Category Archives: Human condition

What motivates intelligent machines?

Noah Smith has a nice take on the Singularity, or the Slackurality, which is his prediction of what will happen as intelligent machines, like intelligent humans, will come to have other motivations than just “inventing thinking beings more intelligent than themselves.” Someone meeting this AI-slacker might have to exclaim: “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33)

Enhanced by Zemanta

Cross-cultural differences in movie posters

Weird Star Wars Posters From Around the World. (H/t Pawel Doligalski)

These must tell us something important about Hungary (to the right) and Russia, but I am not sure what. Even stranger ones here, introduced with the words: “Go to Eastern Europe, or Japan, and you’ll find posters that have absolutely nothing to do with the film, and everything to do with melting a hole in your brain.” I highly recommend going to the second page of the article.

Part of the explanation (far from all!):

During Poland’s Communist era, movie distributors couldn’t get hold of Hollywood’s publicity materials – so commissioned homegrown graphic designers to create them instead. The results were often abstract, beautiful and always a little bizarre.

Or very bizarre. Also, that does not explain Thor in China. There should be a science of this.

The effect of football on work motivation and well-being

“Is soccer good for you? The motivational impact of big sporting events on the unemployed” is an article in Economic Letters (ungated) by Philipp Doerrenberg and Sebastian Siegloch at IZA that I believe a lot of people wished they had written. The authors analyze the effect of the Euro Cup and the World Cup on the unemployed in Germany:

We examine the effect of salient international soccer tournaments on the motivation of unemployed individuals to search for employment using the German Socio Economic Panel 1984–2010. Exploiting the random scheduling of survey interviews […] We show that respondents who are interviewed after a tournament have an increased motivation to work but, at the same time, request higher reservation wages. Furthermore, the sporting events increase the perceived health status as well as worries about the general economic situation. We also find effects on the subjective well-being of men.

The unemployed are made more motivated to work and more worried, and to perceive themselves as being healthier, but men’s well-being is decreased. Ht: Kevin Lewis.

Children and happiness

Contemplating whether or the number of children to have? Take a look at “A Global Perspective on Happiness and Fertility” by Margolis and Myrskylä. The authors use data from 25 years of the World Value Survey, totalling 86 countries and over 200 000 respondents. They are interested in what the relation between what people answer on the question “Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, somewhat happy, or not at all happy?” and their number of children.

Margolis and Myrskylä find that a higher number of children is associated with lower happiness, but stress that looking at this in the aggregate is highly misleading. This is shown by breaking the data down by subcategories and plotting the results. In particular, they “find that the association between happiness and fertility evolves from negative to neutral to positive above age 40,” as shown e.g. here:


FIGURE 3 Happiness and number of children by age and sex, from Margolis, R. and Myrskylä, M. (2011), A Global Perspective on Happiness and Fertility. Population and Development Review, 37: 29–56. doi: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2011.00389.x

So more children may pay off in the long run. Though it must be said that this is just descriptive, but valuable and interesting nevertheless. There are more graphs like this one, and the results can be understood simply by looking at the graphs.

With also the recent report that “economists with two or more kids tend to produce more research, not less, than their one-child or childless colleagues” in hand and just having achieved the second, I am expecting a short-term boost in productivity and long-term in happiness.

Why do we study?

Now that the world is obsessing about the PISA scores of 2012 is a good time to think a little of the trade-offs involved. South Korea is one of the best performers in international student achievement tests, such as PISA. However it is also “the world’s top producer of unhappy schoolchildren” (h/t MR). Lant Pritchett made a related comment in his Econtalk interview:

I think the parents in Bedford got out of their school system exactly what they wanted out of it. And they wanted football teams. And my wife teachers choir, and they wanted choir. And they wanted the school to put on a musical; and they wanted the school to provide their children with a range of athletic and artistic experiences. And engagement in a variety of other activities; and that’s what the school system delivered. Because it was quite carefully and closely controlled, both formally and informally by the parents. And that produces kind of not world-beating math scores. I don’t think that’s what the parents of Bedford thought was the totality of their educational system. So, I’m a very big fan of the local control by parents of educational systems. And if that doesn’t produce scores of 600, I am actually pretty happy with that. Because I’ve seen what it takes in Korea to produce scores of 600, and no American parent is willing to put their kid through that. Nor should they be, in my opinion.

To put in something more classic as well, here is US president John Adams:

I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

(Letter to Abigail Adams, 1780)

How much would you demand to be paid if I took out your appendix without anesthetizing you?

Discussing economists’ reliance on measures of growth and GDP, Joel Mokyr asks:

So you go to somebody who is about to have surgery and you ask him, How much would you demand to be paid if I took out your appendix without anesthetizing you, without putting you to sleep? Nobody would agree. The sum would be infinite. What can anesthesia contribute to GDP when it was introduced in the 1850s and 1860s? Russ:Could not be very much. Guest: Nothing. It’s very small. But that is exactly the kind of thing we fail to account for in our calculations. So that’s why I gave that whole list of things; and we could make this list infinitely large. It is the small things that actually don’t amount to an awful large part of our income and product that actually have improved life a great deal and that we really wouldn’t want to do without any more.

From Russ Roberts’ interview with Mokyr at Econtalk. The quote was first brought to my attention by Arnold Kling.

Scott misses the point of Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday

Does James Scott have something personal against Jared Diamond? That is unfortunately the question one is left with after reading Scott’s review of Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday. Scott acknowledges that the question of whether there is something to be learnt from traditional societies is reasonable, however he resents Diamond’s answers.

First, he thinks the lessons to be learnt are unexciting:

But what a disappointment it is, after nearly five hundred pages of anecdotes, assertions, snippets of scientific studies, observations, detours into the evolution of religion, reports of near-death experiences – Diamond can be a gripping storyteller – to hear the lessons he has distilled for us. We should learn more languages; we should practise more intimate and permissive child-rearing; we should spend more time socialising and talking face to face; we should utilise the wisdom and knowledge of our elders; we should learn to assess the dangers in our environment more realistically.

But what what kind of magic bullets was Scott expecting?

Second, he mischaracterizes Diamond as maintaining

the indefensible premise that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are survivals, museum exhibits of the way life was lived for the entirety of human history ‘until yesterday’ – preserved in amber for our examination.

Of course Diamond believes no such thing, but in the absence of much hard evidence, contemporary traditional societies is what we have. Maybe Diamond exaggerates what can be learnt, but Scott does not make this nuanced criticism. And even if he had, that would partly have been missing Diamond’s purpose, which specifically is to see the world of traditional peoples as being full of small experiments that we might learn from, not to show exactly how people lived hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Scott tops it by ending the review with asking Diamond to “shut up”. All this is unfortunate, since what is valuable in his review disappears. I too thinks it strange that Diamond does not discuss large-scale wars or other dangers of modern states. There are problematic aspects of the development of states. Scott claims that slave-holding was also an essential part of early states.

To conclude, Diamond’s point, which Scott apparently does not see, is to see what we can learn from traditional societies. His sample size is limited, but he does a great job with what he has.

Friendship, humanness and sainthood

Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.

That is George Orwell writing on Gandhi, who took love of others to such an extreme that he denounced close relationships, and thereby in Orwell’s view ceased to be human. I was lead to Orwell’s essay by the first pages of philosopher Stephen Asma’s recent book Against Fairness, in which he among other things takes up the virtues of favoritism. I do not know if the framing the issue as a conflict between preference and fairness is a good one, but how we do in fact care differentially about others, and have few problems doing so, is an interesting topic.

There is probably a gigantic literature on universalist vs particularist ethics or something like that, but what is brought to my mind is Friedrich Hayek:

If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once. (p. 18, 1988, The Fatal Conceit)

Even if Orwell and Hayek may have had different opinions about the actual rules of both “orders”, they have in common that they suggest that there is something essential in the micro-cosmos, a point denied by those elevating sainthood to the ideal.