Douglas_Knight's Shortform

post by Douglas_Knight · 2020-03-28T17:02:42.450Z · LW · GW · 21 comments


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comment by Douglas_Knight · 2020-05-04T02:36:51.260Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nothing in academic biology makes sense except in the light of feudalism.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2020-08-18T20:11:03.369Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How much of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics is just feudalism?

That is, that is, taking on a patron-client relationship is a discrete change with abrupt ethical consequences.

I think that feudalism explains a lot about the ethics of employment. In particular, the employer is responsible for a living wage, not supplemented by charity, which is for wards of the state; and the employer is responsible for the sins of the ward. I'm not sure it explains the examples Jai's original post. He did a good job of producing diverse examples that aren't explained by a common factor like employment. But I wonder whether it is an echo of feudalism.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2020-06-26T04:48:48.977Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A common pedagogical example of the perils of correlation analysis that ice cream consumption is correlated with homicide. The common cause is seasonal variation. This is usually presented as an absurd example, a mistake no one would make, but there is an extremely similar example that was nationally prominent. Polio was blamed on ice cream consumption because they had the same seasonal pattern. I wonder if the standard example was engineered from the real example. Perhaps it is better (eg, more absurd), but one doesn't have to choose just one example; surely it is better to also include the historical example.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2020-08-17T02:18:27.923Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
The essence of systems thinking: Every persistent biological or cultural structure exists because of a positive feedback loop. Sometimes it’s hard to see. But to understand the structure, you must understand the loop.
Kevin Simler


Positive loops by themselves are unstable, yes, and both are needed for stability, but positive loops are primary. Without a positive loop, there would be nothing for a negative loop to stabilize.
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2020-11-12T23:11:10.639Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's pretty common for there to be coverups with no crime protected. People just close ranks and reflexively lie. So coverups are rarely good evidence of the primary crime. But they are evidence of a sick culture.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2020-10-23T21:58:33.773Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A common historical paradox is that centralizing forces can break apart large organizations. Usually what happens is that the large organization was fake, nominally claiming wide domain while actually being weak. When real power centralizes enough to defy the fake power, it secedes, producing the appearance of decentralization.

At least, my cached thought is that it's common. I can't remember what examples lead me to it. The only example I can think of right now is the Holy Roman Empire. A less paradoxical situation is that rapidly changing power produces uncertainty and civil war. Maybe my previous examples were things like the English Bill of Rights, where the King makes an explicit concession, but this is only necessary because the centralizing forces made the king powerful enough to need to clarify how powerful. (And Parliament is almost as centralized as the King, so this hardly even has the appearance of decentralization.)

I was reminded of this by people pushing back on Samo Burja's claim on the centralizing effects of the printing press. I think that this is a logical error. Just because the press broke the Western Church, doesn't mean that it did so for decentralizing reasons. On the other hand, a false argument doesn't mean a false conclusion. You have to look at the details to decide whether the mechanism was centralizing or decentralizing, which is a lot to ask for a tweet. FWIW, Burja only claimed a net centralizing effect, classifying the effect on the Church as decentralizing:

The printing press reduced the Catholic Church’s control over intellectual institutions. But it also paved the way for the standardization of language and for more direct control by state bureaucracies. Society was vastly more centralized in 1750 than it was in 1400.

Added: So, of course, I wrote this because my first thought on seeing the tweets was that Reformation was an example of this, but then I became uncertain about the example. Now I'm wondering if it was actually the motivating example when I first cached this thought. Anyhow, I do think that the nominal power and organization of the Church are misleading. Added: Yes, I think the Western Schism was my original example. I still think that's right, that it was caused by centralizing forces. I'm just not sure how the printing press fits in.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2020-08-22T01:48:32.216Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's an extremely common argument that the reason that ancient Greek science didn't lead to Greek engineering is that Athens was a slave society and slave societies are brimming with labor and have no demand for labor-saving devices.

I have never been able to make head or tail of this argument. Also, the conclusion and premise of the argument are false. Conclusion: Greek engineering was better than Roman engineering. It was awesome and we're really not sure how far it went. Premise: Greek scientists weren't in Athens, but in many places in the Hellenistic world, especially Alexandria. Was Alexandria a slave society? I don't think anyone really knows. Some sources claim that it was full of slaves; some empty. Some that it had slaves everywhere, but others only in the fields, not in the workshops.

An alternate theory is that in (some) slave societies, the master is not supposed to think about the kind of work performed by slaves.

Here is a third argument that slave societies are not inventive. I just ran across Carroll Quigley:

a society whose productive system was based on slavery would probably be uninventive, because the slaves, who knew the productive process most intimately, would have little incentive to devise new methods since these would be unlikely to benefit themselves, while the slaveowners would have only a distant acquaintance with the productive processes

This argument seems too narrow to me. Is this about slavery, or about big organizations? I thought Adam Smith wrote something broader, but he actually wrote exactly the same:

A great part of the machines made use of in those manufactures in which labour is most subdivided, were originally the invention of common workmen, who, being each of them employed in some very simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts towards finding out easier and readier methods of performing it. — Book I, Chapter 1
Slaves, however, are very seldom inventive; and all the most important improvements, either in machinery, or in the arrangement and distribution of work, which facilitate and abridge labour have been the discoveries of freemen. Should a slave propose any improvement of this kind, his master would be very apt to consider the proposal as the suggestion of laziness, and of a desire to save his own labour at the master's expense. The poor slave, instead of reward would probably meet with much abuse, perhaps with some punishment. In the manufactures carried on by slaves, therefore, more labour must generally have been employed to execute the same quantity of work, than in those carried on by freemen. — Book IV, Chapter 9

Again, what's special about slaves? Why would the master think any differently of the slave than of the apprentice? Doesn't "at his master's expense" apply both times? Is the master's reaction supposed to be correct or prejudiced? Perhaps the master should be willing to let the underling try out cheap experiments, but should be cautious about investing in building the machine. The master tradesman is different from the slave driver in having more experience in the task, but that's mainly a question of the depth of the hierarchy, not the legal status. My memory was that Smith went on to say that the master was right that the apprentice was crying wolf and that real progress required the apprentice to set up his own shop and try out his inventions at his own expense, with skin in the game. I wouldn't be surprised if he does say something along these lines elsewhere, but not connected to this passage.

Bonus: here are the sentences before and after the second quote. They sound rather odd to me, perhaps like the first theory I rejected above:

the great body of the people were in effect excluded from all the trades which are, now commonly exercised by the lower sort of the inhabitants of towns. Such trades were, at Athens and Rome, all occupied by the slaves of the rich, who exercised them for the benefit of their masters, whose wealth, power, and protection made it almost impossible for a poor freeman to find a market for his work, when it came into competition with that of the slaves of the rich. [Slavery and invention.] The Hungarian mines, it is remarked by Mr. Montesquieu, though not richer, have always been wrought with less expense, and therefore with more profit, than the Turkish mines in their neighbourhood. The Turkish mines are wrought by slaves; and the arms of those slaves are the only machines which the Turks have ever thought of employing. The Hungarian mines are wrought by freemen, who employ a great deal of machinery, by which they facilitate and abridge their own labour.

First, there is the mystery of why the Turks don't copy the Hungarians next door. It's one thing to ignore innovations from slaves, but why do they ignore proven innovations? Second, if the Hungarians can compete with the Turks, why can't free tradesmen of Athens and Rome compete with the slave tradesmen? One possibility is vertical integration ("for the benefit of their masters"). Another is that something outside of economics has been smuggled in with the words "power and protection." It seems like most of the sentences exists to refute the first few, so what's going on?

Replies from: gworley
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2020-08-24T20:22:28.344Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's not specifically about slaves, but the supply of labor relative to the demand. For a modern example, the standard argument is that Japan has pushed further ahead on automation than other developed nations in recent decades because labor is in shorter supply there relative to the demand for it because of demographic changes. Similarly, the argument for why the industrial revolution happened when it did and where it did is because labor was in short supply in England (and to a lesser extent, in short supply in northern Europe), so it was necessary to automate work to meet demand.

That said, this is just a model and there are likely other factors at play such that even when the labor supply-demand curve supports automation it may not happen, perhaps for cultural reasons (e.g. a society of Butlerians or Luddites).

Replies from: Douglas_Knight
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2020-08-24T22:05:52.551Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sprinkling in the words "supply" and "demand" doesn't make it an argument.

I would be very happy if it were just a model, but it is not even a model. That's exactly the problem.

If you want to make an argument, you have to actually say something about supply and demand. You have to connect slavery (or any other aspect of any particular time and place) to supply or demand, or, better, both.

It is much more popular to argue that cheap labor caused the industrial revolution than that expensive labor caused the industrial revolution. Maybe expensive labor caused the agricultural revolution, which overshot and produced cheap labor, which in turn caused the industrial revolution. But if you can't tell the difference between that claim and the claim that expensive labor causing the industrial revolution, then you don't actually mean anything when you claim to have a model.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2020-03-28T17:02:42.773Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith is a great book. My favorite part is Book III, Chapter 4 on the end of feudalism. In particular, I like these two paragraphs:

In a country which has neither foreign commerce, nor any of the finer manufactures, a great proprietor, having nothing for which he can exchange the greater part of the produce of his lands which is over and above the maintenance of the cultivators, consumes the whole in rustic hospitality at home. If this surplus produce is sufficient to maintain a hundred or a thousand men, he can make use of it in no other way than by maintaining a hundred or a thousand men. He is at all times, therefore, surrounded with a multitude of retainers and dependants, who, having no equivalent to give in return for their maintenance, but being fed entirely by his bounty, must obey him, for the same reason that soldiers must obey the prince who pays them.

In a country where there is no foreign commerce, nor any of the finer manufactures, a man of ten thousand a year cannot well employ his revenue in any other way than in maintaining, perhaps, a thousand families, who are all of them necessarily at his command. In the present state of Europe, a man of ten thousand a year can spend his whole revenue, and he generally does so, without directly maintaining twenty people, or being able to command more than ten footmen not worth the commanding. Indirectly, perhaps, he maintains as great or even a greater number of people than he could have done by the ancient method of expense. For though the quantity of precious productions for which he exchanges his whole revenue be very small, the number of workmen employed in collecting and preparing it must necessarily have been very great. Its great price generally arises from the wages of their labour, and the profits of all their immediate employers. By paying that price he indirectly pays all those wages and profits and thus indirectly contributes to the maintenance of all the workmen and their employers. He generally contributes, however, but a very small proportion to that of each, to very few perhaps a tenth, to many not a hundredth, and to some not a thousandth, nor even a ten-thousandth part of their whole annual maintenance. Though he contributes, therefore, to the maintenance of them all, they are all more or less independent of him, because generally they can all be maintained without him.
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2021-05-07T06:01:18.836Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


I'm going to write some things about Georgism, prompted by the review of George in the SSC contest. I had a pretty positive view of Georgism before, but had a pretty negative reaction to the review. I have not read George, but it gave me an impression of monomania. It is implausible that land is the root of all evil: of the Irish famine, the 19th century Depression, and modern urban dysfunction. I had first heard of Georgism and LVT for the coordination of modern cities, but I never gave much thought to what it was originally about. 

I expect to write a bunch of comments as replies to this comment, which will serve to keep them together. I want multiple comments mainly because I expect to write them on different days and don't want one to prevent the publication of the other. For good or for ill, this will avoid bridging topics.

Replies from: Douglas_Knight, MrGus99
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2021-05-07T15:36:32.470Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I often hear people claim that Hong Kong and Singapore are Georgist. More specifically, I hear that they have Land Value Taxes. Their success is often attributed to their Georgism.

Hong Kong has a property tax that is not at all an LVT. Singapore has a tax that it claims is a LVT, but it's really just a property tax that is reassessed when a new building is proposed, rather than complete. I guess that improves incentives, but it seems pretty minor.

There is more to the spirit and letter of Georgism. The central conceit is state ownership of land, which both cities try to monopolize, offering only 99 year leases. I guess this cuts down on long-term "speculation," but George's proposals usually seem focused on a shorter term.

The modern account is to emphasize that the value of cities is the positive externalities from all the development. A government should encourage the production of positive externalities, in particular more building. The cities do take this to heart and make it easy to build. Maybe Georgism is really simple and that's the key point. So many other cities fail it, but it's not because of failing to grasp the abstract argument for an LVT or the difficult details of implementing it, but because of much more basic and fundamental failure.

comment by MrGus99 · 2021-05-07T14:44:41.108Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In principle, there's nothing wrong with blaming all socio-economic problems onto one single thing, but Georgism fails simply because incentives matter. If land value is taxed at 100%, then there will be no incentive for land holders to increase the value of said land. In fact, their incentive will be to decrease the value of said land instead. Turning everyone into tenants won't turn out well; there won't be an incentive for the private sector to survey land, drain it, clear it, build access to it, generate 3rd party demand for it, etc. 

At least not until a type of faux-ownership naturally arises via subleasing and sub-subleasing due to bulk-discount and purchasing power discrepancies at different scales. I can imagine land valuation inefficiencies making it possible to rent a 1000-acre plot of land from the state and paying the 100% land value tax on it, but then being able to turn a profit nevertheless by subleasing a hundred 1-acre plots of land. This already happens when someone leases an entire house, and then subleases out individual rooms.

What's funny is that under a 1% real-interest rate and a 1% property tax rate, land value is already being taxed at 50%. Why? Because a matching property tax rate and real-interest rate allows property values to balloon up until the point where the annual payments to the gov exactly balance out the continued value of holding that land.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2021-03-02T21:32:12.897Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Recently I've run across several people offhandedly offering disclaimers that they've never personally checked that the earth is round. I've never thought to check either, but a moment's reflection reveals that I've traveled far enough, both north-south and east-west that the curvature is obvious

Time zones are a measure of the curvature of the earth. When I travel from New York to California, I know that noon has changed, trusting only my wristwatch. In fact, it was pretty clear to my circadian rhythm. Or just make a phone call to someone you trust on the other coast. Most of the time I don't discuss sunlight on such calls, but it has come up.

I've traveled shorter distances north-south. I've been to Glasgow, which is 15 degrees north of NYC. If I went in the spring, there's probably little to notice, but I went near the solstice, when it was obvious that the nights were much shorter. Similarly, if you go south 15 degrees to Miami, I'm told that the winter and summer day lengths are obviously moderated.

Accurate clocks and instant communication give us a big advantage over the ancients, but the north-south method is largely unchanged.

Added: East-West travel produces a linear effect. North-South travel produces non-linear effects, which can be easy to notice. If I were measuring the height of the sun at noon, that would be linear in the latitude. 15 degrees might be enough to measure without instruments, if I chose to think about it. But the length of the night is not linear. Summer solstice night heads to zero not at the north pole, but just at the arctic circle. So summer solstice in Glasgow was obviously shorter than any night I had previously experienced, maybe cut in half. Whereas summer solstice in Miami is shorter than summer solstice in New York, but just an ordinary length day from other times of the year. Maybe if I had thought to ask the question I could have told the difference without a clock, but I didn't think about it, whereas the night in Scotland was striking and a topic of conversation. If someone from Miami comes to New York for the solstice, he will experience the shortest night of his life, which might be obvious, but it won't as dramatic as half the length he's used to. I knew a guy who moved from Miami to New York and he noticed it, but I think it was about the experience of life, not a single night. There is another non-linear effect as you head to the tropics, which is the solstice shadows at noon shorten to zero. That might be obvious to some people, but it's not the kind of thing I pay attention to.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2020-06-27T02:09:00.723Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are there compendiums or classifications of trolley problems?

What is the most extreme real-world trolley problem? By "real-world" I mean something that really happens, emphasis on the plural. I don't want one-off examples where one person has the moral luck of having to face it and everyone else can breathe easy that they didn't have to think about it. I want examples where there is a definite, known policy. By "extreme," I mean something that really pushes people's buttons. By a classification, I mean a classification of which features make it more like a visceral trolley problem and which more like a blurry statistical haze that allows trading lives.

I propose a candidate: the dengue vaccine. In any event, I think people will find it interesting.

Dengue fever is an often-fatal mosquito-born tropical viral disease. People develop immunity, so we could make a vaccine. Obvious candidate, except ... Since we are all now experts in antibodies, we all know about the crazy phenomenon of antibody-dependent enhancement, mainly observed in dengue. It is not one virus, but four closely related strains with different envelope proteins and different immunity. If you get one, it's a non-lethal disease and you become immune to that strain. But you're still vulnerable to the other strains and, for not entirely clear reasons, infection with a new strain is much worse.

If you've already had some variant of dengue, any vaccine is better than none. But if you've never been exposed, it might be worse than not vaccinating. So of course the vaccine is a combination of all four variants. What if each of the four vaccines had a 95% chance of working, independent? Then someone receiving the vaccine would have about a 20% chance of not being vaccinated for all four. Let's say that's worse than nothing. Vaccinating everyone is a trolley problem benefiting people who have been exposed at the expense of those who have not been exposed. Both the benefit and harm is statistical (you don't know that you'll ever get dengue in the future), but the two groups of people can be identified ahead of time, not in a God's eye view of who will be bitten, but in a really potentially testable way. You could just test people for antibodies. If you're first-world-rich, perhaps a tourist from the first world, you can get repeated testing for antibodies and if you ever test positive, then you should get the vaccine. But the testing is more expensive than the vaccine (and logistically complicated) and Filipinos are poor, so we're not going to pay to test them. Should we choose some simple criterion like an age threshold and living in a badly hit area and just vaccinate everyone?

This was a hypothetical and I'm not sure if people were ever faced with this decision. If so, they decided not to pull the switch and instead kept working on the vaccine until it was much better than 95% effective. It was so effective (at least as measured by producing antibodies) enough that they rounded it off to 100% declared the problem solved and vaccinated a bunch of Filipinos who were old enough that they'd probably had it once.

And then the data trickled in and it saved lots of (net) lives, but it wasn't quite as good as hoped. People who had been vaccinated still got dengue, just not as often. But surely that meant that people who hadn't been exposed before were promoting mild to severe dengue? This seems pretty obvious, but they put their fingers in their ears and waited for the data to pin that down. That waiting, or maybe something else, burned their credibility and now the WHO policy is that you shouldn't give anyone the vaccine without an antibody test. Practically speaking, that means no vaccines.

This is a trolley problem that happened in the real world and the fact that the groups of people are potentially knowable seems to really important to reluctance to switching tracks. But the rejection of the vaccine is not purely the result of the trolley problem, but also about burnt credibility.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2020-07-22T10:09:45.773Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But the testing is more expensive than the vaccine (and logistically complicated) and Filipinos are poor, so we're not going to pay to test them. Should we choose some simple criterion like an age threshold and living in a badly hit area and just vaccinate everyone?

While testing is more expensive then the vaccine it's something like $10 which is a third of the daily wage of am average Filipino. If you can communicate that the vaccine would matter a lot and testing for it is really good it seems to me like you could get people to pay for it. 

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2021-05-07T06:04:56.575Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hypothesis: "Flatten the curve" took off because it allows people to participate without 1. signaling they care what happens to them. 2. think things will get bad or 3. think bad things are preventable.


comment by Douglas_Knight · 2020-07-20T15:56:47.194Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Bulverism, also known as the Aumann Agreement Theorem.

Replies from: Dagon
comment by Dagon · 2020-07-20T16:22:57.449Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Aumann for thee, not for me.

(Which isn't even close to what it means - the theorem explicitly only works if both participants have mutual true belief that they are both rational and had (at some point in the past) compatible priors, so that both can update by using the other's current belief as evidence. But that's not as fun as snarky comments :) )

Replies from: Douglas_Knight
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2020-07-21T20:46:18.157Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I could have said "The Aumann Agreement Theorem, also known as Bulverism," which is more broadly true. But the converse is a more valuable statement.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2020-03-28T17:11:16.562Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

two tweets:

[Carl Schmitt is a good philosopher but] One nightmarish way to understand The Discourse is that somehow Carl Schmitt became the obvious, agreed-upon, common-sense interpretation of politics. All sides nod sagely, but each fetishizes a different book.
So the left gets Political Theology, the right gets Nomos of the Earth. Quilette-style centrists are 100% indebted to the Concept of the Political.