Assorted Links

Thanks to Hal Pashler, Dave Lull and Mike Bowerman.

Duct Tape, the Eurozone, Status-Quo Bias, and Neglect of Innovation

In 1995, I visited my Swedish relatives. We argued about the Euro. They thought it was a good idea, I thought it had a serious weakness.

ME It ties together economies that are different.

MY AUNT It reduces the chance of war in Europe.

You could say we were both right. There have been no wars between Eurozone countries (supporting my aunt) and the Eurozone is now on the verge of breaking apart for exactly the reason I and many others pointed out (supporting me).

Last week a friend said to me that Europe was in worse shape than America. I was unconvinced. I said that I opposed Geithner’s “duct-tape solution”. It would have been better to let things fall apart and then put them back together in a safer way.

MY FRIEND Duct-tape works.

ME What Geithner did helped those who benefit from the status quo and hurt those who benefit from change. Just like duct tape.

This struck me as utterly banal until I read a one-sided editorial in The Economist:

The consequences of the euro’s destruction are so catastrophic that no sensible policymaker could stand by and let it happen. . . .  the threat of a disaster . . . can anything be done to avert disaster?

and similar remarks in The New Yorker (James Surowiecki):

The financial crisis in Europe . . . has now entered a potentially disastrous phase.. . . with dire consequences not just for Europe but also for the rest of us. . . . This is that rarest of problems—one that you really can solve just by throwing money at it [= duct tape]

Wait a sec. What if the Eurozone is a bad idea? Like I (and many others) said in 1995? Why perpetuate a bad idea? Why drive further in the wrong direction? Sure, the dissolution will bring temporary trouble (“disaster”, “dire consequences”), but that will be a small price to pay for getting rid of a bad idea. Of course the Euro had/has pluses and minuses. Anyone who claimed to know that the pluses outweighed the minuses (or vice-verse) was a fool or an expert. Now we know more. Given that what the nay-sayers said has come to pass, it is reasonable to think that they (or we) were right: The minuses outweigh the pluses.

You have seen the phrase Japan’s lost decade a thousand times. You have never seen the phrase Greece’s lost decade. But Greeks lost an enormous amount from being able to borrow money for stupid conventional projects at too low a rate. Had loans been less available, they would have been more original (the less debt involved, the easier it is to take risks) and started at a smaller scale. Which I believe would have been a better use of their time and led to more innovation. Both The Economist‘s editorial writer and Surowiecki have a status-quo “duct-tape” bias without realizing it.

What’s important here is not what two writers, however influential their magazines, think or fail to think. It is that they are so sure of themselves. They fail to take seriously an alternative (breakup of the Eurozone would in the long run be a good thing) that has at least as much to recommend it as what they are sure of (the breakup would be a “disaster”). I believe they are so sure of themselves because they have absorbed (and now imitate) the hemineglect of modern economics. The whole field, they haven’t noticed, has an enormous status-quo bias in its failure to study innovation. Innovation — how new goods and services are invented and prosper — should be half the field. Let me repeat: A few years ago I picked up an 800-page introductory economics textbook. It had one page (one worthless page) on innovation. In this staggering neglect, it reflected the entire field. The hemineglect of economics professors is just as bad as the hemineglect of epidemiologists (who ignore immune function, study of what makes us better or worse at fighting off microbes) and statisticians (who pay almost no attention to idea generation).

MORE Even Joe Nocera, whom I like, has trouble grasping that the Euro might be a bad idea. “The only thing that should matter is what works,” he writes. Not managing to see that the Euro isn’t working.

Evidence-Based Medicine Versus Innovation

In this interview, a doctor who does research on biofilms named Randall Wolcott makes the same point I made about Testing Treatments — that evidence-based medicine, as now practiced, suppresses innovation:

I take it you [meaning the interviewer] are familiar with evidence-based medicine? It’s the increasingly accepted approach for making clinical decisions about how to treat a patient. Basically, doctors are trained to make a decision based on the most current evidence derived from research. But what such thinking boils down to [in practice — theory is different] is that I am supposed to do the same thing that has always been done – to treat my patient in the conventional manner – just because it’s become the most popular approach. However, when it comes to chronic wound biofilms, we are in the midst of a crisis – what has been done and is accepted as the standard treatment doesn’t work and doesn’t meet the needs of the patient.

Thus, evidence-based medicine totally regulates against innovation. Essentially doctors suffer if they step away from mainstream thinking. Sure, there are charlatans out there who are trying to sell us treatments that don’t work, but there are many good therapies that are not used because they are unconventional. It is only by considering new treatment options that we can progress.

Right on. He goes on to say that he is unwilling to do a double-blind clinical trial in which some patients do not receive his new therapy because “we know we’ve got the methods to save most of their limbs” from amputation.

Almost all scientific and intellectual history (and much serious journalism) is about how things begin. How ideas began and spread, how inventions are invented. If you write about Steve Jobs, for example, that’s your real subject. How things fail to begin — how good ideas are killed off — is at least as important, but much harder to write about. This is why Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation is such an important book. It says nothing about the killing-off processes, but at least it describes the stagnation they have caused. Stagnation should scare us. As Jane Jacobs often said, if it lasts long enough, it causes collapse.

Thanks to Heidi.

Assorted Links

  • Scientific heresy, a lecture by Matt Ridley mostly about climate change. “Jim Hansen of NASA told us in 1988 to expect 2-4 degrees [of warming] in 25 years. We are experiencing about one-tenth of that.”
  • The continuing influence of Jane Jacobs. “Rouse spoke first, recalling the words of Daniel Burnham, “Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men’s blood,” he said. Jacobs followed and began, “Funny, big plans never stirred women’s blood. Women have always been willing to consider little plans.””
  • A self-experimental study of lactose intolerance. ” I came across an article that pointed out that levels of [lactase, the enzyme that digests lactose]  peak in the morning and evening hours. So I experimented with having either ricotta products or a half cup of milk with my supper. It worked like a charm, and sure enough, if I tried having any between 11 AM and about 4 PM, I would get sick.”
  • A rather dramatic Google bug. Google the phrase “first let them get sick”. You will be told there are hundreds of thousands of results — perhaps 250,000. Look through them and you will see the correct number is much less (recently, 47).
  • Lorrie Moore reads one of my favorite short stories, “Day-Old Baby Rats” by Julie Hayden. “[In a confessional:] ‘I have missed Mass.’ ‘How many times?’ ‘Every time.'”

Thanks to Dave Lull and Nile McAdams.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Bryan Castañeda, Lemniscate, Dave Lull and Reihan Salam.

Assorted Links

  • Reclamations. Essays by University of California students about the harm done by student loans.  Via Boing Boing. Being taught “how to think” (as many college professors claim they do because the details of their class are obviously useless) is fine when it’s a choice. (I support the study of esoteric seemingly-useless stuff — when it’s a choice.) When it’s required (to get a decent job) and very expensive (due to tuition), there’s a problem.
  • The Cobblestone Conservative: How Jane Jacobs saved New York City’s soul.
  • Robin Hanson surveys his students. “[Their] opinions [about “random policy questions”] strongly tend to support the status quo – mostly whatever is, is assumed good.” Same thing at Berkeley. Most of my students, for better or worse, were very conformist. My conclusion, which I imagine Robin agrees with, is that the reasons we give for our beliefs have roughly zero correlation with the actual reasons and shouldn’t be taken seriously (e.g., argued with). Professors who claim to teach their students “how to think” (e.g., lines of argument) are shutting their eyes to what Robin shows is right in front of them: the lack of importance of “thinking” in the determination of belief.
  • Edward Jay Epstein on Michael Milken. Great journalism.

Thanks to Ryan Holiday. If you send me a link that I post I am happy to link to your blog or website.

Jane Jacobs and

How did air-breathing evolve? In The Nature of Economies (p. 87), Jane Jacobs uses it to illustrate the developmental pattern she calls “bifurcation” (air-breathing isn’t a refinement of water-breathing). She speculates on how it started:

Lungfish had both gills and a primitive lung, suggesting that their habitat was swampland. The earliest to take to dry land may have inhabited swamps subject to severe droughts or perhaps they were escaping fearsomely-jawed predators who couldn’t follow them to dry land.

According to Steve Yegge’s already-famous “psst, Googlers” memo, something much like this was why Amazon started selling web computing services, which wasn’t a refinement of their earlier business (selling books, toys, etc.):

Amazon was a product company too, so it took an out-of-band force to make Bezos understand the need for a platform. That force was their evaporating margins; he was cornered and had to think of a way out. But all he had was a bunch of engineers and all these computers… if only they could be monetized somehow… you can see how he arrived at AWS [Amazon Web Services], in hindsight.

People say necessity is the mother of invention. That isn’t even close to true. Trial and error is the mother of true, profound invention. The Bezos story, and Jacobs’s generalization of it, suggest what is actually true: necessity is the mother of development. Necessity pushes people to use, and thereby develop, inventions they had ignored.

Chapter 1 of The Nature of Economies.

Assorted Links

  • The Shangri-La Diet: still too good to be true. It was my dream — and maybe every scientist’s dream — to discover something (a) useful and (b) counter-intuitive, the more surprising the better. It did not occur to me that (a) and (b) conflict. I think that more surprising discoveries are eventually more useful (as logic suggests), but it takes much longer.
  • Marisa Tomei wants to play Jane Jacobs. “I love that she saved Greenwich Village.” When she does, perhaps Robert Caro will post the unpublished Jane Jacobs chapter of The Power Broker.
  • Symposium on The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.
  • Did you know that Mindy Kaling’s amusing article in this week’s New Yorker is an excerpt from a forthcoming book? Neither did I. Likewise, the recent Murakami story Town of Cats was from a forthcoming book. The New Yorker, unlike other magazines, never identifies book excerpts. This  is unfortunate because doing so would help both writers (sell books) and readers (find books to read). For more criticism of  The New Yorker, see the great book Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker by Renata Adler.

Thanks to Dave Lull.

First, Let Them Get Sick

In Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs tells how, in the 1920s, one of her aunts moved to an isolated North Carolina village to, among other things, have a church built. The aunt suggested to the villagers that the church be built out of the large stones in a nearby river. The villagers scoffed: Impossible. They had not just forgotten how to build with stone, they had forgotten it was possible.

A similar forgetting has taken place among influential Western intellectuals — the people whose words you read every day. Continue reading “First, Let Them Get Sick”

Assorted Links

  • Jason Epstein on Jane Jacobs. He edited most of her books.
  • How former Emory psychiatrist Charles “Disgraced” Nemeroff found a home at the University of Miami. A comment on the article put it well: “I am even more concerned as to the scientific truth and validity of the studies, drugs, treatments etc they [= Nemeroff and his supporters] have been involved in.” At the same time her university was hiring Nemeroff, the president of the University, Donna Shalala, sent out a letter boasting how the University of Miami was increasing the “integrity” of their medical school by improving policies related to conflicts of interest! “There is no room for compromise in this area,” wrote Shalala.
  • More about Jane Jacobs

Thanks to Dave Lull, Paul Sas and Alex Chernavsky.

Tucker Max on Writing and the Importance of Understanding How You Differ

I recently heard Tucker Max speak about writing books. He said he had succeeded because he told the truth about himself — including the unpleasant stuff. Most people don’t. That, plus an ability to make it entertaining, was what he could do that other people couldn’t. He was saying that “being yourself” — more precisely, building on how you are different — was the only good place to start. Imitating other people is not a good place to start. Jane Jacobs said the same thing about how cities should develop. She said it was pointless to try to imitate other cities — to imitate them by building a stadium or convention center, for example. Each city should figure out what its unique strengths are — what makes Springfield Springfield — and build on them. Amplify them. Continue reading “Tucker Max on Writing and the Importance of Understanding How You Differ”

Phone Hacking and Jane Jacobs (Roberts/Jacobs emails: 3 of 3)

After I posted on the relation between Jane Jacobs’s ideas and the British phone-hacking scandal, Jim Jacobs, one of her sons, wrote to me. The first back-and-forth emails in our discussion are here and here. Finally, I wrote:

Thanks for more explanation. You’re quite right that exposure of the truth is at the heart of journalism and is utterly counter to what governments want. In this sense good journalism and governments are opposites — or rather opponents. In this sense, also, journalism is inherently populist whereas governments rarely are. Businesses are inherently populist.

On the other hand, journalism is not a standard commercial enterprise. This is why at many publications there is strict separation between advertising (devoted to raising money) and “editorial” (which spends it). They don’t want what they print to be affected by commercial considerations. That is utterly different than a conventional business. Powerful newspapers, such as the NY Times, see themselves (rightly) as far more than mere commercial enterprises — which is one reason the NY Times has lost so much money lately. It is one reason the NY Times took so long to get a sports section and why they barely have a gossip column. I have seen too many “undercover investigations” and “hidden camera” interviews to believe that journalists find anything wrong with deceiving for the sake of the task. They usually identify themselves, true, but so do police officers.

Exclusivity varies with organizational needs. Journalists do mix with everyone to get stories but that’s because of what they do; it couldn’t be otherwise. Some religions (which are far more guardian than commercial) make a big deal out of missionary work — again, the details of their enterprise demand it. Along the same lines, some businesses try to appear exclusive — the nature of their brand (luxury) demands it.

I agree that journalists trade information and favors with powerful sources. (But think it bad form to pay for interviews.) Whether this is different than governments forming alliances and signing treaties I don’t know.

Because journalism is actually a business, there are necessarily some commercial values, such as avoiding waste, being efficient, and so on.

In contrast to trading and rulers, which have been around for many thousands of years, powerful newspapers and powerful journalists are no more than a few hundred years old, if that. So there has been less time to clarify values. But there’s a reason they’re called the “fourth estate” — two of the other estates being religion and government.

And you’ve heard the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” — implying that the pen and the sword are on the same playing field. I can’t imagine anyone saying “the jacket is mightier than the sword” or “the carton of milk is mightier than the sword”.

To which Jim replied:

As I mentioned before, Jane had real trouble finding good names for the two syndromes. You can see it in the part of Chapter 2 where she talks about names – first A & B, then heroic is rejected, etc. and finally she ended up with commercial & guardian. She later regretted the choice because these names can be quite misleading. Activities using the commercial syndrome don’t need to make money or be ‘commercial’ – most good science, for example. Activities using the guardian syndrome don’t need to be guarding anything – classical music, for example. Writing can be either, depending on its use. Advertising shares much with propaganda writing – deception, ostentation, fortitude, etc. No wonder advertising and journalism need to be kept apart! Too much charitable work will ruin any business’ profitability, but it isn’t inherently at odds with the moral syndrome. Nor are stupid business decisions.

I agree that journalists do use unscrupulous means to get their information – like hacking phones. It works. It’s effective. But it isn’t right, and in the end, like all unethical behavior, there’ll be a comeuppance. But what’s wrong for a journalist is right for a police detective, as Jane explains.

Religions are guardian activities, as you say, and missionary work can be either charity or largesse, or a mix. It’s not an aberration that missionaries were traditionally expected to remain aloof from their flocks, just as religious leaders were. Although a luxury goods dealer may sell its goods to royalty, it should itself operate ‘commercially’, being non-exclusive in its dealings with suppliers, rich foreigners, etc. Journalists get much of their material from government, and to government the selling of information is treason. Don’t expect government to give such activity any blessing! Unlike the breaking of a contract, the breaking of a treaty between governments is considered ‘strategic’ (the Hitler/Stalin pact, for example). Between governments the aberration is a contract (Alaska purchase, for example).

Journalism may be older than one would guess. Sometimes it’s hard to tell after ages of editing and translation. Homer probably wrote propaganda, but Herodotus and Thucydides, although usually thought of as historians, seem much like journalists to me – their values certainly align with those of journalists.
And just as the sword and shield can be used to make dinner (paella may have originated as a soldier’s meal, prepared on a shield) so may the pen be made to serve both commercial and guardian work – and be mighty in either role.

And there you have it.

Phone Hacking and Jane Jacobs

I am fascinated by the British phone hacking scandal. Jane Jacobs has helped me understand it.

Should police officers be paid per arrest? Most people think this is a bad idea, I imagine, but the larger point (what can we learn from this?) isn’t clear. In Systems of Survival, Jacobs tried to spell out the larger point. She wrote about two sets of moral rules. One set (“guardian syndrome”) applied to warriors, government officials, and religious leaders. It prizes loyalty and obedience, for example. The other set (“commercial syndrome”) applied to merchants. It prizes honesty, avoidance of force, and industriousness, for example. The two syndromes correspond to two ways of making a living: taking and trading. The syndromes reached the form they have today because they worked — different jobs need different rules. When people in one sort of work (e.g., guardian) follow the rules of the other, things turn out badly. Ayn Rand glorified the commercial syndrome. When Alan Greenspan, one of her acolytes, became a governor, he did a poor job.

What about journalists? As a journalistic business becomes more powerful, it becomes more guardian-like. A powerful newspaper isn’t inherently bad; we want a powerful newspaper to keep other powerful institutions (government, large businesses) in check. Murdoch’s News International, of course, has became very powerful. Yet Murdoch newsrooms retained commercial norms, especially an emphasis on selling many copies.  Reporters in Murdoch newsrooms were under intense pressure to produce — like policemen paid per arrest. Other journalists, with guardian norms (e.g., at the New York Times), didn’t like the commercial norms of Murdoch newspapers.  The mixture of commercial values and guardian power led to the phone hacking scandal. Friends of mine blame Murdoch himself — but commercial norms are not unique to Murdoch. The problem is their mixture with great power.

When newspapers are small, they are not powerful, not guardians, and must adopt commercial norms — they must try to sell more copies or they will be crushed. When a small newspaper becomes large and powerful, however, its norms must change to guardian ones or things will turn out badly. This suggests that the phone-hacking scandal happened because Murdoch became very powerful too fast — too fast for a shift in values to accompany much greater power.











Sterilities of Scale and What They Say About Economics

You have surely heard the phrase economies of scale — meaning that when you make many copies of something each instance costs less than when you make only a few copies. Large companies are said to benefit from “economies of scale” — so there is pressure to become bigger. Every introductory economics textbook says something like this. Continue reading “Sterilities of Scale and What They Say About Economics”

Growth of Quantified Self

The first Quantified Self (QS) Meetup group met in Kevin Kelly’s house near San Francisco in 2008. I was there; so was Tim Ferriss. Now there are 19 QS groups, as distant as Sydney and Cape Town.

I believe this is the beginning of a movement that will greatly improve human health. I think QS participants will discover, as I did, that simple experiments can shed light on how to be healthy — experiments that mainstream researchers are unwilling or unable to do. Echoing Jane Jacobs, I’ve said farmers didn’t invent tractors. That’s not what farmers do, nor could they do it. Likewise, mainstream health researchers, such as medical school professors, are unable to greatly improve their research methods. That’s not what they do, nor could they do it. They have certain methodological skills; they apply them over and over. To understand the limitations of those methods would require a broad understanding of science that few health researchers seem to have. (For example, many health researchers dismiss correlations because “correlation does not equal causation.” In fact, correlations have been extremely important clues to causality.) Big improvements in health research will never come from people who make their living doing health research, just as big improvements in farming have never come from farmers. That’s where QS comes in.

The first QS conference is May 28-29. Tickets are still available.

Monocultures of Evidence

After referring to Jane Jacobs (“successful city neighborhoods need a mixture of old and new buildings”), which I liked, Tim Harford wrote this, which I didn’t like:

Many medical treatments (and a few social policies) have been tested by randomized trials. It is hard to imagine a more clear-cut practice of denying treatment to some and giving it to others. Yet such lotteries — proper lotteries, too — are the foundation of much medical progress.

The notion of evidence-based medicine was a step forward in that it recognized that evidence mattered. It was only a small step forward, however, because its valuation of evidence — on a single dimension, with double-blind randomized trials at the top — was naive. Different sorts of decisions need different sorts of evidence, just as Jacobs said different sorts of businesses need different sorts of buildings. In particular, new ideas need cheap tests, just as new businesses need cheap rent. As an idea becomes more plausible, it makes sense to test it in more expensive ways. That is one reason a monoculture of evidence is a poor idea.

Another is that you should learn from the past. Sometimes a placebo effect is plausible; sometimes it isn’t. To ignore this and insist everything should be placebo-controlled is to fail to learn a lot you could have learned.

A third reason a monoculture of evidence is a poor idea is that it ignores mechanistic understandings — understanding of what causes this or that problem. In some cases, you may think that the disorder you are studying has a single cause (e.g., scurvy). In other cases, you may think the problem probably has several causes (e.g., depression, often divided into endogenous and exogenous). In the latter case, it is plausible that a treatment will help only some of those with the problem. So you should design your study and analyze your data taking into account that possibility. You may want to decide for each subject whether or not the treatment helped rather than lump all subjects together. And the “best” designs will be those that best allow you to do this.