Why should all languages be preserved? The problem is the question

Of the ~7,000 known human languages, about 40% are endangered, dead, or dying.* And by 2100 less than half of them will remain, possibly less than 1,000.* There isn’t much missing; one recently discovered language, Bengime of Mali, has managed to stay hidden to the present only because it is spoken in secret.

In talking about language death, I’ve heard a funny question come up — I’ve even asked it myself: “Why do we need all of these languages? Why not just one?” How many systems of communication do we actually need? And wouldn’t we all get along better if there were fewer languages?

The point of this post is to sidestep the question and very concisely argue that its existence is a problem.

First, why are there 110-some elements in the periodic table? Why not just one?

More importantly, why haven’t you heard that question before?

Because we don’t control how many elements there are. It’s not up to us. It shouldn’t be. And the number of languages shouldn’t be either. These are ways of being, not curiosities. The UN recognizes deliberate elimination of languages as genocide. It should be easy from there to condemn systems that result in the elimination of languages more indirectly. The languages and cultures of other peoples should have protection and resources. If it’s our choice that some survive and some don’t, then there is an immoral exercise of power over the variety of human experience. The existence of the question is evidence of a way of thinking that is based in an evil attitude toward other cultures. Losing an element from the periodic table or a language from the Ethnologue is a tragedy because it artificially limits the kinds of things that can exist. If we’ve been given 7000 languages then there should be about 7000 when we’re done.

  • stats:
    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_diversity
    • http://www.ethnologue.com/endangered-languages
  • why save them?
    • http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/
    • http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/faq-on-endangered-languages/
    • http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/biodiversity-and-linguistic-diversity/

Why decentralization is always ripe for co-optation

Will your transformative technology just entrench the status quo?

Things have come a long way since I was first exposed to cryptocurrency. Back in 2011 it was going to undermine nation-states by letting any community form its own basis of exchange. A decade later, crypto has little chance of fulfilling its destiny as a currency, but that’s OK because it’s proven ideal for the already wealthy, as a tool for tax evasion, money laundering, market manipulation, and infrastructure capture. States like it for the traceability and conventional banks incorporate it to chase the wave and diversify to a new high risk asset class.

This is not what crypto imagined for itself.

But it’s not a surprise. You can see the same dynamic play out in Apple Music, YouTube, Substack, and the post-Twitter scramble for social media dominance. These technologies are sold to society on their ability to raise the floor, but they cash out on their ability to raise the ceiling. The debate on this played out between Chris Anderson (a founder of Wired) and Anita Elberse (in her 2013 book Blockbusters). In response to Anderson’s argument that social media technologies empower the “fat tail” of regular-people contributors, Elberse countered with evidence of how it has increased market concentration by making the biggest bigger.

To skip to the end of that debate, the answer is “both”. Technologies that make new means available to everyone make those means available to the entrenched as well. The tail gets fatter at the same time as the peaks get taller. It’s all the same process.

So the question stops being “will this help the poor or the rich?” It becomes “who will it help faster?” The question is no longer transformative potential, but differential transformative power. Can this technology undermine the status quo faster than it bolsters it?

And for most of these technologies, the answer is “no”. Maybe, like crypto, a few people fell up and a few fell down. That is not transformation.

Why do people miss this? Because they stop at

“centralization = bad for the people; decentralization = good for the people”.

We forget it’s dual, that

“centralization = good for the entrenched; decentralization = good for the entrenched”

Centralization increases the efficiency of an already-dominant system, while decentralization increases its reach.

This all applies just fine to the latest technology that has people looking for transformative potential: decentralized identity (DID). It’s considered important because so many new mechanisms in web3 require that an address has an onto and 1-1 mapping to a human individual. So if identity can be solved then web3 is unleashed. But, thinking for just a second, decentralized identity technologies will fall into the same trap of entrenching the status quo faster than they isolate their transformative potential. Let’s say that DID scales privacy and uniqueness. If that happens then nothing keeps an existing body from running with uniqueness features and dropping privacy features.

If you’re bought into my argument so far, then you see that it’s not enough to develop technologies that have the option of empowering people, because most developers won’t take that option. You can’t take over just by growing because you can’t grow faster than the already grown. What is necessary is systems that are designed to actively counter accumulation and capture.

I show it in this paper looking at the accumulation of power by US basketball teams. For over a century, American basketball teams have been trying to gain and retain advantages on each other. Over the same time period, the leagues hosting them have served “sport over team,” exercising their power to change the rules to maintain competitive balance between teams. By preventing any one team from becoming too much more powerful than any other, you keep the sport interesting and you keep fans coming.

But what we’ve actually seen is that, over this century, basketball games have become more predictable: if Team A beat Team B and Team B beat Team C, then over a century Team A has become more and more likely to beat Team C. This is evidence that teams have diverged from each other in skill, despite all the regulatory power that leagues have been given to keep them even. If the rich get richer even in systems with an active enduring agency empowered to prevent the rich from getting richer, then concentration of power is deeply endemic and can’t just be wished away. It has to be planned for and countered.

This is why redistribution is a core principle of progressive and socialist politics. You can’t just introduce a new tweak and wait for things to correct. You need a mechanism to actively redistribute at regular intervals. Like taxes.

In web3, there aren’t many technologies that succeed at the higher bar of actively resisting centralization. One example might be quadratic voting, which has taken off probably because it’s market-centric branding has kept it from being considered redistributive (it is).

So for now my attitude toward decentralization is “Wake me up when you have a plan to grow faster than you can be co-opted.” Wake me up when you’ve decentralized taxation.

Timezones and mindstates

OK. You start in France at latitude 45. That is the south of the country, and we’ll say that you are due south of Greenwich. Just so you know, I’m writing this whole thing with the map open big, so you should probably read it that way.

This is only the very beginning of the trip, and things are already weird. The UK is the only county in Europe that both has and should have GMT. The other countries that should also have GMT, France and Spain and Norway, do not. And the only other countries that do have GMT (Portugal, Iceland, and Ireland) are mostly or entirely in GMT-1. If I woke up one day to find that everybody except me was insane, it would cross my mind that maybe I’m the one that’s crazy. These are the thoughts that the UK should be thinking.

Anyway, you are still at 45 degrees north, halfway up to the pole, and you starting flying east towards Russia, as the crow flies, but farther and a lot faster. Its noon in Greenwich, and lets say that you are going fast enough to circle the earth in a few seconds.

We haven’t moved yet, so its 1:00PM where you are, it should be noon, but its 1:00, until you hit Romania and it becomes 2:00PM. 2:00 PM starts early and ends early, you get about half as much 3:00PM as you should and it jumps to 5PM. Only some parts of Russia are having 4:00PM right now. None is this is wierd. In Kazakhstan you increment predictably to 6PM, which you enjoy an hour early in GMT+5 Halfway through 6PM you find yourself in China at 8:00PM, even while its still five in some places (or five-and-a-half in India). This isn’t weird yet.

China is big, and it has one timezone, so you don’t leave 8 until almost nine. That makes a lot of sense, right? Back on track. Very sensible. Well, you leave 8 and go into 10:00PM in Russia. That is less sensible, but forgivable. Japan is the next country past Rusia, and it appreciates the utility of 9:00PM. So when you reach Japan, having stayed at 45 degrees north the whole time, and traveling only directly east, you go Back into 9:00PM. When you leave, you jump up to 11:00PM in Russian, go back in time Again to 10:00PM, then up again to 11:00, then to midnight, but instantly to midnight of the night before, just west of mainland Alaska.

All that backwards stuff happened quickly, just between GMT+9 and GMT+10. Imagine driving from Chicago from New York. But instead of going from 4:00PM to 5:00PM, you go 3:00, 5:00, 4:00, 6:00, 5:00. You can put equal blame on the Russians, Chinese, and Japanese.

The Pacific is boring/sensible, switching when and where you might expect, excepting the 24 hour leap backwards in time. In the US, 8:00PM (PST) is truncated, and 6:00PM (Central) takes (a little more than) its time, but the rest of the trip, around to where you started, is sane. There is one more exception. The whole timezone system is built around GMT, but you never actually entered GMT the whole trip. You skipped noon—no lunch. That might be wrong: it depends on what time it is over an ocean if (a) you are in GMT+0 (where it would be noon) but (b) within the waters of Spain and France (where it is 1:00PM).

I found out about this craziness because I’ll be in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan, the big empty island in the north of Japan that looks like a birthmark. I don’t have any friends just east in Vladivostok. But I do have family in Manila. The one is close to being due north of the other. But, while calling my family in Manila means subtracting an hour (like you’d expect), calling a friend in the other will mean adding an hour. That is backwards.

Between Greenwich and Westphalia, there isn’t room for both your time and your sanity. Actually, I don’t really believe that. I bet it would be even weirder if we cut things the way that the folks in Greenwich originally intended—in terms of longitude rather than by national preference.

[Ed. This is a repost from my old blog.]


This entry was posted on Sunday, November 26th, 2023 and is filed under systems of culture.

Cut it out with this Gordian knot stuff

The cutting of the Gordian Knot by Alexander the Great is funny as great myths go: If you take a look you’ll realize that it’s usually invoked only to criticize it. Any thinker capable of nuance has to come out against it:

There’s Camus: “Yes, the rebirth is in the hands of all of us. It is up to us if the West is to bring forth any anti-Alexanders to tie together the Gordian Knot of civilization cut by the sword. 

And Sartre speaking of Heidegger: “In his abrupt, rather barbaric fashion of cutting Gordian knots rather than trying to untie them, he gives in answer to the question posited a pure and simple definition.

Really, most mentions I encounter are either to defend the knot or attack the people who think they can solve it.

I started to get a sense that anyone really moved by this sense of necessity for cutting through complexity is probably a victim of authoritarian personality and maybe not figurative but certainly literal fascism. Take Mussolini:

  • The era of Liberalism, after having accumulated an infinity of Gordian knots, tried to untie them in the slaughter of the World War-and never has any religion demanded of its votaries such a monstrous sacrifice.”  
  • I understood now,” [he] wrote, “that the Gordian knot of Italian political life could only be undone by an act of violence.
  • Not to mention his book plate.
  • But fascist Franco, not to be one-upped, put it on his seal.

Say what you want, but even the idea that we deserve to call our naive interventions solutions is a big ugly act of hubris. It’s got it’s place, but I know where I start.

Beyond first-order skepticism

In our culture, there’s a great shortcut to the high ground: the bold skeptic who doesn’t believe any of your ignorant mainstream rot. You see it everywhere. The bold skeptic is deeply and widely appealing, instantly recognizable, and so easy to fake. It’s almost as easy to fake as the other shortcut: the underdog. If underdog billionaires can complain about “the elites,” and underdog top (as in literally mainstream media) pundits can rage at mainstream media, then calling a good thing bad is nothing.

So: to instantly amaze your friends with your intellectual depth, take something everyone believes and reject it. That’s the first-order skeptic.

First-order skepticism in itself is common, and fine. It isn’t very deep to be a contrarian. But it’s something. The problem with the first order skeptic is this: a lot of what us sheeple believe, we believe because it’s true. Floor down, sky up, grass green, sun big. It can be tricky maintaining a skeptic identity without being easily cornerable into untenable positions. This is the big problem at the ground floor of skepticism. But you can solve it with work, by going deeper.

A second-order sceptic doubts both the common wisdom and the first-order skeptics. What a first-order skeptic has on the normies, a second-order skeptic has on on the first-order skeptics. “The earth isn’t flat or round: it’s a geoid!” Then there’s your third-order skeptic, who doubts the zero-, first-, and second-order skeptics, and so on. “Sure the earth is a geoid, but that’s not really a definition of a kind of shape, it’s really more our name for whatever shape earth is“. A hippie first-order skeptic will reject microwaves and dish washers for being too gadgety and commodity, while a second-order hippie will embrace them for being energy and resource efficient. Michael Moore rejects recycling because putting sustainability work on consumers is a drop in the bucket up against the magnitude of corporate waste. That’s a second-order skeptic. 

If a first-order vegetarian rejects meat on ethical or squeamish grounds, a second-order vegetarian might use ecological grounds, which reject animal agriculture, but will eat hunted goat in the tropics, or hunted moose in the arctic, ecosystems that can support those game at those levels of prevalence. A third-order vegetarian thinks that’s fine, but a little too naive in its embrace of the bold individualist. At the third order, your vote is naturally for the the most ecologically, ethically sound protein source of all. You argue that we should farm and eat bugs. 

As you go further and further down, you occupying increasingly unlikely, creative positions, and become more and more of a character, with more credibility with each level. At each level, you have to be more informed. Each level is harder to fake. Every take feels like IcyHot: spicy freshness and stone cold logic in the same package. Many of my biggest moments of admiration or respect boil down to a moment of seeing someone lodged in at level three or four casually blowing my mind. One of my most influential professors was so radically higher-order in her feminism that she exclusively wore dresses, because she saw the trend to sell women on shirts and pants as nothing but a fashion industry ploy to get women to spend twice as much on garments. And deeper isn’t always better, I also admire consistency at medium depth. Jacobin Magazine, and The Baffler before it, are just solid reliable consistent second-order skepticism. I always think of Jacobin taking down Foucault for admiration of capitalism.

I’ve seen that sometimes if you fly too high you wrap back around to incredibly norm-y positions. I’ve found many of the friends who are best at it become absolute curmudgeons. I’ve seen the second- and third- orders get faked as well. But overall, it’s a sign of quality. As an idea it’s like “Galaxy Brain” but the result of work and investment. It’s a sign of real thought. It’s something I look for in the people I follow. I don’t know if originality exists, it’s possible it doesn’t. It’s possible that no deep originality is more than a sum up from zero stopping at third, or fourth, or fifth order skepticisms, increasingly faithful to original with every extra pass. It’s also the perfect cudgel for all those bold skeptics.

How is a pager different from a doorbell?

We don’t think of them this way, but a pager and a doorbell are very similar. Both allow one person to one-way signal to another that they want their attention. But the social context surrounding the two are different in a way that makes it so that they are used differently, and that the signals come with different expectations. In particular, a doorbell’s context is more constrained than a pager’s allowing the sender to learn more from each message. It’s a nice example of social context supplementing social technology to influence interpretation. Pager’s are a generalization of the doorbell.

“Why can’t I work with this person?”: Your collaborator’s secret manual

In collaborations it can take time to learn to work with certain people. They might be hard to handle in many ways: in the way they volunteer feedback; or have to be asked; in being supportive about ideas they actually don’t like, or showing that they like an idea with no other signal than vigorous attack; in expecting constant reminders; being excessively hands-off or hands-on; demanding permission for everything or resenting it. It’s complicated, especially when there’s a power dynamic on top of all that: boss/employee, advisor/advisee, principal/agent.

Fortunately, in active communities of practice, there are many collaborative linkages and the accumulated experience of those collaborators amounts to a manual for how to work with that person. Even for someone hard to work with, you have a couple of peers who manage just fine, often because they have strategies they aren’t even aware of for making it work. That knowledge gets harnessed naturally, if spottily, in my lab because my students talk to each other. One thing a student told me, that she has passed on to others, is that Seth thinks out loud during project meetings so if he’s going fast and it seems scattered and you’re totally lost about what you’re supposed to do, just wait and eventually he’ll finish and summarize.

Is there a more systematic way to harness this knowledge? The idea I came up with is a secret manual. It’s a Google Doc. The person it’s about is not invited to the doc, although they can share the link. Only past, present, or upcoming collaborators can be members. The norms are to keep it specific to collaboration tips, to keep it civil and constructive, to assume good faith and not gossip, and to keep disagreement in the comments (or otherwise distinguish advise that others have found useful from less proven or agreed upon ideas). People with access to the manual can mention parts of it while talking with its subject, but that person can’t be shown the raw doc (it’s not secret, but it is private). The person who it’s about obviously can’t contribute, but they can offer suggestions to a member for things to add (in my case, I’d want some to add: “please feel comfortable sending persistent reminders if you need something; it’s not a bother, it’s a favor”). People could maybe be members of each others’ manuals, though maybe it’s good to have a rule that the only members of one’s secret manual are equal or lesser in power.

Here’s a template.

UPDATE: if you’re a collaborator of mine, here’s a manual that someone made for me
Because I’m not supposed to see it, you’ll have to request access to have it opened to you.

The mind-expanding Internet; the like-minder finder

I’ve always sneezed in the sun, especially in the morning when I’m coming out of the dark. As an infant, I would sneeze continually: my uncle would shadow me to turn the sneezing off, and then step aside to turn it on, on and off. I only slowly gained an appreciation that sneezing in the sun was a thing, that some people did it and others didn’t, but it didn’t have a word and it was always too trivial and obscure to show any concern for. Today, it’s still niche, but it has a word (“photic sneezing”), and statistics. Researchers have hypothesized mechanisms, and built a sense of what kinds of people experience it. It can be googled for. This variety of human experience, while still niche, has been recognized and integrated, to the point that others who haven’t heard of it can learn about it and make room for it in their picture of what humans are like and how they live.

This growth in awareness of the phenomenon is some of the basis for my reserve of optimism about the future. One hopeful narrative for the course of humanity is that as we better understand each other and ourselves, we create a basis for the universal compassion that will save us and our world. It’s a utopian take that is not widely held, but does crop up in surprising places, and is often enough an impetus for journalism, research, and technology.

The Internet, despite everything, remains a powerful force for universal understanding. The Internet is absolutely an outlet for hidden or marginalized voices to be found and heard, first by finding and hearing each other. Maybe it’s the opposite as well, but that doesn’t change the fact: it’s big enough to be very much both at the same time. Through online communities, secret varieties of human experience build their sense of self, confidence, and language, enough to assert their existence to the outside world with bravery and break through the silence to attract the attention of all the rest of us. From there, acceptance can be easy or hard, but getting on the map and starting a larger conversation is a good thing, and part of expanding collective consciousness to include the actual varieties of human experience.

The examples of the Internet’s mind-expanding function are everywhere. They include once-invisible psychological and physiological quirks like cataplexy, ASMR, misophonia, photic sneezing, and especially ASMR. You can even add color blindness: until the last 50 years it was possible to go most of your life and not know you were colorblind. Varieties of social experience have seen the benefits as well, with internet-induced language, elaboration, and legitimacy around historically taboo subjects like kink, non-monogamy, homosexuality, and all the other facets of sexuality, sexual preference, sex experience, and gender experience that are beginning to assert themselves.

What do these things have in common? They all connect to ways of being that are rare enough and quiet enough (either because of their triviality (misophonia) or historically taboo nature (gender variety)) to stay invisible without tools like the internet or urbanism that enable like-minded people to find each other. From contact comes community, from community comes confidence, from confidence comes visibility, from visibility comes recognition, often hard-won, and from recognition comes the expansion of collective awareness of conscious experience that is one part of universal care and something like the humanistic progress of humanity.

Overall, I think the unintended consequences of new technology are vast enough often enough to justify a critical view of progress. But it’s just as easy, and just as much of a waste to get stuck in techno-pessimism as techno-optimism, and I try to remember the good. So here’s a little nod to the Internet and its very real higher potential.

1920’s infoviz, when “Flapperism” was the culmination of Western civilization


This image offers a schematic of Western history with a two-axis timeline that brings attention more effectively to long periods. It was published in the journal Social Forces in 1927.

Its author Arthur Dahlberg was a science popularizer and Technocrat active through the 20’s and 30’s. His books, which presented economic systems as closed plumbing systems and other visual metaphors, brought technocratic ideas to many important thinkers in the first half of the 20th century, making him the route by which Technocratic ideas influenced the science of complex systems. Technocracy was a social movement and economic theory that can best be glossed as capitalism under a planned economy. It was popular among farmers and other rural Americans, but was ridiculed otherwise. Nevertheless, its popularity brought it to the attention of people like Herbert Simon, who made fundamental contributions to organization theory, cognitive science, and economics, and Donella Meadows, whose own stocks-and-flows theories of economic system successfully forecasted today’s population growth and global climate change in the 1970s. His influence on original thinkers in the second half of the last century is what piqued my interest in him, and led me to this fun illustration of the state of the art of information visualization in the 1920’s. I love how it all leads to “Flapperism”, which we’ll guess he takes to mean some kind of societal fizzling over.

Stop, look, and listen: A tour of the world’s red crosswalks

My favorite thing about traveling is the little things. And with Google’s Maps, you can celebrate those without going anywhere. Here are “stop walking” signs from cities around the world.


As expected, Europe has a lot of diversity, particularly Switzerland:

Geneva, Switzerland has this skinny person
Lucerne, Switzerland has a lanky Giacometti type
Zurich, Switzerland also goes lanky, but a little more of the Age of Aquarius, Platonic ideal, smooth edges, hard ideas style that you get in that city.

More of Europe:
Berlin, Germany is v. different.
Vienna, Austria, which put these up during a recent Eurovision contest, gets the prize.

Oslo, Norway means business!
Stopping and going, Brussels, Belgium has style

North America

The huge US is depressingly homogeneous, especially in comparison to the much smaller Switzerland. Maybe there’s a monopoly in the US traffic-light market?

St. Louis

Zooming out to the rest of North America doesn’t seems improve things, though I admit I could have looked harder.
Montreal, the least Anglophone Canadian city, deviates from the US mold by only a bit, by hollowing out the hand. It’s “walk” guy is better though — I’ve got a picture of one below.
I pathetically couldn’t find any lights in Mexico City and haven’t checked other major Mexican cities, though I’m guess that border towns at least will look American.


In Africa, I tried Addis Ababa, Lagos, Accra, Nairobi, and even Cairo, but Google hasn’t shot any of them. I only found Streetview in South Africa. Here is Pretoria

East Asia

There is also very little Streetview in China. I tried Beijing, Shanghai, and a few other Chinese cities. All I found was Hong Kong. I guess that by the time we come to envy China for not having been scanned, Google will have them scanned too. China has over 200 cities of population over 1,000,000. There are only 9 in the US that big. Other parts of east Asia, like Japan and South Korea, are much better.
Hong Kong is realistic enough to automatically have its identity fizzed out by Google’s algorithms.
Tokyo, Japan. Looks like a worker. I was told that, in Japanese, the word for jaywalking translates to “red light, don’t care.”
Seoul, South Korea

South Asia

I didn’t have any luck finding lit crosswalks in south Asia, but that could be my problem.

Southeast Asia

In southeast Asia, I only looked in Manila, which only recently went up on Streetview in the past year I think, but they mostly only have crosswalks in their upscale neighborhoods, and, in-line with the USA-philia over there, those few look very much like the American ones

Middle East

In the Middle East (and outside of Israel), I only found usable intersections in Dubai, whose lights look like the Swiss ones above. Only connection I can think of is that that’s where they keep all their money

Israel has more. Here is Tel Aviv. Pretty manly, right? Wait till you see Sao Paolo.

South America and Latin America

South America is also very diverse. I only looked a bit, and many cities are unscanned, but it seems that there is a lot more interesting variety there than in other parts of the world. In fact, you can find different lights in the same intersection! In Santiago you’ll see a silhouette of the “walk” light — sprightly fella — and a more generic “walk” light guy walking in the other direction. These two really are from the same intersection.
Santiago, same intersection, walking guy walking the other way
Bogota, Colombia
It looks like Sao Paolo, Brazil has a burly burly strong man. I can’t figure out if the crookedness adds to or subtracts from his apparent virility.

“Walk” lights

“Walk” lights are harder to catch in Streetview than “stop”s. That said, I got a not-bad collection of those too. The lessons above stick: the US is homogenous; variety happens elsewhere. And, outside the US, the walker tends to be green and walk to the left instead of the right.
London, UK
Moscow, Russia
Tokyo, Japan
Seoul, South Korea

If there is some important cross-walk of the world you think I really missed out on, I’m happy to add more.

Natural selection, statistical mechanics, and the idea of germs were all inspired by social science

It’s only natural to want to hold your scientific field as the most important, or noble, or challenging field. That’s probably why I always present the sciences of human society as the ones that are hardest to do. It’s not so crazy: it is inherently harder to learn about social systems than biological, engineered, or physical ones because we can’t, and shouldn’t ever, have the same control over humans that we do over bacteria, bridges, or billiard balls. But maybe I take it too far. I usually think of advances in social science as advances in what it is possible for science to teach us, and I uncritically think of social science as where scientific method will culminate.

So imagine my surprise to learn that social science isn’t the end of scientific discovery, but a beginning. According to various readings in John Carey’s Faber Book of Science, three of the most important scientific discoveries since the Enlightenment — the theory of natural selection, the germ theory of disease, and the kinetic theory of gasses — brought inspiration from human social science to non-human domains. One of Darwin’s key insights toward the theory of evolution came while reading Malthus’s work on human population. Just in case you think that’s a fluke, Alfred Russell Wallace’s independent discovery of natural selection came while he was reading Malthus. (And Darwin was also influenced by Adam Smith). Louis Pasteur developed the implications of the germ theory of disease by applying his French right-wing political philosophy to animalcules. The big leap there was that biologists rejected that very small insignificant animals could possibly threaten a large and majestic thing like a human, but Pasteur had seen how the unworthy masses threatened the French elite, and it gave him an inkling. Last, James Maxwell, the man right under Newton and Einstein in physics stature, was reading up on the new discipline of Social Statistics when he came up with the kinetic theory of gases, which in turn sparked statistical mechanics and transformed thermodynamics. Physicists have started taking statistical mechanics out of physical science and applying it to social science, completely ignorant of the fact that it started there.

All of these people were curious enough about society to think and read about it, and their social ponderings were rewarded with fresh ideas that ultimately transformed each of their fields.

I think of science as a fundamentally social endeavor, but when I say that I’m usually thinking of the methods of science. These connections out of history offer a much deeper sense in which all of natural science is the science of humanity.

Thanks to Jaimie Murdock and Colin Allen for the connection between Malthus and Darwin, straight from Darwin’s autobiography

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work.

How would science be different if humans were different?

How would science be different if humans were different — if we had different physiological limits? Obviously, if our senses were finer, we wouldn’t need the same amount of manufactured instrumentation to reach the same conclusions. But there are deeper implications. If our senses were packed denser, and if we could faithfully process and perceive all of the information they collect, we would probably have much more sensitive time perception, or one way or another a much refined awareness of causal relations in the world. This would have the result that raw observation would be a much more fruitful methodology within the practice of natural science, perhaps so much so that we would have much less need for things like laboratory experiments (which are currently very important).

Of course, a big part of the practice of science is the practice of communication, and that becomes clear as soon as we change language. Language is sort of a funny way to have to get things out of one head and into another. It is slow, awkward, and very imperfect. If “language” was perfect — if we could transfer our perfect memories of subjective experience directly to each other’s heads with the fidelity of ESP — there would be almost no need for reproducibility, one of the most important parts of science-as-we-know-it. Perfect communication would also supersede the paratactic writeups that scientific writing currently relies on to make research reproducible. It may be that in some fields there would be no articles or tables or figures. Maybe there would still be abstracts. And if we had unlimited memories, it’s possible that we wouldn’t need statistics, randomized experiments, or citations either.

The reduction in memory limits would probably also lead to changes in the culture of science. Science would move faster, and it would be easier to practice without specialized training. The practice of science would probably no longer be restricted to universities, and the idea of specialized degrees like Ph.D.s would probably be very different. T.H. Huxley characterized science as “organized common sense.” This “organization” is little more than a collection of crutches for our own cognitive limits, without which the line between science and common sense would disappear entirely.

That’s interesting enough. But, for me, the bigger implication of this exercise is that science as we know it is not a Big Thing In The Sky that exists without us. Science is fundamentally human. I know people who find that idea distasteful, but chucking human peculiarities into good scientific practice is just like breaking in a pair of brand-new gloves. Having been engineered around some fictional ideal, your gloves aren’t most useful until you’ve stretched them here and there, even if you’ve also nicked them up a bit. It’s silly to judge gloves on their fit to the template. In practice, you judge them on their fit to you.

Bern, Switzerland hires ex biker gang to scare trash sinners straight

I met a Swiss behavioral economist who had partnered with his city to see how “nudges” could prevent people from sneaking out in the night and illicitly leaving bags of trash at neighborhood recycling stations. Many Swiss cities tax trash per bag to incentivize waste reduction, with the side-effect that shirking takes the form of discreet dumping. Treatments for the side-effect take many forms. The most wild, according to this economist, was an initiative from Bern in which the city hired the Euro equivalent of Hell’s Angels to hide in the bushes and pop out to catch people in the act. It sounded too wild to be true, and the hiding was maybe an exaggeration, but I got pointed to a few articles from Swiss tabloids that support the story, this one from 20 Minuten and the one below from Blick, translated by Jillian.


The Green Rockers of Bern

Their reputation precedes them. The Broncos security forces don’t just look mean; they also have a reputation in Bern for taking drastic measures — qualities that are now bringing the security group, which is no longer in association with the rock club of the same name, into unexpected territory. According to the Berner Zeitung, the municipality of Köniz has commissioned the Broncos to ensure that people don’t throw extraneous trash into the recycling bins meant for aluminum, glass, and tin.
The services of the Broncos in the fight against “trash sinners” cost the community a cool 9000 francs. But the Broncos aren’t just there to look mean. They’re supposed to be doing preventative work — and passing out leaflets.


This entry was posted on Sunday, August 2nd, 2015 and is filed under systems of culture.

Louisiana’s “daiquiri exemption” and other drinks while driving.

Short article on states that permit drinking while driving. File under heterogeneity and the living tension between governance institutions that exist at different scales.


This entry was posted on Saturday, May 16th, 2015 and is filed under systems of culture.

Cultural arbitrariness is not the thing that is at the root of how race doesn’t exist.

On the old Radiolab episode about race, the producers used an interesting fact to make an argument that race doesn’t exist — that it’s entirely a social construct. It turns out that the genetic variability within races is greater than the variability between races; the average difference between two people of the same race is greater than that of groups of people across races. In that sense, the idea of race is not really meaningful. But the same is true for the sounds p and b.

Put your finger to your throat and say “ppuh.” Then say “bbuh.” The vibration you felt for the second one is called voicing; it’s supposed to be the only difference between p and b. That said, things get fuzzy fast. Say “pee.” “Pee” doesn’t start out voiced, but it ends that way (in contrast with “bee,” which is voiced more from the beginning). Depending on context, you can actually move voicing up a lot more and still be perceived as uttering a p. And you can move voicing down from the beginning and still be a b. There are big individual differences too, so that the thing that came out of my mouth as a p might have come out of your sounding like a b. In real everyday language, the fluctuations are so wild that the variability within p or b is greater that then variability between them.

Does race exist? As much as p and b do. So wait: Do p and b exist? It turns out that there are sharp people working to destroy the ideas of the sounds p and b. For example, cognitive scientist Bob Port put his career behind undermining the static approaches to phonology that permitted the idea of linguistic atoms. And there’s something to it. It turns out that p and b are really complicated. But he can still pronounce his name. It seems you don’t have to be able to draw a clear line between them for them to be used by reasonable people as ideas. To take them too seriously is wrong, and to think that they can’t be used responsibly, or even usefully, is also wrong.

p, b, and race all look superficially like basic building blocks, but really they are each a complicated result of things like physiology, culture, and the context of each instant. So they are constructs, but not just social constructs. Their cultural arbitrariness is not the thing that is at the root of how they don’t exist. What does it mean for you? These constructs aren’t insubstantial because they are nothing, they are insubstantial because they are complicated.

“No wang-wang zone”

My dad lives in the Philippines, and I was in the Manila airport on my way to visit him. I was in the part where you get in line and wait for them to glance at your passport when I saw a cheap computer printed sign taped to a column.

This is a no wang-wang zone.
We have cameras, don’t embarrass yourself.
Stay in line.

I couldn’t help but notice it, which made me wonder why I’d never seen it before — I’ve been visiting that country every few years since I was 12. It didn’t seem like a very airport type of sign.

Eventually I had a chance to ask my stepmom, and she explained. Wang-wang is pretending that you’re really important. Say you don’t want to wait in traffic. You light up the siren on your dashboard, get over to the shoulder, and plough on past all the suckers. Or say you don’t want to wait in line at the airport. You put on a pair of sunglasses, tell your family to follow you in a tight pack while tittering about your celebrity or photographing you, and stroll confidently past all the long lines right on through to baggage. It’s called wang-wang because of the first example: That’s the sound a siren makes.

I’m not one of these Foucault-fawning critical theory types — at all — but when I think about wang-wang I can’t shake words like “postmodern” and “postcolonial.” They don’t usually go together, but I think wang-wang is both. The Philippines was colonized for centuries and the country, despite its merits, has a bad case of some of the worst aspects of Western culture, like extreme wealth disparities, deified celebrities, and the use of bureaucracy for interfacing between citizen and state.

Naturally there are forms of resistance to those things, and wang-wang is one, but it stands out to me for how savvy it is to the arbitrariness of power. The terms of being a powerful person are a bit arbitrary in any culture, but they are so blatantly arbitrary in the Philippines, partly because of the colonial mold: their governance system and economic structure were copied and pasted from Western models with Western loans and no regard for this idea that a country’s political and economic systems should be congruent with its culture. The common result is the portfolio of asymmetries that characterize life in the developing world, like asymmetry in wealth, in power, in the development of urban and rural places, in the relative amounts of law and lawfullness, and in the amount of admiration for Westerners over compatriots.

If asymmetry is the common result of orthodox international development, the “no wang-wang zone” is the postmodern result: a rule in an airport immigration lobby chastising this new kind of person who can break all the rules by pretending to be the kind of person who can break all the rules.

Xeno’s paradox

There is probably some very deep psychology behind the age-old tradition of blaming problems on foreigners. These days I’m a foreigner, in Switzerland, and so I get to see how things are and how I affect them. I’ve found that I can trigger a change in norms even by going out of my way to have no effect on them. It’s a puzzle, but I think I’ve got it modeled.

In my apartment there is a norm (with a reminder sign) around locking the door to the basement. It’s a strange custom, because the whole building is safe and secure, but the Swiss are particular and I don’t question it. Though the rule was occasionally broken in the past (hence the sign), residents in my apartment used to be better about locking the door to the basement. The norm is decaying. Over the same time period, the number of foreigners (like me) has increased. From the naïve perspective, the mechanism is obvious: Outsiders are breaking the rules. The mechanism I have in mind shows some of the subtlety that is possible when people influence each other under uncertainty. I’m more interested in the possibility that this can exist than in showing it does. Generally, I don’t think of logic as the most appropriate tool for fighting bigotry.

When I moved in to this apartment I observed that the basement door was occasionally unlocked, despite the sign. I like to align with how people are instead of how the signs say they should be, and so I chose to just remain a neutral observer for as long as possible while I learned the how things run. I adopted a heuristic of leaving things how I found them. If the door was locked, I locked it behind me on my way out, and if the door wasn’t I left it that way.

That’s well and good, but you can’t just be an observer. Even my policy of neutrality has side effects. Say that the apartment was once full of Swiss people, including one resident who occasionally left the door unlocked but was otherwise perfectly Swiss. The rest of the residents are evenly split between orthodox door lockers and others who could go either way and so go with the flow. Under this arrangement, the door stays locked most of the time, and the people on the cusp of culture change stay consistent with what they are seeing.

Now, let’s introduce immigration and slowly add foreigners, but a particular kind that never does anything. These entrants want only to stay neutral and they always leave the door how they found it. If the norm of the apartment was already a bit fragile, then a small change in the demographic can tip the system in favor of regular norm violations.

If the probability of adopting the new norm depends on the frequency of seeing it adopted, then a spike in norm adoptions can cause a cascade that makes a new norm out of violating the old one. This is all standard threshold model: Granovetter, Schelling, Axelrod. Outsiders change the model by creating a third type that makes it look like there are more early adopters than there really are.

Technically, outsiders translate the threshold curve up and don’t otherwise change its shape. In equations, (1) is a cumulative function representing the threshold model. It sums over some positive function f() as far as percentile X to return value Y in “X% of people (adopters early adopters (E) plus non-adopters (N)) need to see that at least Y% of others have adopted before they do.” Equation (2) shifts equation (1) up by the percentage of outsiders times their probability of encountering an adopter rather than a non-adopter.

If you take each variable and replace it with a big number you should start to see that the system needs either a lot of adopters or a lot of outsiders for these hypothetical neutral outsiders to be able to shift the contour very far up. That says to me that I’m probably wrong, since I’m probably the only one following my rule. My benign policy probably isn’t the explanation for the trend of failures to lock the basement door.

This exercise was valuable mostly for introducing a theoretical mechanism that shows how it could be possible for outsiders to not be responsible for a social change, even if it seems like it came with them. Change can come with disinterested outsiders if the system is already leaning toward a change, because outsiders can be mistaken for true adopters and magnify the visibility of a minority of adopters.

Update a few months later

I found another application. I’ve always wondered how it is that extreme views — like extreme political views — take up so much space in our heads even though the people who actually believe those things are so rare. I’d guess that we have a bias towards over estimating how many people are active in loud minorities, anything from the Tea Party to goth teenagers. With a small tweak, this model can explain how being memorable can make your social group seem to have more converts than it has, and thereby encourage more converts. Just filter people’s estimates of different group’s representations through a memory of every person that has been seen in the past few months, with a bias toward remembering memorable things. I’ve always thought that extreme groups are small because they are extreme, but this raises the possibility that it’s the other way around, that when you’re small, being extreme is a pretty smart growth strategy.

Auspicious and inconsequential

Photo on 16-06-14 at 12.49

“Auspicious” and “inconsequential” are two tidy words for describing the experience of being burger customer number one. I like that they can coexist with so little friction. Maybe it works because auspicious wafts superstitious.

How we create culture from noise


I don’t like to act too knowledgable about society, but I’m ready to conjecture law: “Peoples will interpret patterns into the phenomena that affect their lives, even phenomena without patterns. Culture amplifies pareidolia.”

It’s interesting when those patterns are random, as in weather and gambling. “Random” is a pretty good model for weather outside the timescale of days. But we can probably count on every human culture to have narratives that give weather apprehensible causes. Gambling is random by definition, but that doesn’t stop the emergence of gambling “systems” that societies continue to honor with meaningfulness. Societies do not seem to permit impactful events to be meaningless.

This is all easy to illustrate in fine work by Kalish et al. (2007). The image above shows five series (rows) of people learning a pattern of dots from the person before them, one dot at a time, and then teaching it to the next person in the same way. Each n (each column) is a new person in the “cultural” transmission of the pattern. The experiment starts with some given “true” pattern (the first column).

The first row of the five tells a pretty clean story. The initial pattern was a positive linear function that people learned and transmitted with ease. But the second and third rows already raise some concern: the initial patterns were more complicated functions that, within just a couple of generations, got transformed into the same linear function as in the first row. This is impressive because the people were different between rows; Each row happened without any awareness of what happened in the other rows — people had only the knowledge of what just happened in the cell to their immediate left. Treating the five people in rows two or three as constituting a miniature society, we can say that they collectively simplified a complicated reality into something that was easier to comprehend and communicate.

And in the fourth and fifth rows the opposite happens: Subjects are not imposing their bias for positive lines on a more complicated hidden pattern, but on no pattern at all. Again, treating these five people as a society, their line is a social construct that emerges reliably across “cultures” from nothing but randomness. People are capable of slightly more complex cultural products (the negative line in the fifth row) but probably not much more, and probably rarely.

The robustness of this effect gives strong evidence that culture can amplify the tendencies of individuals toward pareidolia — seeing patterns in noise. It also raises the possibility that the cultural systems we hold dear are built on noise. I’m betting that any work to change such a system is going to find itself up against some very subtle, very powerful social forces.

Translation with rotation. An American railroad man sold Marx on Iroquois culture.

By a strange irony, the League of the Iroquois has become a model for Marxist theory. The twisting trail that leads to Friedrich Engels begins with Lewis Henry Morgan, a Rochester lawyer and lobbyist for railroads. His interest in the Iroquois was aroused because he wanted to use their rituals in a rather sophomoric fraternal organization he and several business friends were setting up. As a result, he studied the Iroquois deeply …
He was a thoroughly conventional man, unquestioning in religious orthodoxy, and also a staunch capitalist. But he published his theories in Ancient Society in 1877, at the very time tht Karl Marx was working on the final volumes of Das Kapital. Marx was enthusiastic and made notes about Morgan’s findings, which by accident fitted in with his own materialistic views of history. Marx died before he could write a book incorporating Morgan’s theories, but Engels used them as the cornerstone for his influential The origin of the family, private property, and the state (1884). This volume has become the source book for all anthropological theory in Soviet Russia and most other communist countries. Engels was ecstatic about what he had learned, or thought he had learned, of the League of the Iroquois from Morgan … That bourgeois gentleman Morgan is to this day enshrined in the pantheon of socialist thinkers.

“This day” is the 1968 of Peter Farb, from his book Man’s rise to civilization as shown by the Indians of North America from primeval times to the coming of the industrial state. Any book written by a 1960’s anthropologist is going to be dated, but this one is also so progressive in some places (even by today’s standards) that I say it breaks even.

Other valuable excerpts from the book:

Extremely literal rank accounting:

Once a society starts to keep track in this way of who is who, there is no telling where such genealogical bookkeeping will end. In Northwest Coast society it did not end until the very last and lowliest citizen knew his precise hereditary rank with a defined distance from the chief, and he knew it with exactitude. There is record of a Kwakiutl feast in which each of the 658 guests from thirteen subdivisions of the chiefdom knew whether he was, say, number 437 or number 438. … A specialist in the Northwest Coast has wisely stated: “To insist upon the use of the term ‘class system’ for Northwest Coast society means that we must say that each individual was in a class by himself.”

Emergent market exchange:

Membership in other kinds of societies was also often purchased, and in fact many things were for sale among the Plains tribes: sacred objects, religious songs, and even the description of a particularly good vision. The right to paint a particular design on the face during a religious ceremony might cost as much as a horse. Permission just to look inside someone’s sacred bundle of fetishes and feathers was often worth the equivalent of a hundred dollars. A Crow is known to have paid two horses to his sponsor to get himself invited into a tobacco society, and teh candidate’s family contributed an additional twenty-three horses. A prudent Blackfoot was well advised to put his money into a sacred bundle, and investment that paid him continued dividends.

Of the Cheyenne, with a connection to Bengime:

Only the bravest of the brave warriors could belong to the elite military society known as the Contraries. Somewhat like the Zuni Mudheads, they were privileged clowns. They did the opposite of everything: They said no when they meant yes; went away when called and came near when told to go away; called left right; and sat shivering on the hottest day.

How the Cherokee got screwed, an important story from the USA’s 19th century campaign of genocide:

About 1790 the Cherokee decided to adopt the ways of their White conquerors and to emulate their civilization, their morals, their learning, and their arts. The Cherokee made remarkable and rapid progress in their homeland in the mountains where Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina meet. They established churches, mills, schools, and well-cultivated farms; judging from descriptions of that time, the region was a paradise when compared with the bleak landscape that the White successors have made of Appalachia today. In 1826 a Cherokee reported to the Presbyterian Church that his people already possessed 22,000 cattle, 7,600 houses, 46,000 swine, 2,500 sheep, 762 looms, 1,488 spinning wheels, 2,948 plows, 10 saw mills, 31 grist mills, 62 blacksmith shops, and 18 schools. In one of the Cherokee districts alone there were some 1,000 volumes of “good books.” In 1821, after 12 twelve years of hard work, a Cherokee names Seqoya (honored in the scientific names for the the redwood and the giant sequoia trees in California, three thousand miles from his homeland) perfected a method of syllabary notation in which English letters stood for Cherokee syllables; by 1828 the Cherokee were already publishing their own newspaper. At about the same time, they adopted a written constitution providing for an executive, a bicameral legislature, a supreme court, and a code of laws.
Before the passage of the Removal Act of 1830, a group of Cherokee chiefs went to the Senate committee that was studying this legislation, to report on what they had already achieved in the short space of forty years. They expressed the hope that they would be permitted to enjoy in peace “the blessings of civilization and Christianity on the soil of their rightful inheritance.” Instead, they were daily subjected to brutalities and atrocities by White neighbors, harassed by the state government of Georgia, cajoled and bribed by Federal agents to agree to removal, and denied even the basic protection of the federal government. Finally, in 1835, a minority faction of five hundred Cherokee out of a total of some twenty thousand signed a treaty agreeing to removal. The Removal Act was carried out almost everywhere with a notable lack of compassion, but in the case of the Cherokee—civilized and Christianized as they were—it was particularly brutal.
After many threats, about five thousand finally consented to be marched westward, but another fifteen thousand clung to their neat farms, schools, and libraries “of good books.” So General Winfield Scott set about systematically extirpating the rebellious ones. Squads of soldiers descended upon isolated Cherokee farms and at bayonet point marched the families off to what today would be known as concentration camps. Torn from their homes with all the dispatch and efficiency the Nazis displayed under similar circumstances, the families had no time to prepare for the arduous trip ahead of them. No way existed for the Cherokee family to sell its property and possessions, and the local Whites fell upon the lands, looting, burning, and finally taking possession.
Some Cherokee managed to escape into the gorges and thick forests of the Great Smoky Mountains, where they became the nucleus of those living there today, but most were finally rounded up or killed. They then were set off on a thousand-mile march—called to this day “the trail of ters tears” by the Cherokee—that was one of the notable death marches in history. Ill clad, badly fed, lacking medical attention, and prodded on by soldiers wielding bayonets, the Indians suffered severe losses. An estimate made at the time stated that some four thousand Cherokee died en route, but that figure is certainly too low. At the very moment that these people were dying in droves, President Van Buren reported to Congress that the government’s handling of the Indian problem had been “just and friendly throughout; its efforts for their civilization constant, and directed by the best feelings of humanity; it’s watchfulness in protecting them from individual frauds unremitting.”

What polished bronze can teach us about crowdsourcing

  1. Crowds can take tasks that would be too costly for any individual, and perform them effortless for years — even centuries.
  2. You can’t tell the crowd what it wants to do or how it wants to do it.

from http://photo.net/travel/italy/verona-downtown

The market distribution of the ball, a thought experiment.

The market is a magical thing.  Among other things, it has been entrusted with much of the production and distribution the world’s limited resources. But markets-as-social-institutions are hard to understand because they are tied up with so many other ideas: capitalism, freedom, inequality, rationality, the idea of the corporation, and consumer society. It is only natural that the value we place on these abstractions will influence how we think about the social mechanism called the market. To remove these distractions, it will help to take the market out of its familiar context and put it to a completely different kind of challenge.

Basketball markets

What would basketball look like if it was possible to play it entirely with markets, if the game was redesigned so that players within a team were “privatized” during the game and made free of the central planner, their stately coach: free to buy and sell favors from each other in real time and leave teamwork to an invisible hand?  I’m going to take my best shot, and in the process I’ll demonstrate how much of our faith in markets is faith, how much of our market habit is habit.

We don’t always know why one player passes to another on the court. Sometimes the ball goes to the closest or farthest player, or to the player with the best position or opening in the momentary circumstances of the court. Sometimes all players are following the script for this or that play. Softer factors may also figure in, like friendship or even the feeling of reciprocity. It is probably a mix of all of these things.  But the market is remarkable for how it integrates diverse sources of information.  It does so quickly, adapting almost magically, even in environments that have been crafted to break markets.

So what if market institutions were used to bring a basketball team to victory? For that to work, we’d have to suspend a lot of disbelief, and make a lot of things true that aren’t. The process of making those assumptions explicit is the process of seeing the distance of markets from the bulk of real world social situations.

The most straightforward privatization of basketball could class behavior into two categories, production (moving the ball up court) and trade (passing and shooting). In this system, the coach has already arranged to pay players only for the points they have earned in the game. At each instant, players within a team are haggling with the player in possession, offering money to get the ball passed to them. Every player has a standing bid for the ball, based on their probability of making a successful shot. The player in possession has perfect knowledge of what to produce, of where to go to have either the highest chances of making a shot or of getting the best price for the ball from another teammate.

If the player calculates a 50% chance of successfully receiving the pass and making a 3-point shot, then that pass is worth 1.5 points to him. At that instant, 1.5 will be that player’s minimum bid for the ball, which the player in possession is constantly evaluating against all other bids. If, having already produced the best set of bids, any bid is greater then that possessing player’s own estimated utility from attempting the shot, then he passes (and therefore sells) to the player with the best offer. The player in possession shoots when the probability of success exceeds any of the standing bids and any of the (perfectly predicted) benefits of moving.

A lot is already happening, so it will help to slow down. The motivating question is how would reality have to change for this scheme to lead to good baskeball? Most obviously, the pace of market transactions would have to speed up dramatically, so that making, selecting, and completing transactions happened instantaneously, and unnoticably. Either time would have to freeze at each instant or the transaction costs of managing the auction institution would have to be reduced to an infinitesimal. Similarly, each player’s complex and inarticulable process of calculating their subjective shot probabilities would have to be instantaneous as well.

Players would have to be more than fast at calculating values and probabilities, they would also have to be accurate. If players were poor at calcuating their subjective shot probabilities, and at somehow converting those into cash values, they would not be able to translate their moment’s strategic advantage into the market’s language. And it would be better that players’ bids reflect only the probability of making a shot, and not any other factors. If players’ bids incorporate non-cash values, like the value of being regarded well by others, or the value of not being in pain, then passes may be over- or under-valued. To prevent players from incorporating non-cash types of value the coach has to pay enough per point to drown out the value of these other considerations. Unline other parts of this thought experiment, that is probably already happening.

It would not be enough for players to accurately calculate their own values and probabilities, but those of every other player, at every moment. Markets are vulnerable to assymmetries in information. This means that if these estimates weren’t common knowledge, players could take advantage of each other artificially inflating prices and reducing the efficiency of the team (possibly in both the technical and colloquial senses). Players that fail to properly value or anticipate future costs and benefits will pass prematurely and trap their team in suboptimal states, local maxima. To prevent that kind of short-sightedness, exactly the kind of shortsightedness that teamwork and coaching are designed to prevent, it would be necessary for players to be able to divine not only perfect trading, but perfect production. Perfect production would mean knowing where and when on the court a pass or a shot will bring the highest expected payoff, factoring in the probability of getting to that location at that time.

I will be perfectly content to be proven wrong, but I believe that players who could instantaneously and accurately put a tradable cash value on their current and future state — and on the states of every other player on the court — could use market transactions to create perfectly coherent teams. In such a basketball, the selfish pursuit of private value could be manuevered by the market institution to guarantee the good of the team.

The kicker

With perfect (instantaneous and accurate) judgement and foresight a within-team system of live ball-trading could produce good basketball. But with those things, a central planner could also produce good basketball. Even an anarchist system of shared norms and mutual respect could do so. In fact, as long as those in charge all share the goal of winning, the outputs of all forms governance will become indistinguishable as transaction costs, judgement errors, and prediction errors fall to zero. With no constraints it doesn’t really matter what mechanisms you use to coordinate individual behavior to produce optimal group behavior.

So the process of making markets workable on the court is the process of redeeming any other conceivable form of government. Suddenly it’s trivial that markets are a perfect coordination mechanism in a perfect world.  The real question is which of these mechanisms is the closest to its perfect form in this the real world. Markets are not. In some cases, planned economies like board-driven corporations and coach-driven teams probably are.

Other institutions

What undermines bosshood, what undermines a system of mutual norms, and what undermines markets?  Which assumptions are important to each?  

  • A coach can prescribe behavior from a library of taught plays and habits. If the “thing that is the best to do” changes at a pace that a coach can meaningfully engage with, and if the coached behavior can be executed by players on this time scale, than a coach can prescribe the best behavior and bring the team close to perfect coherence.
  • If players have a common understanding of what kinds of coordinated behavior is the best for what kinds of situations, and they reliably
    and independently come to the same evaluation of the court, than consensual social norms can model perfect coherence satisfactorily.
  • And if every instant on the court is different, and players have a perfect ability to evaluate the state of the court and their own abilities, then an institution that organizes self-interest for the common good will be the one that brings it closest to perfect coherence

Each has problems, each is based on unrealistic assumptions, each makes compromises, and each has its place. But even now the story is still too simple. What if all of those things are true at different points over the course of a game? If the answer is “all of the above,” players should listen to their coach, but also follow the norms established by their teammates, and also pursue their own self-interest. From here, it is easy to see that I am describing the status quo. The complexity of our social institutions must match the complexity of the problems they were designed for. Where that complexity is beyond the bounds that an individual can comprehend, the institutional design should guide them in the right direction. Where that complexity is beyond the bounds of an institution, it should be allowed to evolve beyond the ideological or conceptual boxes we’ve imposed on it.

The closer

Relative to the resource systems we see every day, a sport is a very simple world.  The rules are known, agreed upon by both teams, and enforced closely. The range of possible actions is carefully prescribed and circumscribed, and the skills necessary to thrive are largely established and agreed upon. The people are occupying each position are world-class professionals. So if even basketball is too complicated for any but an impossible braid of coordination mechanisms, why should the real world be any more manageable? And what reasonable person would believe that markets alone are up to the challenge of distributing the world’s limited resources?


It took a year and a half to write this. Thanks to Keith Taylor and Devin McIntire for input.

Breaking the economist’s monopoly on the Tragedy of the Commons.


After taking attention away from economic rationality as a cause of overexploitation of common property, I introduce another more psychological mechanism, better suited to the mundane commons of everyday life. Mundane commons are important because they are one of the few instances of true self-governance in Western society, and thus one of the few training grounds for civic engagement. I argue that the “IAD” principles of the Ostrom Workshop, well-known criteria for self-governance of resource systems, don’t speak only to the very narrow Tragedy of the Commons, but to the more general problem of overexploitation.


The Tragedy of the Commons is the tragedy of good fudge at a crowded potluck. Individual guests each have an incentive to grab a little extra, and the sum of those extra helpings causes the fudge to run out before every guest got their share. For another mundane example, I’ve seen the same with tickets for free shows: I am more likely to request more tickets than I need if I expect the show to be packed.

The Tragedy has been dominated by economists, defined in terms of economic incentives. That is interesting because the Tragedy is just one mechanism for the very general phenomenon of overexploitation. In predatory animal species that are not capable of rational deliberation, population imbalances caused by cycles, introduced species, and overpopulation can cause their prey species to be overexploited. The same holds between infectious agents and their hosts: parasites or viruses may wipe out their hosts and leave themselves nowhere else to spread. These may literally be tragedies of commons, but they have nothing to do with the Tragedy as economists have defined it, and as researchers treat it. In low-cost, routine, or entirely non-economic domains, humans themselves are less likely to be driven by economic incentives. If overexploitation exists in these domains as well, then other mechanisms must be at work.

Economics represents the conceit that human social dynamics are driven by the rational agency that distinguishes us from animals. The Tragedy is a perfect example: Despite the abundance of mechanisms for overexploitation in simple animal populations, overexploitation in human populations is generally treated as the result of individually rational deliberation. But if we are also animals, why add this extra deliberative machinery to explain a behavior that we already have good models for?

I offer an alternative mechanism that may be responsible for engendering overexploitation of a resource in humans. It is rooted in a psychological bias. It may prove the more plausible mechanism in the case of low cost/low value “mundane” commons, where the incentives are too small for rational self-interest to distinguish itself from the noise of other preferences.

This line of thinking was motivated by many years of experience in shared living environments, which offer brownies at potlucks, potlucks generally, dishes in sinks, chores in shared houses, trash in shared yards, book clubs, and any instance where everyday people have disobeyed my culture’s imperative to distribute all resources under a system of private property. The imperative may be Western, or modern, or it may just be that systems of private property are the easiest for large central states to maintain. The defiance of the imperative maybe intentional, accidental, incidental, or as mundane as the resource being shared.

Mundane commons are important for political science, and political life, because they give citizens direct experience with self-governance. And theorists from Alexis de Toqueville to Vincent Ostrom argue that this is the kind of citizen education that democracies must provide if they aren’t going to fall to anarchy on the one side or powerful heads-of-state on the other. People cannot govern themselves without training in governance. I work in this direction because I believe that a culture of healthy mundane commons will foster healthy democratic states.

I don’t believe that the structural mechanisms of economics are those that drive mundane resource failure. This belief comes only from unstructured experience, introspection, and intuition. But those processes have suggested an alternative: the self-serving bias. Self-serving bias, interpreting information in a way that benefits us at the expense of others, is well-established in the decision-making literature.

How could self-serving cause overexploitation? Lets say that it is commonly known that different people have different standards for acceptable harvesting behavior. This is plausible in low-cost/ low-reward environments, where noise and the many weak and idiosyncratic social preferences of a social setting might drown out any effects of the highly-motivated goal-oriented profit-maximizing behavior that economists attend to. I know my own preference for the brownies, but I have uncertainty about the preferences of others for them. If, for every individual, self-serving bias is operating on that uncertainty about the preferences of others, then every person in the group may decide that they like brownies more than the other people, and that their extra serving is both fair and benign.

The result will be the overexploitation that results from the Tragedy of the Commons, and from the outside it maybe indistinguishable from the Tragedy, but the mechanism is completely different. It is an interesting mechanism because it is prosocial: no individual percieves that their actions were selfish or destructive. It predicts resource collapse even among agents who identify as cooperative.

The self-serving bias can help to answer a puzzle in the frameworks developed by the Ostrom Workshop. In their very well-known work, members of the Workshop identified eight principles that are commonly observed in robust common-property regimes. But only one of these, “graduated sanctions,” speaks directly to rational self-interest. The other principles invoke the importance of definitions, of conflict resolution, of democratic representation, and other political and social criteria.

Why are so many of the design principles irrelevant to rational self-interest, the consensus mechanism behind the Tragedy? Because it is not the only cause of overexploitation in self-governing resource distribution systems. The design principles are not merely a solution to the economist’s Tragedy of the Commons, but to the more general problem of overexploitation, with all of the many mechanisms that encourage it. If that is the case, then principles that don’t speak to the Tragedy may still speak to other mechanisms. For my purposes, the most relevant is Design Principle 1, in both of its parts:

1A User boundaries:
Clear boundaries between legitimate users and nonusers must be clearly defined.
1B Resource boundaries:
Clear boundaries are present that define a resource system and separate it from the larger biophysical environment.

By establishing norms, and the common knowledge of norms, this principle may prevent self-serving bias from promoting overexploitation. Norms provide a default preference to fill in for others when their actual preferences are unknown. By removing uncertainty about the preferences of others, the principle leaves participants no uncertainty to interpret in a self-serving manner.

Other psychological processes can cause overexploitation, but the design principles of the Ostrom Workshop are robust to this twist because they weren’t developed by theorizing, but by looking at real resource distribution systems. So even though they define themselves in terms of just one mechanism for overexploitation, they inadvertently guard against more than just that.

The birthplace of Western civilization was killed during the birth of Western civilization.

Deforestation from Classical Period (~1000BCE and on) mettallurgy in the Holy Land dramatically amplified the effects of an otherwise small regional trend towards a warmer and drier climate. Before 10,000 years ago, we were in a different geological and human era and you can’t say too much about civilization. But starting at 10,000 until 2,000 years ago that part of the fertile crescent is known to have been fertile. And from 2,000 years to the present, it has been a desert. On learning about metal, locals supported their furnaces by making the region one that is no longer covered in forests. The authors of the paper below showed that semi-arid climates are particularly vulnerable to the kinds of changes caused by humans. “Water availability” is the important variable for life on the ground. In semi-arid climates, a large change in rainfall actually has little effect on water availability. However, a large change in ground cover (trees) has a huge effect. Trees hold water, in and on themselves, but their biggest role is keeping soil in place. A tablespoon of healthy soil has the surface area of a football field, making soil one of the best ways to keep water in an ecosystem.

This is all from a very academic, but really fascinating interdisciplinary book “Water, Life, and Civilisation.” A bunch of people out of U. of Reading in the UK had a multi-year project to reconstruct ancient climate and habits. They went across disciplines (meteorology, geology, archaeology, paleontology, biology, sociology, geography) and therefore methods (lit reviews and metaanalyses, digging (taking biological samples, cultural samples, building samples, rock samples, water samples, cave samples, and other fieldwork), qualitative fieldwork, policy analysis, computer simulation, model fitting, GIS, carbon dating, isotope dating, and agricultural experiments. They even invented some new methods under the heading of archaeobotany). With these methods you gain amazing insight into the past. The authors can show how bad floods got, that wells dried up, that agriculture was adapted for dry vs. wet climates, and that populations swelled or dwindled.

Focusing on one site, Wadi Faynan in southern Jordan, they show high absorption of water by soil (“infiltration”), less runoff, and less evidence of floods during the early and middle Holocene (12—5 thousand years before present). “This hydrological regime would have provided an ideal niche for the development of early agriculture, providing a predictable, reliable, and perennial groundwater supply, augmented by gentle winter overbank flooding.” By contrast, “During the late Holocene (4, 2 ka BP), the hydrology of the Wadi Faynan was similar to that of today, a consequence of reduced infiltration caused by industrial-scale deforestation to support metallurgical activity.”

They add,

A review of regional and local vegetation histories suggests that major landscape changes have occurred during the Holocene. There appears to be consensus that the early Holocene in the Levant was far more wooded than the present day (Rossignol-Strick, 1999; Roberts, 2002; Hunt et al., 2007), as a consequence of small human populations and prevailing warm, wet climates. Since mid-Holocene times, the combined trends of increasing aridity and human impact upon the landscape have combined to cause deforestation and erosion of soils. In Wadi Faynen, there is clear evidence that Classical period industrial activity would have played a significant role in this process. We propose that these changes would have greatly reduced infiltration rates in Wadi Faynan since the middle Holocene.

This chapter stood out for looking at how humans influenced climate, where all of the others focused on the equally important subject of how climate affected humans. But this was just one fascinating chapter of a fascinating book. A lot of the meteorology and geology was over my head, but using computer simulations calibrated on today and other knowns, and managing their unknowns cleverly, they got a computer model of ancient climate at the regional scale. Using that they got various local models of ancient precipitation. They complimented that guesswork with fieldwork in which they used the sizes of surviving cisterns, dams, gutters, roofs, and other ancient evidence of water management to estimate the amount of rainfall, the extent of floods, the existence of this or that type of sophisticated irrigation, and other details at the intersection of hydrology, archaeology, and technology. They learned about how resource limits constrained human settlements by examining regional patterns in their placement: early and high settlements tended to be near springs while later on they tend to be on the roads to larger cities. They used extra clever carbon and nitrogen dating to learn what the livestock were fed, what the humans were eating, and if a given area had mostly desert or lush plants. They can prove using differences in the bone composition of pigs and goats from the same period that they were raised on different diets. And with almost no evidence from surviving plants or surviving fields they were still able to infer what plants were being cultivated, and by what kind of sophisticated agriculture. Every plant makes microscopic sand crystals and in arid environments, these crystals are the same for plants grown yesterday and plants grown thousands of years ago. Because different plants grow crystals of different shapes, they were able to identify date palms at 1000 years before date palms were thought to have been domesticated. The crystals also shed light on ancient irrigation technology. By growing some grain crops with different kinds of technology and examining the resulting crystals, they showed that the clumpy crystals they were finding in ancient sites could only have come from grain fields with sophisticated irrigation systems.

Altogether, I’m impressed by how much we can know about ancient life and climate when we combine the strengths of different disciplines. I’m also afraid. For me, the natural place to go from here is to Jared Diamond’s Collapse for more examples of how civilisations have followed the resources around the world and then burned them down, and for what we might be able to do about it.

The book was Water, Life, and Civilisation; Climate, Environment, and Society in the Jordan Valley (Steven Mithen and Emily Black Eds.) Cambridge Universiity Press International Hydrology Series. The chapter I focused on was number fifteen:
Sean Smith, Andrew Wade, Emily Black, David Brayshaw, Claire Rambeau, and Steven Mithen (2011) “From global climate change to local impact in Wadi Faynan, southern Jordan: ten millenia or human settlement in its hydrological context.”

The fall of cybernetics in anthropology, with citations

I’m reading an ethnobotanical ethnography of the Huastec or “Teenek” Mayans. Its a big fat impressive monograph published by Janis B. Alcorn in 1984. Here is a passage suggesting that cybernetics had come and gone from anthropology by 1980. The criticism focused on the restriction of early cybernetics modeling to closed systems. The attack is well-targeted and well-cited, pointing to a bunch of lit I hope to check out at some point.

Ethnobotanical interactions occur in an open dynamic ecosystem of natural and social components. The closed cybernetics systems once used to descrbie natural and social systems have been criticised as inadequate representations of reality (Bennett, 1976; Connell, 1978; Ellen, 1979; Friedman 1979; Futuyma, 1979; and others). Although feedback has an important stabalizing effect, other non-feedback factors operate to influence the Teenek ecosystem and the directions of its development. The friction of opposing tendencies and the introduction of new variables (themselves often the products of other internal and external processes) create a dynamic ecosystem in non-equilibrium, evolving in ways shaped by its past and its present. Less than optimal adaptations may exist because of quirks of history and available variability. But, at the very least, suboptimal adaptations are not so maladaptive as to become unbearable “load.” Evolution often proceeds along a path of trade-offs in the midst of conflict.

Besides pointing out that no useful model is an adequate representation of reality, I think its worth asserting that the closed systems of cybernetics were not an ideological commitment but an assumption of convenience that the founders hoped to be able to break one day. I’m really only speaking to the first sentence or two, I didn’t totally get the bridge from cybernetics to the picture of trade-offs. Of course my role isn’t to defend cybernetics, I’ve got my own problems with it. But I’m always interested in problems that others have faced with influential theories. Here are those citations in full:

  • Bennett, C. F. 1976. The Ecological Transition: Cultural Anthropology and Human Adaptation. Pergamon Press, New York.
  • Connell, J. H. 1980. High diversity in tropical rain forests and coral reefs. Science 199:1302:1310.
  • Ellen, R. F. 1979. Sago subsistence and the trade in spices. IN Burnham, P. and R. F. Ellen (eds.) Social and Ecological Systems, Academic Press, New York.
  • Friedman, J. 1979. Hegelian ecology. IN Burnham, P. and R. F. Ellen (eds.) Social and Ecological Systems, Academic Press, New York.
  • Futuyma, D. J. 1979 Evolutionary Biology. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, Massachusetts.

As a bonus, here are some fun bits from the glossary:
boliim – a large (25 cm. x 25 cm. x 10 cm.) square tamale-like ceremonial food prepared by placing an entire uncooked chicken or turkey, large chunks of meat, or a pig’s head on a flattened piece of masa dough, dribbling a thickened red chili sauce over the meat, wrapping the dough around the meat, and then wrapping the whole thing in banana or Heliconia schiedeana leaves and steaming it in a large earthen vessel for several hours. (Boliim are referred to elsewhere as “large tamales”)
Boo’waat – tranvestite male apparition.
ichich – illness caused by the heart of an older or more powerful person sapping strength from a more vulnerable heart leaving the person weak; in infants characterized by green diarrhea.
theben – weasel who climbs under the clothing of a curer-to-be as he walks down a path, tickles him/her until he/she falls unconscious, and the piles shoots of medicinal plants around him/her.
tepa’ – a person who flies over long distances repidly to steal from the rich, seen as a bright streak in the night sky.
te’eth k’al a iits’ – bitten by the moon; painful, swollon, purulent fingertips caused by pointing at the moon.
ts-itsiimbe – condition of suffering from an imposed spirit caused by spirit, human, or bird agent (usually following loss of patient’s own spirit); symptoms include midday drowsiness, poor appetite, and bad temper (occasionally equated with mestiso folk illnesses “tiricia,” “avecil,” or “mollera”)
walelaab – evil eye

What big titty b****** taught me about institution design

wifibigtittybitchesIn institutional economics, there are four main kinds of resource, classified by whether they are limited (yes or no) and whether you can keep others from using them (yes or no). Now everyone who uses these categories knows that they are fuzzy, and full of exceptions. They can vary in degree, by context, and in time. WiFi gives us a beautiful example of how technology (and defaults) can change the nature of a resource. These days, early 2013, wireless routers come password-protected out of the box, and they come initialized with unique hard-to-crack passwords. That wasn’t the case in the early 2000s, when routers either came unlocked by default or locked with an easy-to-find default password. In those days, wifi was a common-pool resource in that it was limited (only so much bandwidth) and you couldn’t keep others out of it by default. You needed special knowledge to create a proper password and turn your wireless into the private good (still limited, but excludable) that you get out of the box today.

The point about technology has been made. Governing the Commons contains a history of roundups in the Western US, showing how the invention of barbed wire turned the large cattle herds from a managed common-pool resource into a private (excludable) good. The WiFi example adds the influence of defaults, which makes it a bit more interesting, since we see a case in which the flip of a switch can change the nature of a good, and we see how, given the choice, society has chosen private property over common property over the past ten years.

But there is another facet to the WiFi resource. Another feature that comes default is the broadcast SSID, or the name of your wifi. These are often informative, but they can also be impressively inappropriate. Trying to steal wireless on the road, you can be driving around a beautiful peaceful thoroughly-family-looking neighborhood and stumble upon all kinds of sinister things in the air.

What kind of resource is the NSFW SSID? Well, lets be square and say that its a bad rather than a good. Its non-subtractable because unlike bandwidth my reading it doesn’t interfere with your reading it. Its common. By all that, NSFW SSID’s are a public bad, pollution. And what is interesting about all this is that a resource can be anything, even the name of an interesting resource can be an interesting resource, one that gets managed by norms and rules, and one that channels all the complexity of human society.

Percentile listings for ten Go and Chess Federations and their systems

I spent way too long trying to find percentile ranks for FIDE ELO scores (international professional chess players). Percentiles exists for USCF (USA-ranked Chess players; http://archive.uschess.org/ratings/ratedist.php) but not FIDE, which is different, and worth knowing, and worth being able to map. So I just did it myself. In the process I got percentile equivalences for many other systems and game Federations. I used this data: http://ratings.fide.com/download.phtml
and got the percentiles in the far right hand column.

Disclaimer: I pulled some tricks, this is all approximate, there are translations of translations of equivalences, but this is what we’ve got. Everyone who has pulled any of these numbers knows that they don’t really mean what they say as precisely as they aspire to mean what they say. Also, don’t interpret these as equivalences, for example, FIDE is more professional than USCF, so the worst players in it are way way better than the worst in USCF.

AGA KGS USCF EGF UCSF2 EGF kyu/dan  Korean kyu/dan  Japan kyu/dan  A(ussie)CF  FIDE
1% -34.61 -24.26 444 100 20 k 22k  17+ k 100 1319
2% -32.58 -22.3 531 100 20 k 22 k 17+ k 200 1385
5% -27.69 -19.2 663 153 100 20 k 22 k 17 k 300 1494
10% -23.47 -15.36 793 456 16 k 18 k 13 k 600 1596
20% -18.54 -11.26 964 953 500 12 k 13 k 9 k 900 1723
30% -13.91 -8.94 1122 1200 9 k 10 k 6 k 1100 1815
40% -9.9 -7.18 1269 1387 7 k 8 k 4 k 1300 1890
50% -7.1 -5.65 1411 1557 1000 6 k 7 k 3 k 1400 1958
60% -4.59 -4.19 1538 1709 4 k 5 k 1 k 1500 2021
70% -1.85 -2.73 1667 1884 3 k 4 k 1 d 1600 2081
80% 2.1 -1.28 1807 2039 1500 1 k 2 k 3 d 1800 2147
90% 4.71 2.52 1990 2217 1800 2 d 1 d 4 d 1900 2236
95% 6.12 3.88 2124 2339 1900 3 d 2 d 5 d 2100 2308
98% 7.41 5.29 2265 2460 2100 4 d 3 d 5 d 2200 2398
99% 8.15 6.09 2357 2536 2200 5 d 4 d 6 d 2300 2454
99.50% 8.7 7.2 2470 2604 2300 6 d 5 d 6 d 2400 2516
99.90% 9.64 pro 2643 2747 2500 3p 2500 2625
top 10.12 9p 2789 2809 2700 5p
source 1 1 1 1 2 3 4 4 5 me, with 6

All useful links while I was doing this:

  • http://senseis.xmp.net/?FIDETitlesAndEGFGoRatings
  • http://senseis.xmp.net/?RatingHistogramComparisons
  • http://senseis.xmp.net/?FIDETitlesAndEGFGoRatings
  • http://senseis.xmp.net/?EloRating
  • http://senseis.xmp.net/?GoR
  • http://senseis.xmp.net/?topic=2550 (very bottom)
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_ranks_and_ratings
  • http://www.europeangodatabase.eu/EGD/EGF_rating_system.php
  • http://ratings.fide.com/download.phtml
  • http://senseis.xmp.net/?RankWorldwideComparison

Another note: ELO is a “rating,” while dan/kyu is a “ranking.”

Political use of the rhetoric of complex systems

I’m excited about the field called “complex systems” because it reflects of best of science’s inherent humility: everything affects everything, and we oughtn’t pretend that we know what we’re doing. I think of that as a responsible perspective, and I think it protects science from being abused (or being an abuser) in the sociopolitical sphere. So imagine my surprise to discover that the “everything affects everything” rhetoric of complex systems, ecology, and cybernetics was leveraged by tobacco companies in the 1990s to take attention away from second-hand smoke in office health investigations. Second-hand smoke wasn’t causing sickness, the hard-to-pin-down “sick building syndrome” was. For your reading pleasure, I’ve pulled a lot of text from “Sick building syndrome and the problem of uncertainty,” by Michelle Murphy. I’ve focused on Chapter 6, “Building ecologies, tobacco, and the politics of multiplicity.” Thanks to Isaac.

The meat of the chapter is pp. 146-148, and on a bit:

In the 1980s, the largest building investigation company was healthy Buildings Internations (HBI), located in Fairax, Virginia. HBI had been a modest ventilation cleaning service called ACVA Atlantic until the Tobacco Institute, an industry lobby group, contacted its president, Gray Robertson 46. Tobacco companies hoped to thwart the regulation of secondhand smoke in workspaces, restaurants, bars, and public spaces. Sick building syndrome appealed to the Tobacco Institute because it drew attention to the multiple causes of indoor pollution. Only a few cases of SBS had been attributed to tobacco smoke, a fact that Robertson, HBI, and the literature sponsored by the Tobacco Institute emphasized over and over 47. Soon the Tobacco Institute and Philip Morris were building a database together on sick building syndrome cases, collecting a literature review, and contacting sympathetic indoor air quality experts who could spread news of sick building syndrome. In 1988, five big tobacco companies found the nonprofit Center for Indoor Air Research (CIAR), which quickly became the largest nongovernmental source of funding for indoor air pollution studies.

Robertson, with a monthly retainer from the Tobacco Institute, began to underbid other companies for lucrative building investigation contracts in the Washington area–the US Capitol, the CIA headquarters, the Supreme Court, as well as corporate buildings on the East Coast such as the offices of IBM, MCI WorldCom, and Union Carbide. 49. Underwritten by Philip Morris, HBI expanded its scope by publishing a free glossy magazine that distributed over three-hundred thousand copies in multiple languages 50.

While Robertson was promoting sick building syndrome on the road, his company continued collecting data that later became tobacco industry evidence demonstrating that secondhand smoke —— unlike other culprits such as fungi, dust, humidity, bacteria, and formaldehyde —— was rarely a problem in buildings 54. His testimony before city councils, in court cases, and at federal hearings was pivotal to the tobacco industry’s case that secondhand smoke was not a substantive indoor pollutant and thus not in need of regulation 55.

the effort was so successful that the Tobacco Institute launched similar promotions of SBS in Canada, Hong Kong, and Venezuela.

Healthy Buildings International was not the only building investigation company wooed by the tobacco industry, nor was the Tobacco Institute the only industry association invested in derailing possible regulation of indoor pollution 60. The Business Council on Indoor Air, founded in 1988, represented industry sponsors such as Dow Chemical and Owens-Corning at fifteen thousand dollars for board membership. It too promoted a “building systems approach” 61. In addition, the Tobacco Industry Labor/Management Committee developed a presentation on indoor pollution for unions, creating a coast-to-coast roadshow that ran from 1988 to 1990 62. Conferences, professional associations, and particularly newsletters proliferated in which industry sponsored experts rubbed elbows with independent building investigators.

The appeal of sick building syndrome was that pollution and its effects could be materialized in a way impossible to regulate —— as an unpredictable multiplicity. “Virtually every indoor decoration, building material or piece of furniture sheds some type of gaseous or particulate pollutant,” testified Robertson 63. In its manual for building managers, the EPA warned that indoor pollution was “the product of multiple influences, and attempts to bring problems under control do not always produce the expected results” 64. Managing complex relationships among many “factors” and “symptoms” replaced a “naive,” “single-minded,” and even “dangerous” attention to specific pollutants.

and last,

The implication is that multiplicity was not a quality that could be simply celebrated for its eschewing of reductionism and embracing of diversity. Materializing an object as a multiplicity allowed historical actors to do concrete things about chemical exposure; at the same time, it disallowed and excluded other actions. It was precisely this capacity to exclude specific causal narratives and affirm ambiguity that made ecology and multiplicity such powerful ways to manage the physical corridors of capitalism. p.150

All this comes with interpretation. Murphy takes ecology and cybernetics to be fundamentally “establishment.” She documents the affection of management rhetoric for ecological and cybernetic concepts, but she goes further, citing Eugene Odum’s declaration of ecosystems ecology as “a new managerial ethos for society” (p.134). Then she moves into buildings, the business of buildings, the rhetoric of buildings as living things, wrapping up with research on the idea of questionnaires.

Throughout the book the author rocks a latent hostility to these concepts and also to criticisms of them. The author pulls the same trick with sick building syndrome itself: criticizing the establishment for not recognizing it as a disease, but also criticizing the people who suffer from it because they are too privileged to have actual problems. I guess that’s why they call it critical theory, but I can’t help but feel like critical theorists do it as a hyperdefensive maneuver to avoid being vulnerable in front of their own peers. So I did find myself reading past her writing for the content, but there is a lot of that. She collected a ton of evidence, and its an impressive case in showing that everything has got politics.

Here are all of the citations, copied straight out of the footnotes.

46 Myron Levin, “Who’s Behind the Building Doctor?”; Mintz, “Smoke Screen.”
47. Using its own building investigations as the data, HBI often cited its estimate that tobacco smoke played a role in 3% of SBS cases. However, this obscures incidents when tobacco smoke might have been named as an irritant unassociated with any larger SBS episode.
48. The CIAR was disbanded in 1998 as part of the Master Settlement Agreement.
49. On the sponsorship of Robertson, see Mintz, “Smoke Screen.” For a list of buildings the firm investigated, see References, Healthy Buildings Internationsl, Web site, http://www.hbiamerica.com/references/index.htm (accessed Nov. 19, 2003).
50 Myron Levin, “Who’s Behind the Building Doctor?”; Mintz, “Smoke Screen.”
51. Healthy Buildings International, “Sick Building Syndrome Causes and Cures,” 1991. Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, Philip Morris Collection, Bates No. 2022889303-9324, http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/hpc78e00 (accessed Nov. 27, 2003).
52. “Business Council on Indoor Air: A Multi-industry Response,” 6.
53. Gra Roberston, Healthy Buidings International, Sick Building Syndrome—Facts and Fallacies, Obt. 23, 1991, Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, R. J. Reynolds, Bates No. 509915547-5568, http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/qbr63d00. Recent Advances in Tobacco Science, v. 17. Topics of Current Scientific Interest in Tobacco Research, Proceedings of a Symposium Presented at the Forty-Fifth Meeting of the Tobacco Chemists’ Research Conference (accessed Nov. 27, 2003): 151-52.
54. Healthy Buildings International, “HBI Experience.”
55. HBI’s relationship with the tobacco industry was revealed in 1992 when a fired employee turn whistle-blower. By 1998 the Master Settlement Agreement, a settlement between the U.S. state attorneys general and major tobacco companies, along with the Tobacco Institute, mandated that the industry release digital snapshots of millions of pages of internal documents, which have since demonstrated the industry’s support of indoor air s quality research and investigators, establishing ties not only with Rboertson but a host of other indoor air quality specialists.
56. U.s> Environemtnal Prote tionAgentcy, “Indoor Air Facts.” Much of the credit for the successful publication of this pamphlet is due to James Repace, a senior EPA scientist, whistle-cloer, and active NFEE union member, who widely published his rebuttals to the tobacco industry. On the EPA’s building assessment approach, see U.S. Envionmental Protection Agency and National Instutute of Occupational Safety and Health, “Building Air Quality.”
57. Healthy Buildings International, “About Us,” http://www.hbiamerica.com/aboutus/index.htm (accessed Nov. 11, 2003).
58. Ibid.
59. Gray Robertson, “Sick Building Syndrome,” Nov. 18, 1987. Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, Philip Morris Collection, Bates No. 2061692010-2012, http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/pjf49e00 (accessed Nov. 27, 2003).
60. See, e.g., the role of tobacco industry representatives within ASHRAE; Glantz and Bialous, “ASHRAE Standard 62.”
61. Business Council on Indoor Air, “Indoor Air Quality: A Public Healthy Issue in the 1990s; How Will It Affect Your Company?,” undated brochure, received on April 11, 1996, and “Building Systems Approach.”
62. “Labor Indoor Air Quality Presentations and Events,” Jan 1990, Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, Tobacco Institute, Bates No. TI02120328-0338, http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/wht30c00 (accessed Nov. 23, 2003).
63. “Investigating the ‘Sick Building Syndrome’:ETS in Context,” statement of Gray Robertson, president, ACVA Atlantic, Inc., before the National Academy of Sciences Concerning the Contribution of Environmental Tobacco Smoke to Indoor Air Pollution, Jan. 14, 1986, Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, Philip Morris Collection, Bates No. 2021005103-5125, http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/epj34e00 (accessed Nov. 27, 2003) 7.
64. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, “Building Air Quality,” x.
65. Robertson, “Investigating the ‘Sick Building Syndrome’,” 21.

And, as an extra snippet, Here is an excerpt bringing ecology in:

… moreover, the healthfulness of buildings was of deep interest to a selection of industries and their associations, most particularly the chemical, carpet, and tobacco industries. Ecology proved a very useful frame to this set of financially driven actors, each of which brought distinct motivation to the materialization of sick building syndrome. Ecology gave a framework for affirming the nonspecific and multiplous quality of sick building syndrome that was especially appealing to the tobacco industry, which actively resisted regulation. This chapter concludes that the concept of sick building syndrome achieved the prominence it did in the last two decades of the twentieth century largely because of the tobacco industry’s efforts to promote an ecological and systems approach to indoor pollution
Sick building syndrome would have looked very different without the cybernetically inflected ecology of the 1970s. ‘Ecology’ was a word used to describe both a field of study (the scientific discipline of ecology) and an object of study (ecologies that existed in the world). Systems ecology took as its primary focus the study of the abstract patterns of relations between the organic and inorganic elements of a system. An emphasis on the management of the system, on the regulation of its flows, relationships, and second-order consequences, made systems ecology enormously attractive as a management ideology for business. This chapter traces how ecology was used to grant a complex, fluid, and multi causal form to business practices, building systems, and finally to sick building syndrome itself. The foregrounding of relationships defined by contingencies made ecological explanations extremely useful for assembling accounts that did not lay blame for indoor pollution on any one thing. p. 132

A list of human universals

This is a list of some of the things that pretty much all cultures have in common. It is drawn from Steven Pinker’s Language Instinct (pp. 413-415), citing anthropologist Donald Brown:

Value placed on articulateness. Gossip. Lying. Misleading. Verbal humor. Humorous insults. Poetic and rhetorical speech forms. Narrative and storytelling. Metaphor. Poetry with repetition of linguistic elements and three-second lines separated by pauses. Words for days, months, seasons, years, past, present, future, body parts, inner states (emotions, sensations, thoughts), behavioral propensities, flora, fauna, weather, tools, space, motion, speed, location, spatial dimensions, physical properties, giving, lending, affecting things and people, numbers (at the very least “one,” “two,” and “more than two”), proper names, possession. Distinctions between mother and father. Kinship categories, defined in terms of mother, father, son, daughter, and age sequence. Binary distinctions, including male and female, black and white, natural and cultural, good and bad. Measures. Logical relations including “not,” “and,” “same,” “equivalent,” “opposite,” general versus particular, part versus whole. Conjectural reasoning (inferring the presence of absent and invisible entities from their perceptible traces).

Nonlinguistic vocal communication such as cries and squeals. Interpreting intention from behavior. Recognized facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt. Use of smiles as a friendly greeting. Crying. Coy flirtation with the eyes. Masking, modifying, and mimicking facial expressions. Displays of affection.

Sense of self versus other, responsibility, voluntary versus involuntary behavior, intention, private inner life, normal versus abnormal mental states. Empathy. Sexual attraction. Powerful sexual jealousy. Childhood fears, especially of loud noises, and, at the end of the first year, strangers. Fear of snakes. “Oedipal” feelings (possessiveness of mother, coolness toward her consort). Face recognition. Adornment of bodies and arrangement of hair. Sexual attractiveness, based in part on signs of health and, in women, youth. Hygiene. Dance. Music. Play, including play fighting.

Manufacture of, and dependence upon, many kinds of tools, many of them permanent, made according to culturally transmitted motifs, including cutters, pounders, containers, string, levers, spears. Use of fire to cook food and for other purposes. Drugs, both medicinal and recreational. Shelter. Decoration of artifacts.

A standard pattern and time for weaning. Living in groups, which claim a territory and have a sense of being a distinct people. Families built a round a mother and children, usually the biological mother, and one or more men. Institutionalized marriage, in the sense of publicly recognized right of sexual access to a woman eligible for childbearing. Socialization of children (including toilet training) by senior kin. Children copying their elders. Distinguishing of close kin from distant kin, and favoring of close kin. Avoidance of incest between mothers and sons. Great interest in the topic of sex.

Status and prestige, both assigned (by kinship, age, sex) and achieved. Some degree of economic inequality. Division of labor by sex and age. More childcare by women. More aggression and violence by men. Acknowledgment of differences between male and female natures. Domination by men in the public political sphere. Exchange of labor, goods, and services. Reciprocity, including retaliation. Gifts.

Social reasoning. Coalitions. Government, in the sense of binding collective decisions about public affairs. Leaders, almost always nondictatorial, perhaps ephemeral. Laws, rights, and obligations, including laws against violence, rape, and murder. Punishment. Conflict, which is deplored. Rape. Seeking of redress for wrongs. Mediation. In-group/out-group conflicts. Property. Inheritance of property. Sense of right and wrong. Envy.

Etiquette. Hospitality. Feasting. Diurnality. Standards of sexual modesty. Sex generally in private. Fondness for sweets. Food taboos. Discreetness in elimination of body wastes. Supernatural beliefs. Magic to sustain and increase life, and to attract the opposite sex. Theories of fortune and misfortune. Explanations of disease and death. Medicine. Rituals, including rites

If that isn’t enough for you, try:
J. Henrich, S. J. Heine, A. Norenzayan, The weirdest people in the world?, Behavioral and brain sciences 33, 61–83 (2010). * It pitches itself as rejecting universality, but in the process presents the best review of robust similarities that I’ve found.

The free market: Burning man’s less successful social experiment

Burning Man is a big classic successful event sort of thing out in a Nevada desert. It has been getting more and more popular, but there is only room for 40,000 people. So what’s the best way to distribute 40,000 tickets among 80,000 people fairly and efficiently? They’ve always done it one way, but as demand grows, they’ve been feeling pressure for a new system.

This year they changed to an entirely new market-based system. They created a brand new social system designed from the top-down from scratch. That last clause should give you a hint that I’m not going to like it, and that I’m going to criticize it for not taking into account important things like reality. If you know me well enough, you might even suspect that this will get into libertarians.

The new system introduced a small variety of bidding and market mechanisms, all at once. The central mechanism made it so people could enter one of three lotteries at three prices: $245, $325, and $four-something (uhh $390)). It was probably designed to make a certain target amount of money.

Wait a second: wild finger-painted feather-boa’d dusty creative hippie types using the inspirations of the free market? What’s going on? Here’s my theory: Burning Man creates Burning Man enthusiasts, some of whom may be drug enthusiasts, most of whom are enthusiastic for legalization, some of whom lean towards deregulation generally which at this point makes one vulnerable to crazy things like the Libertarian myopia for market distribution. That’s my theory: the whole thing smacks of drug-addled libertarians. Their devotion to markets is very idealistic, where “idealistic” is a nice way of saying ignorant of complexity. Just to spell it out.

What could go wrong? They’re actually still not sure what went wrong. (Scalpers! Hackers! Scalpers! The Masses!).

Following phone conversations with major theme camp and art group organizers, we determined that only 20%-25% of the key people needed to bring those projects to the playa had received notifications for tickets. A number of people also told us they’d used multiple credit cards and asked friends to register for them as a way to increase their chances of getting tickets. Those who received more tickets than they need said they are considering how to redistribute them.


As a result they are probably going to over-correct and hand-pick the people to offer their remaining tickets to, a move akin to wealth redistribution, very “non-free.”

Generally, our fine notions about society are wrong. Unintended consequences are a fact of any change to an existing institution. Sometimes they matter, and they are more likely to matter the bigger the change. So what to do? Evolution gives you one nice model: cope with the incomprehensible complexity of existence with diversity and incremental changes. My favorite thing about markets isn’t their ability to crush collusion and find equilibrium, but their ability to mimic the mutation, selection, and reproduction characteristic of effective search through complex spaces, but even that isn’t everything.