Search Results for: cynic

On Unsolved Problems

Imagine a book review:

The authors present convincing evidence that since 1947 aliens from beyond Earth are here on Earth, can pass as humans, have been living among us, and increasingly influence human affairs. The authors plausibly identify the industries, professions, and geographic regions where aliens have the most influence, and the primary methods of alien influence. Furthermore the authors have made their evidence analysis accessible to a wide audience in a readable and entertaining book, and have published it via a respectable academic press to enable its conclusions to be believed by a wide audience.

Unfortunately, the authors only offer vague and general plans for dealing with these meddling aliens. They offer no cheap and reliable way to detect individual aliens, nor to overpower and neutralize them once detected. What good is it to know about aliens without a detailed response plan? Save your money and buy another book.

Or imagine deleting that last paragraph, and adding this instead:

The authors go further and offer plausible physical mechanisms by which we might detect individual aliens and neutralize their influence. The authors also offer a ten point plan and outline a rough budget for a project to implement this plan.

Unfortunately, they give no detailed schematics for physical devices to detect and neutralize aliens, nor do they offer a specific manufacturing process plan. In addition, they don’t say much about how to fund or staff their proposed project. This project would be international in scope and probably continue for decades. Yet the authors don’t bother to address how to guarantee gender, racial, and national equity when choosing personnel, nor how to achieve national and generational equity in funding. They don’t even give a detailed plan for managing the disruption should a war break out.

What good is it to know about aliens, physical mechanisms to detect and neutralize them, and a ten point plan for managing this, if we lack a detailed device schematics, manufacturing processes, plans to ensure equitable hiring and funding, and war contingencies?  Save your money and buy another book.

I could go on, but you get the idea. You should want to learn about problems you face, even if you don’t yet know how to solve them. The above snark was inspired by this review by Samuel Hammond of Elephant in the Brain. He starts with kind praise:

An entertaining and insightful book that sheds light on a diverse collection of perplexing human behaviors. …

And then he details this criticism:

The book is largely an exercise in simply convincing the reader of the elephant’s existence by hammering away with example after example. As a result of that hammering, The Elephant in the Brain ends up being light on public policy upshots — far more Theory of Moral Sentiments than Wealth of Nations. That’s unfortunate, since the ideas in the book are bursting with potential applications. Worse, however, is the scant attention paid to helping the reader pick up the pieces of their shattered psyche. Instead, Simler and Hanson simply highlight the need to better align public institutions with our hidden motives, leaving the all-important “how” question relatively untouched. …

It at least seems possible to tame the social aspects of our adaptive unconscious with the right self-help techniques, from classroom exercises to mindfulness meditation. This was essentially the strategy developed by the Cynics of ancient Greece. Through rigorous training, the Cynics managed to forgo the pursuit of wealth, sex, and fame in favor of mental clarity and rational ethics.

This is the direction I had hoped The Elephant in the Brain would lead. After all, the elephant in the brain is located squarely in what psychologists call our brain’s “System 1,” or the automatic, noncognitive, and fast mode of thinking. That still leaves our “System 2,” or analytical, cognitive, and slow mode of thinking, as a potential tool for transcending our lowly origins. By failing to give our System 2 mode a balanced consideration, The Elephant in the Brain inadvertently falls into the expanding genre of pop-psych books that simply recapitulate David Hume’s famous assertion that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” …

Haidt’s more recent book, The Righteous Mind, helps to illustrate the pragmatic problem. … Without denying Haidt’s empirical findings, an inviolable application of this theory raises an obvious question: How does one could ever hope to hold to a rational political philosophy at all? …

It seems like Simler was ultimately able to transcend the Silicon Valley rat-race with the employ of his System Two, or cognitive, mode of thinking. That is, he was rationally persuaded to pull the elephant by the reins and steer his life towards truth-seeking.

Our book mainly identifies hidden motives via explaining patterns of behavior that are poorly explained by our usual claimed motives. These patterns result from the usual mix of automatic and reasoned thinking, of impulse and self-control. I’ve seen no evidence that these patterns are weaker for people or places where reason or self-control matters more. This includes the example of my coauthor’s choice to write this book.

Without any concrete evidence suggesting that hidden motives matter more or less when there is more reason or self-control, I don’t see why discussing reason and self-control was a priority for our book. And I doubt that merely promoting reason or self-control is sufficient to reduce the influence of hidden motives.

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Why Be Contrarian?

While I’m a contrarian in many ways, it think it fair to call my ex-co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky even more contrarian than I. And he has just published a book, Inadequate Equilibria, defending his contrarian stance, against what he calls “modesty”, illustrated in these three quotes:

  1. I should expect a priori to be below average at half of things, and be 50% likely to be of below average talent overall; … to be mistaken about issues on which there is expert disagreement about half of the time. …
  2. On most issues, the average opinion of humanity will be a better and less biased guide to the truth than my own judgment. …
  3. We all ought to [avoid disagreeing with] each other as a matter of course. … You can’t trust the reasoning you use to think you’re more meta-rational than average.

In contrast, Yudkowsky claims that his book readers can realistically hope to become successfully contrarian in these 3 ways:

  1. 0-2 lifetime instances of answering “Yes” to “Can I substantially improve on my civilization’s current knowledge if I put years into the attempt?” …
  2. Once per year or thereabouts, an answer of “Yes” to “Can I generate a synthesis of existing correct contrarianism which will beat my current civilization’s next-best alternative, for just myself. …
  3. Many cases of trying to pick a previously existing side in a running dispute between experts, if you think that you can follow the object-level arguments reasonably well and there are strong meta-level cues that you can identify. … [This] is where you get the fuel for many small day-to-day decisions, and much of your ability to do larger things.

Few would disagree with his claim #1 as stated, and it is claim #3 that applies most often to reader lives. Yet most of the book focuses on claim #2, that “for just myself” one might annually improve on the recommendation of our best official experts. Continue reading "Why Be Contrarian?" »

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The Puzzle Of Persistent Praise

We often praise and criticize people for the things they do. And while we have many kinds of praise, one very common type (which I focus on in this post) seems to send the message “what you did was good, and it would be good if more of that sort of thing were done.” (Substitute “bad” for “good” to get the matching critical message.)

Now if it would be good to have more of some act, then that act is a good candidate for something to subsidize more. And if most people agreed that this sort of act deserved more subsidy, then politicians should be tempted to run for office on the platform that they will increase the actual subsidy given to that kind of act. After all, if we want more of some kind of acts, why don’t we try to better reward those acts? And so good acts shouldn’t long remain with an insufficient subsidy. Or bad acts without an insufficient tax.

But in fact we seem to have big categories of acts which we consistently praise for being good, and where this situation persists for decades or centuries. Think charity, innovation, or artistic or sport achievement. Our political systems do not generate much political pressure to increase the subsidies for such things. Subsidy-increasing proposals are not even common issues in elections. Similarly, large categories of acts are consistently criticized, yet few politicians run on platforms proposing to increase taxes on such acts.

My best interpretation of this situation is that while our words of praise give the impression that we think that most people would agree that the acts we praise are good, and should be more common, we don’t really believe this. Either we think that the acts signal impressive or praise-worthy features, but shouldn’t be more common, or we think such acts should be more common, but we also see large opposing political coalitions who disagree with our assessment.

That is, my best guess is that when we look like we are praising acts for promoting a commonly accepted good, we are usually really praising impressiveness, or we are joining in a partisan battle on what should be seen as good.

Because my explanation is cynical, many people count it as “extraordinary”, and think powerful extraordinary evidence must be mustered before one can reasonably suggest that it is plausible. In contrast, the usual self-serving idealistic explanations people give for their behavior are ordinary, and therefore can be accepted on face value without much evidence at all being offered in their defense. People get mad at me for even suggesting cynical theories in short blog posts, where large masses of extraordinary evidences have not been mustered. I greatly disagree with this common stacking of the deck against cynical theories.

Even so, let us consider some seven other possible explanations of this puzzle of persistent praise (and criticism). And in the process make what could have been a short blog post considerably longer. Continue reading "The Puzzle Of Persistent Praise" »

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Part Of Something Big

A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. Joseph Campbell

Most Twitter talk reminds me of the movie Ridicule, wherein courtiers compete to show cruel wit and cynicism. This makes me crave a simple direct conversation on something that matters.

So I pick this: being part of something larger than yourself. This is a commonly expressed wish. But what does it mean?

Here are some clues: Judging from Google-found quotes, common satisfactory “things” include religions, militaries, political parties, and charities. For most people “the universe” seems too big and “my immediate family” seems too small. And neither seem idealistic enough. “All utilitarians” is idealistic enough, but seems insufficiently coherent as a group. The words “part” and “thing” here are suspiciously vague, suggesting that there are several elements here, some of which people are more willing to admit than others.

Here’s my interpretation: We want to be part of a strong group that has our back, and we want to support and promote ideals. But these preferences aren’t independent, to be satisfied separately. We especially want to combine them, and be a valued part of a group that supports good ideals.

So we simultaneously want all these things:

  1. We are associated with an actual group of people.
  2. These people concretely relate to each other.
  3. This group is credibly seen as really supporting some ideals.
  4. We embrace those ideals, and find them worth our sacrifice.
  5. Our help to this group’s ideals would be noticed, appreciated.
  6. If outsiders resist our help, the group will have our back.
  7. The group is strong enough to have substantial help to give.
  8. The group does’t do wrongs that outweigh their ideals support.
  9. Both the group and its ideals are big in the scheme of things.

Since this is a lot of constraints, the actual groups that exist are unlikely to satisfy them all. So we compromise. Some people see most all big coherent groups as easily corrupted, and so only accept small groups. For some, group bonding is so important they’ll compromise on the ideals, or accept weak evidence that the group actually supports its ideals. If group strength is important enough to them, they may not require any ideals. For others, the ideal is everything, and they’ll accept a weak group defined abstractly as “everyone who truly supports this ideal.” Finally, for some being appreciated is so important that they’ll take the thing the world seems to most appreciate about them and accept a group and ideal defined around that.

If this is right then just talking about what are the best ideals and how to achieve them somewhat misses the point. Also somewhat missing the point is talk about how to make strong well-bonded groups. If people typically want the two of these things together, then the actual design problem is how to achieve good ideals via a strong well-bonded group.

Which isn’t a design problem I hear people talk about much. Some presume that if they can design a good enough ideal, a good group will naturally collect around it. Others presume that if they can design a good enough way for groups to coordinate, groups will naturally coordinate to achieve good ideals. But how reasonable are these assumptions?

If we focus on explaining this preference instead of satisfying it, a homo hypocritus framework fits reasonably well. Coalition politics is central to what we really want, but if cheap we’d rather appear to focus on supporting ideals, and only incidentally pick groups to help us in that quest.

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Who Wants Standards?

Most of us live in worlds of conversation, like books or blogs or chats, where we tend to give many others the benefit of the doubt that they are mostly talking “in good faith.” We don’t just talk to show off or to support allies and knock rivals – we hold our selves to higher standards. But let me explain why that may often be wishful thinking.

I’ve previously suggested that coalition politics infuses a lot of human behavior. That is, we tend to use all available means to try to help “us “and hurt “them”, even if on average these games hurt us all. Coalition politics is a dirt that regularly accumulates in most any corner that is not vigorously and regularly cleaned.

This view predicts that coalition politics also infuses a lot of how writings (and speeches, etc.) are evaluated. That is, when we evaluate the writings of others, we attend to how such evaluations may help our coalitions and hurt rival coalitions. Especially for writings on subjects that have little direct relevance for how we live our lives. Like most topics in most blogs, magazines, journals, books, speeches, etc.

However, while we may find such cynicism plausible as a theory of rivals, we are reluctant to consciously embrace it as theory of ourselves. We instead want to say that we mostly evaluate the writings of others using different criteria. And when we are part of a group that evaluates writings similarly, we want to say this is because our group shares key evaluation criteria beyond “us good, them bad.”

Now some groups can offer concrete evidence for their claims to be relatively clean of coalition politics. These are groups who declare specific “objective” standards to judge writing. That is, they use standards that are relatively easy for outsiders to check. For example, outsiders can relatively easily check groups who evaluate writings based on word count, or on correctness of spelling and grammar. Yes, a commitment to such standards may favor some groups over others, such as good spellers over bad spellers. But it can’t be adjusted very easily to shifting coalitions. Which makes it a poor tool for supporting coalition politics.

Some groups say they judge writings based on their popularity in some audience. And yes, it can be pretty easy to evaluate the popularity of writings. However, it could easily be the audience that is using coalition politics to decide what is popular. Thus using popularity to evaluate writings doesn’t at all ensure that coalition politics doesn’t dominate evaluations.

Some groups claim to evaluate written “maps” based on how well they match intended “territories”. And when it is easy for many clearly-neutral outsiders to visit a territory, it can be easy for outsiders to check that territory-matching is actually how this group evaluates maps. But the harder it is for outsiders to see territories, or to read their supposedly matching maps, and the more easily that outside critics can be credibly accused of political bias, the more easily a group could pretend to evaluate maps based on territory matches, but actually evaluate them via coalition politics. For example, anthropologists watching the private lives of the very rich might write descriptions of those lives that pander to academic presumptions about the very rich, since few academics ever see those lives directly, and the few who do can be accused of biased by association.

Some groups use objective criteria for evaluations, but don’t give those criteria enough weight to stop coalition politics from dominating evaluations. For example, economic theory journals can claim that they only publish articles containing proofs without obvious errors. And the ability of readers to seek errors may ensure that this criteria is usually satisfied. But such journals may still reject most submissions that meet this criteria, allowing coalition politics to dominate which articles are accepted. Winning coalitions may be constrained to include only members capable of constructing proofs without obvious errors, but this need not be very constraining to them.

Another approach is to only use objective evaluation criteria, but to use many such criteria and to be unclear about their relative weights. The more such criteria, the greater the chance of finding criteria to reach whatever evaluation one wants. For example, in many legal areas there is wide agreement on the relevant factors, and on which directions each factor points to in a final decision. Nevertheless, given enough relevant factors, courts may usually have enough discretion to favor either side.

For any one group and their declared criteria of evaluation, it can be hard for outsiders to judge just how much leeway that group has left for coalition politics to influence evaluations. We tend to give the benefit of the doubt to our own groups, but not to rivalrous groups. For example, pro-science anti-religion folks may presume that peer review in scientific journals is mainly used to enforce good evidence norms, but that religious leaders mainly use their discretion in interpreting scriptures to favor their allies.

If they were honest, each group would either declare objective evaluation criteria that leave little room for coalition politics, or accept that outsiders can reasonably presume that coalition politics probably dominates their evaluations. And everyone should expect that even if their group now seems an exception where other criteria dominate, it will probably not remain so for long. Because these are in fact reasonable assumptions in a world where collation politics is a dirt that regularly and rapidly accumulates in any corner not vigorously and regularly cleaned.

Hey there reader, I really am talking about you and the worlds of writing where you live. Do you presume that your worlds are mostly dominated by politics, where different coalitions vie to support allies and knock rivals? Or do you see the groups you hang with as holding themselves to higher standards? If higher standards, are they standards that outsiders can easily check on? Or do you in practice mostly have to trust a small group of insiders to judge if standards are met? And if you have to trust insiders, how sure can you be their choices aren’t mostly driven by coalition politics?

Years ago I struggled with this issue, and wondered what evaluation criteria a group could adopt to robustly induce their writings to roughly track truth on a wide range of topics, and resist the corrupting pressures of coalition politics to say what key audiences want or expect to hear. I was delighted to find that for a wide range of topics open prediction markets offer such robust criteria. Each trade can be an “edit” of the highly-evaluated “writing” that is the current market odds on each topic. Such edits are rewarded or punished via cash for moving the consensus toward or away from the truth.

I had hoped that many groups would be anxious to avoid the appearance that coalition politics may dirty their evaluations, and thus be eager to adopt new standards that can avoid such an appearance. So I hoped that many groups would want to adopt prediction markets, once they were clearly shown to be feasible and practical. Alas, that seems to not be so.

Today’s winning coalitions seem to prefer to let coalition politics continue to determine who wins in each group. This seems like how police departments would like to appear free from corruption, but not enough to actually make their internal affairs departments report to someone other than the chief of police. We are fond of tarring rival groups with the accusation that coalition politics dominates their evaluations, and we are fond of pretending that we are different. But not enough to visibly block that politics.

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Advice Isn’t About Info

Why is cynicism often taken as a sign of low status? One contributing factor is that we tend to get clearer evidence for cynical theories of the world when our status is falling, instead of rising:

I had lunch with a very senior managing partner at a venture capital firm as she was stepping down from the firm to spend more time with her family following a long and successful career in that company. She commented that once she announced her retirement, not only did her colleagues behave differently toward her, no longer inviting her to meetings and seeking her advice as often, but her time was less in demand by colleagues in the high-technology and venture capital communities more generally. Her wisdom and experience hadn’t changed— the only difference was her soon-to-be-diminished control over investment resources and positions in the venture capital firm. (Pfeffer’s book Power)

When you are young and rising in status, you can explain people listening to you more as their learning that you are wise. When you are older and falling in status, that explanation doesn’t work so well for why people listen to you less.

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Careers Need Allies

Orgs coordinate activity. And if coordination is hard, we should expect orgs to only barely accomplish this task. That is, we should expect org decisions to be dominated by coalition politics. Orgs that face competitive pressures, like firms, would slowly get more efficient, and thus larger, as we slowly found and spread org innovations to better channel coalition politics efforts in productive directions.

If coalition politics dominates org decisions, then the obvious career strategy advice is to make good alliances. Pick allies valued by strong coalitions who are likely to stay loyal to you, and offer such allies your loyalty as well as efforts and abilities valuable to them. That is, look for pair-wise win-win gains between you and potential allies. You don’t have to like them, and they don’t have to like you.

We often hear other advice, like: seek associates you are comfortable with, or who have things in common with you, or who can give you good advice. Or that you should focus on showing your value to your org as a whole. But these seem to me to be the usual fig leaf excuses. That is, these are things one can admit doing openly without violating the standard forager norms against overt coalition politics.

What smart folks probably really mean when they suggest that you get a mentor, is that you get a powerful ally. And while allies in high places can be especially valuable to you, to make it a win-win relation you are going to have to offer them a lot of value in return. You will even have to figure out how you can help them, and help them first; they don’t have the time, and don’t trust you yet. And when you succeed in finding such a powerful ally, you will submit and they will dominate. That doesn’t sound nearly as nice to say, however.

But sometimes people do say it, out loud and everything: Continue reading "Careers Need Allies" »

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Financing Starships

A science advisor to the not-entirely-realistic recent movie Gravity said:

Often a story worth telling can fall apart if there is a complete dedication to perfect science. The goal is to make everything seem grounded enough in the physical world that it seems real. So story trumps science every time. (more)

Even the science fiction that tries hardest for realism usually sacrifices it for a better story. It isn’t just that authors make accidental mistakes due to a lack of attention. Quite often, realism gets in the way of the story, because realism conflicts with our tastes in stories. That is, many features we want in stories (like good beating evil) are intrinsically unrealistic.

This is why I think it important to highlight story unrealism, especially the unrealism intrinsic to the stories said to be most realistic. Its not just gotchas to show off how much you know, or teach in the process. Its also to counter the popular illusion that stories are how-to manuals, there to teach us about reality in a fast and fun way.

Many have praised Charlie Stross’s novel Neptune’s Brood, released in July. I also enjoyed it. But economists such as Krugman and Tabarrok have praised its econ realism, and I haven’t found anyone criticizing that. So I guess such criticism is up to me (again). (I have thought about related issues before; see here, here.)

The following quotes give the setting of Neptune’s Brood. (Worry not; I give no spoilers.)
Continue reading "Financing Starships" »

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Writers Focus On Topic Or Audience?

Writers must attend both to their topic, and to their audience. They must learn things both about the topics on which they write, and about the people who will evaluate their writings. But to which of these do they attend more? For some kinds of writers, idealists say that they mostly attend to their topics, and for other kinds of writers, cynics say that they mostly attend to their audience. Who is more right?

To help answer this question, I suggest a simple test. When a writer solicits commentary on her drafts, does she mostly seek out people who know about the topics on which she writes, or does she mostly seek out people who are or are like or who can predict the audience she must please? Of course there is often a strong correlation between these features, as the audience one must please often knows a lot about the topic. And sometimes the audience is part of the topic. So attending to the audience can indirectly attend to the topic, and vice versa.

Even so, since knowledge of the topic and representation of the audience are not perfectly correlated, if one sees enough writers solicit enough commentary on drafts, one should be able to make out a difference. And in my limited experience, the writers I’ve known seem to focus much more on audience than on topic. They are eager to get comments from folks who know little about the topic but could be influential in getting their writing accepted (or are like or can predict such evaluators), and pay less attention to folks who know a lot about their topic but have little influence (and aren’t much like influential folks).

But what do the rest of you see? True, even if you confirm my observation, we might explain it by saying it is just much easier to learn by reading about a topic than about an audience – so direct feedback is better for learning about audiences. But first, let’s get this datum straight.

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The Why-Policy-Wiki

“Normative as positive” (NAP) — explaining that the [education] policies actually chosen were chosen because they maximize an individualized social welfare function — fails as a useful general positive model of schooling. While NAP can perhaps accommodate the fact of some direct production of schooling by some governments, the reality is that (nearly) all governments produce education and that, by and large, this is their only support to education. Moreover, NAP fails not just in the large but also the small: there are six additional common facts about educational policies inconsistent with NAP. (more; HT Bryan Caplan)

That is Lant Pritchett, and I share his frustration. People usually explain their government’s policies via scenarios wherein such policies would help the world, or at least their local region. But when you point out details at odds with such simple stories, such people are usually uninterested in the subject. They switch to suggesting other scenarios or problems where policy might help, also with little interest in the details.

This evasive style, i.e., the habit of pointing to a diffuse space of possible scenarios and problems instead of particular ones, is a huge obstacle to critics. If you put a lot of time in critiquing one story, people just note that there are lots of other possible stories you didn’t critique.

This style helps people maintain idealist attitudes toward institutions they like. In contrast, people do the opposite for institutions they dislike, such as rival foreign governments or profit-making firms. In those cases, people prefer cynical explanations. For example, people say that firms advertise mainly to fool folks into buying products they don’t need. But the evasion remains; if you critique one cynical explanation they switch to others, avoiding discussing details about any one.

To solve this evasion problem, I propose we create a new kind of wiki that surveys opinions on policy explanations. In this new wiki readers could find items like ” 68% (162/238) of college graduates say the best explanation of government running schools, instead of subsidizing them, is because educated citizens can pay more taxes to benefit other citizens. 54% (7/13) of economics PhDs surveyed say it is to push propaganda.”

Here is how it would work. There would be three category hierarchies: of policies, of policy explanations, and of people with opinions on policy explanations. Each hierarchy would include a few very general categories near the top, and lots of much more specific categories toward the bottom.

Anyone could come to the wiki to contribute opinions on policy explanations. They would first give some demographic info on themselves, and that info would put them somewhere in the category hierarchy of people. They could then browse the category hierarchy of policies, picking a policy to explain. Finally, they could browse the category hierarchy of explanations, picking their favored explanation of that policy.

Users could start by being shown the most common explanation offered so far for similar policies by similar people, and then browsing away from that. Users could also expand the category hierarchies, to add more specific policies and explanations. For particular policy explanation pairs, users might add links to relevant theory, evidence, and arguments. Users might also upvote links added by others. This would help later readers search for well-voted evidence and theory close in the hierarchies to any given policy explanation.

By using category hierarchies, a wide range of people could express a wide range of opinions. Experts could dive into details while those who can barely understand the most basic categories could gesture crudely in their favored directions. Given such a wiki, a critic could focus their efforts on the most popular explanations for a policy by their target audience, and avoid the usual quick evasion to other explanations. Prediction markets tied to this wiki could let people bet that particular explanations won’t hold up well to criticism, or that popular opinion on a topic will drift toward a certain sort of expert opinion.

Of course this wiki could and should also be used to explain common policies of firms, clubs, families, and even individuals. I expect some editorial work to be needed, to organize sensible category hierarchies. But if good editors start the system with good starting hierarchies, the continuing editorial work probably wouldn’t be prohibitive.

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