Lessons from covid predictions: Always use multiple models

Epistemic status: This point isn’t novel (it’s one of the the ten commandments of superforecasting, more or less),  but it’s often underappreciated.

I went out of my way to make two explicit predictions about covid over the course of the pandemic. The first, back around January 2020, was a vague claim that internet people’s worrying about the pandemic was probably overblown and it’d probably level off before it got global. The second one (dated March 12 2021) was more explicit:

 Israel opened vaccines up to general availability at about 0.7 SPP (Shots Per Person). Biden wants to open them on May 1st, which will be just about 0.7SPP at current rates.
Overall, this seems pessimistic (we should expect more acceleration by then), so it does seem to be more of Biden’s “underpromise and overdeliver” media strategy. But this one’s likely to not be too far off, since there’s much less time for acceleration now.
(A few complications: The US vaccinated slower, so you might need a higher threshold for demand shock. But also US rules are more convoluted, so you’d expect demand shock to hit in earlier – but the more convoluted rules also mean there’s more people in the various priority groups, so less pressure to open up to general availability. Overall I think these are mostly a wash).

In the spirit of testable predictions: My 90% confidence interval for the median (that is, 25th/50) state making vaccines generally available is 4/17-5/2.

My reasoning behind the first prediction was that we’d had pandemic scares every few years for a while – swine flu, SARS 1, Ebola, Zika, and they’d all fizzled out. So there’s an argument that your prior should be that most pandemic scares fizzle out.

The first prediction, obviously, was wrong. The second was technically correct (the actual date of the median state making vaccines available was 4/19), but just barely, and thanks to an unprincipled extension of my error bounds (I’d run a spreadsheet with a few different scenarios for the rate of vaccine acceleration, then added a few days to each side to get my interval. The US was nowhere at only 0.63 SPP at the time.) I’d give myself a 0.5/2 here, which isn’t a great track record.

 Where did I go wrong?

My biggest mistake was only having one model for each prediction. With the first one, I didn’t even have a confidence interval. With the second one, I accounted for uncertainty within the model, but not for the uncertainty from the model being off. We should always, always consider at least two models when making a prediction. Think of it as running a Monte Carlo simulation on the meta level – we run through the meta-level process of coming up with different models a few times, and that lets us improve accuracy (by averaging the models), and estimate our model uncertainty (by seeing how much they vary).

What could I have done here? For the first prediction (whether or not covid would go global), I could have done an inside-view estimate. Look an infection rates, look at the error bars on how good preventative measures might be, try to guess how likely they were to fail. I probably (given what I knew at the time) would have ended up at somewhere around 30% chance of it going global – still low, but no longer crazy off. 

For the second one, I could have come up with an inside-view model – try to estimate how much pent-up demand there was in special categories and see when we’d run through it, or compare US states to each other instead of just to a different country. It would have given a result closer to the truth, and would have let me estimate model uncertainty without resorting to an ad-hoc “eh let’s just add a few days to fudge it”.

(Can the multi-model approach fail? If my extra model for the first question was “go out to the street and ask someone if he had covid”, it would have made me worse off. Doing the math, adding models fails if the within-model error is significantly larger than our model uncertainty. So our models do have to be at least reasonably good).

Finally, on a more optimistic note – we did manage to learn from this going forward. When we ran through trying to estimate the infection risk at NYC solstice, we made the inside-view calculations for likely results based on microcovid’s infection estimates and all that – but we also sanity-checked them by looking at results from similar events like lollapalooza, and it helped to see that they had similar results to our estimates.

Shaked’s Dating Profile

General self-description

Moderately nerdy guy (age 30) who writes stories, translates songs, and overshares cat pictures. Currently living in New York City but leaning against settling down here permanently, and likes the idea of living somewhere family-friendly (that isn’t a suburb).

Details

By nerdy, I mean that I tend to get into phases where I get weirdly excited about things. To take a few random recent examples: Which countries have the best and most cost-effective transit systems[1], and urbanism and city planning more generally[2]. Computability theory[3], or alternate computation models, like what its implications would look like for a world that had regular time travel. Acrobatics.

 The history of clothes making[4]. Making homemade liquor.

 

Building this took a surprisingly long time

Cats[5]. Elaborate improvised constructs.

Also, glacier climbing

What a world would look like if time travel was possible but constrained by computability limits, except that cats could effectively get around them by having weak preferences, and the whole thing ran on a hybrid Miyazaki/Moomins/FF7 aesthetic. And so on.

By family-oriented, I mean, well – I like happy families. And I like kids, and really want kids, and like the kind of family/tribal structures where people of different ages actually interact.

I am slightly trad in some ways, by which I mean something like enjoying some traditions and traditional attitudes but not actually being particularly religious. So I like Friday night family dinners (with the candles and the nice tablecloth[6]), and I like casual gender norms (In that, say, I prefer the sound of “my wife” to “my spouse”), but don’t do regular prayers or really keep kosher (except I don’t eat pork).

For stories – I wrote this one about first contact, or this one about bike lanes. For song translations, I mostly do Israeli folk songs (like this one, or this one).

Life/Relationship Goals

Most of all, I want a family. I want a good happy partnership relationship, and I want a bunch of kids. There’s probably practical constraints on how many kids I could practically have or handle, but in principle, I’m a fan of the idea of having lots of kids. I think I would be a good dad.

I currently live in New York and work doing vague finance and programming stuff. I like it here for now, but I wouldn’t want to settle down permanently, or raise kids here. Where I want to end up is a hard question – for having kids, I’d want to be somewhere clean and pedestrian-friendly, where the kids can walk safely by themselves to get around or play outside or whatnot. Sometimes I think about going back to Israel, but there are other places that meet those conditions. (Financially, I do have more than enough to support a family, including if I was married to someone who wanted to be a homemaker or work nonprofit or whatever, or to take a few years off for that matter).

My ideal relationship involves sharing random ideas that get us excited off each other, cooking or going on hikes together, randomly messaging each other cat pictures, developing a pool of shared references and frames that becomes a little like a shared language, spiderman kisses (that is, where one or both of the people doing the kissing are hanging upside-down), and eventually raising a bunch of kids together.

Also, occasional backpacking trips where we wind up cooking improvised pancakes in random abandoned cabins.

You?[7]

If the above part sounds appealing, you should try to contact me! You can email me (shaked.koplewitz@gmail.com, preferred), find me on facebook, whatever.

See? Very welcoming

I like the idea of social proof – if we know people in common, you can talk to me through them, or talk to them about whether they think we’d work.

Properties common in people I have good relationships with:

  • Getting delighted by things. Probably the biggest single factor, although it can be hard to describe. If you’re the sort of person who would build the food pyramid I mentioned above, or give names to random wildlife, or stop to look in random windows because you’re curious what the people inside live like, or like to think about the logistics of feeding a continent of sentient hamsters, we are likely to get along and you should give me a call.
  • Compatible life goals. This one is pretty obvious, I guess.
  • Ability to resolve conflicts. I’m not always great at immediately noticing when something is bothering someone, but I do listen when people talk to me about things. It helps a lot in a relationship, if you’re someone who can bring up things that bother you, and we can talk it through and solve it.
  • Having initiative, and dreams, and like to do things.They don’t have to be shared interests – I just like people who have interests they get excited about.

Finally, if you do want to contact me but aren’t sure how, ideas for conversation starters

  • What would the world look like if it had time-travelling cats?
  • If you had the choice to be turned into a group of hamsters, how many hamsters would it take for you to prefer being the group of hamsters to being human?
  • What’s something you deeply care about, or something that would make your life or your neighborhood or the world better?
  • If you could be in any sort of place imaginable right now, where would you be?
  • Any random thing you’ve been thinking about lately
  • Just “Hi” is also good!

External references (things I get excited about that I didn’t make)

[1] https://transitcosts.com/

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaJf01RPphU

[3] https://www.math.ias.edu/avi/book

[4] https://acoup.blog/2021/03/05/collections-clothing-how-did-they-make-it-part-i-high-fiber/

[5] In order: Harvey and Olivia (top left), Uriel (napping) and Larry and Rosie (my ex step-pets, which is a delightful palindrome).

[6] https://thezvi.wordpress.com/2017/10/07/bring-back-the-sabbath/

[7] Okay this one was probably a stretch.

Public Transit in the Hollownest

Epistemic status: Not a professional transit planner, but spend a stupid amount of time reading on it in my free time and decided to have some Opinions.

The Hollownest is the vast ruin of a once-great kingdom of bugs driven mad by light pollution. Like any great kingdom, it had several distinct public transit systems, some well planned and some less so.

source

There are two main transit systems through the Hollownest: The trains and the stagecoach.

The stagecoach, run by the stag beetles whose backs carry the passengers. It is efficient, highly interconnected, low-latency and serves most useful points (except for the well-named Coliseum of Fools).

complete map of the stag coach system

It is, however, low-throughput – the tunnels can’t carry multiple stags at once and each stag can only carry a few bugs at a time. As a result, the king began a major infrastructure project to build high capacity railroads. They take up a lot of space – the tunnels are huge – but they have large capacity to match.

Two were completed before the fall of the kingdom. The first, mainline is reasonably well planned: It connects the Hive in the east, to the corridor above the palace, to the mantis kingdom in the west. These are three of the Hollownest’s main population centers, all (almost) on a line that didn’t require bulldozing any existing settlements. This isn’t exactly a straight line – the palace is a bit below it, the Matis village a bit above – but keeping horizontal and centered was more important, and we can imagine that the engineers convinced the king of the wisdom of this plan.

The second train line is… rather less well planned. It connects the the forgotten crossroads on one side – which might at one point have been a reasonable important population centre – to the resting grounds. We can imagine that this was a useless pork project or a political compromise – few bugs go to the resting grounds, but some very important bugs are bugs are buried there and perhaps their relatives pulled influence with the king to get the project approved, possibly blocking the more important Hive/Palace/Mantis Village line until the two were approved as a package.

There’s one more glaring error here: There is no rail connection to the city of tears, the single biggest population centre in the entire hollownest. The city itself has good internal transit via elevators, but its only connection to the outside world is the stag coaches (there is one elevator down, but it ends up well to the east of the train station). Why would this be?

One potential answer: Maybe they didn’t have room? But we already see that one elevator got built – and the waterways are large and empty, so it couldn’t have been too much of a challenge to have built the main elevator through them, connecting directly with the train station at the palace.

The true answer, alas, is shadier. The stag coaches were against the train, which they worried would automate away their jobs, as we know from speaking to the one remaining stag beetle. They must have used their union to block any project that touched the city of tears, which they probably relied on to fund their entire transit network.

reverse Song Translations: you (english to hebrew)

Original song lyrics, cover version. (It’s not hard to find the original performance, I just don’t like it very much).

יש מקום שכולם נורא שמחים שם
זה המקום הכי שמח והכי מדהים
והוא עשוי מסוכריות ואור
ורכבות קיטור
והילדות הכי חמודות וילדים הכי רעים

ושמע, הלוואי לי שהייתי שם
רק זה על שביל, שלא נמצא
מאחל לך מזל שם ואושר גם
וכשיצא לך תזכור אולי לשלוח לי גלויה

כי אין זמן לריב ולהילחם על זה חבר
אבל אחי אני נדהם מהשנאה שאתה משדר

ואתה
צבאת לי את העולם
ולי
אין טרפנטין מספיק לנקות פה את כולם
ממה שלכלכת

יש מקום, שכולם בו צודקים
אפילו שהחלטת לא להסכים
ואין שם שום תנאים להתקבל
כולם שם כבר היו, וכולם לשם הולכים

אז תחכה בסבלנות בצל
זה תור ארוך, אבל אתה מוזמן
וכשהכל נגמר, עזוב,
עוד תהיה שם בלי לחשוב
ולנצח, אחי, זה המון פאקינג זמן…

Don’t put joe in charge of the bike lanes.

It all started when we put Joe in charge of bike lanes.

Now don’t get me wrong – Joe’s a good guy (even if he is a bit too into talking about his Heritage), and he’s usually a good planner. He just really hates politics, which is something of a downside when you work at city hall.

It’s not usually too big of a problem – none of the higher-ups like to get involved in transportation planning any more than they have to, so they pretty much leave us alone. But there was some big pressure from the state about this, and suddenly Joe was being sent conflicting directives every other day. His bike lanes all had to be grade-separated, and they had to be a network – so no trails ending in the middle of the road – and he had to make sure they were designed for bikes and scooters only. Problem was, they didn’t give him much to work with – half the intersections in the city were considered “at capacity” and wouldn’t let him take any space for the network. And that’s without even getting into the driveway issue.

So long story short, he called some of the Family. Turned out he has some cousins working on transportation planning in other cities – one lady across the country, a guy in Jerusalem, another guy all the way in Incheon – and they all had similar problems. At first, they commiserated. Then they figured hey, why not just solve each other’s problems instead of sitting around crying. They figured none of it was exactly forbidden, and it was better to ask forgiveness than permission.

So instead of having dead ends, they set up all their bike lanes to connect via the Homeland. I have no idea how they did it – heck, closest I’ve been to one of the People (aside from working with Joe) was the time I went to the summer snow dance (I keep meaning to go back someday, but I’m always too busy when June rolls around again). But in practice it’s pretty simple – you bike down one route, take a shortcut through the other side, and suddenly you’re in Korea. Mapping out what route goes where got a bit messy, but we figured it out fast enough.

Next problem was figuring out what to do with this. Using it to replace airlines was easy enough – we had to get the international passengers bikes (They’d pretty explicitly designed the whole system to be bike-only) – but it was still not using much of the capacity. But we had a lot more capacity than we needed just for that (they’d made quite a lot of bike lanes), so we started shipping goods through it too (figuring out the right sort of cargo bike was a bit of a pain there).

Anyway we had the network set up, and I think Joe was pretty proud of it – he’d done a great job, everyone agreed, and our (rather baffled) mayor had to throw him a whole gala and give him a medal and everything. extraordinary transit planning, really. But problem was, no one was using it. Shipping companies still had a monopoly on international trade, and they weren’t giving it up.

Then of course… well, you know what happened. Turns out one ship getting stuck in the Suez canal can block off international trade for a week and cost the world fifty nine billion dollars. I can’t prove Joe was actually involved in that, but a freak gale beaching a ship right then seems just a bit of a coincidence. Companies were pretty happy to start moving their shipping out of that system once they saw how vulnerable it could be.

So anyway now Egypt and Panama have declared war on Faerie. Like I said, don’t put Joe in charge of bike lanes. It never ends well.

Prefer tech solutions to infrastructure where possible

One weird thing about infrastructure costs is that they keep going up. The reasons for this are complicated, but before we try to understand or fix it, let’s just take a moment to notice that this is weird. Consumer goods and electronics keep getting cheaper – which doesn’t infrastructure?

The second thing we should do, after this, is to go back to try and understand it. Alon Levy offers one reasonable-sounding explanation – infrastructure is non-exportable and non-mobile. The first prevents more efficient areas from exporting their efficiency improvements – Seoul can’t really export their efficient train construction to New York. The second lets governments pass bad regulations without immediate costs – if Utah passes a law requiring all smartphones made in the state have to block porn Apple can just go make iPhones somewhere else, but if they pass a bad law about trains, trains have to keep trying to live with it.

The third thing we should do once we realize this is to rely on tech instead of infrastructure wherever possible, since tech becomes exponentially more efficient while infrastructure only stagnates. Note that this does mean where possible – there’s no way to solve the housing crisis by getting better tech, for example. But where there is a conflict, we should rely on tech. Some examples:

  • Healthcare: Over the last year we’ve had a lot of lockdowns, attempted lockdowns, quarantine measures, testing and contact tracing measures. None of them seem to have done much good – maybe some good, if you look at the data carefully, but never a huge effect. The one thing that has made a difference is vaccines – biotech improvements let us design a vaccine in record time, which could have been even faster if the FDA had planned the trials and permitting better. But they’re getting almost no funding – of the $85 billion that Biden’s rescue plan gives healthcare plans, only $16 billion are going to vaccines and vaccine supply chains (meanwhile about $50 billion are going to testing and contact tracing, which are relatively useless. Doing a covid test is equally or more complicated than giving someone a vaccine, and is orders of magnitude less useful). Throwing out the other measures and spending big on doing whatever it took to get them out the door faster – building more factories and increasing production, for a start – would be an easy way to beat the pandemic faster. TLDR: Biotech advances were fast and effective. Everything else was slow and practically useless.
  • Energy and desalination: Some people suggest solving California’s water shortages by building aqueducts to bring water down from the Pacific Northwest. Desalination is clearly the better option here! Desalination costs are mostly driven by energy costs (and we can use raw solar costs, since for desalination we don’t have to worry about intermittency). And, well
Solar's Future is Insanely Cheap (2020) – Ramez Naam

Desalination gets cheaper all the time. Even if the costs of desalination and aqueduct construction are close now, within 5-10 years, they won’t be.

Other power grid issues may also be solvable by improving the power grid. But to the degree that we can rely on energy storage instead, we should probably do that:

Energy storage: Opportunities, key trends and market drivers - Lexology
  • Transit is complicated. It would be a mistake to read “tech over infrastructure” as advocating for solving transit using self-driving electric cars. Highways are expensive infrastructure, and that’s without even getting to all the required support infrastructure like parking, gas stations, traffic enforcement, and hospitals.
Space Required: Car vs Bus vs Bicycle [Pic] | Bored Panda

In terms of infrastructure use, walking takes less infrastructure than scooters or bikes, which take less infrastructure than dockshare bikes, which take less than buses, which take less than cars or trains. Most of these are technologically mature, but there is a lot of room for scooter share improvements – every city should build a full bike lane network and do whatever it takes to make rental scooters available for everyone. This wouldn’t be hard! Most cities have to beat off Lime and its cohorts with a stick, and often come up with laws against them. Cities need to stop banning scooters and start subsidizing them.

It’s debatable whether micromobility really is a good substitute for transit in high-transit cities – There’s that one study from Paris that always comes up, claiming to show that micromobility improvements in the city mostly replaces walking trips, not car trips. But Paris has the best metro system of any city in the west. So it might be better to build a good metro system than to have scooters – but American cities (and many others) can’t seem to build good transit systems, while scooters are easily imported from places with more successful manufacturing.

Annual mopey birthday post: decade edition

This isn’t really a new decade. I’ve always been a firm believer that the new decade starts when you turn thirty one, and thirty is still technically the last year of the previous decade. It is, however, true that I am no longer in my twenties, which seems significant.

Where to start? This year was, objectively speaking, awful. I’m not exactly the first person to say it, but I still think it’s universally underrated just how godforsakenly terrible this year was. and godforsaken is the right word for it – it’s been empty and barren of anything warm or important or meaningful, like a land abandoned by God. And this needs to be said, because it is important, because for all the many, many posts on how awful society’s response has been, I’ve still found nothing to convey how empty life is when you sit at home all day, sometimes working from home, occasionally in a zoom work meeting or even social event, but never meet new people in person, never get to hug strangers or fall in love or go to a party where you feel surprisingly welcome and warm and surrounded by friends. I’ll try to do what I can to explain.

Part of it is, I suspect, that this aspect is worse for me than for almost anyone else. I moved to a new city where I hardly knew anyone back in February, just before this whole thing began. I started a new job where I worked from the office for all of three weeks before we switched to working from home. The friends and social connections I do have are mostly the type of people who worry pretty hard about pandemics and wouldn’t agree to see me in person even if they were nearby. I’m naturally disposed to be lonely. I’m single, I live alone in an apartment without much in the way of windows, and my family all live thousands of miles away – and due to a combination of work requirements and global travel restrictions, I haven’t been able to visit them in eight months.

I know some people have it hard in different ways – they’ve had to take care of kids without school, or had to go to work in unsafe conditions – but the sheer emptiness of life like this is hard to bear. And it wouldn’t even be fixable if I decided to stop worrying about getting infected myself, because everyone else is worried, and the social isolation costs of caution are less high for most people.

A few illustrative examples:

  • There’s an old story that says the people of London were never as happy as they were during the blitz, with bombs being dropped on them every day. I completely believe this. They had a purpose, they were fighting back, and they were united. They all went out to see the bombed sites and work together to work on them with their friends, every day. Our current situation is the exact opposite of this, except people are still dying no matter what we do. It all still feels meaningless.
  • Years ago, I tried to write a story about an idea I had, about a man who lived life completely isolated. He woke up, did some web design work on his computer for clients that made orders online, went to the grocery store and used self-checkout, played some computer games and went back to bed. The story turned out to be too boring to be really readable, which was kind of inevitable. But it was supposed to be an exaggerated fiction. This last year, it hasn’t been very exaggerated. Not for me, and not for a lot of people. We don’t see isolated people much, but I think there’s a lot of them out there. I have at least seen a few, on the rare occasion they somehow communicate with the outside world.
  • I’ve gone back on Twitter. I think the mainstream criticisms of Twitter – that it’s a low-information outrage bait machine that lets you ragesurf and pretend to have social interaction but doesn’t actually do anyone any good – is correct. But I still use it a lot, because the alternative is having no social interaction and that is just that bad.
  • I saw someone on twitter suggest that everyone who turned thirty this year should officially get a bonus year added to their twenties. This seems only fair (if difficult to implement).

Some good things have happened this year. I found out, somewhat to my surprise, that I actually like my new job (money and values aside). And while socializing overall has been harder, dating has actually been a bit easier than in the past, even with the pandemic – I guess it’s a nice side effect of being somewhere that’s not math grad school or the bay area. I don’t exactly keep count, but there’s a decent chance I’ve had more sexual partners in the past year than I had in total before then.

But on the other hand – this is sort of a mixed bag, overall. The classic saying that sex doesn’t really matter compared to things like personal communication and chemistry feels like a self-protective lie when you aren’t having sex, but it turns out it’s just true. And I haven’t really managed that much this year.

I had a dream the other night where I ran into my ex, and I somehow managed to find all the right things to say to actually get back to talking and (more or less) being together. Not to get her to forgive me – there was still anger – just to move things back into being partners again, to being in a relationship and interacting instead of apart. And then I woke up, and was sad. (As an aside, I know I do an annual mopey birthday post – but the birthday before I started this tradition, the one where we broke up, probably still takes the cake for objectively worst birthday, even if this year takes the cake for worst year overall).

But that sadness is, once again, a mixed bag. One benefit is I think I can genuinely learn how to do the romance and communication stuff from dream-me. He was pretty smooth, and not just because he was in a fictional environment where he controlled the outcome. But another side is just a change in perspective – I can look on dream-me as the baseline and be sad that I’m not him, or I can look at IRL me as the baseline, and dream me as setting a hard but achievable goal that would make me really happy. Not getting back with my ex specifically (as sad as I am about her right after waking up from a dream where we got back together, I’ve fallen hard enough often enough for various other women in the years since then), just… being in a relationship where we have the comfortable level of talking. I remember once finding out and being surprised that two friends of mine who were engaged to people who lived far away had hour-long phone calls to them in their phone records pretty much every day – how did they find so much to talk about? – but now I think that sort of thing can actually be pretty easy. So I just have to find the circumstances to make it happen. It should be doable.

Still, if I’d never broken up with my ex we’d have been together for something like five or six years now. I know it’s unfair to compare to an idealized relationship that never happened, probably for good reason, but… it still makes me sad to think about it, a little.

There’s some other nice stuff. Paul’s quiz nights on Zoom have been great. The first friend I made on the job got fired in May, which was sad (more for me than for him I think… he seemed about ready to be done with it). Brian and his sending me videos of Larry eating mealsquares, and my mother and aunt and their videos of the vase cats, have been a boon.

The old blessing says “next year in Jerusalem!”. The year before I moved to San Francisco, I ended this with “next year in SF!”. On the whole I think that was good and was a good place, even if in the end I couldn’t stay, and now I think the pandemic has killed too much of it for it to live again. But maybe this year – or maybe the year after that, I’m not sure I’m quite ready – the blessing really will be “Next year in Jerusalem” again. I’ve been in America eight and a half years now – maybe roughly ten years overall is the right amount of time, and it’s finally time to think about heading home again. As the old song we all learned in kindergarten goes, more or less:

Please don’t uproot what is rooted
Let me not forget the hope
Send me back from where I wander
To the good old land of home

And since for now I still am in America, I will end this year with a link to an American song. Not necessarily the most significant song of the year, just one that’s stuck in my head today.

Using betting markets to make decisions

Epistemic status: This seems sufficiently basic that it seems like someone would already have developed a general theory, but I haven’t managed to find anything. If you know of anything like this please let me know.

Say you want to make some really good choices – you want your business to succeed, your marriage to flourish, and to beat your long-term rival in a chess game. Problem is, you’re not very good at making your own decisions.

The obvious thing is to ask some experts for help. But there’s two problems with this: First, who even are the relevant experts? In chess this is simple enough – just call up the top ten or so players by ELO rating – but who will you call for your business and marriage? MBAs and marriage counsellors claim to have relevant expertise, but there’s no good rigorous data to check how good they are. Second, what do we do when the experts disagree? And how do we get them to help us in the first place?

The classic solution for this is to set up a betting market. The good experts will gain influence, money, and confidence proportionate to how good they actually are, and the Efficient Market Hypothesis implies this will give us the best possible decisions (assuming there’s enough money in the market to make it worth the competent experts’ time). This solves the last two problems, but “just set up a betting market” is doing a lot of work on what we actually need to do here.

Image result for betting markets
I needed a good image for betting markets, and this is the best the internet could deliver. Good job on the artwork, cloudbet.

The classic example people give of a betting market is the stock market, but in practice they’re pretty different things. In the stock market, investors bet on how well publicly traded companies will do[1], and make money if they’re right[2][3]. In theory the thing that backs this all up is that companies have the ability to give dividends when they make profits, and that if you buy enough of a company you get the power to control it, but in practice this is all a Keynesian beauty contest. The values of betting markets, on the other hand, are backed by the fact that they pay out directly if you’re right.

But this distinction doesn’t really matter – there’s other things, like commodities, where trading pretty closely resembles direct bets on a belief. The bigger issue with the equivalence is that there’s only about 3500 publicly-traded stocks in the entire US market. For comparison, there’s about 10^40 possible chess positions, which is far more unmanageable, if you were to just do the simple thing of trying to evaluate how good the various positions are. Marriage and business decisions are even more multibranched.

Here’s one solution for chess: At each turn, set up a betting market on which move you’re most likely to win with. Once the market closes, you make the move that had the best odds. Everyone who bet on a different move gets their money back. Bets on your move are kept in the pot, and get their winnings (from the people who bet for the other player’s betting market) if you end up winning the game. This technically works – the bettors’ incentives are aligned with having you win[4], and there’s always a manageable number of options – but there’s a lot of friction. It takes a lot of moves for a bet to pay off, and it’s pretty risky (even if you’re completely sure what the best move in one position is, there’s about forty other moves that could ruin it for you). The time lag is particularly bad for the other examples – you can finish a chess game reasonably fast if you set a ten minute time limit on the betting market for each move, but it takes much longer to see if your business or marriage will succeed.

One possible solution to this is to set up a secondary market (which none of the people in the betting market can bet on) reflecting the general state of your success – Just a market on how likely you are to win the chess game, for chess, or just the stock price, for your business – and have the primary market pay out in proportion to how much your stock went up or down after you made your move. I can’t think of a reason this shouldn’t work well, so long as you can discretize your decisions, although it still has issues with being noisy and overcomplicated.

Another specific story: Scott recently (probably non-seriously) proposed the idea of ConTracked:

ConTracked: A proposed replacement for government contracting. For example, the state might issue a billion ConTracked tokens which have a base value of zero unless a decentralized court agrees that a bridge meeting certain specifications has been built over a certain river, in which case their value goes to $1 each. The state auctions its tokens to the highest bidder, presumably a bridge-building company. If the company builds the bridge, their tokens are worth $1 billion and they probably make a nice profit; if not, they might resell the tokens (at a heavily discounted price) to some other bridge-building company. If nobody builds the bridge, the government makes a tidy profit off the token sale and tries again. The goal is that instead of the government having to decide on a contractor (and probably get ripped off), it can let the market decide and put the risk entirely on the buyer.

This is, in principle, a pretty similar idea! We make a coin that relates to the underlying value (the probability that an infrastructure project will satisfy customers), and then let the contractor work on optimizing that. There’s a boring finance-y issue that makes this a potentially bad idea – it’s better to offload risk from contractors onto city governments – but this makes a real attempt to address the other main issue common to contracting out infrastructure projects: They’re a monopsony (the government is the only customer for most infrastructure projects) with unclear requirements (some knowable in advance – what neighborhoods do we want the new subway line to connect? – And some only knowable during construction – we ran into a watermain when digging this planned subway line, do we want to move the watermain or the line, and if so where?)

The traditional way to solve this issue is to have a competent, fast-turnaround department of planners in city hall who can make good decisions in a reasonable amount of time. This story of how Madrid built an entire subway system in eight years at a ridiculously low budget is amazing and everyone should read it. In principle replacing decisions by specific humans with betting markets should work – the contractor could, when facing a decision like where to put the subway line, make a betting market that pays out if the value of the ConTracked goes up upon that decision being made – but in practice this would be hugely complicated, require massive amounts of liquidity, and would be incredibly difficult to make happen fast. And as the Madrid story tells us, fast turnaround is hugely important (decision lags of months or years commonly kill projects).

(Also, this is all assuming we have a good way to define “completed an adequate subway system” to a decentralized court, which may be possible but definitely isn’t easy).

On reflection, I think the common theme here is that the betting market always has to happen on a decision level abstracted one level above the underlying market. Companies can’t make decisions based on the value of their stock, because the stock has to move faster than the companies do. In an alternate world where companies could make a decision, see how it affected their stock price, and then undo it the stock tanked, the stock wouldn’t tank, because investors would know the company could undo its bad decisions. The stock market requires that companies have a lot of inertia in forming and executing their strategies in order to function. Similarly, setting up a betting market for chess (in either of our forms) required setting the market up to run an order of magnitude faster than the actual game.[5]

And in the infrastructure example, you can’t speed it up by setting up a betting market, because a betting market is, in effect, rival teams of planners fighting (in an efficient way) over who has the best plan. It’ll have to run an order of magnitude slower than any individual team of planners (although in principle the decisions it produces are as good as the best decision by any individual team). Just hiring one of these teams to run your planning department directly is an order of magnitude faster and makes decisions of comparable quality (well, unless you’re New York).

[1] Yes, there’s also a whole bunch of other things things investors trade, like commodities and currencies, but the same principle applies.

[2] Or if Elon Musk tweets the name of an unrelated company with a similar name.

[3] Or if a random subreddit decides to pump up the stock for the 🚀 memes.

[4] Although you might have to ban people from betting in both the White and Black players’ betting markets, since that could create some weird incentives.

[5] Another method of handling chess – if we have a superhuman AI – which for chess, we do – we can just run a betting market on how well it will evaluate each possible move, without looking until after we’ve made it. Again, this requires a higher-level actor in order to work.

Reflections on Scott’s return

So in the biggest new of the week, Scott’s back. I have… complicated feelings on this.

First, the obvious: I’m glad he’s back. Objectively, it’s the best news we’ve had all week. It looks like 2021 is already taking a turn for the better, and I’m looking forward to reading the new blog.

But more honestly… I’m angry at him for abandoning us. It’s been a long hard crazy year, where everything in the world stopped making sense and most of us have been trapped indoors, often alone, often barely talking to anyone except online, and even doing that less and less. And Slate Star Codex, when we had it, was a place where the world made sense, where we felt less alone and less crazy. To quote Scott himself:

I remember the sheer relief when I came across a few bloggers – I most clearly remember Eliezer Yudkowsky – who seemed to be tuned exactly to my wavelength, people who were making sense when the entire rest of the world was saying vague fuzzy things that almost but not quite connected with the millions of questions I had about everything. These people weren’t perfect, and they didn’t have all the answers, but their existence reassured me that I wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t alone.

We needed that. And then last March, right when we needed it most, he closed it down and left us.

And there’s the obvious objection of hey wait, Scott had good reasons to shut down the blog. And he doesn’t actually owe us anything! And to this I say, respectively, mostly yes and sort of no.

For the first, Scott’s gone into his reasons for shutting down the blog at length. I understand his purpose. I agree with his goals, and I don’t think they’re wrong, or even really that he went too far with them. But also… I wouldn’t have done the same if I was him, even with everything involved. There’s a scene in HPMOR where an old Godric Gryffindor says

…he didn’t regret any of it, and he was not warning his students not to follow in his footsteps, no one was ever to say he’d told anyone not to follow in his footsteps. If it had been the right thing for him to do, then he wouldn’t tell anyone else to choose wrongly, not even the youngest student in Hogwarts."

And I guess that’s how I feel about that (except I guess our positions are reversed, with Scott being much bigger than me). I can’t exactly say that no, Scott should have just said he was going to keep blogging and ignore any doxing or consequences and to hell with the NYT and any personal fears or problems he would have. But I know it’s what I would have done, so I can’t say that he shouldn’t have done that, either.

For the second point… it’s true he doesn’t technically owe us anything, from a formal viewpoint. But I think there’s a more subtle way in which he kind of does.

Blogging is kind of an implicit bargain for attention. You have something to say, other people want to listen to you, and you (like most people), want to be heard. And if you’re a very talented writer with a lot of very good ideas, some people will listen to you, and you’ll be heard.

This level of writing is incredibly rare. In Scott’s absence, a lot of us looked for other writers to fill the void. Some people got more into transit planning. A weird number of ratsphere people got interested in ancient history analysis of popular fiction. I tried writing more myself, although I’m pretty sure hardly anyone actually reads this stuff. And… it wasn’t enough. There was a gap.

So I’m jealous. Scott can actually do that thing we all wish we could – write what he has to say, and have thousands of people read and genuinely care about it. In the words of Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility. And in Scott’s own words, when he was talking about the parable of the talents… all God gets to ask him is whether or not he was Scott Alexander. And he’s always been great at that. But then in the last year, he failed that bar.

liberalize blood economics

Epistemic status: I vant to suck you blood

Consider the products of human labour.

In a pure farming society, each person (or family) use their own labour to produce all the food and goods they need to live. But as society becomes more complex and economics happens, we develop ways of storing it in banks for later use – first for direct personal use (as in grain silos), then in more abstract ways that allow us to more conveniently trade the value of labour without having to give each other sacks of grain. We develop coinage and banks – first using valuable items or metals to symbolize values, and (as trust and stability increase) switching over to paper or electronic numbers that have no value beyond being a symbol.

This economic abstraction is what allows us to trade values and transition from a world where each person works only for himself to one where we work collectively, using teamwork and diverse talents, in order to increase production and prosperity for everyone. Each person can pursue their comparative advantage, and then trade the excess value created to ensure mutual benefit. Arguably, it is this process of increased financial abstraction that has increased human welfare throughout history

However, labour is only one thing humans both produce and require the use of in order to live. There is another, even more fundamental product that we all create and all rely on. I speak, of course, of blood.

And yet despite how central blood is to our lives, we have failed to financialize it beyond the very basics. Each person produces only their own blood, for their own use. We have blood banks, but they serve only very basic functions – they collect and store blood, and give it to those who need it in an emergency. They act more like a primitive farming village’s emergency grain stash than a real bank. This is a failure, but also an oppurtunity.

We should liberalize blood banks to improve the blood economy.

Fully liberalizing economic systems takes generations, because they rely on repeated abstractions of abstractions (imagine trying to explain derivatives trading to a Babylonian farmer).  However, a few ideas on low-hanging fruit we could get started with:

  • Blood lending: Blood banks should increase their blood supplies by lending blood at interest to people who need it. For example, athletes who need a strong game day performance could borrow blood for that day, then repay with interest once the game is over. In this scenario, everyone wins – the blood banks get a larger blood supply, and the sports industry gets better athletes.
  • Drugs in the blood supply:  We put fluoride in the water supply in order to improve dental health, to generally positive results. It has also been argued that we should also put lithium in the water supply to improve mental health. However, transferring medication through blood is much easier than doing it through the drinking water, and a managed communal blood supply would let us do so much more. All those performance enhancing drugs that athletes take? Since athletes trade so much blood, we’d all get trace amounts of those in our bloodstream, increasing our performance. Medicine or vitamin shortages? Bad nutrition? A story of the distant past, as unimaginable as having to hunt your own dinner every night, once we introduce the communal blood supply. The quality of the community’s blood supply would rise, and over time we would come to treat each individual’s ownership of blood more like we treat money – a symbol of the amount of society’s blood that the person is owed, rather than just the supply currently hoarded in their body.

This system is not without risk, especially of increasing contamination and bloodbourne disease. However, this is also an opportunity – default risk is a common aspect of credit and stock markets, and the financial system has developed ways to price it in, accounting and controlling risk without dismissing it, letting people make risky investments even while they reduce the total risk that people take. However, while this would be a net benefit on the whole, we must keep an eye out for a 2008-style collapse caused by bad estimates of correlated risk (which could potentially be triggered by a new bloodbourne pathogen).