Monthly Archives: August 2011

Join The DAGGRE Team

A few weeks back Tyler Cowen posted an appeal from Philip Tetlock:

Starting in mid-2011, five teams will compete in a U.S.-government-sponsored forecasting tournament. Each team will develop its own tools for harnessing and improving collective intelligence and will be judged on how well its forecasters predict [government-chosen] major trends and events around the world over the next four years. … [We] will be one of the five teams competing – and we’d like you to consider joining our team as a forecaster.

You may have seen other teams’ appeals as well. Today I can announce that GMU hosts one of the five teams, please join us! Active participants will earn $50 a month, for about two hours of forecasting work. You can sign up here, and start forecasting as soon as you are accepted.

The government sponsor is IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity), under the ACE (Aggregative Contingent Estimation) program, and our team is DAGGRE (Decomposition-Based Elicitation & Aggregation).

Our approach has three distinctive features, all visible to participants:

  1. We use an edit-based interface — a current consensus on all questions is visible to all participants, and any user may change any part. Each edit is scored on whether it moves the consensus closer to or further from the truth.  (This is equivalent to a market-maker-based prediction market).
  2. For each question IARPA assigns, we “decompose” it by adding related questions, and letting participants forecast both related questions and how they relate to the assigned questions. For example, users can assume answers to some questions, and then forecast other questions conditional on their assumptions. (This is equivalent to a combinatorial prediction market.)
  3. We will sometimes walk users through a special elicitation process that has been shown in field and lab experiments to produce more accurate estimates.

(Items #2,3 might not show for a week or two.) We are eager to see how our approach compares to the other approaches. Come get paid to help us find out!

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Me On FastForward

I appear in this FastForward Radio interview with John Smart and Vanessa Miemis, supposedly on the distant future. It didn’t go that well. The interviewers asked the questions in the wrong order, first asking what we should do about “it” today in our personal lives, and then only at the end asking us what “it” is. And they didn’t really have us interact, but instead had us each answer the same questions in sequence.

Vanessa mainly seem to care more about expressing hope, caring, and that things must change, than about actually forecasting a distant future. John Smart expressed his view that current growth rates could continue indefinitely because, hey maybe we’ll use black holes well. But even if black holes let us square the available negentropy, that should only roughly double the time over which we could support exponential growth. As I’ve calculated:

An economy that doubled every century for a million years would grow by a factor of 103010. To support this using the 1070 atoms found within a million light years, each atom would have to support an average of 102950 people at our living standard, one person with a standard 102950 times higher, or some mix of those extremes.

To expect such a growth rate to continue for a billion or a trillion years, is well, crazy. Almost surely within a million years, and even more surely within a billion years, growth must greatly slow.

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Religion As Standard

Systems often get locked into standards. For example, computer systems get locked into programming language and operating system standards. When people notice that existing standards have unsatisfactory features, they often try to create and promote alternate standards. Such attempts usually fail, however, due to the large costs of coordinating to switch to new standards, including the loss of complementary investments into old standards. In order to induce a switch, expected gains from a new better standard have be large enough to compensate for switching costs, and users need to coordinate their actions in order to switch.

Hopes for a libertarian revolution seem similar. Yes, there may be gains from transferring traditional government services (like schools, roads, fire protection) to private substitutes. But we have many complementary investments in an existing government-provision system that has many self-reinforcing elements. If most people see the potential gains from switching to be few and weak compared to the substantial cost of switching, it just won’t happen. So big change probably won’t happen until some new context where many folks expect private substitutes to work much better.

Strong atheist critiques of religion also seem similar. Religious people often say things that sound crazy, at least when interpreted as claims intended to say things similar to, and evaluated by the usual critical standards of, most other intellectual realms. Atheists want to apply relatively uniform standards of interpretation and evaluation across wide ranges of intellectual claims. Such uniform standards should allow intellectuals to draw more reliable inferences combining insights from many diverse topic areas.

Religion, however, is a complex system integrating emotions, behaviors, relationships, and things that sound and are treated somewhat like intellectual claims. We have made many expensive complementary investments into this religious system, investments that would be expensive to translate to a substitute system. Religious folks understand that treating their religious claims as crazy would detract from the many complex functions that these claims serve within the complex religious experience. So they would rather apply different intellectual standards to these claims. They’d rather say “Don’t take this so literally, don’t be so reductionist; this kind of talk is just different.”

Of course defenders of religion also don’t want to say that they are just making comforting noises that have no intellectual meaning; a sense that their words are somewhat like intellectual claims is part of what lets those noises be comforting. And they don’t want to clarify in much detail just what exactly they are saying, in the usual intellectual terms. They’d rather say “Haven’t you got other topics to go investigate? Why come to our area and mess with things you don’t understand? How can you be so sure of your intellectual standards and your preferred interpretations of our words, so as to put at risk all this useful religious practice?”

It seems to me that religion will handily win this contest for a long time to come. The social support that can be mustered by a few intellectuals hoping for more uniform standards of interpretation and evaluation across diverse topics seems quite weak compared to strong interests others have in the usual complex religious processes. Even if many broad-thinking intellectuals decide to pick a noisy fight over this, most of society will just shrug their shoulders and ignore it. Surely this fact is known to most atheists, so this can’t really be about inducing a social change to a new less objectionable religion substitute. So it is probably mostly about other things, such as status contests within the smaller world of intellectuals.

FYI, some relevant quotes from the atheism critic James Wood: Continue reading "Religion As Standard" »

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Rah Self-Incrimination

The more I think about law, the more I see arbitrary historical accidents enshrined into unquestioned dogma. Consider: we require people to answer questions by police or courts investigating crimes, without privacy excuses and without compensation for lost time. We apparently estimate the value of investigating crime to outweigh such costs. Except, we exempt criminal suspects from answering questions! (We also exempt folks statusfully related to suspects.) Yet if anyone should give up time and privacy to help investigate a crime, it is the suspects.

Here is one account of this history of this rule:

The right was created in reaction to the excesses of the Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission … 1487-1641. These courts utilized the inquisitorial method of truth-seeking … sufficient “proof” came from browbeating confessions out of the accused. These courts required the accused to answer any question put to him, without advance notice of his accusers, the charges against him, or the evidence amassed. … By the 18th century, English law provided that neither confessions coerced during the trial nor pretrial confessions obtained through torture could be used. …. The U.S. Supreme Court has expanded the Fifth Amendment to apply … to “any other proceeding, civil or criminal, formal or informal, where his answers might incriminate him in future criminal proceedings.” (more)

Somehow, many think this history shows that today a right not to self-incriminate keeps police from torturing confessions out of suspects. But to prevent torture, we should just have rules against torture. A further rule against self-incrimination can’t prevent torture for the simple reason that we let people waive their right not to self-incriminate. If police can force confessions via undetected torture, then police can also use undetected torture to force people to waive their right against self-incrimination!

The following video argues that if suspects must answer police questions, then police can find enough mistakes in what most anyone says to make them seem guilty:

The detective in this video also says that if he follows most anyone long enough he can catch them breaking a law. But if true these seem grounds for raising standards of proof at trial, and for disclosing at trial the amount of questioning or following done.

We don’t want to protect people from being framed by the police merely by making police work generically harder. For example, requiring police to always hop on one foot, or to constantly sing the national anthem, would surely make it harder for police to frame folks, but simply by making it harder for them to do anything! The rule against self-incrimination seems yet another arbitrary handicap, making police work harder overall, without discouraging bad policing more than good policing.

Rather than giving arbitrary handicaps, we’d do better to just reduce the size of the police force and budget, and to restrict police in ways that more directly distinguishes good from bad policing. Having suspects answer police questions does not so distinguish, being just as much a part of good as bad policing.

For more academic critiques, see herehere and here.

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Economists’ Best Advice


I am a proud resident of Fairfax County, in the U.S. state of Virginia. Today, I want to warn my fine fellow Fairfax folk: we interact too promiscuously with outsiders! For example, we are allowed to buy things made outside Fairfax, and leave the county to travel or work. Fairfax firms can even choose outsiders as investors, employees, and suppliers.

Such promiscuous interaction risks polluting our precious purity with uncontrolled contamination! Surely we choose to live in oh-so-fair Fairfax because we believe in Fairfax exceptionalism, in our exceptional mix of climate, culture, attitudes, laws, personalities, etc. Yet we allow any of us to risk corrupting this exceptionality via unrestricted mixing with outsiders. For example, we let outsiders move here who might vote for politicians who also don’t share our political values. And lets not forget that terrorists might slip in.

Much of this mixing surely also hurts Fairfax locals who compete with outsiders. Fairfax residents who drive to other counties to eat restaurant meals take business away from Fairfax restaurants. Fairfax firms that hire workers living in other counties take jobs away from Fairfax workers. Fairfax people who read books and blogs written by outsiders take readers away from Fairfax authors. Sure, sometimes we benefit from mixing with outsiders, and sometimes enough to compensate for losses to locals. But no one can prove that this is always the case, or even usually the case.

So, dear fellow Fairfax folks, we simply must be more careful! I’m not saying we should never interact with outsiders, but we must be more selective. There must be oversight – we can’t just let any of us decide for themselves how much they’ll pollute or harm the rest of us.

Convinced? No? What if Ramone had talked about Virginia, instead of Fairfax – would he have made sense then? If not, then why would the same arguments make sense when applied to the United States? Sure clever folk can think up arguments that apply better to nations than to states or counties, just as they can think up reasons why it is better to let in goods or investments than workers. But it seems quite unlikely that such arguments are actually the main reason most people more easily accept exchanging people between counties and states than between nations, or accept outside goods and investment more than workers.

It seems far more likely that people are invoking ancient classifications and fears, regardless of their appropriateness for today’s world. We probably habitually see the invasion of people as more threatening than things, and see workers from other counties and states more as “us”, relative to “them” from other nations. So to believe that our barriers to immigration are for the best, you have to believe in a lucky accident.

Bryan Caplan recently posted on a Michael Clemens article which mentioned: economists typically estimate that eliminating barriers to moving workers would roughly double world GDP, a far bigger gain than eliminating barriers to moving goods or capital! For this reason economists disagree with the public, and favor open immigration:

[In] a questionnaire sent to 210 Ph.D. economists randomly selected from the American Economic Association, … few economists believe that current U.S. immigration levels are too high (16.7%)—although many (29.5%) are neutral on the matter. (more)

Question: “Please tell me if you think it is a major reason the economy is not doing better than it is, a minor reason, or not a reason at all. (0 = Not a reason at all”; 1 = “Minor reason”; 2 = “Major reason”)” Mean answers: Public: 1.22, Economists: 0.2 (more)

We economists tend to expect open immigration to increase overall wealth and value (and liberty), and to reduce inequality. Furthermore, this seems to be the biggest gain we consistently identify. You might not always listen to or believe we economists, but if you can ever be persuaded by us, please let it be on this, economists’ strongest recommendation: open those borders!

Added 7p: Fairfax County is the third richest county in the U.S., and the richest large (>.4M pop) county, and neighbors the two richer but smaller ones.

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Against Terror

You might have thought that terror was a bad thing, especially terror of death, which is why a war on terror would be a good thing (if it worked). But in today’s NYT, Stephen Cave praises terror:

[In] the TV series “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” … the “miracle” of the title is that no one dies anymore, but it proves to be a curse as overpopulation soon threatens. … [This] is right to be pessimistic about what would happen if this dream were fulfilled — but for the wrong reasons. Materially, we could cope with the arrival of the elixir. But, psychologically, immortality would be the end of us.

The problem is that our culture is based on our striving for immortality. … It has inspired us to found religions, write poems and build cities. If we were all immortal, the motor of civilization would sputter and stop. …

Asked to rule on a hypothetical case of prostitution, … judges who had first been reminded of their mortality set a bond nine times higher than those who hadn’t. …
In more than 400 experiments, … results consistently support … Terror Management Theory — that particular aspects of our outlook are governed by our need to manage our fear of death. In other words, our cultural, philosophical and religious systems exist to promise us immortality.

Such systems … are embodied in the pyramids of Egypt, the cathedrals of Europe and even the skyscrapers of modern cities. … We also find the promise of deathlessness … in the accumulation of wealth; … [and in] immersion in a greater whole, whether a nation or a football team; or even in the pursuit of scientific research, with its claim to enduring truth.

… All our death-defying systems, if there were no more death, … would be superfluous. We would have no need for progress or art, faith or fame. … Action would lose its purpose and time its value. This is the true awfulness of immortality. Let us be grateful that the elixir continues to elude us — and toast instead our finitude. (more)

So we want something so desperately that we delude ourselves to imagine that we’ll get it, and that makes it bad if we actually get it, because then we wouldn’t delude ourselves?! This seems another bout of insanity triggered by the word “immortality.” Once again, with feeling:

A big part of the problem, I think, is that talk of “immortality” invokes an extremely far view. But finite increases in lifespan really have little to do with immortality. Immortality means you never die, ever. But forever is a really really long time! In fact, nothing you can imagine is remotely as long. … A thousand year lifespan would be fantastic, relative to our lifespan. I want it! But it is nothing like immortality. It would have clear stages, and a very real end to anticipate. (more)

True immortality isn’t remotely an option anytime soon. What might be an option is a dramatic increase in lifespan. But death would remain, and with it a terror of death, and the cultural achievements such terror may inspire.  And if less terror leads to fewer cultural achievements, surely that seems be a price well worth paying!

P.S. Today is my birthday, which I like to call not-dead-yet day.

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Creativity Lip Service

People like creativity less than they say, especially when they feel uncertain:

While people strongly endorse [a] positive view of creativity, scholars have long been puzzled by the finding that organizations, scientific institutions, and decisions-makers routinely reject creative ideas even when espousing creativity as an important goal. Similarly, research documents that teachers dislike students who exhibit curiosity and creative thinking even though teachers acknowledge creativity as an important educational goal. …

[In our studies,] on one hand, participants in the baseline and uncertainty tolerance conditions demonstrated positive implicit associations with creativity relative to practicality. Additionally, 95% of participants in the high uncertainty and uncertainty intolerance conditions rated their explicit attitudes towards creativity as positive. … On the other hand, the implicit measure identified that participants in each high uncertainty condition associated words like “vomit,” “poison,” and “agony,” more so with creativity than practicality. Because there is such a strong social norm to endorse creativity and people also feel authentic positive attitudes towards creativity, people may be reluctant to admit that they do not want creativity. (more)

For how many more far values does this sort of hypocrisy apply?

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Bashing Billionaires

Steve Jobs stepped down from his post as CEO of Apple yesterday. The internet instantly erupted in adulation. … Mr Jobs’s wealth … was built in no small part upon an intellectual-property regime that I and many others believe to retard progress. … Bill Gates used to get plenty of heat from the class warriors, but some time after … [he] devoted a huge portion of his fortune to his charitable foundation, he ascended to a sort of philanthropic secular sainthood. … But Mr Jobs has eschewed charity. …

[Yes,] charity very often does rather less to improve quality of life than selling people ever better products at ever lower prices. But this line of reasoning hasn’t convinced very many of us that, say, Charles and David Koch’s vast wealth is proof of their successful service to humankind. Mr Jobs’s relative immunity from the scorn of those otherwise keen to stick it to billionaires is due, I think, to the admiring pleasure wordsmiths takes in the elegance of the Apple devices they use for work, play, and status-signaling. …

Steve Jobs is a white wizard in wire rims who offers …. mesmerising portals to a better, beautiful, more enchanted world. … So who gives a fig if he doesn’t shower his billions upon worthy causes. … But what about the guys who get rich digging oil out of the ground so we can charge our iPhones? Stick it to ’em, the greedy bastards. All of which is to say, our intuitions about economic desert and fair distribution are…complicated. (more)

Consider: what elites did foragers worry most about? Foragers worried most about elite capacity for violence, and an inclination to use it. They also worried lots about unequal access to food and shelter, and to tools useful for all these things. So foragers enforced strong norms against giving orders or doing violence, and norms favoring sharing of food, shelter, medicine, and tools. In these senses foragers were egalitarian.

However, foragers worried far less about unequal capacities for art, music, conversation, charm, social popularity, or sex appeal. After all, in a forager world unequal capacities of these sort just couldn’t go anywhere near as horribly wrong as unequal violence or food. Because of this humans seem evolved to tolerate, and even celebrate, unequal abilities in art, popularity, or sex appeal.

Fast forward to today, and consider which billionaires are liked versus disliked. I’d bet that artistic billionaires like Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, and Oprah Winfrey are among the most liked, even after one controls for how well know they are. Same for rich actors and talk show hosts. In contrast, billionaires who are merely associated with an ordinary business are probably the least popular.

Note that while it was pretty functional for foragers to tolerate artistic inequality more, an added tolerance today for artistic billionaires over mere business billionaires has few functional benefits. Your added envy and hostility to mere business billionaires is just an arbitrary dysfunctional vestige of times long since past. Yes it might feel better to bash them, but is that really a good enough reason to do so?

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Learn From A&P

Law and policy matters for innovation. Sometimes it matters by promoting innovation, and someday I hope we’ll have better intellectual property rights to better promote innovation. But today, and for much of history, law and policy has mattered mostly by hindering innovation. For example:

In a new book, Levinson explains how local mom-and-pop stores — with their limited selections, high prices and nonstandard packaging — paved the way for national chains like the A&P to swoop in and dominate the grocery industry. … “People get misty-eyed at the thought of the independent store — maybe it had some unique product, maybe we had more choices than we have today — but the truth was exactly the opposite.” ….

A&P … opened its first small grocery store in 1912. Unlike traditional mom-and-pop stores, the A&P had no telephone, no credit lines and no delivery options. They also had lower prices. .. “It stocked only items that were fast-sellers. … It had limited hours. It had a single employee. … Within eight years, this approach turned their company into the largest retailer in the world.” … Controlling both the retail store and the supply chain gave the A&P a huge advantage over corner grocery stores because the A&P could run the factories at a lower cost. In addition, the A&P started to bypass wholesalers and go directly to distributors for various products. …

Competitors were not happy. Efforts to limit chain stores grew in the 1920s, when states and localities began passing laws designed to help independent merchants. … “Now, you’ve got these gigantic companies like A&P dominating retailing and wholesaling and not leaving a chance for the average guy. That was the basis of the complaint.”

State laws were passed to force manufacturers to sell to all stores at the same price and to tax merchants with multiple stores in a case. An antitrust suit was also filed against the A&P, claiming that it had become a food monopoly because it controlled all aspects of manufacturing, retailing and wholesaling. But the movement lost steam in the late 1930s, when the economy started to pick up. (more)

A&P introduced major innovations, and was punished for it by the regulatory system. For now, law and policy can most help innovation by getting more out of the way. Whether it will actually do so, however, is far from obvious.

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On Fudge Factors

Most people base most of their judgements on intuition, rather than explicit calculations. Some people do base judgements on explicit calculations, and take such calculations at face value. But many others, especially on social questions, use calculations that include case-specific fudge factors which can be adjusted to ensure that calculations agree with case-specific intuitions. While this might estimate well when intuitions are far more informative than explicit calculations, this often seems to be done to achieve a hypocritical appearance of calculation-based decisions, while actually allowing intuitions to dominate.

As I shall explain below, Holden Karnofsky illustrates this preference for fudge factors: Continue reading "On Fudge Factors" »

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