Monthly Archives: August 2021

Green Knight Disses Glory

Many stories have morals. While such morals could be stated directly, perhaps via witty aphorisms, many claim that we use stories to make our moral lessons clearer and more vivid, to show us how they are applied in concrete familiar situations. As Jesus did with his parables. Sounds helpful, right?

But then we get parables like the movie The Green Knight, which describe strange events in alien worlds, with their moral lessons encoded elusively. Elite movie reviewers love it, in part because it is based on a medieval story many of them had to study in college. For them, difficult to follow literary references, and difficult to interpret moral lessons, are part of the attraction, as viewers can show their sophistication by figuring it all out.

(There are mild spoilers in what follows; you are warned.) Continue reading "Green Knight Disses Glory" »

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Neglecting Hard-To-Judge Abilities

Long ago when I first started teaching undergrads, I noticed that while they were equally bad at math and writing, they could more easily see that they were bad at math. So they were happier to get writing assignments. Math assignments made them face the uncomfortable fact that they were bad at something valuable, while writing assignments did not. So students liked my classes better when I assigned writing more.

Science fiction stories are usually set in a possible future world, and you might think that some people would specialize in working out the details of such worlds, while others would specialize in setting stories in those worlds. But while people (like me) who work out future scenarios are well aware that we are not good at writing stories in those worlds, it seems that the people who are good at writing stories don’t believe that they need any help figuring out the details of their worlds. Early in their career most sf authors have already collected a lifetime supply of story settings for their future stories; they have little interest in collaborating with world builders.

In the world of ideas, some people are especially good at finding and exploring interesting ideas, and some people are especially good at writing about such ideas in ways that are compelling and engaging to wide audiences. The people who are good at ideas usually know that they aren’t so good at writing about them, are generally interested in collaborating with those better at writing. But for the most part, the people who are good at writing well to wide audiences are not much interested in such collaboration. Those good writers mostly believe that the ideas that they have are among the best; no need to work together with idea people, as they are idea people.

In general, we see distorted behaviors resulting from the fact that some abilities are both respected and hard to judge. The people with the easier to judge abilities tend to assume that they are also the best at those other opaque but respected abilities. And so our world is full of people who rise to prominence because they are best at what we can more easily judge, who tell themselves and us that they are also best at important things that are much harder to judge. And we seem willing to believe, even if this seems quite implausible.

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Status Madness Starves Religion

A big reason why we have the delusions we do: as we get rich, we each increasingly over-estimate our relative social status. … evolution had humans use their absolute income/wealth to judge their relative status. (I’m talking here about overall status in the larger community, not status relative to particular associates …) Yes, this method would work badly in environments where communities varied greatly in average levels of absolute income/wealth. …

This theory predicts that humans came to live much longer after the industrial revolution. … this theory predicts what we have seen: declining rates of violence and conflict, less war, and widening moral circles. … key prediction is: we are more mad for status, as we think we already have a lot of it. … this predicts more school … [as predicted,] fertility has fallen dramatically over the last few centuries … people more eager for news, talk, politics, democracy, government, and paternalistic policies. …

Regarding religion, our seeing ourselves as higher status makes us more expect to be prophets, priests, monks, martyrs, and activists, but less to be the prototypical attendee of religious services, the meek supplicant to whom religion offers comfort and meaning in their hard life. (More)

Centuries ago states took power and property from the church, and then over time participation in religion by ordinary people has greatly declined; I can see this decline directly in my family in in the families of people around me. Across nations (though not much within nations), this decline (and a decline in superstition) has been correlated with rising income, education, and welfare spending. People are mainly religious because parents push it on them, and religious change seems to be concentrated in childhood; once people reach adulthood they mostly retain their prior religion levels.

While many theories have been offered to explain this decline, status madness seems to me a pretty good candidate. People in richer and more educated nations see themselves as higher status. And the higher that people see themselves, the less willing they are to bow down to others. Culture has eliminated most of the ways that people once had to defer and bow to elites around them. We’ve used democracy to get rid of kings, and to see ourselves as partial rulers. And, full of ourselves, we are reluctant to bow down before and worship gods. Even ideal gods.

Some see the key dynamic here as people slowly learning over time the fact that there are no gods. But why should a nation have to get rich itself to learn this fact, if other nations around it have already learned it? Furthermore, this learning theory predicts that opinion change should follow a random walk, not a straight trend. And even today very few people actually understand the relevant evidence well enough to make this judgment.

Furthermore there are actually are gods! Maybe not the gods described in the most popular religions, but gods nonetheless. We should estimate that roughly half of the universe out there right now is filled with advanced creatures who are to us as gods. This part of the universe will be filled with gods within a billion years, and much sooner if we don’t all kill ourselves. And we might be being visited by UFO aliens right now.

Someday most of our descendants will meet creatures who are to them as gods. (Even if those gods are other of our descendants.) At that point I predict that they will no longer be so status mad, and so full of themselves, as to be unwilling to respect those gods. They will bow down to, and even worship, their betters.

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Envisioning Artificial Life

For billions of years Earth has been filled with a great many small biological organisms. Each one is designed to not die, and to collect and process enough resources to make close but not exact copies of itself, copies which then must each search for and defend a niche wherein this story can be repeated.

Recently humans have introduce some new kinds of entities, including human organizations and artificial devices. It seems obvious to me that within a millennia all these things will merge into something new: “artificial life”. Which will then forever more dominate the universe (if it survives). And it seems worth trying to think through what this will look like. Here are eight key features I predict for artificial life:

Advanced – Over billions of years bio life has developed some amazing innovations, and used these to colonize a wide range of niches on Earth. But there are still many places near here where life has had at most only a mild impact. And in far less than billions of years humans have found a great many innovations that bio never found, or made much use of. Such as metal smelting, trains, jet engines, nuclear power, rocket ships, radio, computers, and far far more. Using these, humans have been able to go more places, use more kinds of energy, and do more things. Artificial life will mix up these bio- and human-discovered design elements in a huge variety of ways, and colonize a far wider range of niches. Artificial life will live on and in a wide range of planets, stars, rocks, clouds, and volumes, and reorganize such things to make whole new places and things. Artificial life will grow faster, at least until the solar system is nearly filled.

Specialized – Lone bio cells have to do basically everything themselves. Which means they can’t achieve the very large scale and scope economies possible via a division of labor. Multi-cellular organisms have more of an internal specialization, but still each organism must do most everything itself. Social animals allow still more division of labor, but even so only over relatively small scales. In contrast, artificial life can manage a civilization-wide division of labor, limited mainly by transport costs, allowing each particular part to take on very specialized roles. Most artificial creatures can’t forage, digest, reproduce, etc. by themselves very well, but are designed to function well mainly within large complex societies. Artificial life is quite inter-dependent.

Informed – Bio organisms mainly know about what they can directly see, and the insight implicitly embodied in their genes. In contrast, artificial creatures can also use large specialized communication networks and institutions to learn about a great many things. The main limits are data, costs of distance and computation, and strategic incentives to deceive.

Invited – Bio tends to just make stuff when it can, without attending much to if there is a demand for that stuff. In contrast, artificial stuff tends to be made when and where demand is envisioned. New firms are made when investors guess they can make a profit. New couches are made and shipped to stores where firms guess buyers are likely to want them. And so on. Invited creatures have to worry less about their place in the world, or wonder why they exist; they wouldn’t exist unless there had been at least a reasonable place for them.

Designed – New bio things tend to be quite similar to their creators, adding mostly random variations. In contrast, artificial stuff is often more carefully designed to be suitable for some demand, and substantially different from prior things. A building is designed to fit its lot, a firm is designed to fit its market, and so on. Compared to bio designs, artificial designs draw on a much wider range of prior designs, and a lot more effort goes into figuring out these new designs. Artificial life is more like one big civ-wide species, and less breaks into separate lineages with designs only derived from its species. Some artificial creatures specialize in designing parts of other ones.

Governed – Artificial creatures coordinate to avoid destructive conflicts via empowering governance organizations, such as firms, clubs, law, and government. Such governance tends to be of wider scope and more stable than other structures, and is thus harder to influence. Yet each such structure has some ultimate owners who control it over larger scopes of space and time. When interacting with an artificial creature, one may want to know about the larger governance units with which it is allied.

Varied – While before humans biological organisms had a huge range of sizes and abilities, our more recent era has been dominated by creatures with quite similar sizes and abilities. Namely humans. With artificial life variety will return, and greatly expand. Trying to count military or political power by counting heads just won’t work at all.

Owned – The bio world has little property; stuff can and is oft stolen. Only property that can be directly created and defended exists. But the artificial world has far more property (and liability) rights. As a result, to use resources one must create, purchase, or inherit them. Thus someone will have to pay for the resources and design effort needed to make each new piece of artificial life. Those who pay to create something will often reserve some property (or liability) rights over it, often in the form of debt or equity. Though the created thing will usually hold some rights in itself. Creatures and groups will often trade shares in each other as a way to align their interests more closely.

This last owned features seems the most likely to bother people today. But my job is to tell you what seems most likely, not what you want to hear.

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How High Our Elite Tax?

In the ancient world, invading armies were mostly men who, if they won, stayed and took over the top status slots in the new society. After a few generations, the locals would almost completely submit, and see invader descendants as the highest status elite members of “us”.

When invaders had distinctive looks, styles, etc. then those became marks of high status. People would seek such marks for they and their family, and try to associate with those who had such marks. To get people to support their ventures, they’d try to give them the appearance of elite support, via attracting elite members, investors, customers, suppliers, regulators, etc. As any substantial elite opposition could doom their ventures.

These elites would of course charge a price for their support, and such prices would add up to an elite tax on the society. The size of this tax would depend on how many such elites had to be “paid off” in this way to make anything happen, and how well suited were such elites for the roles they took on. In the limit of many available elites who were actually just directly the best people for their roles, this elite tax was zero. But the more that ventures had to pay off elites who were not otherwise the best for their roles, and have people do things in other than the best ways, in order to gain that crucial perception of elite support, the larger the tax.

Societies in history have varied in how they define status, and thus have varied in how much they waste in efforts to achieve status. When war was important, for example, societies that defined status in terms of military accomplishment had in essence a lower tax, and thus a competitive advantage over rivals. Today when innovation is important, then organizations where status is rewarded for promoting innovation can be at a similar advantage.

In academia, we often see similar effects on smaller scales. Particular fields are taken over by a mutual admiration insider’s club, and then everyone in that field must pay tribute to these insiders to get anything done. If you do not sufficiently praise, cite, fund, hire, etc. such insiders, you will be excluded from the field.

So how big a tax does our society pay for the perception of elite support? Much of status in our world is set via graduating from elite schools and being hired for elite jobs, and many say that we have a “meritocracy” in picking applicants to such positions only on the basis of directly relevant abilities. But of course we know this is only partially true.

As I’ve discussed before, in many areas today elites from around the world have merged into a single elite community which share common standards on who is elite and what criteria they use to decide status. As this world elite faces no competition from other worlds, our world is now more vulnerable to drifting status criteria; competition between societies won’t suppress wasteful criteria. For example, if elites everywhere measure status via years of pointless school, then the whole world could just keeping doing too much such school.

One interesting way to try to measure our elite tax is to look at events where the tax rose quickly and dramatically. Sometimes a particular field is low status, with people there paid accordingly, and then suddenly the field rises greatly income and status. At which point high status people enter and take over the highest status positions of that field. Such elite entrants tend to be young and lack experience in that field, and so tend to denigrate the old and experienced there. They push for generic elite practices that may not be the best for this area.

For example, tech used to be nerdy and lower status, and then made a lot of money and rose in status. Top school kids decided to take jobs in tech, especially right after investment banking jobs dried up after the 2008 crash. And so top school kids took over tech, putting a new extra premium on youth and top school degrees. Tech priorities and practices changed, including a lot more interest in woke politics.

Studies that compared the productivity, innovativeness, and social value produced by tech before and after this transition might give us valuable data on our elite tax. Similar studies might be done regarding other suddenly-prestigious areas before and after their status transition. Seems to me an important topic to study.

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