Monthly Archives: April 2012

Those Who Love Work

Christina Alger expresses her, and her dad’s, passion for work:

I was 6 at the time, maybe 7 … I was playing Office. In order to play Office, I had to get into character. I would don one of my dad’s suit jackets — I preferred a nice gray pinstripe — and would attempt to balance a spare pair of his glasses on my small snub nose. Sometimes I would shuffle around in his wingtips. Then I would organize piles of papers on my desk, filing them away in folders once they had been properly reviewed. …

My dad’s office … felt like Cheers: it was a place where I could relax after a long day, where everyone knew my name. … Dad was always willing to give me tasks that made me feel important. … My dad was then, and remains to this day, one of the few grown-ups I have come across who truly loved his job. … His enthusiasm for work was infectious. Dad loved playing office; why wouldn’t I? …

“Isn’t writing from home lonely?” My friend Anne asked me over coffee. “I have this vision of you stuck in your apartment all day, talking to imaginary people.” … “I’m an only child,” I shrugged. “I like being alone.” … Dad would like my new office, I think. He would see how much I enjoy working here. Whenever I have a successful day of writing, I wish I could share it with him. But not once have I ever felt lonely. (more)

Sure some who pretend to love work are fooling themselves, but I’m pretty sure that many others like Christina do honestly love their work. Yes Christina and her dad probably enjoy their work more because it is high status, but it is hard to believe their work love is entirely status driven – they’d probably still love their work, if a bit less, if it were low status.

It seems likely that we could find a few hundred humans like Jiro, Christina and her dad, productive folks who love work even when they put in many hours, and who are willing to adapt to the changed world ems would inhabit. If so, that world could be a vast wonderful world full of life and fulfillment.

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Votes Are Nearer Than Vote Talk

Bob Sutton on an ’09 near-far paper:

A traveler preparing to leave for a vacation to Cancun the following morning is more likely to process information about speedy check-in for international flights – a low-level, concrete piece of information that is related to the feasibility of the vacation, as opposed to information about the quality of sunsets on the East Coast of Mexico – a high-level, abstract piece of information that is related to the desirability of the vacation. …

They used this kind of logic to design a series of laboratory experiments where subjects were exposed to vague versus concrete messages from hypothetical U.S. Senate candidates and asked them to evaluate how positively or negatively they viewed the candidate. The key manipulation was whether the election was far off (six months away) or looming soon (one week). As predicted, abstract messages were more persuasive (and promoted more liking) when the election was six months away and concrete message were more persuasive when it was one week away.

This study has some fun implications for the upcoming elections. Let’s watch Obama and Romney to see if they keep things vague and abstract until the final weeks of the campaign, but then turn specific in the final weeks. But I think it also has some interesting implications for how leaders can persuade people in their organizations to join organizational change efforts. The implication is that when the change is far off, it is not a good idea to talk about he nuts and bolts very much — a focus on abstract “why” questions is in order. But as the change looms, specific details that help people predict and control what happens to them are crucial to keeping attitudes toward the change and leaders positive. (more; HT Hendrick lee)

Another implication: even those most political rhetorical is about abstract far principles, actual votes tend more to be based on concrete near considerations. This is a reason democracies aren’t as bad as you’d think looking at typical voter opinions and election rhetoric. The paper also says:

[This] effect was observed primarily among inexpert respondents, who are more likely to correspond to swing voters.

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Who Wants Unbiased Journals?

Five years ago I proposed result-blind peer review, and I revised it later. Brendan Nyham just posted a nice long review of many such proposals, including a recent test at the journal Archives of Internal Medicine:

The … alternate review process was applied to the editorial review that occurred prior to outside peer review. … Of the 46 articles examined, 28 were positive, and 18 were negative. … Ultimately, 36 of the 46 articles (>77%) were rejected. … Editors were consistent in their assessment of a manuscript in both steps of the review process in over 77% of cases. … Over 7% of positive articles benefited from editors changing their minds between steps 1 and 2 of the alternate review process, deciding to push forward with peer review after reading the results. By contrast, … this never occurred with the negative studies. Indeed, 1 negative study, which was originally queued for peer review after an editor’s examination of the introduction and “Methods” section, was removed from such consideration after the results were made available. (more)

So even with two stage review, journal editors are tempted to publish papers with weak methods but positive results. And why not – unless important customers insisted, why would a journal handicap itself by committing itself to not publish such papers, which bring more fame and prestige to the journal.

Journal customers include universities who tenure professors who publish in prestigious journals, and grant givers who prefer grantees who publish similarly. But why should these customers handicap themselves – they also win by affiliating with those who publish papers with weak methods but positive results.

I’ve suggested that academia functions primarily to credential people as impressive and interesting in certain ways, so outsiders, like students and patron, can gain prestige by affiliating with them. If so, and if those who publish weak-method positive-results are in fact more impressive and interesting than those who publish stronger-method negative-results, there is little prospect to get rid of this publication bias.

What is possible is to augment publications with betting market prices estimating the chance each result will be upheld by future research. This would let readers get unbiased estimates on the reliability of research results. Alas, it seems there is no customer willing to pay extra to get such reliability estimates. Most everyone involved in the process mainly cares about signals of impressiveness; few care much about which research results are actually true.

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Analysis Is Far Skeptical

People famously tend to disagree more about politics, religion, and romance, Which makes sense – I’ve argued that disagreement is due to by a near-far bias, and that politics, religion, and love are far topics. It should be especially clear that religion is a far topic, dealing with fundamental values and big grand things like Gods over vast space and time scales.

Since creative metaphor is far, and analysis is near, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that inducing an analytical frame of mind tends to induce “religious disbelief”, i.e., disbelief in gods, devils, and angels:

Individual differences in the tendency to analytically override initially flawed intuitions in reasoning were associated with increased religious disbelief. Four additional experiments provided evidence of causation, as subtle manipulations known to trigger analytic processing also encouraged religious disbelief. (more)

You could point to this as evidence against religious beliefs, but the same analysis primes probably also induce more skepticism on common political and romantic beliefs. They might even induce more skepticism on the mulitverse, string theory, or the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, all of which have big grand aspects.

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Big Changes Test Econ

For students motivated by grades, ways to teach are limited by ways to test. No matter how insightful your lectures, grade-focused students will only attend to what it takes to pass your tests. So better ways to test give better ways to teach.

Economics is usually taught as a series of abstract concepts, and such concepts are usually tested in the abstract as well. Alas, this encourages neglect of how to apply abstract concepts to concrete situations.

Yes, one can instead ask concrete questions, about what would happen in the world if a specific social change were made. For example: what would happen if we discovered a huge new oil field? Problem is, there are many ways to guess at specific consequences without using abstract economic theory. People come to economics with lots of complex intuitions about how the social world works, or how it should work, so if you ask them specific questions they tend to use such intuitions instead of abstract concepts.

For example, lots of questions about changes within the usual range of experience can be answered merely by projecting observed trends, or by making analogies to similar situations. Yes, these are reasonable ways to guess at social consequences, but they can get in the way of assimilating economic concepts. Yes, tests can reward using abstract concepts, but even so it can be hard to get students into that habit.

A related problem is that small changes seem to have limited consequences. One might notice a few immediate consequences, but indirect consequences seem to quickly fade into “pretty much no effect” on more distant parts of society.

So to teach (and test) students to really apply economic concepts, it helps to consider concrete changes well outside of their usual range of experience. For changes that are big and dramatic enough, students can see the inadequacy of analogy and trend projection, and so are willing to look to abstract theory. And big changes more obviously have distant indirect effects.

My post yesterday on Tube Earth Econ was an example. If I ask you to estimate the social consequences of your planet having a very different shape, it is hard to make analogies to similar past events. That will push you more to go back to basic concepts and work from there.

I apply this concept in my masters level microeconomics course. One quarter of the grade is for this assignment:

Big Change Paper – Imagine a single big change to our economy, and then use microeconomics to describe the consequences of that change, including whether those changes are good or bad. You might, for example, imagine how things would be changed if people became immortal, if Star Trek style “transporters” were available, if very reliable lie detectors were available, or if no one needed sleep.

We talk about the consequences of similar big changes in class, to give students examples to follow in their papers. Such discussions and assignments are especially fun for people like me who enjoy science fiction and the drama of thinking about big dramatic social changes.

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Tube Earth Econ

Imagine someone plans to build a gas station far out in an isolated desert. They plan to sell gas and snacks to the truck drivers who come out to deliver gas and snacks. Want to invest?

No? How about if they also sell gas and snacks to passing explorers, out there to signal toughness? Yes, explorers won’t look as tough if they buy gas and snacks from your station. But if the station can lure enough not-so-tough explorers, maybe you’d want to invest.

How about if they also plan to dig oil wells and an oil refinery to make the gas they sell, and a hothouse farm and food processing factory, to grow food for the snacks they sell? How about if they plan to run all this entirely by robots? This plan would make me even less likely to invest. After all, you’d need even more customers to justify a larger scale operation, and I had doubts about enough explorer customers to justify a simple gas station.

This is my reaction to the recent news that some famous investors will spend millions trying to mine asteroids (see here, here, here). Their first product would be rocket fuel to sell to passing NASA rockets. I’m skeptical that NASA wants to buy enough fuel to cover their costs, and I don’t see a flood of other customers eager for robot space gas stations. This new firm also talks about shipping metals like platinum back to Earth, but that seems even crazier anytime soon.

To explore this general issue, let us imagine Tube Earth. While our Earth is a sphere of rock with a 40,000 km circumference, Tube Earth is a very long cylinder of rock with a circumference 1/6 as large, to give it the same surface gravity as Earth. Tube Earth also rotates 24 hours in a day, and has a sun nearby.  The closest spot on the tube to the sun is its “center,” which has Earth-like average surface temperature and seasonal variation. There would be less local temperature variation, as all nearby parts of a tube get the same sunlight.

A length of this tube about twice Earth’s circumference would have about the same surface area as Earth. Imagine that an area of this size held a mix of land and water similar to Earth’s continents. Imagine also that more such clusters of continents are spread all along this tube, spaced roughly twenty Earth circumferences apart. In between is mostly open ocean, with a few small islands.

The tube slowly gets colder millions of km from its center, as those places are further from it sun. Life is spread all along the tube, but so far humans and civilization have only evolved on one near-center cluster of continents. It would take an old style (~12 knot) sailing ship about 4 years to travel in a straight line from one cluster to another, and it would take a jet airliner about 40 days to fly there. Both would need refueling along the way.

My big question here is: how would history, and economic growth, have played out differently on Tube Earth? With all that land out there to colonize, how much more activity would be dedicated to spreading out across the tube? How far would be the furthest flag, subsistence farming town, and modern industrial city at any one time?

My guess is that Tube Earth would look a lot more like our Earth than most space colonization fans expect. Explorers would not have even reached the nearest other continent cluster until the 1800s, and even now there’d be only a few small colonizes there, mostly practicing subsistence agriculture. A several year shipping time would make it very expensive to import modern equipment, and greatly discourage the shipping of mining minerals or farmed food back to the central cluster. Mostly they’d work harder to get more minerals and food from nearby mines and farms.

By 2010 Tube Earth would be lucky to have one monthly airline flight to the next cluster, and a very expensive but welcomed internet connection. Lots of stories would take place there, and it would offer an escape for well-off religious or political refuges. But overall it wouldn’t matter much, because of its huge transport costs.

The key point to note here is that other continent clusters on a Tube Earth are vastly more hospitable and easier to reach than the nearest asteroids or the Moon are from Earth. And the rest of the solar system is even worse. So if other continent clusters would by now matter little for a Tube Earth, asteroids aren’t going to matter much on Earth for a long time to come.

Added: Karl Smith calls it “Invest for Prestige/Get Conned”

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Government As Charity

Matt Zwolinski:

About $3.2 million was given to reduce the [US] debt in 2011. … Why so little? One possible explanation is that people are selfish. … But this explanation is difficult to square with the large amounts of money that Americans give to charity each year – over $300 billion in 2009. … I suggest … most people know that there are better and more efficient ways of using their money to help other people than giving it to government.

The usually sharp Will Wilkinson invokes free rider problems, and misses the point. But like Arnold Kling, Bryan Caplan gets it:

Despite widespread nationalist and statist sentiments, Uncle Sam’s share of the charity market is microscopic – less than .001%. How very odd. … If you ask “Why don’t people give more money to my charity?,” the best answer is that people hold your charity in low esteem. Similarly, if total donations to the U.S. government add up to a few million dollars a year, the best explanation is that people see lots of better ways to spend not just their dollars, but their charitable dollars. I do wonder, though: Could the U.S. government attract a lot more donations with better marketing? … What if Congress publicly acknowledge the ten biggest donors in an annual ceremony?

That 0.001% stat is striking, and worth pondering. Most tiny charities can say their donations are low because few have heard of them, or because most who have don’t have a visceral scene of what they really do. But everyone knows about government debt, and a lot about what it pays for.

Now if we counted the value of time donated, we’d get a bigger figure, as many donate time to local government-run schools, sport leagues, hospitals, police, and roads. So it seems to be non-local government that donors neglect. For some perspective, here is a breakdown of annual US donations:

  • Money: 300B$: Religion 33%, Educational or youth service 26%, Social or community service 14%, Health 8%, Civic, political, professional, or international 5%, Sport, hobby, arts 4%, Environment/animal 2%.
  • Time: ~3B hrs: Religion 35%, Education 14%, Foundations 11%, Human services 9%, Health 8%, Public-society benefit 8%, Arts, culture, humanities, 5%, International affairs, 5%, Environment/animal 2%.

Admittedly, charity donations are far from a direct measure of people’s estimates of social value – charity isn’t about helping, after all. People like to meet and associate with others who donate to the same cause. Even so, it is worth pondering why non-local government gets so few donations of time or money.

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Fair Date Reporting Act

A week ago I heard an NPR radio interview with an FTC representative on web and phone privacy. She said the FTC protects your privacy by making sure firms who collect info on our activities can only use it to sell us stuff, but not to decide on hiring, renting, lending, or insuring. I thought: why is this where we draw our line of “privacy”?

Looking up a recent FTC report (quotes below), I see it goes back to the 1972 Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which required firms that rate you or collect info on you for hiring, renting, lending, or insuring to show you everything your rating is based on, and let you challenge any part of it. And given how completely infeasible it would be to show you all internet info collected about you, or let you challenge any of it, this law basically says that hiring, renting, lending, and insuring decisions must not benefit from the vast increase in info that web/phone tech now creates.

Adverse selection, where the people you least want are mostly like to apply, can plague hiring, renting, lending, and insuring. This is a big problem, and many regulations are said to be designed to deal with it. Yet the FCRA clearly makes this hidden info problem worse, by greatly limiting the info on which such decisions can be based.

To see how far this can go wrong, imagine a Fair Date Reporting Act, requiring all dating decisions to be made on the basis of documented information that potential dates can inspect and challenge. You couldn’t reject someone for a date unless you could clearly document that they are unsuitable. You’d end up relying heavily on some very crude indicators, like weight, education, income, and hair color, and enjoy your dates a lot less. And then they’d probably pass laws prohibiting some indicators as unfair, such as weight.

So why are we more willing to mess up decisions about hiring, renting, lending, or insuring, relative to dating? Because we see those deciders as dominating, because they choose to accept or reject us, and we see big firms as evil. Why don’t we similarly restrict the info firms can use to try to sell us stuff? Because we see ourselves as doing more of the choosing there, making us the dominant party.

Added 11p: Imagine that you were required by law to score all job offers on objective verifiable criteria, such as salary and location, and had to take the job that scored highest. How close would that be to slavery?

Those promised FTC report quotes: Continue reading "Fair Date Reporting Act" »

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Sleep Is Far

Dark is far, far is more creative, and night owls tend more far (and creative) than morning larks. Fitting with this, and the confused but wide ranging nature of the sleeping mind, it seems to me the mind is likely in a more far state while asleep. If so, sleep should be more creative, which it is:

Both scientists and artists have suggested that sleep facilitates creativity, and this idea has received substantial empirical support. … In the evening prior to sleep, all participants were presented with a problem that required a creative solution. In the two-odor conditions, a hidden scent diffuser spread an odor while the problem was presented. In the sleep-with-conditioned-odor condition, task reactivation during sleep was induced by means of the odor that was also presented while participants were informed about the problem. In the sleep-with-control-odor condition, participants were exposed to a different odor. … After a night of sleep with the conditioned odor, participants were found to be (i) more creative and (ii) better able to select their most creative idea [on the presented problem]. (more; HT Barker)

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Jiro Lives Worth Living

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a well-reviewed documentary mostly celebrating the world’s best sushi chef. Which is worth pondering, because Jiro is an extreme workaholic. Roger Ebert:

Jiro Ono is 85 years old. As a young boy, he ran away from home to become an apprentice in a restaurant and has been making sushi for more than 70 years. He is apparently not happy doing anything else and prefers to work all day, seven days a week, every day in the year. … You realize he must be a rich man. But to what end? … While watching it, I found myself drawn into the mystery of this man. Are there any unrealized wishes in his life? Secret diversions? Regrets? If you find an occupation you love and spend your entire life working at it, is that enough? (more)

Jiro’s life is also quite routine – he repeats the same actions over and over and over, always seeking slight adjustments to improve quality.

I haven’t seen anyone says this movie describes a terrible tragedy of a wasted worthless life. Most seem to accept Jiro’s life as worth living, and many consider his an exemplary life. Yet let’s imagine some variations on Jiro’s life, and ask if they are also worth living.

First, imagine that Jiro is not rich. He is still the very best, but he gives his sushi away. He has enough to eat, stays warm, and is healthy, but has few luxuries. But since he spends most of his time at the office, it probably doesn’t make that much difference to his quality of life if he is rich or poor.

Second, imagine someone with Jiro’s unsurpassed skill, overwhelming dedication, and fascination with their work, except that this person makes plywood, not sushi. Would that also be a life worth living? It would be a lower status life, as our culture lauds sushi chefs more than plywood makers. But he would still be the very best plywood maker in the world. Isn’t that enough?

Third, imagine holding constant this person’s skill, while increasing other workers’ skills, so that this person is now only of median quality. His subjective experience of working on the job would be similar, except he couldn’t feel superior to everyone else. Would his life be worth living then? That is, can status by itself make the difference between a life worth living and one not? If when he isn’t noticing his status, he has the same feeling of flow, immersion, and fascination in his work, wouldn’t that be enough for a life worth living?

Some of you probably see where I am going with this. Imagine we take the few hundred very best most dedicated workaholic humans, and fill a world with trillions of em copies of them, so that they are mostly working at near subsistence wages, yet have enough food, warmth, health, etc. Is this a world full of creatures with lives worth living?

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