Portrait of internet publishing as a young man

A photo of a painting? How derivative!


It’s not news that the rising popularity of ebooks has got the publishing world in a frenzy. This article is on a new ebook model that treats the distribution of books as akin to public radio broadcasting. Content is supported by a minority of people who think that spending money on things they can get for free is worthwhile (signaling patron-ism) while everyone benefits from the content. Even authors seem to benefit by getting a larger share of the profits and exposure to a wider audience. Obviously, success is not guaranteed any more than traditional publishing but the profit incentives are there.

I like the public radio analogy, but I think there is a better one – and that’s from the art world. The production of art is not non-profit, yet the distribution isn’t controlled by major publishers.  Well that might be because original artworks, and even some of the better reproductions are too expensive for most people… But who cares – there is plenty of good art that’s freely available on the web for your viewing pleasure.

Media like radio and visual art have a very different history than book, music and movie publishing (I’d also add beer to that, but that’s a post for another day) but the trend is towards diversification, appealing to a longer tail and quality improvements on the margin. While the industry might be losing money on the whole, this is a clear case of markets tending towards Pareto optimality. Centralized, top-down publishing schemes are becoming more obsolete to be replaced with artist-driven, self or free distribution of content that’s supported by key patrons.

This is not to say that distribution and other jobs not related to content creation are in jeopardy. After all, most authors are not going to be experts on how to design websites, content sharing platforms, etc (In other words, not every author is going to be Cory Doctorow – who’s stance on copyright and tiered approach to selling his novels is the best I’ve seen).

Since authors will no longer be able to take advantage of old publishing networks, authors will need help from idea people, software engineers and social network experts. Exposure to markets will rely on getting picked up by the right circles on twitter or reddit (or where-ever) or to try and get noticed by important and respected bloggers. In other words, Oprah’s role only more distributed. There’s plenty of efficiency and value to add by consultants and there will be plenty of money in the market.

We’re back!

After almost a year of silence, this blog is getting revived. As an update to the blog’s mission statement to focus more on primary research, natural and social science and evidence-based (though sometimes contrarian) views of the world – in addition to our past focus on rationality and cognitive biases. Things you should expect to see less of is policy and politics issues. You might possibly see more literary/artistic influence as well.

Signaling, not benefits

“Within state budgets, police and education are often the alternative to Medicaid costs. Are we so sure that Medicaid produces the maximum benefit for the money? Low-quality moralizing about the poor is not an answer to this question.”

That was from Tyler Cowen. Of course, projects like Medicaid are less about producing maximum benefits and more about signaling to voters that we care about the poor.  This makes it very difficult to effect the status quo.


That said, Medicaid should be one of the last parts of the health care budget to cut.  More of our health care aid should be like Medicaid, which is relatively cheap and also targeted at those who really need the assistance.  The correct Medicaid decisions depend on other budget choices, but ideally Medicaid is low on the list of recommended cuts, even if it may require some cuts.


What to expect when you’re not expecting

What does Scott Beaulier mean when he says:

Now, I’m quite sympathetic to the poorest of the poor being taken care of, but I had no idea until this week that “being taken care of” in this particular case means even better treatment than the treatment those who are paying to support Medicaid receive.

Nothing like a good dose of reality to reaffirm my disdain for the State!

Considering evidence is an important role in rationality, Bayesian analysis, and in the Less Wrong sequences.  This EWOT post brought to mind this older post by Eliezer (which, low and behold, was already open in my browser when I went to go look for it).

The type of anarcho-capitalism schilling I see on EWOT and other blogs reminds me of the Salem witch hunt imagery that Eliezer evokes:

no matter what the accused witch said or did, it was held a proof against her.

Just in case the parallel isn’t obvious, in the forementioned blog, high quality of care is used to support the anti-gov’t position on public health care (in this case, because the high quality- and therefore high cost – of care isn’t fair to those truly footing the bill). However, I’ve seen the opposite result – low quality of care – also being used to support the anti-gov position.

This practice surely isn’t restricted to this issue (or anarcho-capitalists!). The job of a pundit is to use their narrative to explain the outcome of any event and so, you get multiple hypotheses explaining the same event and no hypothesis seems to have the power to exclude any another one.

But the main problem is that each observer has their one-size-fits-all glove and they’re looking for hands to fit it to…and any hand will do. Any evidence they encounter confirms the theory because the theory can be retrofit onto the evidence.

This is why careful reasoning is so important.

If an observer sees high quality of care for medicare patients as evidence that you should have disdain for the state, shouldn’t low quality of care be evidence that one shouldn’t have disdain?

The statement can be broken down as such:

prior: high disdain for the state

hypothesis: if public health insurance provides better care for those who are not paying for it than for those who are, then one should have disdain for the state

evidencehigh quality care for medicare patient

outcome: high disdain for the state

This is a perfectly legitimate libertarian theory and how the original evidence calculation should have been formulated. The outcome matched the prior and therefore did not shift it much.

However, the hypothesis was, in actuality, retrofit to the evidence.

In a true probability calculation, if the outcome had been different (say, for example, medicare refused to cover the ultrasound imaging), the hypothesis would have been smashed. It would have been evidence that people receiving public health care do not get higher quality care than those who are paying for it, and we could not support our prior (disdain for the state). Clearly, if public health care sucks, the state is doing something right (keeping costs low for taxpayers, perhaps).

I’m going to generalize here and say that this is not what most libertarians (or any other political-identifying group) would have done. They would have simply found some other hypothesis that supports their prior (if the government isn’t providing high quality care, then disdain for the state, for example).

This a particular problem when you don’t allow yourself to expect counterevidence. In a practical sense, if no evidence you encounter has the ability to shift your beliefs, then you’re not coming up with testable hypothesis.

Politics and Status

Is it low status to reveal partisanship in politics? (example)

Finding relationships in data

This publication has received some attention in the popular presses (see the Wired article):

In just over a day, a powerful computer program accomplished a feat that took physicists centuries to complete: extrapolating the laws of motion from a pendulum’s swings.

Developed by Cornell researchers, the program deduced the natural laws without a shred of knowledge about physics or geometry.

The research is being heralded as a potential breakthrough for science in the Petabyte Age, where computers try to find regularities in massive datasets that are too big and complex for the human mind and its standard computational tools.

The cool part is not just the physics, but the use of an evolutionary algorithm to fit deterministic equations to any data set. The point is to find relationships in real data and see if it has any predictive power.

This approach, of course, misses the stochastic/ probabilistic properties of nature but still a useful tool.

The other cool part is that the the tool is free for the public to download (windows, linux or mac).

I did some little tests to see how it works. In excel I created the simple function f(x) = x^2 / 32 + sin(x). For the x’s I took a list of automatically generated random integers from random.org and set the confidence level at .9 for all numbers.

After about 2 minutes, it came up with this:

x/32 is ~= to .03x so the program did a pretty good job, I think.

Now lets try something more interesting: inputing 2 lists of random numbers for x and y:

If the purpose of the engine is to to find relationships between raw data, it stands to reason that it could find relationships where none exist.

Lets test the meme that LA Lakers wins/loses predict stock market price changes. I used the data from Nasdaq rates (between 1987 and 2007) provided by the LA Time and also converted Lakers performance into quantitative terms. -1 represents a championship loss, +1 a championship win while 0 represents a time when the Lakers didn’t make the finals:

Lets graph the function:

According to our function, a victory is suggestive of stock market losses and a finals loss is indicated by some NASDAQ gains. Of course, the last two years of data have smashed these “predictions.”  Interestingly, our equation predicts the highest gains when the Lakers don’t make the playoffs at all. I think this is suggestive.


Let a Thousand Nations Bloom has an amusing holiday themed post about a certain renegade seasteader:

Flying no flag of convenience, the guy uses ice floes around the North Pole to support and cloak highly mobile capital and productive labor; with a flair for anarchy, he disregards all laws of intellectual property to create an abundance of goods that he then feels free to distribute according to a little understood moral code; his superior logistical system flagrantly disregards all national borders and crosses them with impunity…

Read the whole thing: it makes a nice point about what gifts economies of scale have given us.

Narrative Fallacy and “Why?” Questions

Those of you who have read The Black Swan know of Taleb’s term narrative fallacy, a tendency to overweight the stories we use to summarize facts. Taleb makes the point many times that humans like to make up causal stories and treat them as true, which is one reason why people tend to ignore randomness.

To make things worse, complete stories, ones with more details tend to be more convincing. We thus not only gravitate to stories, but stories with embellishments. Are there better (and more likely to be correct) ways of satisfying our curiosity?

Andrew Gelman gives us a bit of a hint:

Many years ago, Don Rubin convinced me that it’s a lot easier to think about “effects of causes” than “causes of effects.” For example, why did my cat die? Because she ran into the street, because a car was going too fast, because the driver wasn’t paying attention, because a bird distracted the cat, because the rain stopped so the cat went outside, etc. When you look at it this way, the question of “why” is pretty meaningless.

Similarly, if you ask a question such as, What caused World War 1, the best sort of answers can take the form of potential-outcomes analyses. I don’t think it makes sense to expect any sort of true causal answer here.

Stuff White People Like on Signaling

The humor blog Stuff White People Like is a really fun commentary on signaling, self-deception, and irrational memes. Plenty offensive, but I see it as a really valuable educational tool.

Here’s a recent one I enjoyed that seems to be about Robin Hanson’s near/far biases and preference for visible signaling:

…white people in places like Los Angeles or Austin, TX will often promise to learn Spanish in hopes of being able to ask local taco stands about whether or not their carne asada is grass fed (”¿Ha leído usted Michael Pollan?”).

In order to reach this level of fluency and obnoxiousness, white people believe they must put themselves into a local immersion. This means a promise to watch only Spanish language TV, listen only to Spanish language radio, read Marquez in his native tongue, and watch foreign films with the subtitles turned off. There are some instances of white people doing this for almost a week!

When this technique is unavailable or fails, white people will immediately turn to books and computer software as a last ditch effort to make good on their promise. After about a week, most white people will give up and blame someone for their failure (”this software is terrible,” “there aren’t enough people in Portland who speak Farsi!”). But rather than discarding the books and software packaging, white people will simply put them in the most visible part of their book shelf. This allows white people to believe that they have not failed since they can resume their studies at any time until their death.

Read the whole thing!

Here’s a link to the full list.

Perception of Nature

David_J_Balan at Less Wrong . The basic premise is:

People have always had a religious or quasi-religious reverence for nature. In modern times, some people have started to see nature more as an enemy to be conquered than as a god to be worshiped.

I would actually say the opposite is true. People have historically and especially prehistorically a fear of nature. This may look like reverence but, from what I understand, it seems likely that people deified nature not out of love and respect, but from fear.

As in – “Lightning God, I’ll sacrifice my best goat if you stop scaring me” or “Rain God, how about some rain so I don’t starve.”

People today have never had a greater understanding of the forces of nature and been as immune to weather effects, in all but extreme cases. Since the hippie movements, and continuing today with the green movements, I don’t think you’ve ever seen a more profound respect for nature from the general public, and have responded by demanding our institutions take measures to protect nature.

We understand that economic growth relies on using nature’s resources, but have people ever before have concluded on such a grand scale that nature needs to be protected? Property rights have been used for this purpose for centuries now.

You can certainly debate the efficacy and the intentions of the political class in regards to environmental legislation, but the motives of the general public seem relatively clear.

I don’t think the reasons are altruistic, but maybe environmentalism is the newest form of signaling status… and it’s cheap too. Becoming an environmentalist only requires the purchase of a few buttons and demanding that other people do the changing.