The Tower of Babble

“If you come inside, I’ll show you my etchings”, she said. She looked at him slyly. 

He didn’t want to see any etchings. But the well known implicit meaning is “if you come in, we can have sex”.

He didn’t want to have sex. But these days, talk of ‘sex’ in public places was usually understood to mean using an illicit iRotic machine together under the influence of hypercoke.

He didn’t want to go in the iRotic or use hypercoke. But since they had discussed this earlier, he knew that she knew that he knew that she didn’t either. Specifically, she had said that she was asexual, and that the most she was willing to do in that direction with anyone was smoke pot and cuddle. So she obviously meant to communicate something like, “if you come in, I will smoke pot and cuddle with you”

He didn’t want to smoke pot and cuddle. But he strongly suspected that she was the spy he was looking for, and so her invitation and the context sure made it look like once inside they might go somewhere very private and exchange important secrets.

He wasn’t in the mood for exchanging important secrets. But he knew that the spy he was looking for was a double agent, and that any apparent invitation to confidential discussion was really an invitation to get shot, inconveniently far from witnesses.

He didn’t want to be shot (though frankly this sounded better than going near an iRotic machine). However he had a concealed stunsword, and was confident that he could best her in combat.

He followed her inside carefully, hand on his weapon.

The etchings were of birds. 

He turned around to smile at her, reeling from the depth of his misunderstanding.

She shot him. 

Price dikes

I like this comment, from Scott Alexander:

I think there’s a general principle that once you pass dumb regulations, it’s going to make bad things happen, and then if you try to solve those bad things by passing further regulations, you’re just going to get caught in an endless trap.

So first they regulate Mylan into a monopoly on EpiPens. Then they realize that made them too expensive, so they regulate that the government gets to set the price of drugs. Then drug companies stop making EpiPens to switch to more profitable unregulated drugs, so the government has to mandate that you’re not allowed to be a drug company unless you make a certain amount of EpiPens below cost. So drug companies leave the US and headquarter overseas to avoid that law, and then the government regulates that only drug companies headquartered in America can sell drugs in America. Then cheaper foreign drugs start coming in as contraband, so the government regulates that all packages must be inspected at the border. Then drug mules ingest contraband medications into their bodies, so now everyone entering the country needs to have an X-ray…

I agree there is a principle “regulating the economy is like playing whack-a-mole”. But why is it like that?

I think of artificially changing the price being much like artificially changing the water level. You can decree that the water should be five feet lower, so you can have a nice city on the would-be continental shelf. You can build a decent wall against the tide. But water seeks out every crack and weakness, and leaks through. You will spend forever mending leak after leak, and everything will always be a bit wetter than you hoped.

Why? Because every molecule of water is being forced downwards by gravity, and so is effectively scoping out your wall and seeing if it can move downwards through the bit of wall it is right next to. That means your entire wall is being carefully examined for leak opportunities, which are being immediately exploited by the molecules that found them.

If there are holes in the wall low down, most of the water will flow through those holes and higher up holes won’t be discovered. But when you fix the lower holes and push the water level further from its equilibrium, more holes will be found.

So it is with artificially distorted prices. If bread is sold at $0.03, and people are willing to pay $3.00 for it, and there isn’t sufficient bread to go around, every person has reason to pay $0.03 for bread and sell it for $3.00. Every person has their eyes out for such opportunities. Every person is like a gravity trying to move bread up the price gradient (okay maybe like anti-gravity). If you want to avoid this, you have to guard every route through which cheap bread may flow to its natural (in the current equilibrium) expensive bread state. As soon as you fix one hole, another will be found, unless your wall is an incredible work of wallsmanship.

This is closely related to a really nice thing about markets: if the price of a thing changes, the system decentralizedly finds the best ways to respond. For instance, if you put a tax on air pollution, the people who can most cheaply reduce their air pollution will be the ones who do it, because people throughout the economy are looking for ways to reduce the quantity of air pollution for profit. Similarly, a body of water is pretty efficient at responding to bits of its surface being lower or higher, relative to say a centrally coordinated pile of blocks.

Do whole lines hold the line against holding up the line?

I have devoted a lot of time to standing in the security lines in various airports. Usually, I am trying to multitask with something else happening on my phone. A terrible impediment to this multitasking is that the airport line keeps moving. Every time the person in front of me walks forward three steps, I have to pick up my belongings and do the same. I’m in favor of the line moving over not moving, but it would be much better if I could wait until there was ten feet of space, and then bulk-process walking forward in one go. This arrangement would also seem to be better for everyone in the line behind me, who are in roughly the same situation. So why don’t I do it?

I at least imagine social pressure to continue walking forward. If I try waiting a bit longer than usual, I at least imagine that the people behind me are getting kind of restless and thinking I’m a bad line-member, and will soon do something analogous to honking their horns at a driver who isn’t driving at a green light, or simply walk around me. Because the thing I would be doing would look superficially a bit like stopping people from getting to the front of the line as soon as possible. So far, I haven’t actually tried it, probably because it sounds too uncomfortable. 

Perhaps I am imagining all of this. Why would the people behind me care? This change would seem to be neutral to good for all of them. Well, maybe not for the person right behind me. I can imagine the person right behind me caring is because IF it were bad for me to hold up the line, it would be her job to be restless about it at me. And whether or not she cares, she imagines that the people behind her might. Or, she expects me to expect that other people care, and so interprets me as making a social transgression that should rightly be noted, whether or not the consequences are good.

So roughly, I expect maybe everyone feels badly toward me for doing this, because they think the thing I’m doing is antisocial, even though it would immediately make everyone’s lives better. This might seem like an uninteresting window into my own ability to overthink standing in a line, but I think it is more interesting for two reasons. One is that even if I am weird in this way, it is a nice vivid example of a human having overwhelming hesitation to do a thing that seems both selfishly and socially beneficial for fear of secondary social punishment largely from people who would benefit. Which I expect should happen, game theoretically, so it is neat to see sometimes in the wild. 

The other reason is that I have never seen anybody else do this thing which seems both selfishly and socially beneficial, suggesting that something is stopping them (or I have judged the consequences wrongly). That others too perceive holding up the line as antisocial in spite of its consequences being good is my best guess about what. And if it is what is going on with other people, it would be a much better example of people getting stuck in an obviously bad for everyone equilibrium for fear of social retribution.

Content warning: death

(Content warning: death)

People often use trigger and content warnings to tell readers about content that might be costly to read, before they are already reading it. I have seen warnings about a large variety of upsetting contents, but I have seen very few about death (I thought it was none, but after waiting a while I noticed a couple). And more generally, outside of the sphere where things like content warnings are common, people also seem totally ok talking about horrific deaths in a way that would seem totally inappropriate for topics that might be upsetting. I continue to find this strange. Isn’t death one of the canonical things that is awful? And it’s not some abstract or unemotional awfulness that might not traumatize people, like ‘costs’ or ‘taxes’. Usually in life, I think death is one of the most upsetting things that ever happens.

I for one find death upsetting, and would generally much prefer not to read about it [edit: or did at time of writing—I currently find almost nothing upsetting]. However it is clear that I’m at least somewhat unusual, and so not surprising that others’ preferences diverge from mine here. But still, isn’t death a usual thing to be bothered by in other ways? Isn’t there this whole academic area of terror management, about how bothered people are by death? According to Wikipedia, the theory is derived from Ernest Becker‘s 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Denial of Death, “in which Becker argues most human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death”. If it is at all plausible that most of human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death, aren’t there at least a minority of people who would get value out of not accidentally reading about some heartbreaking and horrific familial manslaughter over breakfast on a regular basis? This really seems like low hanging fruit, before you get to reworking your relation to religious symbolism or whatever to bolster your sense of permanence.

Yet I read about death all the time, all over the place. For instance on Facebook sometimes there are even pictures of dead people and nobody else seems to find this costly (ok, apparently many of my friends find actual photographs of recent corpses bad, but it seems more decayed human remains are ok with people). I’ve tried asking Facebook not to show me such content, and sometimes try to tell Facebook why, but Facebook is like ‘is this violent?’ ‘does it depict breasts?’ and gives me no option for ‘it depicts the actual bad thing that violence is bad in large part because of’. One time the first ten posts or so in my Facebook were about death, broadly construed. I’ve mostly fixed this now, with F.B Purity, which lets you filter out posts which contain specific words. But I’m still confused about why this doesn’t bother other people, even though other people are distressed by reading about a bunch of other things.

Some theories:

  1. There is just so much death around that avoiding it is totally infeasible, so nobody thinks anybody else might be trying to.
  2. Avoiding learning about bad things in the world is looked down upon, because it suggests that you are not tough, and prioritize your own freedom from discomfort over being able to be an informed citizen. So it is only in particular cultures that content warnings are popular, and those cultures come with specific idiosyncratic concerns, which happen to not include death.
  3. People put content warnings on things (or speak about them carefully in other ways) when they think other people might be upset with them, which only happens when they post unusually bad things, and death is a usual thing to write about.
  4. Death is distressing, but people basically always experience a countervailing fascination that makes reading about it worthwhile.
  5. People are upset to the point they benefit from warnings or the like by things that remind them of their own terrible experiences, and almost all deaths don’t remind any particular person of a death that personally bothered them. To be useful, such warnings would have to be things like ‘death by kidney disease’.
  6. Maybe death causes some different kind of distress from other topics (e.g. something other than ‘being triggered’), which perhaps people don’t mind as much.

Related: Katla on death as entertainment.

Effective altruisms large and small

Here is one way the world could be. By far the best opportunities for making the world better can be supported by philanthropic money. They last for years. They can be invested in a vast number of times. They can be justified using widely available information and widely verifiable judgments.

Here is another way the world could be. By far the best opportunities are one-off actions that must be done by small numbers of people in the right fleeting time and place. The information that would be needed to justify them is half a lifetime’s worth of observations, many of which would be impolite to publish. The judgments needed must be honed by the same.

These worlds illustrate opposite ends of a spectrum. The spectrum is something like, ‘how much doing good in the world is amenable to being a big, slow, public, official, respectable venture, versus a small, agile, private, informal, arespectable one’.

In either world you can do either. And maybe in the second world, you can’t actually get into those good spots, so the relevant intervention is something like trying to. (If the best intervention becomes something like slowly improving institutions so that better people end up in those places, then you are back in the first world). 

An interesting question is what factor of effectiveness you lose by pursuing strategies appropriate to world 1 versus those appropriate to world 2, in the real world. That is, how much better or worse is it to pursue the usual Effective Altruism strategies (GiveWell, AMF, Giving What We Can) relative to looking at the world relatively independently, trying to get into a good position, and making altruistic decisions.

I don’t have a good idea of where our world is in this spectrum. I am curious about whether people can offer evidence.