Monthly Archives: June 2021

Replace Govt As Career Agent

Agents for actors, musicians, and artists get 10-20% of their payments in order to advise, promote and negotiate on their behalf. Sports agents get 4-10%, while speaker agents get 20-30%. Headhunters get 18-25% of first year salary. The idea is simple: when someone gets a big fraction of your income, they have an incentive to increase your income. (In addition to reputation and repeat business incentives.)

True, you might not be willing to part with a big fraction of your income just to create such an agent. But it turns out that you already have a career agent who takes 1/4 to 1/3 of your income: your government. But while your government may sometimes pay for guidance counselors and jobs listings, overall they do a terrible job as your career agent. They do far far less than would a private agent paid that big a fraction of your income.

However, it would cost very little to transfer this career agency role from your government to a private actor. All we need is for the government to auction off the right to be paid the amount in taxes that you will pay to the government. The government is no worse off; it could use that auction revenue to pay off its debt, or to buy stock index funds. The auction winner gains strong incentives to increase the taxes you pay, such as by helping you to earn more money. And investors gain a new asset class to diversify over.

Notice that you’d be under no obligation to listen to agent advice, or to accept any of the deals they find for you. And they’d have no powers to enforce or change taxes, or to prevent the government from changing taxes. Though they might report you if they found you cheating on your taxes. This is nothing like tax farming. Seems crazy to me to claim (as many do) that they’d illegally censor you or threaten to break your kneecaps.

Note also that this asset is worth less to someone who can’t get you to listen to or work with them. So the asset will tend to be traded to someone who can get you to listen, if any such person exists. So you’d have a lot of influence over who held the asset. This asset on you could be held by a parent, school, employer, or even by you yourself.

Yes, this agent doesn’t weigh all of your interests the way you do; you’d pick fun over work more often than would they. But such a conflict also exists for all of the other kinds of career agents mentioned above, and for the other agents in your life, such as your lawyer, sport coach, priest, parent, and teacher. They can all help you even though you know to not just believe everything they say. Note also that some of these agents, e.g., parents and teachers, are assigned to you; you don’t get to pick them.

To avoid problems with auction bidders fearing that others know more than they, best to do the auction early, such as at birth, when few know anything. And to tell bidders then some basic stats on the parents. Individual auction prices don’t need to be made public, though seems fair to tell the parents of kid whose rights are sold. (And maybe also to give parents a cut.) There should be a way to contact the asset holder of a person, so one can offer to buy that asset.

You might fear that asset holders would lobby to increase taxes, but they are easily outvoted by ordinary taxpayers. Conversely, you might fear that governments would lower tax rates to please voters while hurting asset holders. But governments would fear cutting revenue in new auctions; governments similarly don’t usually inflate to pay off bonds for fear of raising their cost of new bonds. These tax assets can function as well as does government debt, which is pretty well.

Yes, the risk of unpredictable changes to economic growth and tax rates would impose a risk premium on the cash that auction bidders would pay for these assets. But that’s much less of an issue if the auction itself is denominated in a risky asset, such as a stock index fund, instead of cash..

Yes, people might try to extort asset holders to sell their tax asset to them cheap via threatening to choose a tax-free life. But asset holders would likely call their bluff and just refuse to sell in such circumstances.

Yes, it makes sense to try to start first with small experiments, such as perhaps in a small nation. Maybe also do an experiment where only a random subset get their taxes sold at auction.

Added 8p: To avoid extortion scenarios, it might help to fix the tax system to cut situations where someone gains nearly the same value and consumption, but via very different personal lifetime taxes paid, merely by different formal approaches to what is treated how tax-wise.

Added 2July: 53% of my Twitter followers reject this proposal, including these two variations: let parents veto the auction at birth, and impose a Harberger tax on the assets, to make them more easily transferred.

Added 16Sep21: I suggest there’s even more value from having you be your own career agent, to lower your marginal tax rate.

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We Moderns Are Status-Drunk

Twelve years ago I posted on how our era is a rare unique “dreamtime” of fast growth, wide cultural integration, and delusional beliefs. But I think I missed a big reason why we have the delusions we do: as we get rich, we each increasingly over-estimate our relative social status. Let me explain.

The core idea of evolutionary psychology is that evolution shaped our behaviors to be adaptive in our ancestral environments. That is, we do stuff that gives us more descendants. But because our ancestors only experienced a limited range of environments, we only evolved behavior rules sufficient to induce adaptive behavior in those actual environments. This made our behavior indeterminate in the other new environments which humans have experienced since then. So a re-run of the process of evolution could easily lead to different behaviors in these new environments. That is, human behavior today results not just from adaptation to ancestral environments, but also from the many random ways that evolution happened to encode our behavior in rules.

For example, our ancestors needed to drink water to avoid dehydration, but because in their environments water always had the same combination of water smell and water feel, we could have evolved either to check that stuff is water by its smell, or by its feel. If those two water features always go together, and if both methods are just as easy, then this difference won’t make much difference to behavior. We find water, check that it is water, and drink it. But if later we encountered stuff that had water smell but not water feel, or water feel but not water smell, then these two different ways to detect water might lead to very different behaviors. For example, water-smell humans might drink stuff that smells but doesn’t feel like water, while water-feel humans would not drink such stuff.

In this post, I want to suggest that much of the “modern” human style which has arisen since the industrial revolution results from a particular way that evolution happened to encode human detection of relative status. This has made human history go surprisingly well in some ways, and surprisngly badly in others. Had evolution happened to have coded our status detection machinery differently, these last few centuries might have played out very differently. And perhaps they did, in alien histories. But before we get into that, let us first see how our status detection methods have shaped the modern human style. Continue reading "We Moderns Are Status-Drunk" »

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UFOs – What The Hell?

(This post is more of an essay, intended to be especially widely accessible.)

Long ago, my physics teachers taught me to arrogantly dismiss the “paranormal”, like ghosts or telepathy. Or UFOs. Yes, we once saw meteorites as paranormal, but not today. Yes, we now accept ball lightning, even though evidence for it is weaker than for UFOs, but we have plausible theories there.

However, when the topic of distant “aliens” came up recently in my research on the origin of life and the future of the universe, I browsed UFO evidence and found it to be much stronger than stuff on ghosts or telepathy. And now a U.S. military report says that intelligently controlled UFOs with amazing abilities seem real to them, even if they don’t know their cause.

Hence my and perhaps your titular reaction, “What the Hell?” How can this make any sense?

Turns out, my prior research prepared me to address this very question, once I gave it some thought. Not on the evidence for UFOs, where others are more expert than I. But on how to fit this idea of strange objects with amazing abilities under intelligent control into your scientific world view. (Note that I’m not claiming this as fact; I’m saying it isn’t crazy.)

While there are many possibilities here, it suffices for me to show just one. And yes, it involves aliens.

We can easily believe that aliens are very advanced, and thus have amazing abilities. But two questions remain:

  • In a vast universe that looks dead everywhere, how is it that advanced aliens happen to be right here right now?
  • Even if aliens did travel to be here now, why would they act as UFOs do: mute and elusive, yet still noticeable?

First, note that our standard best scientific theories predict aliens. That is, they predict that life sometimes arises from simple dead matter, and can eventually evolve to make intelligent creatures like us. And this could happen most anywhere.

Yes, the universe looks completely dead; we see no signs of life outside Earth, even though over millions of years advanced aliens could have made some big visible changes. Some possible explanations:

  1. Aliens arise so rarely that the nearest ones are too far to see, or to have travelled to here,
  2. Aliens are common but simply can’t travel between stars or make big visible changes,
  3. Aliens are common and travel everywhere, but enforce rules against visible changes, or
  4. Aliens arise rarely, but in small clumps; the first in clump to appear can control the others.

Of these, only the last two can put aliens here now, and #3 seems too much a conspiracy (i.e., coordinate to hide) theory for my tastes. But scenario #4 works, and could plausibly result from “panspermia.”

That is, simple life might have arisen on a planet Eden long ago, via a very rare event. (My research suggests this happens only once per million galaxies.) After life evolved at Eden for billions of years, a rock hit Eden, kicking up another rock that drifted for millions of years carrying life to seed our Sun’s stellar nursery. A nursery that held thousands of new stars packed close with many rocks flying around, allowing life to spread quickly to them all.

Our sun’s siblings then drifted apart, while life evolved on each planet for billions of years. The first sibling planet to develop civilization did so millions of years ago, and it wasn’t Earth. These aliens then sought out their sibling stars and traveled to them to watch civilization maybe evolve there.

Now, to explain the fact that these aliens have not visibly changed our shared galaxy, even though they can travel to here, we must postulate that they enforce a rule against making big visible changes, probably enforced by a strong central government. A rule against mass aggressive expansion, colonization, and disassembling of planets, stars, etc. Maybe due to environmentalist values, maybe to enable regulation, or maybe just to protect central control and status. Yes, this is something of a conspiracy theory, but being smaller, it seems easier to swallow.

Okay, that is a not-crazy answer to the first question, on why aliens are here now in a dead universe. What about the second question, on why UFOs act so weird and coy?

To answer this, I postulate two features of sibling alien preferences: 1) they want us get us to comply with their rule against making big visible changes to the universe, and 2) they are reluctant to just kill, crush, enslave, or dominate us to get this outcome (or they’d have already done one of these). Aliens somehow value something about us independent of their influence, and thus prefer us to organically and voluntary comply with their rule.

To induce our voluntary min-change compliance, their plan is put themselves gently at the top of our status ladder. After all, social animals consistently have status ladders, with low status animals tending to emulate the higher. So if these aliens hang out close to us for a long time, show us their very impressive abilities, but don’t act overtly hostile, then we may well come to see them as very high status members of our tribe. (Not powerful hostile outsiders.)

If we are smart enough to figure out that they have a rule against big visible changes, enforced via a “world” government, we may naturally emulate those policies. We may even come to treat UFO aliens as ancient humans treated their gods and top leaders, with respect, deference, and obedience. After all, most ancient people knew little about their gods and leaders beyond their impressive wealth and abilities, but that was usually enough.

But why not just land on the White House lawn, meet with our leaders, and explain their agenda? Because once they start talking to us, we will have a lot of questions. Such as on their nature, practices, history, and future plans. And many of us would surely hate some of their answers. They are complete aliens after all, and we are often offended by humans from slightly different subcultures. They reasonably guess that we are just not as open-minded as we like to think.

Sure, maybe if they understood us really well they could just say “no comment” when a discussion got near something likely to offend us. But we’d then reasonably infer that they were hiding bad news near there, make a guess at what it is, and get somewhat offended at that. Far simpler and more robust to not talk at all, except in dire emergencies.

That’s a plan that could be approved long in advance by a far away central power wary of allowing much improvisation and discretion by their local representatives. Especially if their very old and stable centralized civilization has atrophied and lost much of its prior generality and flexibility. Or if they worry that such representatives may “go native” and be persuaded by us to go grabby.

This strategy works best if they carefully limit what they show us. Just give us brief simple impressive glimpses that don’t let us figure out their tech, or even the locations of their local bases. The package of simple geometric shapes, crazy accelerations, no sounds or other local side effects, clear intelligent intent, and avoiding harms to us seems to do the trick.

And that’s my story. How UFOs as aliens can make sense. Not an inspiring story, but a plausible one. They could be our panspermia siblings, here to get us to voluntarily obey their rule against aggressive expansion, hopefully via our emulating them because they sit at the top of our status ladder. Not to say that this is obviously true, just to say that it isn’t crazy. Yes, there are other possible scenarios. But UFOs as aliens, that’s no crazier than ball lighting.

Added 4July: The many comments on this post are mostly the result of this mention at Instapundit.

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Report UFOs as Physical Likelihood Ratios

It is probably too late to influence the upcoming US government UFO report, and even if it isn’t I’m probably not high enough status to do so, but if I had any influence I have one main recommendation to its authors, and to authors of similar future reports: Express results in terms of likelihood ratios for simple physical hypotheses. Let me explain.

On a topic like UFOs, we must make a chain of inferences between data and theory. At one end is the data itself, expressed in the lowest and most primitive data levels: pictures, videos, physical remnants, testimony, biographies of testifiers, etc. At the other extreme are the main abstract hypotheses of interest, such as: error/delusion, hoax/lies, hidden Earth orgs, hidden non-Earth orgs.

Such a report should probably not give posterior probabilities for the abstract hypotheses. Making good judgements about those requires different kinds of expertise than they have, and consideration of data well beyond what they are tasked with reporting on. And government agencies are famously risk-averse; I’m pretty sure they want to limit what they say, and avoid controversial topics where they’d be more open to criticism.

But because these report authors have access to sensitive data that they’d rather not share, it also doesn’t make sense for them to just reveal all of their relevant detailed data. Yes, we’d like them to reveal what they can, so we can make independent analyses, and they probably can safely reveal more than they have. But we also want them to usefully summarize the data that they can’t share.

This means that their report needs to be expressed in terms more abstract than the pixels in a picture, even if they are less abstract than the main abstract hypotheses of interest. So what is a good level of abstraction for a UFO report?

It seems to me that the obvious choice here is in terms of physical objects. Report UFOs in terms of what objects seemed to have what shapes, medium (air, water, space), position/speed/acceleration histories, brightness, reflectivity, sounds, fluid disturbances, shadows, and apparent reactions to humans. Speaking to these sort of physical abstractions seems within the range of their expertise and data. And it avoids venturing into other harder areas.

Note I used the word “seems”. They shouldn’t be trying to consider how plausible are various combinations of shapes, accelerations, sounds, etc., beyond applying basic physics. (Beyond using simple physical priors over relative angles, distances, etc.) They should just ask which physical hypotheses would make the data seen most likely. Plausibility of theories are “priors” and  which theories make the data seem most likely are “likelihoods”, and Bayesian analysis famously recommends estimating these separately, a recommendation that I’m echoing here.

For example, testimony from someone on drugs can be discounted, as might radar data that goes away after the radar system is rebooted. But the more independent sources seem to show an object with a place, size, speed, etc., then the stronger is the likelihood evidence for that event, ignoring the question of what organizations might want to or be able to induce such an event.

Now while likelihoods can be expressed in absolute terms, I think it makes more sense here to express them here in relative terms. Both relative to other physical parameter values, and relative to simple error/delusion theories.

For example, regarding the estimate of the speed of a particular object at a particular point during some event, report a max likelihood speed, and also say how much relative likelihoods fall as speed changes. For example, the max likelihood speed might be 2000 mph, with the likelihood falling to 10% of that max value at speeds of 1000 and 3000 mph.

For an entire event, consider the mostly plausible sources of error or delusion: drunk observers, Venus reflected on a windshield, bits of fluff floating close to the camera, ball lightning, swamp gas, etc. And then give us a relative likelihood for the event really being the physical objects sizes, speeds, etc. that they seem, relative to the best error theories they could find wherein these are mistakes or illusions.  That is, how often would people report seeing something like this, given that this is actually what was physically happening there, relative to how often they would report seeing something this strange due to sources of mistakes and delusions most likely to appear this way.

I’m not an expert on UFO report details, and I will defer to experts when available, but my impression is that that for the ten “hardest to explain” UFO events, this last likelihood value will be huge. Well over a thousand, and maybe over a million. Which doesn’t answer the question of what they are if not illusions. For that we need to also consider the priors and relative likelihoods of the other theory categories. A task that goes beyond the limited expertise and data tasked to these report authors. A fact for which they are probably grateful.

So please, UFO report authors, you don’t need to discuss the main big theory categories, including aliens. And you can keep your military, etc. secrets. Just tell us what physical objects were seen where when and with what event features. Tell us how much less likely we would be to see that under the best error theories you can find, and tell us how steeply your parameter estimates fall away from your max likelihood estimates. (That is, give error bars.)

With a report like that then the rest of us can struggle to interpret this more abstracted physical data in terms of the big explanations of interest, with gratitude to you for your central contributions.


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Give Tyler His Due

In this post I complained that three pundits took UFOs “seriously” mainly by talking “only about the fact that other people seem to be taking UFOs as aliens seriously.” Tyler Cowen pointed out to me, correctly, that I haven’t given him sufficient credit, as I just quoted from his Bloomberg column, but not from this blog post:

My best bet is this.  The vehicles would be “unmanned” drone probes … highly generalized software instructions …  “Seek out major power sources, … send information back … if approached or confronted, run away fast.”   

The drone probes do not destroy us, because of Star Trek-like reasons: highly destructive species already have blown themselves up, leaving the relatively peaceful ones to send drones around.  The drones probably are everywhere, in the galactic sense that is. …

So the relevant theory is one of how advanced civilizations allocate their surplus when there is a lot of discretion and not much in the way of within-lifetime costs and benefits to determine a very particular set of plans and goals.  Not even for the grandkids.

In this hypothesis, of course, you have to be short immortality.  And short usable wormholes.

… photos of the drone probes make them look a bit like cheap crap?  … consistent with the view of them being a discretionary resource allocation stemming from projects with fairly fuzzy goals.

  If aliens are afoot, why should it be only one group of them?  That would seem strange, as in most things there are multitudes, …

Robin’s hypothesis, that they are relatively local panspermiacs, who feel some stake in us, appeals to me.  … chance of us having resulted from panspermia is pretty high; there are lots of baby civilizations for each parent, so why deny you are probably a baby?

Perhaps our visitors are exercising some “mood affiliation” in wishing to visit and record us!  They could be the parents, or perhaps another baby civilization.

Of course … these UFO sightings probably are not of alien creations, so all of this is pure fantasy anyway.

So let me respect this in the intellectuals’ way, by critiquing it.

  1. As aliens are likely millions of years more advanced than us, they are fully artificial; they are robots. Any probe capable of getting here could at a small extra cost hold an entire artificial mind, or even millions of them. No point in sending a smaller mind. If anything from aliens is here, some aliens are here.
  2. It is crazy to think of entire civilizations as stuck forever at the same one-bit setting of war or peace. Even animals are capable of a wide range of intermediate and contingent aggression strategies, to fight and to what degree as the situation demands. Humans and their societies have even subtler contingent strategies. So advanced alien aggression strategies should be very well adapted to circumstances. If they don’t kill us, it is for a reason, not just because time generically selects for peacefulness.
  3. Yes it is possible that alien behaviors toward us are random because we hardly matter to them. Though even then we’d want a theory of where all that “slack” comes from. But surely we should also consider other possibilities. Their actual behaviors seem like they will induce us to respect and emulate them, which doesn’t seem a crazy goal.
  4. I don’t understand what here Tyler thinks argues against alien immortality.
  5. Aliens could make themselves very visible, or hide completely. Suggesting that what we see is what they want us to see; they show us impressive abilities, but not crazy extreme abilities.
  6. Tyler says they are everywhere, and come from multiple alien origins, but doesn’t address why if so they haven’t made a big visible mark on the universe. That fact features centrally in my analysis.
  7. I proposed aliens are panspermia siblings, not parents. A directed panspermia scenario seems crazy to me, as there should be far easier ways to induce life elsewhere than sending out random primitive cells.
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Comment Requested

Sometimes I’d like a particular person to comment on a particular thing I say. And maybe these particular people sometimes find themselves in similar situations. Could we make a deal here, wherein I reply to them in trade for them replying to me? And can we set up a system to lower the trouble and cost of arranging for such deals? 

In this post, I outline a simple design for such a system built on top of Twitter. It doesn’t need official support from Twitter, though they might have an advantage in setting it up to function well.

Let’s say you have N followers on Twitter. You can at anytime toggle a public bit that says you are willing to respond to one comment. Any account with least N credits in the system, and which you have not blocked, can then officially request that you comment on a particular tweet, within D days. This request comes to you via a tweet or direct message. If you block the account of the requestor or tweet, the request is cancelled (or never happens).

If you reply to (or retweet) that tweet with your tweet containing at least X commenting characters, their account goes down by N credits, and yours goes up by N. If system credits are public, observers can check that the accounting is being done right. If you neither block nor respond within D days, their request is cancelled and your participation in this system is frozen until you go through some trouble to unfreeze it.

And that’s the basic system. Yes, people might “comment” with text that basically says “No comment”, but informal social shaming seems sufficient to deal with that, and the requestor could at least publicly show that they had nothing more substantial to say. Yes, it might get tedious to keep blocking accounts to which you don’t want to respond, but hey why not just respond to one and be done with it? 

Yes, the system needs to start with some folks holding some credits. It probably makes sense to take the initial Facebook strategy of starting the system by endowing a few social elites with credits. Then it would at first be a prestige thing to have credits in the system, as you can’t get them until some insider asks you to comment on them. Later we probably need a way to add more credits to ensure trading liquidity; might a monetary expert weigh on on how best to do this? 

Instead of having to request comment from a particular person, you might prefer to pick a whole set of accounts, and request that one of them comment. (First one gets it.) But then we’d have to notify that whole set of this request, and that might bother people with too many notifications. As I’m not sure how to fix this, I’d start the system with only direct requests to one person. 

So, might this work? Do you see bugs & fixes? Anyone want to set this up?

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“Artificial” = Not-Self-Made?

Recently I’ve said that it seems obvious that our descendants will soon be artificial, as will be any advanced aliens we meet. And I’ve complained of futurists and astrobiologists who ignore this possibility. But I’ve realized that even though I may “know it when I see it”, I don’t have a good definition of “artificial”.

Usually it works to say that stuff is “artificial” if humans made it, but didn’t inherit their ability to make it from pre-humans. Making spears, language, and bags “artificial”. But this definition doesn’t work well for alien civilizations, or for our future after humans are gone. So let me try here to find a better definition of “artificial”, in contrast to “organic”.

And let me make my task easier by assuming that we have some working definition of “life”, something like “processes that consume negentropy to try to perpetuate stuff like itself.” We can of course talk about artificial life, and artificial non-life.

The concept of “artificial” that I want to explore here is “not self made”. (With “organic” meaning “self made”.) Now of course nothing is literally self-made, but things are sometimes made by things very much like themselves. For example, when an asexual cell reproduces, the new cell is very similar to the old one, at least if we can distinguish between the thing itself, its environment, and the ways that environments naturally change things.

In contrast, when a beaver makes a dam, or when a human writes a program, the things made differ far more from from the things that make them. So we can consider calling these made things “artificial” in the sense of “not self made”, relative to “organic” things that are “self made”. Now let’s explore more examples of this distinction, to see how useful it might be.

Compared to an asexually reproducing cell, the child of a sexual cell differs more from its parents. In Eukaryote cells, different parts reproduce separately, and so are only like the matching parts of their parents, and less like other parts. In a multi-cellular organism, most of the cells differ a lot more from the stem cells from which they start, which were made by parent stem cells. So if we focus on individual cells, then most cells in such a creature seem more artificial. It is only when we look at the entire organism that we can see it as relatively organic.

Thus how “self made” something is depends on how we divide it from its environment, and on what size units we consider. Evolutionary progress has consisted in substantial part of moving to larger self-made units, where their parts are less self-made. How artificial something looks should also depend on the timescale we pick, and on our diversity reference. Things look more self-made on short timescales, relative to long, as distant ancestors may be quite different. And things look more self-made the wider the variety of other creatures to which we compare them, as parent-child differences will loom less large then.

Once humans developed culture, our behaviors were less made by our parents, and more by a larger culture from which we learned. Isolated groups of humans together with their cultures were relatively organic. But as our world has become more integrated, we are made less by local associates and more by the entire world culture.

For example, an individual firm that tries to be profit maximizing is “made” to some degree by its investors, designers, producers, managers, suppliers, and customers, all of whom are watching the entire world for ideas on more efficient ways to do things. Such a firm is “like” the prior firms associated with such people mainly because the prior experiences of they or their ancestors shaped their sunk investments, expectations and understandings. To a substantial degree, it is the entire world economy that is “self-made”, with each firm being much less so. Firms are more artificial, but the whole economy is more organic.

But even so, there are still identifiable smaller units that are “self-made” to important degrees. Individuals, firms, and nations, among other units, “own” and control resources that they use to promote the future prosperity of “their” future units. Especially their investors.

Governance processes are justified in terms of promoting the future of the units they govern, but internal sub-units are often rightly suspicious that such processes are used by rival units to gain relative advantages over them. Governed units become less “self-made”, which carries substantial risks. Competition between larger units can restrain such internal predation via governance, but competition would not restrain a world government.

Someday humans will probably create artificial creatures who are fully capable of cheaply doing all the tasks needed in their future economy. These creatures are likely to differ more from humans than from the creatures that they make to follow them. So relatively “self made” humanity will “artificially” make new creatures who then more “self make” their new world. But each particular new creature will be much less “self made”, and thus more “artificial”, as it will be made more by its entire civilization.

Okay, while this concept of “self-made” depends on units and timescale, it still seems useful for discussing how future life should be more “artificial”. Life will in general be less self-made on smaller unit scales, even if still self-made on an entire civilization scale. And after alien civilizations meet each other, even they may become less self-made.

Added Jun18: I had this related conversation on Twitter with the author of Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science.

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Would UFO Aliens Be Our Gods?

In ancient societies, leaders and elites gained legitimacy in the minds of the masses via impressive displays of clothes, music, furniture, food, buildings, parades, etc., which made more plausible their claims to actually be a higher class of creatures. Religions also gained legitimacy by claiming to represent even higher classes of creatures, i.e., gods, with which they also associated impressive luxury displays. The masses worshipped and obeyed these leaders and gods, and deferred to their judgment.

One of the main reasons that we less worship and defer to such leaders and gods today is that we know more about them; we see leaders as less clearly superior, and gods as less clearly existing. But we are still the same sort of humans as the ancients, and so are capable of their actions, should we share their beliefs.

Which brings us to an interesting hypothetical that I will now consider: What if the world soon comes to a general consensus that some UFOs actually are aliens? And what if our direct physical relation to these aliens doesn’t change much? That is, they still don’t talk to us, we only see them rarely, and we don’t find their “bases”, their origins, or figure out any of their tech. And what if this situation persists for another century, or for many centuries?

In this postulated scenario, I think the main way that our world changes is this: in our minds, these UFO aliens take over the top of our status hierarchy; we see them as the top dog in our “pack”. And as status is a big deal to we social animals, this ends up being a big deal.

The first obvious implication is that acting or looking alien-like would start to become higher status. Hovering, fast movement and acceleration, bright fuzzy lights, making no sounds, geometric shapes, and smooth shiny surfaces without protuberances. Because that’s just how status works; if aliens are high status, we want to look like them.

Some would fall in status as a result of aliens being top status. The highest would fall, as would those who seemed to have opposed them, such as governments who lied about them and elite academics who dismissed them. We’d also see our familiar human elites and leaders as less in charge of our long term future.

We’d guess that these aliens have some agendas, and so even if they haven’t actually done much yet, they may well intervene in some scenarios. Maybe we’d worry less about killing ourselves, if we think they’d stop that. And if aliens don’t seem worried that our AI experiments might create super-intelligences that suddenly explode to remake the universe, maybe we would worry less about that too.

We would gossip a lot trying to guess alien priorities, priorities we’d be reluctant to visibly resist. We’d more want to adopt their priorities as our priorities, because, again, that is just how status works. Just as people in firms gossip a lot about CEO priorities, and as courtiers of a king gossip a lot about king priorities. They gossip, and also try to pretend that the CEO/king priorities always were their own deepest priorities.

People do seem to believe that they can guess UFO alien motives. In a recent poll, 65.2% of respondents guessed that these aliens main motive for visiting Earth is to “study us as independent example of life evolution.” Which is a pretty high status motive, you have to admit.

No doubt the people who push each priority X would try to also push the view that aliens also prefer X. But we also have some more direct evidence on alien priorities.

First, aliens must be very old and stable, so they less want or experience innovation and change compared to us. Second, they aren’t remaking the universe much around here, or anywhere we can see, yet such remaking would have happened naturally unless they had coordinated strongly to prevent it. Thus they must have a strong “world” government which enforces a policy of preventing mass colonization and remaking of the universe.

They haven’t killed us yet, and they also let us see them, so they can’t feel very threatened by us at our current level. Also, they refuse to talk to us, so they don’t respect us that much, and aren’t that interested in running the details of our world or our lives, or in converting us to their beliefs. In a great many ways, we are just “beneath” them.

Now when humans treat us like this, we are often offended, and expect observers to support our outrage. For example, 81% of respondents said that a small nation should see it an insult if the US refused to respond in any way to their request for a meeting. But only 36.6% of respondents said we should feel insulted if UFO aliens keep refusing to talk to us for another century. (And 52.3% said it would be an insult for a human to treat you like aliens are treating us now, in refusing to talk.)

This all suggests to me that we treat UFO aliens as very high status. You are far more likely to be offended if your sister refused to talk to you, relative to Bill Gates refusing to talk, as you accept that Gates is much higher status than you or your sister. Similarly, even though UFO aliens have come to visit our home, and are showing off their vast abilities, which they must know makes us nervous, most still don’t think we should be offended by their refusing to talk to us. Perhaps because they are as gods to us?

These inferred alien priorities have implications for our behavior. As the aliens have a world government, we’d be more inclined to give substantial powers to a world organization through which we study and deal with them. We’d also be more inclined to limit our physical and tech expansion, as the aliens seem to have also done this. We’d be more willing to slow down our rates of innovation and change, as aliens seem okay with this in their society. And we’d be more okay with just ignoring and refusing to talk to humans we see as beneath us, like the aliens seem to do with us. We’d also be less eager to preach and proselytize, as aliens don’t do that. Finally, if we keep thinking that aliens are mainly here to study us, we’ll be more eager to (from a distance) study other creatures of all sorts.

Of course not everyone would be eager fans of the aliens. Some would resent their ignoring us, and seek to resist their presumed dominance. In fact, being pro- or anti-aliens might become a big new axis of political orientation. Maybe even the main one. For every other existing political axis, we’d ask ourselves which side is more naturally the pro- or anti-alien side. Even racism.

To me this isn’t that pretty a picture overall. But the universe doesn’t consult me before it paints its pictures, and I will first try to see what it has painted, before I think about how I might change it, if that became possible.

Yes, many of these predictions might apply if alien behavior did change after we became convinced of them. But its hard to say more there without knowing more about in what ways their behaviors change. For example, if they acted more hostile we might not see them as top dog in our pack, but as a powerful enemy pack.

Note that this scenario seems to work out well for the aliens, which seems to vindicate their choice to not talk yet also not completely hide. And talking could easily risk their being forced to admit strange repulsive stuff that would really put us off. Maybe their show-not-talk strategy isn’t as crazy and a priori unlikely as many claim.

Added 15Jun: If we come to believe, as I do, that aliens are most likely artificial, having transcended their biological origins, we may then respect artificial things more.

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How School Goes Wrong

I’ve been teaching for over two decades, but haven’t yet posted much on my theoretical view of school. Talking recently to an entering education Ph.D. student has inspired me to fill that gap.

The obvious usual purpose for school is to help people learn how to do useful tasks in life. And the obvious way to help with that is to show students various useful tools, show examples of their use, and then have students practice trying related tasks with related tools. Finally, score students on how well they do these practice tasks, to help others judge their suitability for various positions.

In this view, the big question is: how far and in what ways should school tasks differ from the later life tasks for which students are preparing? School tasks can differ from life tasks in many ways, such as in how long they take, how wide a scope of subproblems they encompass, how clearly performance on them can be judged, how many others have previously completed similar tasks, how connected each new task is to one’s recent tasks, what sort of teams take on tasks, and what sort of other distractions one must deal with while working on each task.

It seem obvious to me that school tasks must differ greatly from life tasks, at least when kids are young. It is also obvious that choosing school tasks well is hard, but that this can offer huge gains. We should search well the vast space of possibilities for the best student tasks.

Furthermore, it seems obvious that student tasks often complement each other strongly. Often learning one task helps a lot in learning another task. So we want all the tasks that students eventually take on to fit into a total package where the parts fit well together, and where that package fits well with later life tasks. Which can justify a lot of coordination between the teaching of related topics, and between schools and those who manage life tasks. In addition, there are often scale and scope economies from having many students do similar tasks, especially regarding evaluation. (This coordination isn’t obviously better when governments run schools.)

Our simplest general task tool is inference, supported by related “facts”. That is, one tells students about key facts related to a task class, and shows them examples of drawing relevant inferences from such facts. This “book learning” is far from the only useful tool, but it is useful often enough to make fact-telling a big fraction of learning for most topics. Yes, it is somewhat possible to teach better general inference, but the scope for this seems vastly overrated.

Not only is it hard to choose the package of learning tasks well, it is even harder for non-experts to judge the quality of such packages. And even when one can judge the quality of particular school tasks, their fitting together into large integrated packages makes it hard to push for particular changes. (Such as the long-overdue switch from geometry to statistics in high school.) If schools competed fiercely on measured student outcomes, they might try harder to find the best packages. But such outcomes are usually not measured well, and many schools are funded and managed by customers who are not very outcome-oriented.

The net result is that teachers and schools can have a lot of slack regarding their choices of student tasks and supporting tools. Which suggests that schools may allow other priorities, besides preparing students for life tasks, to influence their choices. For example, when the world changes, teachers with status tied to their expertise regarding particular student tasks may have insufficient incentives to change those tasks to better fit a changed world. As another example, teachers who seek to push ideologies may over-emphasize teaching facts, and try to infuse those ideologies into the facts they present, even when that cuts student performance.

When schools face stronger selection pressures regarding the perceived quality of their students, relative to preparing students for life tasks, then such schools may pick tasks with less evaluation noise and higher perceived prestige, even if those tasks help less for common life tasks. Especially for students likely to go into industries where the main product sold to customers is affiliation with worker prestige. In that case, schools mainly just need to agree on how to prestige is measured, and then pick school tasks that fit well with those prestige concepts. Here the social value of such schooling seems far less than its private value; we should tax, not subsidize, such school.

When accusations of teacher bias are important, schools may emphasize tasks that can be more clearly and objectively evaluated, even if those tasks are otherwise less useful. And when an accusation of school bias against particular subgroups is salient, schools may emphasize tasks on which those particular subgroups do better. Some have suggested that accusations of bias against girls has induced schools to switch more to tasks on where girls do better. (Even though the direct measured biases seems to be against boys.)

Over the last few decades there seems to have been a move away from giving students “hard” tasks, where one cannot offer clear procedures to follow to succeed. On such hard tasks, teachers show students related tools and examples of prior successful performance, and can offer suggestions on how to improve tasks in progress. But students must flounder and search for how to achieve excellence, and most students will not so achieve. Some have claimed that such hard tasks favor boys, who are less risk-averse.

One of the main tasks for grad students is to write research papers. And my grad classes are focused overwhelmingly on this task. This is a hard task, where many will fail, and where evaluations are more subjective. And it is a big task chunk, which takes a long time and is not easily broken down into subtasks that can be evaluated independently. But it is also a task clearly and directly relevant to their future life, at least if they move near academic circles. While academics are willing to water down many school tasks to satisfy various outside pressures, they have so far drawn the line at how they train their own replacements.

When teaching undergrads, I usually split the class grade into four quizzes and four short papers. The quizzes are more fact-based, and have more parts and thus less noise in their overall evaluation. With quizzes, I more give students what they, their parents, and their schools want. The papers are harder and have more evaluation noise, but are closer to a life task that I value: using economic tools to argue for a policy position of their choice on a topic that I choose. For papers, I grade using a point system designed to ignore my personal opinions on paper topics.

My teaching strategy roughly matches my theory of teaching; I get as close as I can to having my students practice a real life task related to the class topic that I have been assigned. Even if those tasks are hard, even if that makes my evaluations of students more noisy, and even if students like it less. I accept that schools have mostly devolved to sorting students by prestige, instead of preparing them for life tasks. But in my classes, I do what I can to resist that trend.

Added 11a: The main obstacle to replacing college with real jobs is finding ways to standardize across such jobs the topics learned and performance evaluation. That will just require a lot of trial and error to figure out. Don’t invest in a firm that claims to know the answers if you aren’t willing to pay for lots of trial and error time.

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Protecting Hypocritical Idealism

I’m told that soldiers act a lot more confident and brave when they are far from battle, relative to when it looms immediate in front of them.

When presented with descriptions of how most citizens of Nazi Germany didn’t resist or oppose the regime much, most people claim they would have done different. Which of course is pretty unlikely for most of them. But there’s an obvious explanation of this “social desirability bias”. Their subconscious expects a larger positive payoff from presenting an admirable view of themselves to associates, relative to the smaller negative payoff from making themselves more likely to actually do what they said, should they actually find themselves in a Nazi regime.

When the covid pandemic first appeared, elites and experts voiced their long-standing position that masks and travel restrictions were not effective in a pandemic. Which let them express their pro-inclusive global-citizen liberal attitudes. Their subconscious foresaw only a small chance that they’d actually face a real and big pandemic. And if that ever happened, they could and did lower the cost of this previous attitude by just suddenly and without explanation changing their minds.

For many decades it has been an article of faith among a large fraction of these same sort of experts and elites that advanced aliens must be peaceful egalitarian eco-friendly non-expansionist powers, who would if they saw us scold and lecture us about our wars, nukes, capitalism, expansion, and eco-damage. Like our descendants are presented to be in Star Trek or the Culture novels.

Because in this scenario aliens would be the highest status creatures around, and it is important to these humans that the highest in status agree with their politics. I confidently predict that their attitudes would quickly change if they were actually confronted with unknown but very real alien powers nearby.

This predictable hypocrisy could be exposed if people would back these beliefs with bets. But of course they don’t. They aren’t exactly sure why, but most just feel “uncomfortable” with that. Visible and open betting market odds that disagreed with them would also expose this hypocrisy, but most such also oppose allowing those, mostly also for vague “uncomfortable” reasons. Their unconscious knows better what are those reasons, but knows also not to tell.

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