Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why Trade-Offs Matter

A respected friend recently gave me some push-back on this, asking: at the meta-level, what exactly is the value in reading a list of trade-offs? I offer three main reasons, in order of descending plausibility:

1) Interestingness: There are many systems used for classifying stories (e.g., here, here, and here). Now, the classical "decision" is not necessarily more "important" than the story. (And they are often intertwined, as we use our decisions to construct and shift the trajectory of our personal narratives). But still, we might consider a similar sort of interestingness as is found in classifying stories to be a lower bound on the value of a good trade-off classification system.

2) Awareness: Daniel Gilbert writes that "because resources are finite, every sensible thing we do is another sensible thing we don't. Alas, research shows that when human beings make decisions, they tend to focus on what they are getting and forget about what we are forgoing." And apparently teaching people about cost-benefit reasoning really can improve their ability and propensity to use it (see here).

3) Tactics: Reading one of the trade-offs might allow someone to recognize a systematic bias towards one side of that trade-off. In the future, when that person identifies a situation which can be classified into that trade-off, they could try to adjust for their tendency towards bias. This ability to treat individual situations as merely examples of broader trends is crucial for aligning short-term decisions with long-term preferences.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Seeing Status-Seeking Statements Everywhere

I follow humblebrag on twitter, and have often chuckled when the feed re-tweets people boasting about their achievements under the guise of humility. But for some reason (curator) Harris Wittels' article summarizing the most flagrant humblebraggers gives me some anxiety about supporting the feed and evangelizing for it.

Perhaps this is just the paradox of funny things losing their appeal once they are explained, kind of like growing to loathe a song once you come to realize what the lyrics actually mean.

But I think my anxiety runs a bit deeper than that. Consider Wittels' sarcastic take-down of "a very specific type of humblebrag, which is the 'some person did something great and I am very good friends with them' Humblebrag."

There's no doubt that mentioning your association with high-status people and institutions is a great way to seem high-status. But we also have to respect these would-be humblebraggers' plausible deniability, which is that they might really just be happy for their friends.

To me, it is this plausible deniability that distinguishes between having a conversation and bragging. It is typically socially acceptable to mention an accomplishment of yours if it comes up naturally in a thread that you did not initiate.

The logical conclusion of humblebrag and like-minded feeds continuing to rise in popularity is that people will become especially conscious of not bragging. Rather than making people more earnest, I think this will likely make them more mysterious. Since I'd prefer more earnestness, I say to err on the side of bragging, as long as it is real.

Full disclosure: I once sent in a tweet to that I thought was a particularly good instance of humblebragging and got no response, so I might just be bitter.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Cost-Benefit Of Considering The Costs And Benefits

Pierre-Simon Laplace, in my opinion the greatest statistician of all time, wrote eloquently about the cost-benefit principle in his magnus opus:
Consequently we ought always in the conduct of life to make the product of the benefit hoped for, by its probability, at least equal to the similar product relative to the loss. But it is necessary, in order to attain this, to appreciate exactly the advantages, the losses, and their respective probabilities. For this a great accuracy of mind, a delicate judgment, and a great experience in affairs is necessary; it is necessary to know how to guard one's self against prejudices, illusions of fear or hope, and erroneous ideas, ideas of fortune and happiness, with which the majority of people feed their selflove.
Napolean made Laplace the Minister of the Interior in 1799, which he apparently begged for. But he struggled with it, as Napolean recounts,
Laplace was not long in showing himself a worse than average administrator; since his first actions in office we recognized our mistake. Laplace did not consider any question from the right angle: he sought subtleties everywhere, only conceived problems, and finally carried the spirit of "infinitesimals" into the administration.
Let's be careful not to read too much into this one anecdote, as it has an n of one. But still, it's scary that thinking too much is a plausible way for a politician to fail.

In other contexts, this paradox is often called "paralysis by analysis." Insofar as it holds true, what exactly would mediate the trade-off between probabilistic thinking and timely, necessary action?

I think it's secular vs sacred. In the real world you need to make assumptions to actually make things happen, but in the world of intellectuals, as Robin Hanson says, "sharp people... distinguish themselves by not assuming more than needed to keep the conversation going." 

There's no doubt Laplace caught onto this. For example, when asked by Napolean why he didn't mention religion in his tome on probability, he famously replied that he "had no need of that hypothesis."

Again, not sure how far this example generalizes and I'd like to see some systematic data, but this is something to ponder.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reform "Marco Polo"

Back when I was a lifegaurd, I spectated countless sessions of this game. And what a truly awful game it is. Nobody has fun, and the noise pollution is unabashed.

It's once again summer up here in the northern hemisphere, and as my base tan isn't going to improve itself, I have been putting in work by the pool. So this weekend I had to endure another few games of "Marco Polo."

Here's one easy improvement. Just add a finite limit to the number of times the person who is "it" can call "Marco." Say, 20. This will prevent him or her from spamming that ability and actually introduce some strategy.

More generally, the fact that people play so much Monopoly, Tic-Tac-Toe, and Marco Polo, despite their terribleness, is one of the strongest arguments I can think of against status quo bias.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Trade-Off #20: Quality vs Quantity

If the above photo had two flowers instead of just this one, would each seem slightly less pretty? I don't know for sure (we are talking about aesthetics, after all), but I imagine that most would say yes, because each flower would stand out less from the background and seem less unique. The only exception would be if the flowers somehow contrasted or augmented each other's beauty.

In scarce environments, and aside from such cases where individuals interact to produce effects greater than the sum of their parts, the average quality of an agent's choice will be inversely related to its quantity. Here are some examples:
  • People often wonder whether they should spend lots of time and energy pursuing one high-quality mate, or distribute those resources pursuing many lower-quality ones. This is a very general quandary, which many if not all reproductive species face. (see here)
  • In searching a text, an increase in the proportion of relevant results to total results typically comes at the cost of missing more of the possible relevant results from the whole search space. (see here)
  • For an individual using an online social network, adding more "friends" usually decreases the quality of his relationship with his average connection. (see here)
Trade-offs are found everywhere, even in making a list of the most important and widespread trade-offs. So given the quality vs quantity trade-off that we face in adding more trade-offs to this list, the first draft of the canon will end here.

(photo credit to domesticated diva)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Validating The Next Revolutions

From my hopefully not overly-insular vantage point, the two books which have had the biggest impact in the first half of 2011 have been Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift and Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation.

There are many similarities between them. They both address broad, ongoing trends in American society, in higher ed and macroeconomics. They have both been read largely in e-book format, AA due to the prohibitive price of the print version, and TGS due to some brilliant/lucky marketing. And, oddly, their approaches both owe at least some homage to the views of entrepreneur and raconteur Peter Thiel, who has widely-discussed qualms with higher ed, and who won the dedication of TGS for his insight into the lack of innovation and growth in our economy.

This last point deserves some drawing out. For all the hype, the overarching theme of neither book is necessarily novel. Arum and Roksa make many points that were assumptions, not conclusions, of conversations at Vassar's cafeteria. No one ever wondered with incredulity, "wait, instructors are gaming their end of semester ratings?" The case is similar for Cowen's thesis. Individuals who decry the sluggish innovation and dormant middle class prospects in America are hardly in short supply. Just notice how many express fears that America doesn't "make anything" anymore.

But what both books do accomplish is to make these everyday arguments more rigorous. And, perhaps because the authors are academics, they also serve to validate what might otherwise be seen as merely mumbles and whimpers amongst the broader populace.

The impact of these books also speaks to the fact that we as a culture are still only barely embracing the brave new world of the internet. Content-wise, these both could easily have been "merely" articles. Publishing in some gated academic journal would obviously have reached few, but even if they had been published in the popular press, I doubt they would have had the same success. Regardless of the e-book format, we still love the idea of the book. For instance, I get expontentially more comments and questions IRL about my shelfari page than my page, although I've surely invested more time and energy into curating the latter.

Cowen himself says, on his blog, that, "we’ve yet to really organize our economy around the internet, as we someday will, and then the gains will be enormous." Perhaps the impact of these e-books could be considered Exhibit A of both our current lack of mobilization around the internet idea economy, as well as its potential once we do get our act together.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Boredom Trade-Offs?

Aaron Haspel says that "an above-average capacity for boredom is optimal; a superior one is disastrous." Somewhat similarly, Mike Tully argues that becoming bored with a pursuit will inhibit artistic and athletic greatness.

Perhaps we can think of the capacity for boredom as a cognitive trait that pushes you towards the plasticity side of the plasticity vs specialization trade-off.

But really this idea seems a bit too vague. It's not clear whether one's capacity for boredom extends uniformly across all domains, and there are many other factors involved.

For example, you could argue that Ted Williams was able to specialize because he never grew bored of baseball, or you could argue that he specialized because he so quickly grew bored of everything else. With the former frame he has a below-average capacity for boredom, while with the latter it's above-average, but the end result is still the same.