Category: Philosophy

Open questions from Gwern

This is all Gwern, I won’t add another layer of indentation:

Open Questions

Some questions which are not necessarily important, but do puzzle me or where I find standard answers to be unsatisfying (along the lines of Patrick Collison’s list & Alex Guzey; see also my list of project ideas):

  • What is personal productivity and why does it vary from day to day so strikingly, and yet not correlate with environmental variables like weather or sleep quality nor appear as the usual kind of latent variable in my factor analyses? Is it something much weirder than the usual kind of latent variable, like a set of zero-sum measurements drawing on a generic pool of energy or mana?
  • Does listening to music while working serve as a distraction, or motivation?
  • What, algorithmicly, are mathematicians doing when they do math which explains how their proofs can usually be wrong but their results usually right?Is it equivalent to a kind of tree search like MCTS or something else? They wouldn’t seem to be doing a literal tree search because then there would almost never be mistakes in the proof (as the built-up tree of theorems only explores valid inferential steps), but if they’re not, then how are they handling logical uncertainty? Are they doing something like MCTS’s random playouts where lemmas are not proven but simply heuristically given a truth value to shortcut exploration and the heuristic is accurate enough to usually guess correctly and this is why the proofs are wrong but the results are right?
  • Why did Jean Calment live so many more years than other centenarians, breaking all records and setting a life expectancy record which decades later has not just not been broken, but not even approached? Which is extraordinary considering that she smoked, medicine has continuously advanced, the global population has increased, life expectancy in general has increased, and the Gompertz curve implies that, with mortality rates approaching 50%, centenarians should die like flies and ever closer in age to each other and not have occasional enormous permanent 3 year gaps between the record setter (Calment) and everyone since then.
  • Why do humans, pets, and even lab animals of many species kept in controlled lab conditions on standardized diets appear to be increasingly obese over the 20th century? What could possibly explain all of them simultaneously becoming obese?
  • What happened to the famous genome sequencing cost curve after late 2012, which stopped price decreases, damaged genetics, and delayed the advent of whole-genome sequencing by perhaps a decade? Was it really just the Illuminati’s fault?
  • Why do humans have such a large mutation load on common genetic variants? Common SNPs make up a large fraction of variance, even for traits which must be fitness-affecting. Culture or technology slow evolution doesn’t wash when human fitness differentials are so large and so many people died young or as infants, and how did the many deleterious variants get pushed up to such high frequencies in the first place?
  • Why does the immune system so often surface as a genetic correlation or tissue enrichment in GWASes for many things not generally believed to be infectious? Are we missing an enormous range of infections directly causing bad things (or indirectly through autoimmune mechanisms), or the immune system just sort of like intelligence in being a general health trait?
  • Why does catnip response vary so much across countries in domestic cats, and also across feline species, with no apparent phylogenetic or environmental pattern? It is so heritable in domestic cats that a genetic reason is plausible, but if it’s adaptive, what is it doing when catnip doesn’t exist in the ranges of most tested cats, and if it’s neutral why can so many closely-different different animals respond to it in different ways?

TC again: There is much more at the link.  If you don’t know Gwern, you should know Gwern.

Thanks a Thousand

For Thanksgiving I read a book about giving thanks, A. J. Jacobs’s, Thanks a Thousand. It begins like I, Pencil (which Jacobs discovers half-way through his book) and I, Rose:

It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m in the presence of one of the most mind-boggling accomplishments in human history. This thing is so astounding in its complexity and scope, it makes the Panama canal look like a third grader’s craft project.

This marvel I see before me is the result of thousands of human beings collaborating across dozens of countries.

It took the combined labor of artists, chemists, politicians, mechanics, biologists, miners, packagers, smugglers and goatherds.

It required airplanes, boats trucks, motorcycles, vans, pallets and shoulders.

It needed hundreds of materials–steel, wood, nitrogen, rubber, silicon, ultraviolet light, explosives, and bat guano.

It has caused great joy but also great poverty and oppression.

It relied upon ancient wisdom and space-age technology, freezing temperature and scorching heat, high mountains and deep water.

It is my morning coffee.

Jacobs then sets out to thank everyone–which he soon finds is impossible, so he limits to a thousand people–who contributed to getting him his morning miracle. From the obvious, the barista and the coffee growers to the less obvious, the manufacturers and designers of the coffee lid and the NY water department, Jacobs sets out to offer thanks, giving the reader some interesting background along the way (“New York water is tested 2.2 million times a year.” “According to one estimate, pallets account for more than 46 percent of US hardwood lumber production.”).

Jacobs is also good on the importance of gratitude. Being mindful of and thankful for the things we ordinarily take for granted can make for a better life. He asks philosopher Will MacAskill what he is grateful for. “Sometimes I’m just thankful I have arms.” Yes.

Jacobs sometimes forgets, however, that the value of gratitude is more in the giving than in the receiving. He thus confuses gratitude with charity. But gratitude is neither payment nor alms. It’s nice to be recognized and thanked but thanks don’t make the world go round.

I ask Andy whether it feels good that the coffee in his warehouse brings joy to millions of people. Andy looks at me, his eyebrows knit. It’s as if I just asked him if he enjoys being a Buddhist monk who mediates ten hours a day.

“Well let me ask you this,” I say, “What are you thankful for?”

“My paycheck,” he says, laughing.

I like Andy. Andy understands that working solely for the sake of others can be demeaning and degrading. Andy is working for himself and his loved ones and more power to him. Beyond a few special relationships, to make doing for others one’s primary motive is undignified and subservient. Humans are not worker ants eager to die for love of their Queen. Each person’s life is their own.

The true marvel is that despite the fact that most people are not living for others we can still all live together harmoniously. As I like to put it:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the coffee brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

My Conversation with John Nye

John is one of the smartest people I know, and one of my favorite people to talk to, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is the opening summary:

Raised in the Philippines and taught to be a well-rounded Catholic gentleman, John Nye learned the importance of a rigorous education from a young age. Indeed, according to Tyler he may very well be the best educated among his colleagues, having studying physics and literature as an undergraduate before earning a master’s and PhD in economics. And his education continues, as he’s now hard at work mastering his fourth language.

On this episode of Conversations with Tyler, Nye explains why it took longer for the French to urbanize than the British, the origins of the myth of free-trade Britain, why Vertigo is one of the greatest movies of all time, why John Stuart Mill is overrated, raising kids in a bilingual household, and much more.

Here is one bit:

NYE: In fact, one of the things I do know about the 19th century is that there’s no evidence that either unilateral free trade or multilateral did very much.

Almost all the free trade in Europe in the 19th century was a product of, initially, the bilateral trade agreement between Britain and France, sometimes known as the Anglo-French Treaty of Commerce of 1860, in which they each agreed to much more liberalized trade on a most-favored-nation basis. Once they accepted this, then what happened is, anyone who signed on to either Britain or France on the most-favored-nation basis then bought into, in some sense, this system.

Here is another:

COWEN: Particular mistakes aside, what were the systemic mistakes the Western world was making in, say, 1910, 1912?

NYE: I think the systemic mistake really boils down to how do you deal with the problem of power? How do you deal with the problem of different groups, different cultures wanting their place at the table? It’s clear that, if you look, a lot of the fight of imperialism was great-power competition.

If you look in the Far East, for example, some people may know that the United States took the Philippines from Spain at the end of the period of Spanish control of the Philippines in 1898, and partly this was due to Perry’s decision to sail into Manila Bay.

One of the things that’s not discussed — most people are unaware of — is that the German and British fleets were waiting in Hong Kong. They were waiting to see what the Americans did. And it’s quite likely that, had the Americans not steamed into Manila Bay, that the Germans or British would have intervened in the Philippines once the Spanish collapsed.

And:

COWEN: And if there’s an underlying political subtext or import of Hitchcock, what do you think that would be? Not what he necessarily intended as his politics, but what’s in the movies in terms of human nature and political man?

NYE: Well, I think there’s this question of suspicion and the tendency to not appreciate how much is going on under the surface. I think people tend to see these things narrowly in terms of Cold War paranoia. But Hitchcock was a political conservative, and he was much more of the very old British conservative view that one should be wary in times of —

COWEN: Suspicion is metaphysical, right?

Definitely recommended, I am very honored to have had the chance to do this with John.

Coleman Hughes reviews *Stubborn Attachments*

Excellent review, in Quillette, here is part of the closing sequence:

Ultimately, absorbing the thesis of Stubborn Attachments would entail a radical loss of purpose for the politically-minded among us. The small, short-term policy fights that energize us most are precisely the ones from which, on Cowen’s account, we should abstain entirely. Even the smartest among us don’t know what net effect small policies will have; plus very little well-being turns on such policies to begin with. Growth maximization, on Cowen’s view, becomes a moral black hole from which no partisan skirmish, no matter how seemingly important, can escape.

In a cultural landscape where partisan skirmishes regularly induce something approaching bloodlust on both sides of the political aisle, it’s safe to say that most Americans are roundly rejecting Cowen’s thesis at the moment. But perhaps that means the message of Stubborn Attachments is needed now more than ever.

Recommended, here is the link.

Stubborn predictions

Bayesian theories of perception have traditionally cast the brain as an idealised scientist, refining predictions about the outside world based on evidence sampled by the senses. However, recent predictive coding models include predictions that are resistant to change, and these stubborn predictions can be usefully incorporated into cognitive models.

That is the abstract to a new article by Yon, de Lange, and Press, via Michelle Dawson.

The sex recession

From Kate Julian at The Atlantic:

Gen Xers and Baby Boomers may also be having less sex today than previous generations did at the same age. From the late 1990s to 2014, Twenge found, drawing on data from the General Social Survey, the average adult went from having sex 62 times a year to 54 times. A given person might not notice this decrease, but nationally, it adds up to a lot of missing sex. Twenge recently took a look at the latest General Social Survey data, from 2016, and told me that in the two years following her study, sexual frequency fell even further.

Some social scientists take issue with aspects of Twenge’s analysis; others say that her data source, although highly regarded, is not ideally suited to sex research. And yet none of the many experts I interviewed for this piece seriously challenged the idea that the average young adult circa 2018 is having less sex than his or her counterparts of decades past. Nor did anyone doubt that this reality is out of step with public perception—most of us still think that other people are having a lot more sex than they actually are.

I enjoyed this sentence:

In a famous 2007 study, people supplied researchers with 237 distinct reasons for having sex, ranging from mystical (“I wanted to feel closer to God”) to lame (“I wanted to change the topic of conversation”). The number of reasons not to have sex must be at least as high.

This is interesting too:

“Millennials don’t like to get naked—if you go to the gym now, everyone under 30 will put their underwear on under the towel, which is a massive cultural shift,” Jonah Disend, the founder of the branding consultancy Redscout, told Bloomberg last year. He said that designs for master-bedroom suites were evolving for much the same reason: “They want their own changing rooms and bathrooms, even in a couple.” The article concluded that however “digitally nonchalant” Millennials might seem—an allusion, maybe, to sexting—“they’re prudish in person.”

The sex recession remains a puzzle.  Here is my much earlier blog post on why people don’t have more sex.

Words of wisdom from Vitalik Buterin

Both reasoning from behavioral-economic first principles, and my personal experience, people are at their most evil out of fear, not greed. Growth means there is less fear going around.

That is from Vitalik Buterin, reviewing Stubborn Attachments on TwitterAnd this:

I have a different take on “growth is good for harmony” (52-53). Arrow’s theorem doesn’t become more or less true if a conflict is between, say (+5, +1) vs (+1, +5) or (+2, -2) vs (-2, +2). Rather, the reason why the latter is more disharmonious is loss aversion.

And:

Redistributing money to the rich (p88) is risky because the rich are not necessarily aligned with general population. Caring for old people (p91) is valuable not just for the sake of present individuals, but also as a commitment to future old people who are present-day workers.

Here is my earlier Conversation with Vitalik Buterin.  And here is Garett Jones’s tweet storm on the book.

The philosophy and practicality of Emergent Ventures

Let’s start with some possible institutional failures in mainstream philanthropy.  Many foundations have large staffs, and so a proposal must go through several layers of approval before it can receive support or even reach the desk of the final decision-maker.  Too many vetoes are possible, which means relatively conservative, consensus-oriented proposals emerge at the end of the process.  Furthermore, each layer of approval is enmeshed in an agency game, further cementing the conservatism.  It is not usually career-enhancing to advance a risky or controversial proposal to one’s superiors.

There is yet another bias: the high fixed costs of processing any request discriminate against very small proposals, which either are not worthwhile to approve or they are never submitted in the first place.

Finally, foundations often become captured by their staffs.  The leaders become fond of their staffs, try to keep them in the jobs, regard the staff members as a big part of their audience, and adopt the perspectives of their staffs, more so as time passes.  That encourages conservatism all the more, because the foundation leaders do not want their staffs to go away, and so they act to preserve financial and reputational capital.

To restate those biases:

  1. Too much conservatism
  2. Too few very small grants
  3. Too much influence for staff

So how might those biases be remedied?

Why not experiment with only a single layer of no?

Have a single individual say yes or no on each proposal — final word, voila!  Of course that individual can use referees and conferees as he or she sees fit.

The single judge could be an expert in some of the relevant subject areas of the proposals (that is sometimes the case in foundations, but even then the expertise of the foundation evaluators can decay).

This arrangement also can promise donors 100% transmission of their money to recipients, or close to that.  If someone gives $1 million to the fund, the award winners receive the full $1 million.  This is rare in non-profits.  (In the case of Emergent Ventures there are unbudgeted time costs for me and my assistant, who prints out the proposals, and the paper costs of the printing get charged to general operating expenses at Mercatus.  Still, a $1 million grant at the margin leads to $1 million in actual awards.  I am not paid to do this.)

The solo evaluator — if he or she has the right skills of temperament and judgment — can take risks with the proposals, unencumbered by the need to cover fixed costs and keep “the foundation” up and running.  Think of it as a “pop-up foundation,” akin to a pop-up restaurant, and you know who is the chef in the kitchen.  It is analogous to a Singaporean food stall, namely with low fixed costs, small staff, and the chef’s ability to impose his or her own vision on the food.

Once a fixed sum of money is given away, and the mission of the project (beneficial social change) has been furthered, “the foundation” goes away.  No one is laid off.  Rather than crying over a vanquished institutional empire and laid off friends/co-workers, the solo evaluator in fact has a chance to get back to personally profitable work.  It was “lean and mean” all along, except it wasn’t mean.

The risk-taking in grant decisions is consistent with the incentives of the evaluator, consistent with the level of staffing (zero), and consistent with the means of the evaluator.  A solo evaluator, no matter how talented, does not have the resources to make and tie down multiple demands for complex deliverables.  Rather, a solo evaluator is likely to think (or not) — “hmm…there is some potential in this one.”  The wise solo evaluator is likely to look for projects that have real upside through realizing the autonomous visions of their self-starting creators, rather than projects that appear bureaucratically perfect.

And how about the incentives of the solo evaluator?  Well, a fixed amount of time is being given up, so what is the point in making safe, consensus selections with the awards?  The solo evaluator, in addition to pursuing the mission of the fund, will tend to seek out grants that will boost his or her reputation as a finder of talent.  You might worry that an evaluator, even if fully honest will self-deceive somewhat, and use some of these grants to promote his or her own interests.  I would say donate your money to an evaluator who you are happy to see rise in status.

In other words, the basic vision of Emergent Ventures, the incentives, and its means are all pretty consistent.

The solo evaluator also has the power to make very small grants, simply by issuing a decision in their favor at very low fixed cost.  Alchian and Allen theorem!  That helps remedy the bias against small grants in the broader foundation world.

The single evaluator of course is going to make some mistakes, but so do foundations.  And the costs of these evaluator mistakes have to be weighed against the other upsides of this method.

In my view, at least two percent of philanthropy should be run this way, and right now in the foundation world it is about zero percent.  So I am trying to change this at the margin.

How does this idea scale?  What if it worked really well?  How would we do more of it?

Well, it is not practical for this solo evaluator to handle a larger and larger portfolio of grant requests.  Even if he or she were so inclined, that would bring us back to the problems of institutionalized foundations.  The ideal scaling is that other, competing “chefs” set up their own pop-up foundations.  Imagine a philanthropic world where, next year, you could give a million dollars to the Steven Pinker pop-up, to the Jhumpa Lahiri pop-up, to the Jordan Peterson intellectual venture fund, and so on.  Three years later, you would have an entirely different choice, say intellectual venture funds from Ezra Klein, David Brooks, and Skip Gates, among others.  The evaluators either could donate some of their time, as I am doing, or charge a fee for performing this service.  You also could imagine a major foundation carving off a separate section of their activities, and running this experiment on their own, with an evaluator of their choosing.

In a subsequent post, I will discuss how this model relates to the classical age of patronage running through the Renaissance, into the 18th century, and often into the 20th century as well, often through the medium of individual giving.  I also will consider how this relates to classic venture capital and the relevant economics behind “deal flow.”

In the meantime, I am repeating the list of the first cohort of Emergent Ventures winners.  That link also directs you to relevant background if Emergent Ventures is new to you.

Forecasting tournaments, epistemic humility and attitude depolarization

People often express political opinions in starkly dichotomous terms, such as “Trump will either trigger a ruinous trade war or save U.S. factory workers from disaster.” This mode of communication promotes polarization into ideological in-groups and out-groups. We explore the power of an emerging methodology, forecasting tournaments, to encourage clashing factions to do something odd: to translate their beliefs into nuanced probability judgments and track accuracy over time and questions. In theory, tournaments advance the goals of “deliberative democracy” by incentivizing people to be flexible belief updaters whose views converge in response to facts, thus depolarizing unnecessarily polarized debates. We examine the hypothesis that, in the process of thinking critically about their beliefs, tournament participants become more moderate in their own political attitudes and those they attribute to the other side. We view tournaments as belonging to a broader class of psychological inductions that increase epistemic humility and that include asking people to explore alternative perspectives, probing the depth of their cause-effect understanding and holding them accountable to audiences with difficult-to-guess views.

That is a new paper from Barbara Mellers, Philip Tetlock, and Hal R. Arkes, via the excellent Kevin Lewis and Michelle Dawson.  One very general implication is that there are mental, writing, and practical exercises that really can improve your habits of thought.

What should I ask Rebecca Kukla?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is her home page:

Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University

Also: amateur powerlifter and boxer and certified sommelier

I live in the middle of Washington, DC, with my 13-year-old son Eli and my two Portal-themed cats, Chell and Cube. My research focuses on social epistemology, philosophy of medicine, and philosophy of language. 

This interview is an excellent entry point into her thought and life, here is an excerpt from the introduction:

[Rebecca] talks about traveling the world with her nomadic parents, her father who was a holocaust survivor and philosopher, hearing the Dream argument in lieu of bedtime stories, chaotic exposure to religion, getting a job at and apartment at the age of 14, the queerness of Toronto, meeting John Waters and Cronenberg, her brother who is the world’s first openly transgender ordained rabbi, getting into ballet, combating an eating disorder, the importance of chosen family, co-authoring an article with her dad, developing an interest in philosophy of mathematics, the affordability of college in Canada, taking care of a disabled, dramatically uninsured loved one, going to University of Pitt for grad school, dealing with aggravated depression, working with Brandom, McDowell, the continental/analytic distinction, history of philosophy, how feminism and women—such as Tamara Horowitz, Annette Baier, and Jennifer Whiting–were treated at Pitt, coping with harassment from a member of the department, impostor syndrome, Dan Dennett and ‘freeedom’, her sweet first gig (in Vermont), dining with Bernie Sanders, spending a bad couple of years in Oregon, having a child, September 11th, securing tenure and becoming discontent at Carleton University, toying with the idea of becoming a wine importer, taking a sabbatical at Georgetown University which rekindled her love of philosophy, working on the pragmatics of language with Mark Lance, Mass Hysteria and the culture of pregnancy, how parenting informs her philosophy, moving to South Florida and the quirkiness of Tampa, getting an MA in Geography, science, philosophy and urban spaces, boxing, starting a group for people pursuing non-monogamous relationships, developing a course on Bojack Horseman, her current beau, Die Antwoord, Kendrick, Trump, and what she would do if she were queen of the world…

And from the interview itself:

I suspect that I’m basically unmentorable. I am self-destructively independent and stubborn, and deeply resentful of any attempt to control or patronize me, even when that’s not really a fair assessment of what is going on.

So what should I ask her?

How much do the experts wish to discount the future by?

…we find that expert opinion is particularly varied on the rate of time preference.  The modal value is zero, in line with many prominent opinions.  But with a median (mean) of 0.5 percent (1.1 percent)…

And:

…while we find that experts recommend placing greater weight on normative than positive issues when determining the SDR, most believe that the SDR should be informed by both.

That is from the latest issue of American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, “Discounting Disentangled” by Drupp, Freeman, Groom, and Nesje.  You will of course find a lengthy discussion of these issues in my own Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

Toward a theory of optimal personality?

If you are too conscientious, you might experience undue stress during a negative performance review.  Or being too agreeable is correlated with lower salary levels, especially for men.  And surely too much extroversion and too much openness are possible too?

Rolf Degen reproduces a few relevant paragraphs from a new paper.  The work is by Nathan T. Carter, Joshua D. Miller, and Thomas A. Widiger, here is one excerpt from their abstract:

…researchers have only recently begun to uncover evidence that extreme standing on “normal” or “desirable” personality traits might be maladaptive…many more people possess optimal personality-trait levels than previously thought…

I don’t quite agree with that, though I wouldn’t, would I?  I think they are overrating normality.  The notion that “weirdos are bad” seems to me longstanding, and one of the most durable human intuitions, not something that researchers have only started to realize.  In a world with growing division of labor, and greater accountability (in the private sector, at least), extreme traits would seem to be rising in social value.  And perhaps some of that return can be captured as private value too — Silicon Valley anybody?

Overall, I still think that “falling short” on say either conscientiousness or openness is undesirable for most though not all individuals.  How can conscientiousness ever be bad, you might be wondering?  Well, if the world is underproducing people with unusual interests and inclinations, more conscientiousness might make “more weirdos” a harder outcome to achieve.  For instance, conscientiousness, with respect to obligations toward broader society, might keep many people more conformist.  That said, there still are many people who would do better to get up in the morning and go to work, one manifestation of conscientiousness.

Agreeableness is the trait that remains a hard to define black box.  Cooperativeness is often good, though simple deference to the opinions of others, without critical examination, is often bad.  When I hear “agreeableness” discussed as a formal personality trait, the possible clash between those two (and other) underlying features of agreeableness seems to receive insufficient attention.

Here is a previous MR Post on related issues.

*Stubborn Attachments* opening week

I thank all of you buyers and reviewers for making the opening week of Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals such a success.

The book hit #1 in 4 Amazon browse subcategories over the last week:
– Macroeconomics
– Commerce
– Philosophy
– Theory of Economics, and also Comparative Economics