Category: Television

How to bargain with aliens

Let’s say you meet up with an alien race and you need to bargain with them by radio or some other method of signaling.  You don’t have any other information other than your knowledge of human beings.  What traits should you think are overrepresented in humans, relative to what a rerun of evolution can be expected to produce in an intelligent being?  Would you expect them to be more or less benevolent than humans?

Should it matter if they have demonstrated superior technology?  Should such achievement make you think they are more or less cooperative toward "outsiders"?

Let’s say the "alien beings" are designed robots, like Cylons.  How would that change your answer?  But unlike in BSG you know only that they were once designed.  What if you know the robots were designed not by evolved beings but by other designed robots?  Does it matter how many levels of robot design enter the picture?

Tyler Cowen on

Tyler to Will:

No you can’t agree with me because its absurd.  I can agree with your absurd view, but you can’t agree with mine.   

That is from my Bloggingheads debut; Robin Hanson reproduces one critical and entertaining part of the transcript, in which I explain which is my most absurd belief.

Here is the link to the show, I am sorry that I cannot embed it.  The chat covers many topics, including whether capitalism will triumph, whether you should have more kids, and which country is most likely to be hit by the next nuclear weapon attack.  Can you guess my pick?  Hint: It’s not the U.S. or even Saudi Arabia or Israel.

I conclude with this:

If no one agrees with you, you should be quite worried.  If only a small number of people agree with you, you still should be quite worried.  I don’t think it’s a numbers game, but I think whatever view you end up with, it doesn’t have to be a majority point of view, that reasons have weight, not just adding up whoever agrees with you.  But you still ought to say at the end of the day, look all those other people are against me, maybe I think I’m right probability 57 to 43, but on any truly controversial question among intelligent people, you should never think it’s 95 to 5 in your favor. 

Addendum: Ann Althouse embeds the parenting discussion.

Why *Entertainment Weekly* rules the world

Here is a mini-dialogue that Seth Roberts and I worked up; it is about Entertainment Weekly, arguably my favorite magazine.  Seth starts off:

When my friends look puzzled that I subscribe to EW I say “entertainment” means art.  It’s about art. They could have called it Art Weekly but they didn’t want to scare people.

Later, I wrote this:

I find the grades for books are the least reliable section of EW.
Which for me means they are the most reliable section.  If they like a
book, I know to stay away.  How could a critic be better or more
trustworthy than that? Too many readers are too concerned about
affiliating themselves with prestigious magazines, rather than learning

I enjoyed experimenting with the dialog format. Seth and I often think alike, while having different things to say, which I think makes us suitable partners in such a venture.

Back of the envelope

Is Wikipedia just the beginning?  Clay Shirky has turned off his TV and gotten down to work:

So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought.  I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching?  Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television.  Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

I thank Jules Sigall for the pointer.

Strange Bloggingheads episodes

It is a cook off: on one side was Megan McArdle and Will Wilkinson, on the other side was Ezra Klein and Spencer Ackerman.  The five-person panel of judges includes Natasha and yours truly.  I deliver the final verdict at the end, citing Benthamite, Perfectionist, and Rawlsian standards for the food.  If there is one lesson, it is taken from the cooking of Megan: for most of you frozen cherries will, for cooking, be tastier than non-frozen cherries which in fact are not so fresh at all.

The best article so far on the writer’s strike

Not surprisingly, it is in the FT (or try this link instead).  Excerpt:

But when the rules changed in 1995 the four US networks – ABC, now
owned by Walt Disney; CBS; Fox, part of News Corporation; and NBC, now
controlled by General Electric
– integrated production with their broadcast, sales and distribution
businesses. The independents began to lose ground to in-house producers.

content allows networks and studios to exploit it internationally via
syndication or DVD sales. But while broadcasters have more rights, they
also have to fund production, which is increasingly expensive. The cost
of a one-hour scripted drama has tripled from about $1m in the early
1990s to $2.7m, according to some executives. The cost of a 30-minute
comedy has doubled to around $1.5m.

This, together with
competition from cable channels, explains why the broadcasters are
taking such a hard line, says Garth Ancier, president of BBC Worldwide
America, the BBC’s commercial arm. “They are fighting for their lives.
They need every last piece to come together, every last revenue stream.”

There is much more, do read the whole thing, it also explains why cable is not the only reason why TV programs have gotten better.

Field experiments for cultural protectionism

The [writers’] strike, Layfield noted, "is perfect timing for our January
launch.  It’ll give Canadians an opportunity to go and watch something
different rather than watching reruns of American shows. "Once (Canadians) see … the quality and the stories that they like, you win them over pretty quickly," she added.  CBC [a Canadian network] announced three new dramas, a sitcom, a daytime talk show and a reality series yesterday.

Here is more.  And on the other side of the border:

With the Writers Guild of America still on strike and no guarantee
that a resumption of talks next week will bring any resolution, this
should all be a boon for Canadian shows vying to air in the United
States, right?…but there is no
indication that U.S. programmers are looking to Canada in droves.

As for one new show, The Border, the Canadian producer remarked:

"Many test viewers who have seen this have said that it doesn’t look
like traditional Canadian television.  It’s got a whole other level of
energy, of entertainment value. There’s never a dull moment," Raymont

Have you heard about cultural path dependence?  The simplest hypothesis, of course, is that once Canadian producers gain a foothold in their home market they will be able to keep it.  I’ll predict no, but stay tuned for further reports next year…

Tabarrok on Dobbs

I just taped an interview on immigration with a reporter for Lou Dobb’s show on CNN.  It’s supposed to be on tonight.  I had a few good lines. (I’m sure I wasn’t as composed as these answers suggest but this is the gist.)

Q: Are you in favor of open borders?

A: I was delighted when the Berlin wall fell and certainly hope that my grandchildren live in a world where it is easier to move between countries.

Q: (After discussing the 19th century immigration of the Irish).  But weren’t the Irish legal immigrants?

A: The Irish were legal immigrants not because they were especially law-abiding but because the immigration law was less restrictive at that time.  If people are worried about illegal immigration the solution is simple, make the immigration laws less restrictive.

I think they were hoping for a "crazy" open border person to make Lou Dobbs look good in comparison.  In which case (believe it or not!) I suspect I disappointed their hopes by being eminently reasonable – we will see how much of the interview gets on the air and what is left on the cutting room floor.

Addendum: My kids thought it was hilarious when Lou called me a complete idiot!  I didn’t get much airtime but my Open Letter on Immigration got lots of attention.

Thanks to everyone in the comments who watched!

Is TV good for Indian women?

Here’s from Robert Jensen and Emily Oster:

Cable and satellite television have grown rapidly throughout the
developing world. The availability of cable and satellite television
exposes viewers to new information about the outside world, which may
affect individual attitudes and behaviors. This paper explores the
effect of the introduction of cable television on gender attitudes in
rural India. Using a three-year individual-level panel dataset, we find
that the introduction of cable television is associated with
improvements in women’s status. We find significant increases in
reported autonomy, decreases in the reported acceptability of beating
and decreases in reported son preference. We also find increases in
female school enrollment and decreases in fertility (primarily via
increased birth spacing). The effects are large, equivalent in some
cases to about five years of education in the cross section, and move
gender attitudes of individuals in rural areas much closer to those in
urban areas. We argue that the results are not driven by pre-existing
differential trends. These results have important policy implications,
as India and other countries attempt to decrease bias against women.

Here is the paper, here is a non-gated version.  The pointer is from David Zetland.

Will people on TV start making more sense?

Ezra Klein has a neat argument:

…the incentives are changing.  Assume that the incentive for going on television is to raise your profile (which is about 75 percent correct).  If I went on television five years ago, a large part of my incentive would be to make the host like me.  After all, these appearances pass in an instant, and most of you would never see the program.  So if I want to reach the maximum number of people with my arguments and do the most to increase my visibility, I want to keep coming back.

Now, however, with YouTube and GoogleVideo and online archiving, a single, contentious appearance can be seen on the internet a million times.  Everyone, after all, has seen Stewart berate Tucker Carlson on Crossfire, but very few of us had actually tuned in that day.  Similarly, my segment on the Kudlow show, replayed on the internet a few thousand times, did much more for my reputation among the audience relevant to my success than have my more friendly, but bland, appearances on other shows.

Making sense often requires you to be disruptive, and not long ago, being disruptive was probably a bad idea.  Now it’s a good one.  And since the channels are wising up and putting their videos online with advertising before them, they also want widespread online dissemination of appearances, and so their incentives are increasingly aligned with mine.  Does this mean more folks will be making sense?  Not necessarily.  But it means there might be more room for sense-making.

Or is Ezra just being deliberately disruptive to get links?  How will TV hosts respond to maintain equilibrium?  Invite fewer uncontrolled guests?  Invite fewer guests period?  Or will contestability force hosts to invite more disruptive guests?

American Inventor

Your suspicion is correct, there is a contestant named Elmer.  The winning inventor with the best new idea, as determined by a four-person panel, gets a million dollars and national fame on this ABC show.  The jury includes George Foreman, who says yes to almost everything, and a sour but articulate British gentleman, who says no to virtually everything.  One of the panel members praises the development of an inflatable neck brace to prevent people from "drownding."

Watch on-line episodes here.  Wikipedia is here.

The ideas included a foot pedal to lift the lid on toilets at night, a funnel for toilet use, a bra with no strap in the back (isn’t that old?), a hands-free flashlight which attaches at the neck and projects upright and forward, a way to rub down the back of your spouse using the TV remote, a computer program which matches strangers in a bar according to their pre-programmed interests (didn’t I blog that once?), a jacket which helps deaf people feel the vibrations from music, and a foam cushion which holds up the heads of small babies.

The winners of this episode came from MIT and Harvard Business School.  Two nerdy guys produced and demonstrated a way of storing bikes vertically in a garage; I wasn’t impressed.

The main lessons are twofold.  First, many people pour years of their lives and love into projects which are absurd on the face of it and could be revealed as such within seconds. 

Second, when it comes to the (possibly) good inventions, it is very very difficult to tell what is a good idea and what isn’t.  Without sector-specific knowledge, how do you know if that no-strap-in-the-back bra is a novelty?  It sounded good and indeed it looked good but I just don’t have the experience (or the attentiveness?) to say.

The real world doesn’t judge inventions with a panel of four quasi-celebrities (sadly Charles Nelson Reilly is now dead) and most valuable novelties are process innovations, produced while someone is working full-time doing something pretty similar.

In my evil, wicked fantasy world I imagine economics graduate students presenting their new Ph.d. dissertation ideas to a jury of four: Paul Lynde, Fred Thompson, Charles Barkley, and Kenny Smith.

I thank several loyal MR readers for the pointer.