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/

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.

Simple heuristic for breaking pills in half

I have to give my son dramamine on road trips, but only half a pill. That’s been a bit tricky. Even scored pills don’t always break cleanly, and then what do you do? Break it again? Actually yes. I did a simple simulation to show how you can increase your chances of breaking a pill into two half-sized portions by 15-20% (e.g. from 70% to about 85%):
1. Try to break the pill in half.
2. If you succeed, great, if not, try to break each half in half.
3. Between your four resulting fragments, some pair of them has its own probability of adding up to half a pill, plus or minus.

Honestly I thought it would work better. This is the value of modeling.

If after a bad break from one to two pieces you break again to four pieces, you will end up with six possible combinations of the four fragments. Some of these are equivalent so all together going to four pieces amounts to creating two more chances to create a combination that adds to 50%. And it works: your chances go up. This is simple and effective. But not incredibly effective. I thought it would increase your chances of a match by 50% or more, but the benefit is closer to 15-20%. So it’s worth doing, but not a solution to the problem. Of course, after a second round of splitting you can keep splitting and continue the gambit. In the limit, you’ve reduced the pill to a powder whose grains can add to precisely 50% in uncountable numbers of combinations, but that’s a bit unwieldy for road trip dramamine. For the record, pill splitters are also too unwieldy for a roadtrip, but maybe they’re worth considering if my heuristic only provides a marginal improvement.

The code:
Here is the simulation. Parameters: I allowed anything within 10% of half of a pill to be “close enough”, so anything in the 40% to 60% range counts. Intention and skill make the distribution of splits non-uniform, so I used a truncated normal with standard deviation set to a 70% chance of splitting the pill well on the first try.

inc_1st <- 0
inc_2nd <- 0
tol <- 0.1
for (i in 1:100 ) {
  #a <- runif(1)
  a <- rtruncnorm(1, a=0, b=1, mean=0.5, sd=0.5^3.3)
  b <- 1 - a
  if ( a > (0.5 - tol) & a < (0.5 + tol)) {
    inc_1st <- inc_1st + 1
  } else {
    #aa <- runif(1, 0, a)
    aa <- rtruncnorm(1, a=0, b=a, mean=a/2, sd=(a*2)^3.3)
    ab <- a - aa
    #ba <- runif(1, 0, b)
    ba <- rtruncnorm(1, a=0, b=b, mean=b/2, sd=(b*2)^3.3)
    bb <- b - ba
    totals <- c(aa+ba, aa+bb)
    if (any( totals > (0.5 - tol) & totals < (0.5 + tol)) ) {
      inc_2nd <- inc_2nd + 1
    } else {

#if you only have a 20% chance of getting it right with one break, you have a 50% chance by following the strategy
#if you only have a 30% chance of getting it right with one break, you have a 60% chance by following the strategy
#if you only have a 60% chance of getting it right with one break, you have a 80% chance by following the strategy
#if you only have a 70% chance of getting it right with one break, you have a 85% chance by following the strategy

print(inc_1st + inc_2nd)

How to order a coffee in the minefield of preexisting categories

There are mostly useless of bits of cognitive psychology that I’ve always loved. For example, a lot of categorization research about life on the edge of what objects are what. How flat can a bowl be before it’s a plate? How narrow can a mug be before it’s a cup? How big can a cup be before it’s a bowl? Can it have a handle and not be a cup? When does too much handle make it a spoon? These are questions that can be used to create little microcosms for the study of things like culture, learning, expectations, and all kinds of complexities around the kinds of traits we’re surprisingly sensitive to.

Again, I haven’t found much of it very useful, until recently, trying to order my coffee just the way I like it, I’ve encountered all kinds of unexpected roadblocks. The problem is that my drink doesn’t have a name, and is very close to several drinks that do, each of which comes with it’s own traits and customs and baggage. As a result, I’ve learned that when I’m not careful my drink gets sucked up semantically into the space of its bossy neighbors. The way I like my coffee is close-ish to ways coffee is already commonly served, but different in some important ways that can be very tough to get into a kindly, but overworked barrista’s busy head. Being in a non-category, close to existing ones, means that the meaning of my order has to avoid the semantic basin of other more familiar drinks in endlessly surprising and confounding ways.

To make it concrete, here’s how I like my coffee: double shot of espresso with hot water and cold heavy cream in a roughly 4 to 3 to 2 ratio. For some reason the drink just isn’t as good with too much more or less water, or half and half instead of cream, or steamed or whipped cream instead of liquid. A long-drawn shot isn’t as good as a short shot with hot water added, even though that’s almost the definition of a long shot. I don’t know why or how, but this all matters, so I try to get exactly that. I could just order it how I like it, “double shot of espresso with hot water and cold heavy cream in a roughly 4 to 3 to 2 ratio”, but I’m trying to do a few things at once:
* Keep it concise
* Get what I want
* Not be “that guy”
* And find the ask that will work on anyone: I go to a lot of different coffee shops, and I want a way to ask for this that anyone can hear and produce the same thing.

“Double shot of espresso with water and heavy cream in a roughly 4 to 3 to 2 ratio”
fails on both concise and sparing me from being that guy. Fortunately there are a lot of ways of asking for what I want. Fascinatingly, they all fail in interesting ways:

“Give me a double Americano with less water and heavy cream”
The major nearest neighbor to what I want is the Americano. So it makes sense to use that as a shortcut, by giving directions to my drink from the Americano landmark. Seems straightforward, but Americano, it turns out, is a bossy category, and asking for it asks for a surprising lot of its unexpected baggage as well. Mainly the amount of water. In the US at least, the ratio of coffee to water is often 10:1. Just asking for “less” tends to get me 5:1 or 8:1, meaning there is still several times more water than coffee. No matter how I ask there’s always at least twice as much.

Another bit of the Americano’s baggage is that it’s pretty commonly taken with half and half, meaning that even when I ask for heavy cream, it’s very common for me to end up with half and half, probably due to muscle memory alone. And you can’t ask for “cream,” you have to ask for “heavy cream,” or you’ll almost always get half-and-half.

“Give me a short double Americano with heavy cream”
This should work and it just doesn’t. Something about the word Americano coming out of my mouth means that I’ll get 2 or 5 or 10 times more water than coffee, no matter how I ask.

“Give me a double Americano with very little water and also heavy cream”
Same deal. Simply doesn’t work.

And all of these problems get worse depending who got the order. Your chances are actually OK if you’re talking to the person who will make the drink. But if you’re talking to a cashier who will then communicate, verbally, in writing, or through a computer, to the person who makes your drink, then the regularizing function of language almost guarantees that your drink will be passed on as a normal Americano. The lossy game of telephone loves a good semantic attractor.

“Give me a double Americano with heavy cream in an 8oz cup”
They’ll usually still add too much water, and just not have room for more than a drop or two of cream. This order also gets dangerously close to making me that guy.

“Give me a double espresso with hot water and heavy cream”
With all the Americano trouble I eventually learned to back further away from the Americano basin and closer to my drink’s even bigger, but somehow less assumption laden neighbor, Espresso. Somehow, with this order and the refinement below I end up with what I wanted more often than not. I wish I could say that this obviously works better. It works better, but it’s still not obvious. And it still goes wrong regularly, and still occasionally in strange and new ways. The most impressive is when the barrista mentally translates “espresso with water” to “americano,” pulling me fully back into the first basin, and back into all of the traps above. Less commmonly they’ll mentally translate “espresso with cream” into macchiato or breve and steam the cream. This means that some categories are distorting my drink even when I’m in neighboring categories. They have that much gravity.

“Give me a double espresso with hot water and heavy cream; not an Americano, just a bit of water”
Fails on concision, and definitely makes me that guy.

“Give me equal parts espresso (a double), hot water, and heavy cream”
I came up with this to get out of the Americano trap elegantly, and it works pretty well. It shouldn’t because I actually like a bit less cream than water, and less of both than coffee (4:3:2, not 4:4:4), but the strength of the Americano attractor ends up working in my favor: the temptation to add less cream than anything means that they’ll tend to subconsciously ignore me and put the right amount of cream. But they’re also likely to still put more water than coffee. And another common failure occurs when I actually get taken literally and get equal proportions. That results in way too much cream, and I can’t complain because it’s literally what I asked for. It’s one of the more confounding failures because I can only blame myself.

“Give me a double espresso with equal parts hot water and heavy cream”
A little variation on the above, that also depends on the subconscious strength of the Americano trap. Less concise, but overall more effective.
Again, I really want 4:3:2, not 1:1:1, but it’s happened before that a subconscious understanding leads a barista to give me more water than cream. The most common failure, again, is when I’m taken literally and get equal proportions (too much) cream. The most hilarious failure was a barrista who listened perfectly but Also fell into the Americano trap (“espresso + water = Americano”). I ended up with 2 parts espresso, 10 parts water, and 10 parts heavy cream. You literally couldn’t taste any coffee. Who would even do that? It was like drinking watery melted butter. Totally absurd. I was too impressed to be annoyed.

“Italiano with heavy cream”
This really would be the winner, certainly on concision, except nobody knows what an Italiano is. It’s an espresso with a tiny amount of water added—perfect—so in humans with this category in their head it’s perfect, because the work has already been done carving these traits out of the Americano basin. The problem is universality: this fine category only exists in a small subset of heads. Somehow it’s the rare barrista that’s heard of an Italiano. What I could do is ask for it, and if they don’t know what it is, explain it. Something new having a word is more powerful at overcoming the Americano trap than something new not having its own word. But you really can’t get more “That Guy” than explaining to barristas obscure coffee drinks.

“Give me a cafe con panna with a bit of hot water”
Literally, this is just what I want, panna=cream, but in practice panna is understood as whipped cream and there’s not a concise way to specify liquid.

“Espresso with heavy cream”
If you just don’t mention water at all, a lot of confusion disappears. I don’t get what I want but it’s close and concise and easy and universal. Except, I should have mentioned this sooner, a lot of places don’t even have heavy cream, just half and half. Totally different thing.

“Espresso with heavy cream … … Oh! Also, could you add a bit of hot water?”
Affected afterthought aside, this works pretty water. Asking for water after cream is a good signal to not add very much. But it’s kind of a pain for everyone, and this only works at a place once before it starts coming off as inauthentic. You can’t ask the cashier, you have to ask the person making the drink, or it’ll get lost in translation and you’ll get an Americano.

“I’d like a coffee please”
This really fails on being what I want, but succeeds on so many other dimensions that, well, sometimes I’ll just give up and do this.

A note about half-and-half. Half-and-half is supposedly equal parts milk and heavy cream. I say supposedly because, well, try this: order two drinks, one espresso that you drown in half-and-half (equal parts of each) and one espresso “with a bit of milk and heavy cream” (2:1:1). They should be identical (both are two parts espresso, one part milk, one heavy cream) but you’ll find them to be very different. Half-and-half is very much its own thing.

OK, what was this pointless madness? Here’s the idea. Think of every drink as a point on the axes of coffee, water, cream, milk, half-and-half, foam, sugar, whatever. Now carve up that space. Americano gets a big space. What happens if you’re in it is that your coordinates get distorted, maybe toward the middle, of whatever space you’re in. Not just that, but points near the boundary, but outside of it, get sucked in. Something about human meaning makes it so that the act of carving a state space into a semantic regions distorts it and moves it around. By understanding these processes, and how they work, how to correct for them or even exploit them, we not only get bettter at meaning and its games, but, in the case of a nameless, obscure, specific and disregarded form of coffee, get what we want despite everything.

A strong identity is no defense against hypocrisy (a good offense is a bad defense)

Take a look at these five people, and see what they have in common

  • The young contrarian so repulsed by his lefty friends’ sheeple-ness that he becomes a reactionary, only to become an ideologue himself.
  • The brave young hipster who has called himself a feminist for so long that everyone is blind to his violence against women, including himself
  • The pastor whose consuming identity as a servant of God makes him blind to his own embezzlement or abuse
  • The downtrodden who become toxic after rejecting that victims of oppression are capable of acts oppression.
  • I see it all the time in science too. For example, T.C. Chamberlin, a 19th and 20th century “dean” of American geology, within decades of extending his fame with a classic warning against dogmatism in science, had become such a toxic antagonist of the theory of plate tectonics that he probably singlehandedly set its acceptance back by decades.

You have hypocrites in all of these examples, but name calling is beside the point here. Each of these characters started out sympathetic, and changed in a very human way into something unhealthy. Considering what they went through—the actual etiology of hypocrisy—empowers us to move past imperiously impugning the fallen, and actually protect ourselves from the same ugly fate.

Each of those people probably began with good strong intellectual defenses against some threat. But eventually, they all excused themselves from the need to constantly re-evaluate themselves. They stopped questioning their standing, and lost it. It’s like you have a big strong wall around you, but you slowly let your identity balloon to include it. You start to be impressed by how forbidding the identity is, and how much easier it is to maintain than the wall’s bulky brick and mortar. Eventually, you let the balloon take over as the wall crumbles. But a big ballon is a superficial and misleading defense. Or, to trade some faithfulness for concision, you have a big strong gate keeping out the riff-raff. You want to make it even more formidable, so you light it on fire, and that works for a while, until you’re down to nothing.

Using identity as a defense against hypocrisy is a really subtle and insidious trap, but naming it and describing it makes it easier to guard against, which is why I like to think about these things.

Still, I’m no exception. I’ve caught myself in it before, several times, and that’s why a basic part of my intellectual hygiene is never letting myself think that my current intellectual hygiene is enough. Hopefully that’s enough to protect me, except, well, if I think it’s enough then by definition it isn’t.

Self-doubt is an awful foundation for knowledge, but, when you’re all too human, it might be less bad than anything else.

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.

Sailing west down the Panama Canal will get you into which ocean?

The Atlantic.

And when you get to the Pacific, and sail up to L.A., you can drive west toward Reno. WHile we’re at it, there is also a sliver of the world where the timezones go backward. Thank you geopolitics.

Photo from Wikipedia.

Don’t let Airbnb, Uber, or Peers redefine sharing

When thought leaders are VC-funded you have to be careful. Market cheerleaders Peers and SOCAP associated themselves with alternative economics by holding a conference about sharing economies. The message seems to be that market exchange can be called sharing when it happens between web users. It reads to me like pressure to paint orthodox concepts with the glow of the exciting discourse around alternative economic models. Fortunately, conference participants wasted no time critiquing their magnanimous hosts. But even the most well-developed criticisms seem to be buying into the reframing that sharing is a satisfactory word for what happens on sites like Airbnb.

It sounds like one purpose of the Share Conference was to raise a question, What is sharing really? The implication is that these inspiring revolutionaries are pushing the idea in new directions, and that it needs to be revised to accommodate their bigness. That’s bunk. The word share is fine meaning precisely what it means, to divide ownership of a resource. The word exchange means something different, to give a resource in return for another of equal value, and a thesaurus isn’t a dictionary. People who want to read market exchange as sharing are up to something, some combination of

  • Selling a product
  • Associating themselves with freshness
  • Assuring themselves that they are Good People doing Good Things

Don’t get me wrong, markets are great, and they are capable of doing a great job of distributing resources in uncertain environments. But they aren’t new, and as inventiveness goes, opening new resources to market distribution is a relatively unimaginative application of the web. These entrepreneurs are following an old, distinguished formula, and there are lots of great words for that, but ‘revolutionary’ isn’t one of them. I use Airbnb, and I’ve been impressed by Uber, but if you want me to believe that these contributions are new, then I’m bored. For me, there is only one interesting question in this space: Why do the developers of these market institutions want to think of themselves as facilitators of a fluffy value like sharing? There is some branding in there, but I think there’s something more. I think that expressions like the Share Conference are the sound of successful entrepreneurs trying to drown out their own quiet doubts about market ideology.


This entry was posted on Thursday, June 19th, 2014 and is filed under complexity.

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.

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.”

Ouroboros and the failures of complex systems

This is a little intense, it should be enough to just watch enough of the initial seconds to satisfy yourself that Ouroboros exists. I’d post a photo, but the photo I saw seemed photoshopped. That’s how I found the video.

A complex system has failed to integrate the proper information into its decision. I’d guess that the cause is a badly designed environment (what looks like a zoo enclosure) presenting an otherwise well-designed snake with exactly the wrong pattern of information. That said, the mere fact of the Ouroboros myth makes it conceivable that this can happen in the wild.

Ouroboros from Wikipedia Was this a failure of information diffusion in a distributed local-information system? Or was it a failure of a properly informed top-down system suppressing the right information and amplifying the wrong information? We don’t know, we don’t really have the language to articulate that question in a manner that it can be answered. In that respect this is not just a failure of a complex system, but a failure of complex systems, the field.

The “Ant well” is less ambiguously a failure of a decentralized system. It happens in the wild, when the head of a column of army ants short circuits. Millions of ants start marching in circles until too many have died to close the circuit. And here is a magically functional decentralized system. What does decentralized mean here? Does it mean the same thing in all three examples? How is it different from bottom-up, feedback, distributed, local, networked, hierarchical, modular, or any other concept? We’re still working on that. At least there’s more video than vocabulary out there.

In PLOS ONE: Cyclic dynamics driven by iterated reasoning

This paper, published with my advisor Rob Goldstone, reports a major result of my dissertation, that people can flock not only physically, but also in their depth of iterated reasoning through each other’s motives. It is interesting because of the many economists who hoped that type of reasoning would prevent flocking. Ha!

* Here is the paper: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0056416
which follows the preprint

* One-minute video of this emergent cyclical behavior: http://vimeo.com/50459678

* Three-minute video explaining it in terms of the movie The Princess Bride: http://posterhall.org/igert2012/posters/218

* And here is a press release draft to give you a sense of it:

Rock-Paper-Scissors reveals herd behavior in logical reasoning

“Poor Bart, always picks Rock.” In these telling words from Lisa Simpson, we see Rock-Paper-Scissors as a game of mind reading. Scientists have already used Rock-Paper-Scissors to study how we cooperate, to show that we are bad randomizers, and to build AIs that can beat us at our own game. But this simple game has many more tricks up its sleeve. Rock-Paper-Scissors gives us the ideal case study for herd behavior in higher-level reasoning: specifically, thoughts about the thoughts of others. You would like to think that your thoughts are your own, but recent work from the Indiana University Cognitive Science program shows that people playing Rock-Paper-Scissors subtly influence each other, converging on similar ways of reasoning over time. The natural analogy is to a flock of birds veering in concert.

In work appearing in PLoS ONE (XXX), Seth Frey and Robert L. Goldstone introduce a version of Rock-Paper-Scissors called the Mod Game. In each round, they gave IU psychology undergraduates a choice between the numbers 1 through 24. Participants earned money for picking a number exactly one greater than someone else, but the choices wrapped around in a circle so that 1 beat 24 (just as Ace beats King in card games). Participants just had to anticipate what others were going to pick, and pick the next number up — keeping in mind that everyone else was thinking the same thing. In this game of one-upmanship, the best performers aren’t the ones who think the most steps ahead, but the ones who think just the right number of steps ahead — about two, as it turned out in the experiment.

Many economists predict that with enough experience, people should be able to think infinite steps ahead, or at least that their number of steps should increase dramatically over time. But this isn’t what happened in the Mod Game. Instead, when participants were shown each previous round’s results, they tended to cluster in one part of the circle of choices and start bounding around it in synch. Groups produced a compelling periodic orbit around the choices, reminiscent of the cultural pendulum swinging back and forth, bringing, say, moustaches in and out of fashion. Interestingly, the cycling behavior consistently got faster with time. This means that people did learn to think further ahead with time — the economic prediction was partly correct — but the increase was much less dramatic than it ought to have been: after 200 rounds of the Mod Game, the average number of thinking steps increased by only half a step, from 2 to 2.5. Moreover, herding in this game benefited everyone; a tighter grouping of choices means a higher density of money to be earned in each round.

What does all this mean for society? Typical treatments of higher-level reasoning look to it as preventing herd behavior, but we can now see it as a source. Anticipation may be the motor that keeps fads running in circles. It could be a source of the violent swings that we see in financial markets. And if you’ve ever been in a bidding war on Ebay, you may have been caught in this dynamic yourself. If every bidder is tweaking their increasing bids based on the tweaks of others, then the whole group may converge in price and in how those prices rise. The process isn’t governed by the intrinsic value of that mint Star Wars lunch box you’re fighting for, but on the collective dynamics of people trying to reason through each other’s thoughts. Whether looking at benign social habits or mass panics, social theorists have always treated human herd behavior as though it resulted from mindlessness. But this simple lesson from Rock-Paper-Scissors suggests that even the most sophisticated reasoning processes may be drawn about by the subtle influence of social interaction.

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

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.