking about cryonics. [Added:] The part on cryonics is at minutes 28:30-33:45 here; I’m at 31:50-32:50. Just my episode can be found here:

Some quotes are here. The show has 4.6 million viewers! So I had about as many TV viewers today as I’ve had blog post visits ever.

Added: Britney Spears is apparently a new cryonics customer.

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Making Up Opinions

Perhaps the most devastating problem with subjective [survey] questions, however, is the possibility that attitudes may not “exist” in a coherent form. A first indication of such problems is that measured attitudes are quite unstable over time. For example, in two surveys spaced a few months apart, the same subjects were asked about their views on government spending. Amazingly, 55% of the subjects reported different answers. Such low correlations at high frequencies are quite representative.

Part of the problem comes from respondents’ reluctance to admit lack of an attitude. Simply because the surveyor is asking the question, respondents believe that they should have an opinion about it. For example, researchers have shown that large minorities would respond to questions about obscure or even fictitious issues, such as providing opinions on countries that don’t exist. (more; HT Tyler)

I’m not clear on just how far this effect goes, but one lesson is: you have fewer real opinions than you think. If you talk a lot, you probably end up expressing many opinions on many topics. But much, perhaps most, of that you just make up on the fly. You won’t give the same opinion later if the subject comes up again, and your opinion probably won’t effect your non-talk decisions.

So your decisions on charity donations, votes, and who or what to give verbal praise, may be a lot simpler than you think. Your decisions on where to live or work, and who to befriend or marry, may also be simpler. That is, you may consistently make similar decisions, but the reasons you give for them may matter less than you think.

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Me in New Scientist on Sims

New Scientist quotes me on the simulation argument:

Although we are unlikely to get proof, we might find some hints about our reality. “I think it might be feasible to get evidence that would at least give weak clues,” says Bostrom.

Economist Robin Hanson of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, is not so sure. If we did find anything out, the operators could just rewind everything back to a point where the clue could be erased. “We won’t ever notice if they don’t want us to,” Hanson says. Anyway, seeking the truth might even be asking for trouble. We could be accused of ruining our creators’ fun and cause them to pull the plug.

Hanson has a slightly different take on the argument. “Small simulations should be far more numerous than large ones,” he says. That’s why he thinks it is far more likely that he lives in a simulation where he is the only conscious, interesting being. In other words, everyone else is an extra: a zombie, if you will. However, he would have no way of knowing, which brings us back to Descartes.

The reporter gets this a bit wrong. If I’m in simulation, I’m more likely to be in a small than a big simluation, but that is not to say I’d be “the only conscious, interesting being.” I’d guess most small simulations with any conscious beings have more than one – humans are social, and most of the interesting things to simulate about humans require more than one of them.

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Cynicism Is Near And Far

People seem to find it easier to be idealistic about social institutions and practices in which they are not greatly involved. It seems easier for non-soldiers to be idealistic about the military, for those who do are not teachers or students to be idealistic about school, and for those who are not reporters or interviewees to be idealistic about journalism. It also seems easier for the never-married to be idealistic about marriage.

People also, however, tend to be less idealistic about social institutions very distant in time and space. They think that ancient doctors didn’t help health, that ancient police mostly took bribes, that ancient marriages were raw domination, and so on. They also tend to think institutions in distant nations are similarly dysfunctional.

Many folks succumb to nostalgia, but they usually celebrate moderately old institutions and practices; few are nostalgic for an era thousands of years past. Similarly, many folks are cynical about their family, the company they work for, or the city they live in, and presume things must be better in other nearby families, firms, or cities.

In all this I see an interestingly intermediate near-far effect: We seem the least idealistic, or the most cynical, about things the most near and the most far in time, space, and social distance. We seem the most idealistic about things at intermediate distances. What other intermediate near-far effects can we see?

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