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).

Aliens Destroyed the Moon

Admiral Blanksman walked home slowly. It had been an exhausting day.

He’d had to offer his resignation to the president, and the president had only said he would discuss it with the full security council (except, of course, for Blanksman himself), and then dismissed him for the day. Blanksman couldn’t even really complain – it had been a massive intelligence failure under his command, and public outrage was already in full steam.

It was a frustrating failure for an admiral in an era of relative peace. There had been escalating tensions between the Terran Dominion and the Sorovian Conglomerate for the last few years, but nobody expected it to escalate to any sort of direct attacks on the population, just a few minor outpost raids that were intended to show off each side’s new weapons as much as anything. He’d nevertheless made sure the defensive networks around all the inhabited Terran worlds were up to date and impenetrable to Sorovian technology, but the navy didn’t have the funding to protect every minor outpost and he’d been resigned to losing a few of those. Just not that particular outpost.

Luna Prime hadn’t had any sort of strategic importance. It wasn’t even a tourist destination, and the Navy maintained an outpost there mostly for the rare cases where they wanted to land something on a planet instead of a station, but didn’t want any of the legal overhead involved in landing something in some sectoral government’s jurisdiction. In other words, it was a perfect target for a low-level raid by a fleet that didn’t want to risk escalation. Except, as it turned out, the civilian population of the Dominion’s capital of Earth really liked having it around. He doubted the Sorovians had even realized the cultural implications.

But now there was an outraged civilian population and protests in the streets, so tensions would probably escalate and heads would probably roll. The negotiators would have their work cut out for them in the coming weeks, but he doubted he would. It was probably time to spend some time with his family.

Just on cue, his phone rang. He reached for it from his pocket (it would have been nice to just have a neural implant, but that would have been an unthinkable security breach for an admiral) and saw his Cindy’s face on the screen.

“Hi honey”, he said. “How’re things down at the lab?”

“The lab’s fine dad. But there’s something I need to talk to you about.” She sounded worried.

“What’s the matter? Is this a dad call or an admiral call?”

“An admiral call, I think. So we had our lab boating trip this week – Rick was pretty excited about this, and you did say just because they destroyed the moon didn’t mean there was going to be an interstellar war and we should just go on on with our lives, so we decided not to postpone it after all. So we all went to the beach and got on the boat and then, well, the tide came in. Right at 11 am, just like it always does.”

He took a moment to digest it. Cindy was being a scientist as usual, taking something inexplicable and making it sound like an interesting thought experiment. But she was more worried about this than she let on. Hell, they both were.

“I suppose this couldn’t be some kind of tidal momentum, or something weird with some kind of coriolis force?”

“No. We checked with the astrophysics department and the quantum gravity people, just in case, but no one could think of anything. And it’s backed up by measurements all over the world, although so far I don’t think anyone’s even noticed how weird this is. People who go boating are too used to tides.”

He frowned. “You were right, the president needs to hear this. Does anyone else know yet?”

“I don’t think so, but it won’t be long before everyone notices. People would’ve noticed already if everyone wasn’t so worried about war breaking out.”

“Alright hun, I need to call him right now then. stay safe.” He hung up, and took out his other phone, the one for secure calls. The president’s military aide answered him by the third ring.

“Quimby, this is Blanksman. I need to talk to the president. Possible emergency. Urgent response required.” For a relatively peaceful era, he thought darkly, this week was having a lot of new emergencies.

“I’ll have him on once he’s done with this meeting”, Quimby responded. “give it about seven minutes.”

“I’ll hold”. Blanksman wondered if he should have raised the level to “clear emergency” – the president might appreciate having his meeting interrupted for this – but this had already been a problem for at least two days, it could probably wait a few more minutes.

Six minutes late, he heard the president’s voice on the line. “What’s the emergency, General? Another raid, or is this something about the moon?”

“Not sure sir. It’s…something weird. My daughter just called to tell me her lab’s been seeing reports that tides are still happening. And it shouldn’t be happening, sir, not without the moon. She thinks something fundamental in physics may be broken.”

“Well, I-” the president began, and cut off. Blanksman checked his phone screen after a few seconds, but the call was still going. “Sir?” he asked the phone. And then he heard a response, but not from the phone.

SORRY ABOUT THAT, said the voice in his head. LOOKS LIKE WE HAD A LEGACY ERROR WITH THE CHANGE IN ERAS. It sounded like the president, but… not. This wasn’t like the neural implant he’d had before he joined the navy it was more fundamental, more real. It was, he suddenly knew, the voice of God.

“…Sir?” He wondered if that was the right term for God, and suddenly wished he’d listened to his wife and gone to church more.

SORRY, WE KEEP PART OF SOME INDIVIDUALS SOULS FOR MONITORING IN CASE SOMETHING GOES WRONG. THINK OF IT LIKE… THE PRESIDENT CAN LISTEN WITH THE EARS OF GOD, AND RIGHT NOW THOSE EARS PICKED UP SOMETHING THAT NEEDS THE REST OF GOD TO HANDLE. YOU SAID THE TIDES WERE STILL COMING IN?

“Yes sir. What’s… what’s going on?”

A pause, then finally –

LOOKS LIKE WE NEVER PORTED THE TIDES OVER WHEN THE WORLD WAS CHANGED. WHEN WE CREATED THE WORLD, IT WAS JUST… FLAT, YOU KNOW? TIDES WERE JUST A THING THAT HAPPENED. WE UPDATED THE MOON TO BE SYNCED WITH THEM ONCE WE SWITCHED TO A GRAVITY-BASED SPHERICAL MODEL, BUT IT LOOKS LIKE WE FORGOT TO MAKE THE DEPENDENCY WORK THE OTHER WAY TOO, SO THEY JUST KEPT HAPPENING EVEN WITHOUT THE MOON. SHOULD BE AN EASY FIX THOUGH.

Another long pause, except that somewhere in the back of his head, he could still hear God humming. “Sir, are you saying… are you saying this is all computer code? Like some kind of elaborate simulation?”

The humming paused. NOT REALLY. THE WORLD IS… WELL, IT INVOLVES A LOT OF CONCEPTS YOU AREN’T ACTUALLY ABLE TO COMPREHEND. LIKE HOW THE CHARACTERS IN YOUR COMPUTER GAMES WOULDN’T BE ABLE TO COMPREHEND YOURS. IT’S JUST A METAPHOR, BUT IT’S AS CLOSE AS I CAN GET TO REALLY EXPLAINING THIS TO YOU. some more humming, then –

AH, THERE WE GO. ONCE I RUN THE FIX, I’M GOING TO HAVE TO REVERT TIME TO A FEW DAYS AGO, BEFORE THIS ISSUE CAME UP. YOU’RE GOING TO FORGET ABOUT THIS – SORRY ABOUT THAT, I REALLY HATE HAVING TO ERASE YOU PEOPLE’S MEMORIES. BUT THIS NEEDS TO GET FIXED.

“Sir, I – ” Blanksman began, and then blinked.

 

 

 

Admiral Blanksman walked home slowly. It had been an exhausting day.

A phone call from Cindy soon disturbed his ruminations.

“Hi honey”, he said. “How’re things down at the lab?”

“The lab’s fine dad. But there’s something I need to talk to you about.”

“What’s the matter? Is this a dad call or an admiral call?”

“A dad call. I talked to Rick on the way to the boating trip yesterday, and, well we’ve decided to have another kid…”

Blanksman smiled. It would be good to have another grandchild around, especially if he’d soon be spending a lot more time with his family.

Sharing power through multiple institutions is a good idea, except when they fight or have a vetocracy

Consider the structure of the British government as shown on Yes Prime Minister1. We have two competing power centres (the ministers and the civil service), each with their own incentives. The civil servants wants to increase the power of the service, prevent government policy from changing, and get knighthoods. The ministers want to increase their poll numbers, get reelected or promoted, and, occasionally, implement the policies from their manifesto.

Weirdly enough, this works surprisingly well in practice. In a given episode we’ll usually have a plan proposed by one or both sides, with all sorts of shenanigans as the other side tries to block or manipulate it. The whole process is a giant mess of internal politics and manipulation done by people who aren’t particularly noble and patriotic. But if we look at what they actually do by the end of the episode, they end up settling on the good policies for the country more often than not (and when they don’t, it’s often because they choose short-term benefits over long-term ones).

There’s a couple of reasons for this to work. First, both the ministers and the civil service want to look like (and, to some degree, actually are) interested in advancing British interests. So in a conflict between them, the side that’s actually advocating for British interests has an inherent advantage and is more likely to win out.

Second, both sides are sort-of aligned with British interests. Their interests aren’t exactly the same, but they are both positively correlated. And while the components of each side’s interests that are aligned with British interests add up, the components that aren’t are random and are just as likely to cancel out. For example, the minister wants change for change’s sake (to look dynamic), and the civil servants want to avoid change (they hate all change), so the biases on change vs the status quo mostly cancel out.

This is analogous to the classic problem of guessing how many jelly beans there are in a jar.

SH Dining בטוויטר:
It kinda bugs me that the prize is a free meal voucher, instead of just directly giving you the jelly beans.

The best strategy for this problem is to let everyone else guess first, then take the average of their guesses. This works because each person’s method has a component that’s based on the real information they got from the jar, and a random noise component, so the distribution of guesses is a normal distribution centered around the true number of beans.

And so, we end up with a system of government that’s pretty well (but not perfectly) aligned with actual British interests.2 It has its flaws, but as a system of government it works better than either the civil service of the ministers would by themselves3.

This is from a (possibly realistic) TV show, but the dynamic of splitting power between differently-incentivised institutions into a system with somewhat-better incentives has some real examples beyond the British government where it works (and some where it doesn’t):

    • The social democratic model of a free market + a government that gives regulations and a safety net. In this case we have the free market, whose incentives are to maximize profit locally for each individual person, and the welfare state, which is mostly incentivised to do things that sound good to the median voter. Neither of these is exactly aligned with the goal of maximizing social welfare, but between them they end up working reasonably well.
    • Unions and competition: We have two methods for protecting workers’ interests in companies. The simpler one is competition – workers that aren’t paid or treated well enough can leave and go work somewhere else, which gives companies the incentive to pay workers what they’re worth. This has some failure modes – for example, companies with monopolies can be difficult to leave for a competitor, and this gives companies no incentive to give employees job security or severance pay.The alternate method is unions. They do pretty well with things like job security, but have their own failures. Union organizers have their own politics and can have conflicts with their own members, or just be corrupt. Strong unions can also have devastating effects for the companies that employ them, or even society at large.
      Whether unions make the system better or worse overall is a bit unclear. They seem to work well in Scandinavian countries and may work well in some sectors in America, but they’ve also had some truly catastrophic failures. The problem here seems to be that they override instead of challenge their competing systems, so there’s nothing to cancel out their flaws.
    • Power centres in running a city: To list just a few power centres in New York: The rich people who run the finance wold, the UMC people who between them own most of the money and property, the social activists, the people who grew up in the city and have all the connections, the city council, the mayor, the unaccountable military dictatorship NYPD, and the state governor. The net effect is a mixed bag – the actual running of the city is a vetocratic nightmare of incompetence, but the city mostly functions impressively well despite that. Some of that is because of legacy systems that still mostly run well (like the subway), but a lot of that is just because the city has so many different things going on that even some of them working is enough to make up for a lot of the things that don’t.

Going through the examples, there’s a few things we see that make multiple systems work better: The first example works pretty well because the systems are mostly independent – and it generally works better the more independent the systems are (that is, when the government provides its own competing services rather than mostly acting through regulating business).

Another failure mode is when the competing systems are hierarchical – when one system effectively has the power to override other systems, we lose independence. We end up getting most of the flaws of the overriding systems, and maybe a few of the flaws of the other one – but the secondary systems can’t really correct the flaws of the overriding system, so it only goes one way.

Another way to lose independence is hostility – if one or more power centres see themselves as being in a zero-sum competition with the others, they can end up spending most of their effort trying to work against the others’ goals instead of towards their own. This ends up being the exact opposite of what we want – every system works in the opposite direction to someone’s interests, so we end up making progress in the exact direction that makes everyone worse off.
Examples of this are negative political partisanship (this is one of several reasons high partisanship is really bad), and the housing crisis – once NIMBYs started to see blocking construction that could benefit other interest groups (young people and newcomers) as an end-goal in itself, we had at least one power system that was motivated by the inverse of someone else’s goals instead of their own positive goals, and the total system inevitably ended up going out of alignment.

Finally, we have the NYC government’s vetocracy – when you have a million different systems, each of which can block others from doing things (but not help them do new things), then even if the net system is well-aligned (which in New York it mostly is), you end up with so much friction that it’s just too hard to get anything done.

Yes Minister | TV fanart | fanart.tv
I feel like I should have some nice conclusion paragraph, but I can’t think of anything. So here’s a picture of the inspiration for this post instead.

1. This scene may be my all-time favourite discussion of the interaction of morality and government, because every crazy-sounding thing they say on both sides of the argument is both true and vital.

2. The thing it’s aligned with isn’t exactly British interests – it’s British interests with a Bias towards short-term satisfaction. (A good example is the episode where they avoid appointing a competent head of the Bank of England, because in the short term he’d uncover a major corruption scandal which would create a run on the pound). This happens because both the Civil Service and the Ministers have a bias towards avoiding short-term upheavals over long term benefit, so these biases don’t cancel out. We could add a third segment of government with a long-term focus – in theory, this is what the Crown or the House of Lords are for – but these institutions also create a whole bunch of noise and in practice we’ve mostly decided to disempower them.

3. Jury’s still open on how it compares to strange women lying in ponds distributing swords.

How we should talk about outdated statues

Epistemic status: This is meant as a criticism of the specific conversation about tearing down statues, which I think is wrongheaded, not the general hot-button issues of the day. For my opinion on those, I endorse this list of ideas.

There’s a meta-level argument against tearing down statues:

In general, we can think of society as some kind of oscillator that goes between valuing different virtues. At any time, it’s likely to overvalue some things and undervalue others. If it overvalued the wrong things too much (and pretty much any virtue has a “too much” threshold), things go incredibly bad – famous over-the-top examples include Mao’s cultural revolution, McCarthyism, or the Salem witch trials at worst, but there’s plenty of lower-key examples of dysfunctions, like America’s housing crisis or Japan’s low birthrates.

At a given point in time, we’d expect a society to have at least some virtues it overvalues and some that it undervalues. And since values move around, we should expect these to be the values where we’re most different from the past1.

A society puts up statues to whatever virtues they value at the time, meant to be lasting representations of these values. These statues are probably worse than useless at the time, since if anything they’re likely to reinforce society’s current excesses. But once a generation or two have passed, and those values have gone out of fashion – that’s when it helps to have statues to other ideas, to remind you of what it feels like to have different values than what we have now2.

It’s always hard to see what our own society’s doing wrong (by definition, most people believe in whatever ideals are most widespread in our society), but this is obvious enough when we think about the Taliban blowing up Buddha statues – the Taliban had an excess of militant Islam, and the statues were a reminder of a non-Muslim component of Afghan culture, which, from our outside view, it was clearly a net benefit to have.

1. This is kinda similar to the idea of Chesterton’s fence, but not exactly – there’s no particular reason to assume past values are better overall, just that the areas where we have dangerous excesses would be expected to be the ones where we’re most different from them.

2. There’s the argument that statues of Robert e Lee or Christopher Columbus were made to glorify slavery and genocide, which are bad virtues that evil people in the past liked but we’ve since learned are wrong. Except that while the historical figures may have done some awful things, those aren’t the things we remember them for – for their fans, Columbus is a symbol for the spirit of exploration and Lee was a symbol of grit and loyalty to your hometown. The “kindly general Lee” may be a myth about a person who never existed – but the statue’s there to celebrate that myth, not the actual historical figure.

What happened to King Midas?

Epistemic Status: My knowledge of Greek mythology is limited to that one kids book my parents had and the Percy Jackson series, but I’m pretty sure everything here is 100% accurate.

The biggest open questions Greek mythology leaves us is, what the hell happened to king Midas? he had a magic golden touch that could turn anything to gold, presumably once he learned not to touch his daughter with it he got super rich and ruled the world. What happened then?

There’s only one answer that makes sense: He died of a heart attack, was skinned alive, then his skin was stuffed into a glove that got put in a hidden castle on a magic robot turtle the size of an island  in the Sargasso sea. The hand was eventually found by NASA and sent to the moon with Dr. Eugene Shoemaker’s cremated remains.

The first part is obvious: He couldn’t be killed by weapons (they’d turn to gold on touching him), didn’t conquer the world (and therefore didn’t live long after getting his powers), wasn’t old (he had a young daughter), and didn’t starve to death (since only his skin had gold-making powers, he could eat by having someone carefully put food into the inside of his mouth). He was however fat, greedy, and gluttonous, so it’s not too surprising that he died of a heart attack.

What happened then? Presumably he fell into a wheelbarrow, so that the rest of the garden and kingdom didn’t become gold. His daughter, having had her brush with being turned to gold, wanted no part of it, so she removed his skin with a (golden) knife (no way could she trust a servant with something like that). She must have then put it into a disguising object of some kind. But what object could that be?

The next we hear of Midas (historically speaking) is in the legend of Aladdin, where the king of the forty thieves seeks out the “hand of Midas”. They find it (inevitably) floating in an empty castle on the back of a magic robot turtle. This isn’t too surprising, when you think about it – if I were the daughter of king Midas (princess Midas?), I too would hide his skin in an ornate gauntlet, put it in the top of the castle, and ask my friend Daedalus to build me a magic robot turtle to carry the castle far away from me).

So far so good. But what then? In the end Aladdin throws the magic hand into the ocean, and the water starts turning gold. But we know it never reached a shore – there are no credible reports of beach water turning into either solid or molten gold. This tells us two things – first, the magic goldifying power, like HPMOR transfiguration, has a time limit after which the transformation reverts (since there aren’t any golden islands floating around). Second, it must have fallen into a hydrologically distinct sea region with no shores – and the only known sea with no shores is the Sargasso Sea (which is in the west Atlantic, explaining why an Arabian sailor had trouble finding it without magical help).

Up til now we’ve traced it with some confidence, but the last part is hard to be sure about. We do know that, as an object of power that periodically turned entire seas to gold, the hand of Midas was unlikely to stay hidden. We also know that no one has used it to become crazy rich, buy out the entire gold market, and take over the world, as would inevitably happen if it became readily accessible. Therefore, it must have been launched beyond the reach of man.

If we look at the history of space burial, an interesting result is that the first person buried on the moon is one Dr. Eugene Shoemaker. This is clearly a fake name, both because you’d have expected the first person buried on the moon to be a space celebrity like Neil Armstrong or John Glenn, and because Eugene Shoemaker is a ridiculous name. But why would NASA put a fake person’s ashes on the moon? Because they were trying to hide the fact that they were burying the remains of a real person – king Midas – by giving him a fake name.

(This leaves open the question of how NASA found the hand of Midas in the first place, but we know they have a history with naval exploration).

This concludes the story thus far. If you hear the news of someone making it back to the south polar region of the moon and then returning to Earth, I suggest shorting gold.