Monthly Archives: August 2012

Grace-Hanson Podcast

Robin and I have a new podcast on the subject of play (mp3wav, m4a). Older ones are here.

Don’t be thrown by a bit of silence at the start of the m4a one. We also don’t have the time right now to figure out how to put it in better formats. Sorry about that. If anyone else does, and posts such files, I’ll link to them.

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Silly Is Serious

One of humanity’s biggest mental blocks is a reluctance to admit the functions of fun. Since we are intricately designed highly adapted and successful creatures, all of our major long-established behavior habits must have (had) important adaptive functions. And they must also be intricately designed, with many specific features that match the details of how such functions are best achieved. So, since we are inclined to spend a large fraction of our time on play and fun, such things simply must have important functions. Moreover, the details of our play habits must be intricately matched to good ways to achieve those functions.

But we also seem to be designed to talk and act as if such functions didn’t exist. For many common behaviors, we are conscious of some of their important functions, we plan how our behaviors can better achieve those functions, and we coordinate with others to realize such plans. For example, we say that nutrition is one function of eating, and we coordinate to ensure we get nutrition regularly.

But we usually treat play and fun differently. Not only aren’t we in the habit of coordinating to achieve accepted functions, we often object quite loudly to those who speak of there being such functions. We insist that we aren’t trying to do anything other that enjoy ourselves and have fun. We play an instrument or a sport because its fun, not to impress people. We dance because its fun, not to meet mates. We aren’t trying to get a promotion, no, when playing golf with our boss; golf is just fun.

Play and fun seem especially important for mating and friendship. So if you analyze the function of your play too explicitly in front of your mates and friends, treating such functions too seriously, you risk alienating and losing your mates and friends. You might be able to get away with such analysis if done jokingly, but only if it doesn’t hit too close to home.

You might think that this is only a minor problem, and that you and your mates and friends are mature enough to openly discuss the serious functions of fun. But my experience suggests that this is just much harder and more dangerous than you think. Give up and accept that, for the most part, you are human and humans are designed not to consciously understand such things.

I suggest that if want to understand the functions of your play, you split yourself. Analyze mating and friendship in a general way away from situations where those issues arise among your discussants. When situations arise when those functions are especially relevant, don’t talk, or even think much, about the functions of your fun. Just … have fun.

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No theory X in shining armour

A frequent topic on this blog is the likely trade-off between a higher population and a higher quality of life at some point in the future. Some people – often total utilitarians – are willing to accept a lower quality of life for our descendants if that means there can be more of them. Others – often average utilitarians – will accept a smaller population if it is required to improve quality of life for those who are left.

Both of these positions lead to unintuitive conclusions if taken to the extreme. On the one hand, total utilitarians would have to accept the ‘repugnant conclusion‘, that a very large number of individuals experiencing lives barely worth living, could be much better than a small number of people experiencing joyous lives. On the other hand, average utilitarians confront the ‘mere addition paradox’; adding another joyous person to the world would be undesirable so long as their life was a little less joyous than the average of those who already existed.

Derek Parfit, pioneer of these ethical dilemmas and author of the classic Reasons and Persons, strived to,

“develop a theory of beneficence – theory X he calls it – which is able to solve the Non-identity problem [1], which does not lead to the Repugnant Conclusion and which thus manages to block the Mere Addition Paradox, without facing other morally unacceptable conclusions. However, Parfit’s own conclusion was that he had not succeeded in developing such a theory.”

Such a ‘theory X’ would certainly be desirable. I am not keen to bite the bullet of either the ‘repugnant conclusion’ or ‘mere addition paradox’ if neither is required. Unfortunately, if like me, you were hoping that such a theory might be forthcoming, you can now give up waiting. I was recently surprised to learn that What should we do about future generations? Impossibility of Parfit’s Theory X by Yew-Kwang Ng (1989) demonstrated many years ago that theory X cannot exist. Continue reading "No theory X in shining armour" »

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Why Not Agents For All?

Top actors, writers, and athletes have agents, who help them find good jobs, in exchange for a small part of their income. But having an agent is pretty rare – why don’t the rest of us have agents?

You might think its only worth paying an agent 5% of your income for jobs where wages vary by large factors, and that most people’s wages are pretty much set by their occupation, education, etc. Not true, however. Consider: workers in the same occupation, with the same observable experience, school, etc. can easily earn 30% more, or 30% less, just based on the industry they work in. For example, in the auto industry both janitors and truck drivers make twice the salary of janitors and truck drivers in the “eating and drinking place” industry. (More on industry wage differences below.)

Having an agent can also signal high quality, as agents usually won’t represent low quality folks. Also, while prior employers, often avoid being honest about your prior experience to potential future employers, agents can have incentives to be more honest, being repeat players with reputations to protect.

For an interesting example of ordinary people with “agents”, consider Giving What We Can (GWWC), an organization that “asks members to donate at least 10% of their income to the most effective charities.” Since GWWC wants to promote charity donations, it wants its members’ to have high incomes, all else equal. So affiliated folks advise members on how to find better paying jobs. If they put enough effort into this, I can believe members might actually earn more on net than they otherwise would, even after accounting for their 10% charity donation.

That promised info on industry wages differences: Continue reading "Why Not Agents For All?" »

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Disorganized collection growth

When I was a teenager, I lived in a nice house with my mother, stepfather and three younger brothers. The contents of the house were what you would expect if you took a normal house, multiplied the number of things in it by ten, then shook it very hard. Almost – a greater proportion of the things were in boxes or containers of some kind than you would expect by chance, and also there were narrow trails cleared along the important thoroughfares. For instance there was a clear path to the first few chairs in the living room, from which the more athletic members of the household could jump to most of the other chairs.

This state of affairs interested me. From what little I had seen of other families’ houses, it was pretty unusual. Yet looking at the details of of the processes which produced it, I couldn’t see what was unusual. I don’t remember my exact thoughts, but I figured it had to be something that affected the relative inflow and outflow of stuff from the house. But it wasn’t that we had way more spending power than other families, or that we kept a lot of garbage. Most of the things in the house were useful, or would be if you had a non-negligible chance of finding them. It seemed like my family bought usual kinds of things for usual kinds of reasons. A set of lego for the children to play with, a blender because sometimes we wanted to blend things, a box of second hand books or two because they were only 50c.

The last one there looks a bit problematic, but is not that unusual. People often buy marginally valuable items because they are cheap. There were a few other things like that that looked a bit problematic – a tendency to keep drawings, an inclination to buy several shirts if you found one that was good. But nothing that should obviously cause this massive phase transition into chaos.

In the end I’m still not sure what the dominant problem was, or if there was one. But I can tell you about one kind of failure that I think contributed, which I also notice in other places.

Suppose you have a collection of things, for instance household items. You want to use one, for instance a pair of scissors. Depending on the organization of your collection of household items, it can be more or less tricky to find the scissors. At a certain level of trickiness, it is cheaper to just buy some new scissors than to find the old ones. So you buy the new scissors.

Once you have the new scissors, you add them to your collection of things. This is both the obvious thing to do with items you possess, and the obvious solution to scissors having apparently been too rare amongst your possessions.

Unfortunately adding more scissors also decreases the density of every other kind of thing in the collection. So next time you are looking for a pen it is just a little bit harder to find. If pens are near the threshold where it’s easier to get new pens than find your old pens, you buy some more pens. Which pushes a couple of other items past the threshold. On it goes, and slowly it again becomes hard to find scissors.

In short, a given amount of organization can only support being able to cheaply find so much stuff. You can respond to this constraint by only keeping that much stuff, for instance borrowing or buying then discarding items if they are beyond what your system can keep track of. Or you can respond by continually trying to push the ratios of different things to something impossible, which leads to a huge disorganized pile of stuff.

Another place I notice this is in writing. Suppose you write a blog post. Sadly it is a bit too long for the average reader to remember a key point in the second paragraph. You suspect they will forget it and just fill in what they would expect, consequently missing the whole point. To avoid this, you emphasize the point again in the second last paragraph. But now the post is even longer, and it is not clear whether they will also remember another key part. So you add some more about that point in the conclusion. But now it’s so long the whole argument is probably too hard to piece together, so you add a bit of an outline. Perhaps this eventually reaches an equilibrium in which all the points have been repeated and emphasized and exemplified so much that nobody can fail to understand. Often it would nonetheless have been better to just quit early on.

I think I had a better list of such examples, in a half written post which I put in my collection of blog drafts. Unfortunately my collection is so sprawling and poorly organized that it seemed easier to just write the post again than to find the old one. So here you have it. It’s tempting to add this post too to my blog draft collection and look for it again when I find some more things to add, but no good lies in this direction.

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