Frank Loesser and corruption in America

The movie musicals of Frank Loesser (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Guys and Dolls) are a straightforward celebration of a certain sort of peculiarly American form of corruption and adulteration. Both are about people dressing up formally and obeying elaborate forms of etiquette while optimizing for nothing but scamming one another. Highly recommended if you haven't already seen them - Frank Loesser is also a gifted lyricist and the choreography is great, so they're fun to watch.

Guys and Dolls is about how the occasional infusion of a person of integrity leads to the corruption of other people of integrity. Almost all the characters are gamblers, except for people who literally work as Salvation Army missionaries or police officers, and one stage performer. The gambling is made to seem charming since it resembles a children's game (all these grown up children just want to play with cards and dice and watch horses run fast and argue over who’s going to win), but it's clearly compulsive and antisocial behavior. The gamblers all dress up smartly and speak with elaborately formal diction, and in general it's a lot like The Godfather as an extreme romanticization of gangster culture (h/t Cracked) which plays up the honor ethic and sense of style. However, at one point a big out-of-town gambler who's lost a lot of money at a crap game pulls out a gun and a set of blank dice, claiming he remembers which side is which, in order to "win" his money back from the game organizer at gunpoint. So the honor is clearly sort of fake, but there’s some pressure to preserve appearances.

Marlon Brando's male lead character falls in love with a woman working for the Salvation Army, but in the process of being reformed by her, manipulates her into leaving town one night, leaving her mission unstaffed so that some gamblers can use it as a venue, and then lying to the police to protect them. The other male lead, played by Frank Sinatra, finally agrees to get married to throw police off his trail, and in the process gives an engagement speech in front of his fiancée about how happy he is that she's trusting him even though she knows he's scamming her.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is based on a satirical business handbook with the same title, and it's about how to use sociopathic Machiavellian manipulation to advance in a corporation. It's explicitly about clubbiness among graduates of the same college - at one point the young talented protagonist following the book's advice pretends to have gone to the same college as the CEO to curry favor with him. More generally, it is about coordination between people of a privileged class who want to continue extracting monopoly rents together instead of facing real competition - there's a scene where the other executives are meeting in the executive washroom to try and coordinate against the upstart. Near the climax there's a song called "Brotherhood of Man" about how top executives and board members should show solidarity with the rest of privileged middle and upper management and keep employing them them even if they don't add value. The protagonist becomes chairman of the board, and at the very end decides that he'd rather be President of the United States, so he shows up at the White House to implement the exact same strategy.

Increase bottleneck throughput by shortening queues?

I've been reading Yes to the Mess by Frank Barrett, and I'm confused about a queueing problem mentioned in it. He gives an example from Kip Hawley's book Permanent Emergency, which I'll quote here:

The Powder River Basin was the single biggest leverage point for increasing profitability in Union Pacific territory [...] one of the most important coal-producing areas in the United States - a place where our trains always seemed to get bottlenecked at a single line of rail leading to the coal fields while transporting coal to many of the nation's electric power plants.

Because on-time performance from this particular spot was so important - a serious delay in delivery could endanger the supply of electricity to the entire city of Atlanta - Union Pacific spent enormous energies trying to improve efficiency. We rushed high-priority coal cars to a continuous queue just outside the single-point entry to the basin. We advanced new, empty cars right after the previous train moved out loaded with coal. But instead of maximizing efficiency, we were overdoing it. One of the consequences of focusing so much operational and tactical energy on wringing every last second out of the process is that we left ourselves precious little slack when something did go wrong. [...]

It is simply the nature of large, heterogeneous systems like a railroad network to have things go wrong all the time. And as soon as something went wrong with one train, the other trains we'd stacked up behind it were stuck. Lining up all the trains in a row, we realized, had effectively squeezed all room for error out of the system and was slowing down our delivery schedule.

After letting that conundrum soak in, one of our brainstorming teams proposed a solution that directly contradicted the time-maximization mode we'd been toiling in. What if, rather than rushing the empties to the gridlock point, we staged the coal cars far away from the troublesome intersection and then flowed them in, so they arrived when the intersection was clear? Rather than trying to cram in as many priority trains as possible, we dispatched the cars to a collection of holding points dispersed across the railroad, making sure that the Powder River Basin's access point wasn't idle for very long. It worked. Not only did it clear up the gridlock, it also increased the number of daily coal trains by 30 percent. [...]

Another way of thinking about that solution was that railroad dispatchers were building resilience into the process. Previously, we'd put all our eggs in one perfect basket, leaving us no viable secondary options if the basket filled up. It was true that our new system of flowing in trains was not technically as time-efficient as the first system, but by accounting for the time eaten up by unpredictable problems that plague any complex network, it was ultimately more successful.

I don't understand how this can possibly be true.

I understand how this could improve average on-time performance. Keeping all available coal trains queued at the Powder River Basin means that they are not available elsewhere, so if there's a delay at that single bottleneck, it will cascade throughout the network. The first queueing train probably increases utilization of the one coal field line, but the tenth improves performance much less in expectation there, while it could easily improve performance in emptier areas of the network by quite a lot.

What I don't understand is how this could possibly improve throughput at the intersection, unless there's some key factor I'm missing. It's conceivable that the bottleneck could have been overutilized, or that there wasn't just the one line and there was an alternate route that farther-away trains could have gotten to, or that the section of track trains were queueing on was also sometimes needed as an exit, but nothing like that gets mentioned by Hawley as far as I can tell. The claim seems to be, simply, that shorter queues caused higher throughput.

What am I missing?

Puppy love and cattachment theory.

Secure attachment and the limbic system

A couple of friends recently asked me for my take on this article by Nora Samaran on secure attachment and autonomy. The article focuses on the sense of security that comes from someone consistently responding positively to requests for comfort. The key point is that it's not just a quantitative thing, where you accumulate enough units of comfort and feel good. It's about really believing on a gut level that someone is willing to be there for you, and wants to do so: Continue reading

Minimum viable impact purchases

Several months ago I did some work on a trial basis for AI Impacts. It went well enough, but the process of agreeing in advance on what work needs to be done felt cumbersome. It's not uncommon that midway through a project, it turns out that it makes sense to do a different thing than what you'd originally envisioned - and because I was doing this for someone else, I had to check in at each such point. This didn't just slow down the process, but made the whole thing less motivating for me.

Later, I did my own research project. When natural pivot points came up, this didn't trigger a formal check-in - I just continued to do the thing that made the most sense. I think that I did better work this way, and steered more quickly towards the highest-value aspect of my research. Part of this is because, since I wasn't accountable to anyone else for the work, I could follow my own inner sense of what needed to be done.

I was talking with Katja about my work, and she mentioned that AI Impacts might potentially be interested in funding some of this work. I explained the motivation problem mentioned in the prior paragraphs, and wondered out loud whether AI Impacts might be interested in funding projects retrospectively, after I'd already completed them. Katja responded that in principle this sounded like a much better deal than funding projects prospectively, in large part because it would take less management effort on her part. This also felt like a much better deal to me than being funded prospectively, again because I wouldn't have to worry so much about checking in and fulfilling promises.

I've talked with friends about this consideration, and a few mentioned the fact that sometimes people are hired as researchers with a fairly vague or flexible research mandate, or prefunded to do more like their prior work, in the hope that they'll produce similarly valuable work in the future. But making promises like that, even if very abstract, also makes it difficult for me to proceed in a spirit of play, discovery, and curiosity, which is how I do some of my best work.

It also offends my sense of integrity to accept money for the promise to do one thing, or even one class of thing, when my real plan is to adopt a flexible stance - my best judgment might tell me to radically change course, and at this stage I fully intend to listen to it. For instance, I might decide that I should switch from research to writing and advocacy (what I'm doing now). I might even learn something that persuades me to make a bigger commitment to another course of action, starting or join some organization with a better-defined role.}

What doesn't offend my sense of integrity is to accept money explicitly for past work, with no promises about the future.

Then it clicked - this is the logic behind impact certificates. Continue reading

Some excerpts from Catistotle's Kittycatean Ethics

Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and pounce, seems to aim at some red dot, and hence it has been beautifully said that the red dot is that at which all cats aim. But a certain difference is apparent among ends, since some are ways of being at play, while others are certain kinds of works produced, over and above the being-at-play.
[...]
If, then, there is some end of the things we do that we want on account of itself, and the rest on account of this one, and we do not choose everything on account of something else (for in that way the pounces would go beyond all bounds, so that desire would be empty and pointless), it is clear that this would be the red dot, and in fact the reddest dot. Then would not an awareness of it have great weight in one's life, so that, like mousers who see a mouse, we would be more apt to hit on what is needed? But if this is so, one ought to try to get a grasp, at least in outline, of what it is and to what kind of knowledge or capacity it belongs.
[...]
And it would seem to belong to the one that is most governing and most a master art, and politics appears to be of this sort, since it prescribes which kinds of knowledge ought to be in the cities, and what sorts each cat ought to learn and to what extent; also, we see that the most honored capacities, such as mousing, household cattery, and meowing skill, are under this one. Since this capacity makes use of the rest of the kinds of knowledge, and also lays down the law about what one ought to do and from what one ought to refrain, the end of this capacity should include the ends of the other pursuits, so that this end would be the feline red dot. For even if the red dot is the same for one cat and for a city, that of the city appears to be greater, at least, and more complete both to achieve and to preserve; for even if it is achieved for only one cat that is something to be satisfied with, but for a litter or for cities it is something more beautiful and more divine. So our pursuit aims at this, and is in a certain way political.
[...]
Now taking up the thread again, since every kind of knowing and every pounce reach toward some red dot, let us say what it is that we claim politics aims at, and what, of all the dots aimed at by action, is the reddest. In name, this is pretty much agreed about by the majority of cats, for most cats, as well as those who are more refined, say it is being in a box, and assume that living well and doing well are the same thing as being in a box. But about being in a box-what it is-they are in dispute, and most cats do not give the same account of it as the wise. Some cats take it to be something visible and obvious, such as pleasure or wealth or honor, and different ones say different things, and even the same cat often says different things; when sick one thinks it is health, but when poor, that it is wealth, and when they are conscious of ignorance in themselves, cats marvel at those who say it is something grand and above them. And some cats believe that, besides these many red dots, there is some other red dot, by itself, which is also responsible for the being red of all these other dots.

Lessons learned from modeling AI takeoffs, and a call for collaboration

I am now able to think about things like AI risk and feel like the concepts are real, not just verbal. This was the point of my modeling the world project. I’ve generated a few intuitions around what’s important in AI risk, including a few considerations that I think are being neglected. There are a few directions my line of research can be extended, and I’m looking for collaborators to pick this up and run with it.

I intend to write about much of this in more depth, but since EA Global is coming up I want a simple description to point to here. These are just loose sketches, so I'm trying to describe rather than persuade.

New intuitions around AI risk

  • Better cybersecurity norms would probably reduce the chance of an accidental singleton.
  • Transparency on AI projects’ level of progress reduces the pressure towards an AI arms race.
  • Safety is convergent - widespread improvements in AI value alignment improve our chances at a benevolent singleton, even in an otherwise multipolar dynamic.

Continue reading

Yell at Mars to call swans

GLENDOWER. I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

HOTSPUR. Why, so can I, or so can any man;

But will they come when you do call for them?

- Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1

Calling swans

Recently a dear friend invited me to join them as they took their wedding photos, at the Palace of Fine Arts. There's a pond next to the structure, and across the pond we saw one of the swans who reside there. Someone observed that it would have been nice to take a picture with the swan. So I called out, in a loud and clear voice, "Excuse me! Would you come over here?" and beckoned. Repeatedly.

I was pretty sure that it wouldn't work. Swans don't understand spoken language. Even if they did, as far as I could tell they have no plausible motive to respond.

The swan turned towards us and swam halfway across the pond. As it slowed down, my companions thought of more ways to get its attention, ways that seemed more likely to work on a swan, like tossing things into the water. But my plan did more than nothing.

It's an important skill, to be able to come up with plans like that. Sometimes you need to notice when things are impossible, and give up. But other times, it's worth at least trying the plan "yell at the swan."

What heuristic was I using? I'm not sure, but I think it has to do with noticing that my model of the world is incomplete. Continue reading

Why have my parents gotten wiser as I have gotten older?

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” - Attributed (probably spuriously) to Mark Twain

The usual explanation for this is that teenagers are too foolish to understand the advice of their elders. But there’s another obvious explanation: their parents accumulate life experience that makes them wiser over those seven years.

Not all experience is created equal, and the rearing of a child all the way to adulthood is likely a substantial source of new wisdom and experience that are difficult to acquire in other ways beforehand.

When I was a child, I felt like my grandfather had a lot more perspective to offer than my father had. Some of this might just have been a different context for our interactions; most of my interactions with my dad were about day-to-day stuff. But some of this might have been that my grandfather actually had more experience.

As I talk with my dad now, it seems more and more clear that he has some sorts of wisdom and perspective I wasn’t aware of earlier. For instance, it seems like he’s more aware than before that when you have a child, you’re not buying into some set lifestyle, but instead you’re buying a chance at a highly uncertain set of outcomes. This makes me more relaxed about talking with him, because it feels more like if I do things he doesn’t agree with, he knew this was part of the deal in advance.

My mom has also talked about acquiring wisdom that she didn’t have before, in ways that have made conversations with her go better. For instance, I think we’ve both recently learned a lot about setting boundaries.

If this hypothesis is true, then the natural thing to do is to tell kids, not to listen to their parents more, but to listen to people of their grandparents’ generation more, to the extent that they’re available. It also seems like I should prioritize making more friends who are at least a few decades older than I am.

To the extent that this hypothesis is true, we should expect the last child in a long series to report this effect less than firstborns. So, my questions for you are:

  1. How many years between your parents’ firstborn and your birth? (0 if you were a firstborn.)
  2. How true does Twain’s observation seem for you, that parents seem to get wiser over time?

Effective Altruism is not a no-brainer

Ozy writes that Effective Altruism avoids the typical failure modes of people in developed countries intervening in developing ones, because it is evidence-based, humble, and respects the autonomy of the recipients of the intervention. The basic reasoning is that Effective Altruists pay attention to empirical evidence, focus on what's shown to work, change what they're doing when it looks like it's not working, and respect the autonomy of the people for whose benefit they're intervening.

Effective Altruism is not actually safe from the failure modes alluded to:

  • Effective Altruism is not humble. Its narrative in practice relies on claims of outsized benefits in terms of hard-to-measure things like life outcomes, which makes humility quite difficult. Outsized benefits probably require going out on a limb and doing extraordinary things.
  • Effective Altruism is less evidence based than EAs think. People talk about some EA charities as producing large improvements in life outcomes with certainty, but this is often not happening. And when the facts disagree with our hopes, we seem pretty good at ignoring the facts.
  • Effective Altruism is not about autonomy. Some EA charities are good at respecting the autonomy of beneficiaries, but this is nowhere near central to the movement, and many top charities are not about autonomy at all, and are much better fits for the stereotype of rich Westerners deciding that they know what's best for people in poor countries.
  • Standard failure modes are standard. We need a model of what causes them, and how we're different, in order to be sure we're avoiding them.

Continue reading

PSA on outing

If your friend is out about something to one group (say, their friends) and closeted to another group (e.g. their family or workplace) it's generally wrong to out them without their consent. If you want to avoid doing this, you should not tag or full-name them in public posts that refer to the thing they're closeted about, even on social media with privacy settings such as Facebook. If you do this, anyone who searches for them will be able to find your post. There is no privacy setting that can prevent this from being searchable, at least on Facebook. Nor does blocking such posts from their wall prevent them from being searchable on yours.

Examples of things people may be closeted about in some contexts include but are not limited to sexual orientation (e.g. homosexuality or bisexuality), gender identity (e.g. being transgender), atheism, polyamory, mental illness or disability (e.g. having bipolar or depression), or physical illness or disability.

They can't say this in public posts, because the fact that there is a secret is already more info than they want to disclose. But I don't have that kind of problem - so it falls on me to post this sort of PSA.