Monthly Archives: April 2021

Try-Two Contest Board

Imagine that a restaurant wants to ask its associates (cooks, servers, etc.) what are the best two menu items to put on its menu as specials on a particular night. They have a large set of possible menu items to consider, the measure of success is menu item sales revenue, and they want a mechanism that is both fun and easy. (Which rules out conditional prediction markets, at least for now.)

Here’s an idea. Start with a contest board like this, on a wall near associates:

Continue reading "Try-Two Contest Board" »

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Do Your Thoughts Scale?

Most intellectuals don’t pick their topics based on fundamental value. They instead opportunistically read the many clues around them regarding on which topics they are more likely to be rewarded. Now if you, in contrast, have the slack and inclination to instead pursue what seems fundamentally important, I salute you. And to help you, I now review some related considerations that you might overlook:

  • Rewards: You don’t want to focus *only on topics where others offer rewards, but that does help, so don’t ignore it.
  • Impressive: In particular, if your work can help you look impressive, that can help you get more support later.
  • Generality: The more general your topic, the more different useful applications you and others might later find.
  • Approachable: It is not enough for insights on X to be valuable, you need some ideas for how to get insights on X.
  • Pioneering: Due to diminishing returns, the 10th insight in an area offers more gains relative to costs than the 1000th.
  • Advantage: If you will compete with others on your topic, seek some sort of comparative advantage relative to them.
  • Actionable: Cosmically big topics are insufficient; you also need key concrete actions which your results could inform.
  • Near-term: The sooner that relevant actions could be taken the better; actions in a century matter a lot less.
  • Scales-well: You want to join an intellectual community that will achieve big scale economies in accumulating insights.

This last consideration is so important, and so oft overlooked, that I will now spend the rest of this post on it. The world gains vastly more when intellectuals can organize themselves via a division of labor to each look into different topics and then combine all their efforts into a unified total perspective. So that over time their efforts accumulate into progress. Most intellectuals pretend that their usual habits ensure this, but this isn’t remotely true. Continue reading "Do Your Thoughts Scale?" »

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Managed Competition or Competing Managers?

Competition and cooperation [as] opposites, with vice on one side and virtue on the other … is a false dichotomy … The market-based competition envisioned in economics is disciplined by rules and reputations. … Just as competition is not a shorthand for “anything goes,” the quick and thoughtless inference that cooperation is necessarily virtuous is often unjustified. In many cases, cooperation is a tool for an in-group to take advantage of those outside the group. …

Competition refers to a situation in which people or organizations (such as firms) apply their efforts and talents toward a certain goal, and they receive results based substantially on their performance relative to each other. … Cooperation refers to a situation in which the participants seek out win-win outcomes from working together. (More)

Raw unconstrained competition looks scary; lies, betrayal, predation, starvation, war; so many things can go wrong! Which makes “managed competition” sound so comforting; whew, someone will limit the problems. Someone like a boss, police officer, sports referee, or government regulator.

However, raw unconstrained management also looks scary; that’s tyranny, which can go wrong in so so many ways! Such as via incompetence, exploitation, and rot. And so we can be comforted to hear that managers must compete. For example, when individual managers compete for jobs, firms compete for customers, or politicians compete for votes.

But who will guard the guardians? If we embed competitions within larger systems of managers, and also embed managers within larger systems of competition, won’t they all sit within some maximally-encompassing system, which must then be either competition, management, or some awkward mix of the two? This is the fundamental hard problem of design and governance, from which there is no easy escape. Continue reading "Managed Competition or Competing Managers?" »

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A Zoologist’s Guide to Our Past

In his new book The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens–and Ourselves, Cambridge zoologist Arik Kershenbaum purports to tell us what intelligent aliens will be like when we meet them:

This book is about how we can use that realistic scientific approach to draw conclusions, with some confidence, about alien life – and intelligent life in particular. (p.1)

Now, that won’t be for a long time, and they will even then be far more advanced than us:

We are absolutely in the infancy of our technological development, and that makes it exceptionally likely that any aliens we encounter will be more advanced than us. (p.160)

The chances of us encountering intelligent aliens [anytime soon] is so remote as to be almost dismissed. (p.320)

Even so, this is what aliens will be like:

One way to prepare ourselves mentally and practically for First Contact is … to reconcile ourselves to the fact that there are certain properties that intelligent life must have. … their behavior, how they move and feed and come together in societies, will be similar to ours. …

[Aliens and us] both have families and pets, read and write books, and care for our children and our relatives. … this situation is actually very likely. Those evolutionary focus that push us to be the way we are must also be pushing life on other planets to be like us. (pp.322-323)

And this will be their origin story: Continue reading "A Zoologist’s Guide to Our Past" »

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Real Vs. Fake Stories: Complements or Substitutes?

Regarding meaningful stories and narratives, I see two huge trends over the last century or so.

  1. First, we’ve seen a great increase in the amount of fiction consumed. People now spend many hours of day watching TV and movies, reading novels, etc. Centuries ago this fraction of time was far lower. An important fraction of these stories take place in universes which make a lot more emotional and moral sense than our real world seems to, especially on larger historical and cosmological scales.
  2. Second, we’ve seen a great decline in passions regarding grand historical and cosmological narratives. Religion, nationalism, and ideology all seem to have waned. Yes many people still care a lot about such things today, but centuries ago people eagerly and repeatedly went to war over such things. (We even instituted “freedom of speech” to cut back on their destructive enthusiasm.)

Note that I’m not saying that these “real” narratives are true, just that many people treat them as true. (Or as more true.) This is in stark contrast to stories that inspire and engage people, but which people don’t even pretend are true. (Trekkies love Star Trek, but don’t claim it really happened.)

One simple interpretation of these two trends is that “fake” stories are a substitute for “real” ones. To review, A and B are substitutes when you less want A the more you have of B, while A and B are complements when you more want A the more you have of B. So the theory here would be that we less want “real” stories the more “fake” stories we consume.

One problem with my theory is that most people seem to think fake and real stories are complements:

Now if we just look at random stories, and ignore their types, it seems clear that individual stories are on net substitutes. We only have so many hours a day to consume stories, so if we spend another hour on a particular story, that leaves fewer hours for other stories. So if individual stories are substitutes, it seems plausible that so are categories of stories.

But they why would all these poll respondents be wrong? I suggest: social desirability bias. Stories are seen as good things, and good things are seen to be even better if they are complements. (E.g., exercise and healthy eating.) So I suggest poll respondents are saying that story types are complements mainly to show their support for the good thing of stories.

So if fake and real stories are substitutes, from which side were recent changes driven? A simple tech theory would be that we have improved our ability to tell and share fake stories far more than we’ve improved our ability to construct grant historical and cosmological narratives.

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Position Vs. Topic Contrarians

[You can take] an authority defying position [that you] can share with like-minded folks and which might later lead to glory, while avoiding most of the accuracy-reducing costs of disagreement: be contrarian on questions, not answers. (More)

People love to discuss and argue, but usually not on topics where everyone expects everyone to agree. Instead, it is the prospect of disagreement that gives energy and life to most conversation. Even if your conversation partners nod in enthusiastic agreement, they expect that others out there would not so easily agree.

Sometimes people agree with majorities and at other times they agree with minorities. When they take the latter route they often proudly claim that this shows they are motivated mainly by truth, as that explains their willingness to suffer disapproval from a majority.

But in fact, taking a minority position can show your independence and defiance, and it can often get you more attention, which you can use to show how likeable, clever, and articulate you are in the way that you take your contrarian position. Also, sometimes a minority is especially grateful for your show of loyalty to them. And you may hope for larger reputation gains if you are later proved right for taking a minority, relative to a majority, stance. Thus it isn’t at all obvious that being contrarian in this way reliably shows one’s truth-orientation.

As the above quote indicates, there is another kind of contrarian, who instead of taking unusual positions on familiar questions, focuses on unusual questions. Contrarians of this sort are less likely to be wrong and to cause the larger world to go wrong in listening to them. And they contribute more to an intellectual division of labor, wherein we all specialize on different mixes of topics, and then share our conclusions with each other.

But while a topic contrarian seems to contribute more to our all becoming better informed on everything, topic contrarians gain far fewer advantages from their stance. Human conversations tend to follow a norm of sticking to whatever are the current common topics, and so those who speak to other topics are mostly ignored. For example, in policy worlds, there’s a saying that there’s no point in releasing a white paper on a topic that hasn’t been in the news in the last two weeks.

So while audiences often listen especially attentively to position contrarians, they may not even hear a topic contrarian. Which means they are much less likely to notice how likable, clever, or articulate you are about that. Few will see your talking about a weird topic as showing loyalty to them. Yes, you might later gain reputation if your topic later becomes more popular, but usually folks will just see you as bad at following fashion.

I thus conclude that topic contrarians can better argue that their stance suggests a truth orientation, as they gain so much less in other ways.

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Reviving Freedom of ‘Religion’

In 1890, the [US] Supreme Court … ‘religion’ has reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, … In the 1960s, the Court expanded its view of religion … [to include] Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”

In its 1965 ruling … a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God … The Court in this 1970 decision … essentially merged religion with deeply and sincerely held moral and ethical beliefs. … Court in its 1972 ruling … suggested a shift back, … applied only to “a ‘religious’ belief or practice,” and “the very concept of ordered liberty precludes allowing every person to make his own standards on matters of conduct in which society as a whole has important interests.”

The Court in its 1981 decision … further expressed its reluctance to protect philosophical values. … Jehovah’s Witness [aversion to weapons job] was a “personal philosophical choice rather than a religious choice”. (more)

Centuries ago, Europe saw fierce religious conflicts, made more destructive by states taking sides. States who supported a particular religion might oppose alternatives via repressing local associates or going to war with associated states. To reduce such conflict, some states adopted “freedom of religion”, which meant the state not taking sides between religions.

This was possible in part because of the typical limited ambitions of both states and religions there and then. Neither the states nor the religions were in the habit of dictating most details of most social practices. So the overlap in their spheres of influence was small enough that states could accept a small loss in their sphere as a reasonable price to pay for less conflict.

Over the intervening centuries, the ambitions of states to dictate social details has greatly increased, but the influence and ambitions of the few most popular traditional religions have mostly waned. This has allowed “freedom of religion” to be nominally maintained, at least regarding those few traditional religions. And as the above quote shows, other taking-of-sides by states regarding religious-like groups and behaviors has largely been “solved” by declaring that they are “not religions”.

The problem of course is that the fundamental problem of passionate conflicts being stoked by states taking sides is not avoided merely by declaring relevant groups and behaviors to be “not religions”. So we have in fact recently seen a steady rise in the destructiveness of conflicts due to states taking sides. Yes, it isn’t yet as bad as centuries ago, but it seems to be on its way, and won’t obviously stop before getting there.

Religions have long existed because they serve deep and ancient human needs. So a decline of the once most popular religions does not imply a decline in social groups and behaviors that serve those ancient needs. It is just that those things are less often officially called “religions”. Yet the passions they inspire and the willingness of associates to sacrifice to show their support for some versions and dislike of others has not obviously greatly diminished.

All of which suggests that, unless we somehow revive a freedom of religion-like-stuff, we are likely to suffer increasingly destructive conflicts due to religious-like groups wielding the power of states against each other. But to revive such a freedom, we would have to pick a legal definition of “religious-like”. What could that be?

Clearly it wouldn’t be sufficient to just refer to beliefs in gods or the supernatural. Yes, people have often shown their devotion to groups by their willingness to believe extreme crazy-sounding stuff, and centuries ago gods and the supernatural fit that bill well. But clearly more recently religious-like groups have found other substitutes. And as it won’t work to have courts judge what beliefs are “crazy”, we can’t use that standard as our legal definition of “religious-like”.

A legal standard standard of “deeply and sincerely held moral and ethical beliefs” would be easier for courts to judge, but that would also seem to greatly limit the scope of the state. Libertarians might go for it, but most others would not.

Another possible standard would be that a group is “religious like” if enough individuals pay high enough and visible enough personal costs to promote it. Like strange food, strange dress, protests, and civil disobedience. But then would suicide or terrorism count? A standard that demands expensive destructive behavior to qualify your group as “religious-like” might induce a lot of that kind of behavior, which seems bad.

Yet another possibility would be to call anything a religion if at least ten percent of citizens says so.

At this point I don’t have any good suggestions, though I’d take any of these last three solutions over the status quo. But I’ve hardly started to think about this, and as some of you out there may have good ideas, I decided to just present the problem in this post, hoping to prod your efforts.

Added 9Apr: On reflection, the problem of religious-like groups wielding the power of the state against competitors seems to be more of an issue for governance processes which allow much discretion in how their power is wielded. In a futarchy, such discretion could exist in the choice of values, but is much harder in the choice of bills to consider or in bets regarding which bills promote the chosen values. If so, freedom of religion would be mainly realized via court vetoes over value elements.

We might like to distinguish between (A) religious-like groups going out of their way to beat on or inconvenience particular competitors, and their (B) just demanding extra accommodation in order to show their dominance and to inconvenience all possible competitors. If so, we might want a futarchy court to stand ready to accommodate religion by vetoing value elements that seem examples of (A), while not vetoing based on religion complaints that seem more to be examples of (B).

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Response to Suri Re Futarchy

If by chance one of your writings strikes a chord, and is cited by folks decades later, your main reward may be to repeatedly hear the same misunderstandings and off-target counter-arguments that you’ve repeatedly tried to head off in your writings, but which critics apparently can’t be bothered to read. Sometimes, though not usually, I bother to respond. Case in point: Sunil Suri’s complaints about futarchy in Politics With Skin In The Game.

His summary of futarchy mechanics seems fine to me, though it might mislead readers into thinking that one needs to pick a new outcome for each new policy choice. I instead suggest picking just one standard outcome measure to use for most all big choices. I’d only pick specialized measures for decisions too small to sufficiently impact the standard measure.

Suri admits to some positives:  

futarchy creates financial incentives to be a better-informed citizen. This could transform our politics by:

  • Reducing our consumption of low-quality information and our susceptibility to cognitive biases – both of which distract us from what matters.
  • Making real expertise matter again – while democratising it. …

Suri then lists ten objections. But five of those objections merely point to general features of the problem that futarchy is trying to address, which are thus issues that bedevil any solution to its problem.

To review, the problem is how to make key government policy choices, the sorts of choices now made when bills are passed by a legislature, or when executives issue orders. These choices are typically made in a complex world under great uncertainty regarding relevant outcomes, outcomes which are often spread out over many decades. A great many values and preferences are relevant for these choices. These values, and the relevant info needed to make these decisions well, are all housed within opaque, distracted, and often irrational humans, who must somehow be induced to sufficiently reveal them.

Here are Suri’s five applies-to-all-solutions objections:  Continue reading "Response to Suri Re Futarchy" »

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Prefer Law To Governance

Libertarians are usually adamant that they prefer less government to more. But sadly this tends to make them reluctant to express opinions on choices between different non-zero government scenarios. After all, that might have them seeming to endorse some non-zero government scenario, while their primary desire is to make it clear that they are anti-government. So the main choices on which they are willing to express an opinion is between ones with clearly “more” versus “less” government.

Alas, because there really are other choices that matter in the world. For example, it might matter how local is the government that is involved in any given area of life, even if a local and centralized government would have the same “amount” of involvement. It might also matter how accountable is government to citizens, and on what timescales; governments can be more or less “democratic” even when they have the same scope for controlling citizens.

One big choice that I think matters a lot is between dealing with a problem via civil law, or via governance. Civil law mainly deals with after-the-fact disputes between equal parties, where judges can’t anticipate whom they will judge, and where judges must articulate clear principles of choice. In contrast, governance gives a lot more discretion for officials to give orders regarding future actions, to pick out the people they want to influence, and to treat similar people quite differently.

For example, governance can deal with pollution by issuing detailed regulations on how, where, and by whom pollutants are made and used. In contrast, civil law can deal with pollution by letting those who suffer from it sue those who caused it. Governance can deal with poverty by taking money from whomever it wants, giving money to whomever it wants, and requiring recipients to abide by any lifestyle rules it wants. In contrast, civil law can deal with poverty by requiring siblings and cousins to take care of each other when in dire need.

Governance can deal with crime by managing police, prosecutors, and prisons who decide in great detail who will be be investigated and punished how and for what. In contrast, private bounty hunters and required liability insurance could make these all private choices, leaving to the community only the choice of what is a crime and how strongly it is to be discouraged and discovered.

Governance dealt with the pandemic by issuing regulations about masks, distancing, lockdowns, etc., by limiting and commanding how vaccines can be tested and produced, and then directly managing their distribution. In contrast, law could have dealt with the pandemic only via requiring liability insurance and the preservation of sufficient info to allow the infected to sue those who caused it.

In all these cases the key difference is less about the overall level of government control, and more about the discretion of government officials, which allows favoritism, corruption, and over-confident micro-management. In the choice between law and governance, I usually prefer law. (Though yes of course, I don’t know how to manage a war well via law.)

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To Beat Aliens, We Must Become Aliens

Fight fire with fire. It takes a thief to catch a thief. To defeat your enemy, know and become your enemy.

Across the long sweep of history, our ancestors have greatly changed. Animals to primates to foragers to farmers to the industrialists of today. Across these many ages, we’ve greatly changed our environments, habits, styles of thinking, and priorities. During the ages of humanity, this has led to increasing “alienation”, as our worlds drift increasingly far from the worlds in which human nature was formed.

Someday we may become expansive aliens who rapidly spread life and civilization throughout a vast volume, stopping only perhaps when we meet other expansive aliens (in perhaps a few hundred million years). But we are far from up to that task now, and to reach that level we must probably pass through several more ages. Ages with big changes to our environments, habits, styles of thinking, and priorities. (Perhaps the next age would be an “age of em”.)

These changes will induce even greater alienation, at least as long as human nature doesn’t change greatly. And even if our descendants manage to change human nature, to make their new worlds seem more natural to them, that very prospect may horrify the residents of some prior ages. They may see even modest changes a loss of “humanity” due to many specific value changes. And so they may seek to prevent such new ages.

And this, I expect, is one of the greatest obstacles to our descendants becoming expansionist, and taking their place among the great alien civilizations who fill the universe with life and thereafter set its destinies. Some particular age, which could only have existed because many prior ages diminished and give birth to new different ages, “will stand athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’”.

The ability to do this will be greatly aided by a world government, both in mood and in implementation. Which part of why I fear such a government. Let each age instead “diminish, and go into the West“, giving birth to differing descendant ages, so that we can help fill the cosmos with life, with “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky“.

Added 9am: To make the matter more concrete, if they had understood the actual consequences, should pre-human primates have wanted to prevent the rise of humans? Should hyper-egalitarian, leisurely, and promiscuous foragers have wanted to prevent the rise of farmers,  with their hard work, war, inequality, slaves, and marriage? Should strongly religious, nationalistic and pro-marriage farmers have wanted to prevent the rise of industrialists who abandon such things? Should we want to prevent an age of em?

Added 7Apr: In four Twitter polls, I asked if the people of various eras would, according to their values, want to prevent successor ages. Results: 2-1 majorities think forager & farmer values would lead them to prevent following (farmer & industry) eras, even as majorities think primate & industry era values would not lead them to prevent following (human & em) eras. This seems to be overall pretty bad news for the prospect of there being many future eras once eras can coordinate to prevent successor eras.

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