Tag Archives: society

Joining together detached houses saves energy

Suburbs in many countries consist of detached houses that very close to each other – I have seen neighbours’ walls half a metre apart. Both houses could save energy by joining their adjacent walls together, which reduces heat loss in cold weather and heat entry (thus the need for air conditioning) in hot temperatures. Ideally, the joining should happen at the construction stage, but it is not difficult to do after the houses are built. Just enclose the space between the sides of two houses by extending the front and back wall and the roof of each house. It is not a load-bearing construction, it just has to keep the wind out from the space between the houses and provide some insulation to the space.
An added bonus is the creation of a covered storage area (a door to the space between houses should be created if the houses don’t already have a door on that side). A possible downside is that to get from the front of the house to the back, now one has to pass through the house or the storage area. But given the narrowness of the typical walkway between suburban detached houses, passing through the house may be the best route anyway. Also, when enclosing the walkway, a door can be made in each end to keep it open for passage.
Another downside is that windows on the side of the house now look into a covered storage area, not outside. But if the houses are so close together, then the only view from the window is the wall or window of the neighbour. After enclosing the side, this view becomes darker, but that does not seem a great loss. If it is, then energy-efficient lights can be installed in the enclosed area and kept on during waking hours, so people can admire their neighbour’s wall or window. Really, windows with such views can be replaced by a poster-size print-out of a photo of the view, because if the window looks into the neighbour’s window, then the neighbour probably keeps the curtains closed to prevent spying. And a wall through a window looks pretty similar to a photo of the wall stuck over the window.
The real reason to not join the houses is probably marketing and the desire to show off that it targets. People want to boast of owning a detached house, even if it is less than two metres from the neighbour’s. Knowing this, property developers construct such dwellings and market them as detached (“own your own house”, really owned by the mortgage issuer for 25 years). This is similar to the reason why McMansions are built, only the income of the buyers differs. Also similar are the pride and marketing that make people buy large SUVs, pickups and all-terrain vehicles for driving solely on paved roads.

How superstition grows out of science

Priests in Ancient Egypt could predict eclipses and the floods of the Nile by observing the stars and the Moon and recording their previous positions when the events of interest happened. The rest was calculation, nothing magical. Ordinary people saw the priests looking at the stars and predicting events in the future, and thought that the stars magically told priests things and that the prediction ability extended to all future events (births, deaths, outcomes of battles). The priests encouraged this belief, because it gave them more power. This is one way astrology could have developed – by distorting and exaggerating the science of astronomy. Another way is via navigators telling the latitude of a ship using the stars or the sun. People would have thought that if heavenly bodies could tell a navigator his location on the open sea, then why not other secrets?
Engineers in Ancient Rome calculated the strength of bridges and aqueducts, and estimated the amount of material needed for these works. Ordinary people saw the engineers playing with numbers and predicting the amount of stones needed for a house or a fort. Numbers “magically” told engineers about the future, and ordinary people thought this prediction ability extended to all future events. Thus the belief in numerology could have been born.
When certain plants were discovered to have medicinal properties against certain diseases, then swindlers imitated doctors by claiming that other natural substances were powerful cures against whatever diseases. The charlatans and snake oil salesmen distorted and exaggerated medicine.
Doctors diagnosed diseases by physical examination before laboratory tests were invented. Thus a doctor could look at parts of a person’s body, tell what diseases the person had, and predict the symptoms that the person would experience in the future. Exaggerating this, palm readers claimed to predict a person’s future life course by looking at the skin of their palm.
In the 20th century, some medicines were discovered to be equally effective at somewhat lower doses than previously thought. Then homeopathy exaggerated this by claiming that medicines are effective when diluted so much that on average not a single molecule of the drug remains in the water given to the patient.
In all these cases, superstition only adds bias and noise to scientific results. Science does not know everything, but it is a sufficient statistic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sufficient_statistic) for superstitious beliefs, in the sense that any true information contained in superstition is also contained in science. Nothing additional can be learned from superstition once the scientific results are known.

Scientific thinking coordination game

If most people in a society use the scientific method for decision-making, then telling stories will not persuade them – they will demand evidence. In that case, bullshit artists and storytellers will not have much influence. It is then profitable to learn to provide evidence, which is positively correlated with learning to understand and use evidence. If young people respond to incentives and want to become influential in society (get a high income and social status), then young people will learn and use the scientific method, which reinforces the demand for evidence and reduces the demand for narratives.
If most people are not scientifically minded, but believe stories, then it is profitable to learn to tell stories. The skilled storytellers will be able to manipulate people, thus will gain wealth and power. Young people who want to climb the social and income ladder will then gravitate towards narrative fields of study. They will not learn to understand and use evidence, which reinforces the low demand for evidence.
Both the scientific and the narrative society are self-reinforcing, thus there is a coordination game of people choosing to become evidence-users or storytellers. Note that using the scientific method does not mean being a scientist. Most researchers who I have met do not use science in their everyday decisions, but believe the stories they read in the media or hear from their friends. I have met Yale PhD-s in STEM fields who held beliefs that most people in the world would agree to be false.
One signal of not thinking scientifically is asking people what the weather is like in some place one has not visited (I don’t mean asking in order to make small talk, but asking to gain information). Weather statistics for most places in the world are available online and are much more accurate than acquaintances’ opinions of the weather. This is because weather statistics are based on a much longer time series and on physically measured temperature, rainfall, wind, etc, not on a person’s guess of these variables.

Salami tactics in everyday life

Salami tactics mean doing something others dislike little by little to keep them from obstructing or retaliating. Each small step is too small to be worth retaliation, but together the steps add up to an action that, if taken all at once, would definitely be worth stopping or retaliating for.
I have neighbours who put their unwanted things (broken bicycles, toys, furniture) in my parking space, using salami tactics. They don’t put the objects right in the middle of the space all at once, but initially put them mostly outside my parking space, with a small part of the object sticking into the space. If I don’t do anything, then the neighbours shift the objects so that a somewhat larger fraction of them is in my space, or add more objects that slightly stick into the space. If I push some of their rubbish out of my space, then other things appear, sticking into a different part of the space. They have plausible deniability in case I confront them – the object was only slightly in my space, so placing it there can be excused as an accident. This dance has gone on over a year, with them pushing their stuff into my space when I’m not there and me pushing it out when they are not there. Their encroachment attempts have become somewhat humorous, and I am observing them as a social science field study. The same encroachment happens in the common hallway, which fire regulations require to be clear at all times, but where the neighbours store their unwanted furniture. The furniture starts out near their door and gradually moves further and spreads out.
People in another house in this suburb have gradually squatted on a piece of the public park. They planted a hedge around that piece, which adjoins their dwelling. Now it is somewhat difficult to get into that part of the park (one has to squeeze through the hedge), so other people have stopped going there. It is effectively a private garden. The hedge did not appear overnight – the planting happened at a rate of about one bush per month, so it wasn’t too obvious to people who regularly pass through the park. The squatters planted the bushes in daylight, so deniability would have been a bit stretched if someone had confronted them. To some extent, planting one bush at a time in a public park can still be claimed an idle hobby, with no intent to encroach. However, the hedge that now clearly encloses a plot next to their dwelling does look suspicious.
A related tactic does not slice the salami slowly over time, but slices it many times at once to different people. At work, there are people who, upon receiving a task from the boss, ask one colleague at their level to help with one part of the task, another colleague to help with another part, etc, until they have delegated the whole task piece by piece. Each piece comes with an excuse why the delegator cannot do it. Then when the colleagues ask for help in return, the delegator is absent, unavailable due to family responsibilities or has some other excuse.

“Relative to opportunity” evaluation and anti-discrimination laws

Most countries have some anti-discrimination laws, requiring employers to pay people with different productivities equally, or to give someone who took parental leave their job back after they return. One reason why unequally productive people are paid equally is evaluation “relative to opportunity”, i.e. the bar for a promotion or a raise is lower for someone from a historically disadvantaged group or who has family responsibilities. Suppose that there is a consensus in society for supporting certain groups. Why might the cost of this support be placed only on specific employers, namely those who employ the target group? Why doesn’t the support take the form of direct subsidies from the government to the target group, financed by taxing all employers equally?
An explanation from political economy is as follows. Clever people in society or government want to pay a larger subsidy to high-income members of the target group, perhaps because the clever people are themselves high-income and belong to the target group. However, the majority of voters would not like high-income people getting a bigger subsidy. So the clever people disguise the subsidy as something that looks equal, namely every member of the target group gets the same duration of parental leave, the same guarantee of their job back at the end of leave, the same privileges and special treatment for promotions and raises. The value of these guarantees and privileges is greater for higher-paying jobs. For example, a promotion from a high-paying job usually gives a bigger salary increase than from a low-paying job. A guarantee of getting a high-paying job back after parental leave is worth more than a guaranteed low-paid job. Thus the support provided to the high-income members of the target group is more valuable.
Further, productivity at a high-income job is typically more responsive to the employee’s human capital, and the skills deteriorate faster. A truck driver who has not driven for some years retains a greater fraction of driving ability than a surgeon retains from surgical technique after not operating for the same number of years. The productivity difference between an employee returning from parental leave and someone continuously employed is on average greater for higher-paying jobs. So the cost to an employer of keeping a job for a returning employee instead of hiring a new person is greater if the job is higher-paid. The subsidy to the high-income members of the target group thus costs more per person.
Income is positively correlated with intelligence, so the smart members of the target group are likely the wealthy members who benefit from this kind of unequal subsidy. They are likely to vote and campaign in favour of the unequal support, instead of an equal cash subsidy for everyone. The less smart members of the target group who lose from an unequal subsidy (compared to an equal one) are less likely to understand that they lose. This makes them abstain from opposing the unequal subsidy.
In effect, the smart members of the target group redistribute a baseline-equal subsidy from the less smart (and less wealthy) to themselves, at the social cost of losing some efficiency in the economy. Keeping a job for someone when a more productive potential hire is available means losing the difference in the productivities of the two people. Such efficiency losses are typical of re-distributive policies that are not cash transfers.
In principle, the cost of the current policies could still be equally distributed between employers by taxing them all and subsidising those who employ the target group. Or equivalently, taxing only those who don’t employ the target group. However, to equalise the cost to employers, the firms employing highly-paid members of the target group must be compensated more than the ones employing low-paid members. The differential compensation to firms would call attention to the unequal support that people with different incomes are receiving, thus weakening the disguise of the subsidy. The clever people want to avoid that, so do not campaign for equalising the costs of anti-discrimination laws across employers.

Defence against bullying

Humans are social animals. For evolutionary reasons, they feel bad when their social group excludes, bullies or opposes them. Physical bullying and theft or vandalism of possessions have real consequences and cannot be countered purely in the mind. However, the real consequences are usually provable to the authorities, which makes it easier to punish the bullies and demand compensation. Psychological reasons may prevent the victim from asking the authorities to help. Verbal bullying has an effect only via psychology, because vibrations of air from the larynx or written symbols cannot hurt a human physically.

One psychological defense is diversification of group memberships. The goal is to prevent exclusion from most of one’s social network. If a person belongs to only one group in society, then losing the support of its members feels very significant. Being part of many circles means that exclusion from one group can be immediately compensated by spending more time in others.

Bullies instinctively understand that their victims can strengthen themselves by diversifying their connections, so bullies try to cut a victim’s other social ties. The beaters of family members forbid their family from having other friends or going to social events. School bullies mock a victim’s friends to drive them away and weaken the victim’s connection to them. Dictators create paranoia against foreigners, accusing them of spying and sabotage.

When a person has already been excluded from most of their social network, joining new groups or lobbying for readmission to old ones may be hard. People prefer to interact with those who display positive emotions. The negative emotions caused by a feeling of abandonment make it difficult to present a happy and fun image to others. Also, if the „admission committee” knows that a candidate to join their group has no other options, then they are likely to be more demanding, in terms of requiring favours or conformity to the group norms. Bargaining power depends on what each side gets when the negotiations break down – the better the outside option, the stronger the bargaining position. It is thus helpful to prepare for potential future exclusion in advance by joining many groups. Diversifying one’s memberships before the alternative groups become necessary is insurance. One should keep one’s options open, which argues for living in a bigger city, exploring different cultures both online and the real world, and not burning bridges with people who at some point excluded or otherwise acted against one.

There may be a case for forgiving bullies if they take enough nice actions to compensate. Apologetic words alone do not cancel actions, as discussed elsewhere (http://sanderheinsalu.com/ajaveeb/?p=556). Forgiving does not mean forgetting, because past behaviour is informative about future actions, and social interactions are a dynamic game. The entire sharing economy (carsharing, home-renting) is made possible by having people’s reputations follow them even if they try to escape the consequences of their past deeds. The difficulty of evading consequences motivates better behaviour. The same holds in social interactions. In the long run, it is better for everyone, except perhaps the worst people, if past deeds are rewarded or punished as they deserve. If bullying is not punished, then the perpetrators learn this and intensify their oppression in the future.

Of course, the bullies may try to punish those who reported them to the authorities. The threat to retaliate against whistleblowers shows fear of punishment, because people who do not care about the consequences would not bother threatening. The whistleblower can in turn threaten the bullies with reporting to the authorities if the bullies punish the original whistleblowing. The bullies can threaten to punish this second report, and the whistleblower threaten to punish the bullies’ second retaliation, etc. The bullying and reporting is a repeated interaction and has multiple equilibria. One equilibrium is that the bullies rule, therefore nobody dares to report them, and due to not being reported, they continue to rule. Another equilibrium is that any bullying is swiftly reported and punished, so the bullies do not even dare to start the bullying-reporting-retaliation cycle. The bullies rationally try to push the interaction towards the equilibrium where they rule. Victims and goodhearted bystanders should realise this and work towards the other equilibrium by immediately reporting any bullying against anyone, not just oneself.

To prevent insults from creating negative emotions, one should remember that the opinion of only a few other people at one point in time contains little information. Feedback is useful for improving oneself, and insults are a kind of feedback, but a more accurate measure of one’s capabilities is usually available. This takes the form of numerical performance indicators at work, studies, sports and various other tests in life. If people’s opinions are taken as feedback, then one should endeavour to survey a statistically meaningful sample of these opinions. The sample should be large and representative of society – the people surveyed should belong to many different groups.

If some people repeatedly insult one, then one should remember that the meaning of sounds or symbols that people produce (called language) is a social norm. If the society agrees on a different meaning for a given sound, then that sound starts to mean what the people agreed. Meaning is endogenous – it depends on how people choose to use language. On an individual level, if a person consistently mispronounces a word, then others learn what that unusual sound from that person means. Small groups can form their own slang, using words to denote meanings differently from the rest of society. Applying this insight to bullying, if others frequently use an insulting word to refer to a person, then that word starts to mean that person, not the negative thing that it originally meant. So one should not interpret an insulting word in a way that makes one feel bad. The actual meaning is neutral, just the „name” of a particular individual in the subgroup of bullies. Of course, in future interactions one should not forget the insulters’ attempt to make one feel bad.

To learn the real meaning of a word, as used by a specific person, one should Bayes update based on the connection of that person’s words and actions. This also helps in understanding politics. If transfers from the rich to the poor are called „help to the needy” by one party and „welfare” by another, then these phrases by the respective parties should be interpreted as „transfers from the rich to the poor”. If a politician frequently says the opposite of the truth, then his or her statements should be flipped (negation inserted) to derive their real meaning. Bayesian updating also explains why verbal apologies are usually nothing compared to actions.

Practicing acting in a drama club helps to understand that words often do not have content. Their effect is just in people’s minds. Mock confrontations in a play will train a person to handle real disputes.

Learning takes time and practice, including learning how to defend against bullying and ignore insults. Successfully resisting will train one to resist better. Dealing with adversity is sometimes called „building character”. To deliberately train oneself to ignore insults, one may organise an insult competition – if the insulted person reacts emotionally, then the insulter wins, otherwise the insulter loses. As with any training and competition, the difficulty level should be adjusted for ability and experience.

The current trend towards protecting children from even verbal bullying, and preventing undergraduate students from hearing statements that may distress them could backfire. If they are not trained to resist bullying and experience it at some point in their life, which seems likely, then they may be depressed for a long time or overreact to trivial insults. The analogy is living in an environment with too few microbes, which does not build immunity and causes allergy. „Safe spaces” and using only mild words are like disinfecting everything.

The bullies themselves are human, thus social animals, and feel negative emotions when excluded or ignored. If there are many victims and few bullies, then the victims should band together and exclude the bullies in turn. One force preventing this is that the victims see the bullies as the „cool kids” (attractive, rich, strong) and want their approval. The victims see other victims as „losers” or „outsiders” and help victimise them, and the other victims respond in kind. The outsiders do not understand that what counts as „cool” is often a social norm. If the majority thinks behaviour, clothing or slang A cool, then A is cool, but if the majority agrees on B, then B is preferred. The outsiders face a coordination game: if they could agree on a new social norm, then their number being larger than the number of insiders would spread the new norm. The outsiders would become the „cool kids” themselves, and the previously cool insiders would become the excluded outsiders.

Finding new friends helps increase the number who spread one’s preferred norms, as well as insuring against future exclusion by any subset of one’s acquaintances.

If there are many people to choose from when forming new connections, then the links should be chosen strategically. People imitate their peers, so choosing those with good habits as one’s friends helps one acquire these habits oneself. Having friends who exercise, study and have a good work ethic increases one’s future fitness, education and professional success. Criminal, smoking, racist friends nudge one towards similar behaviours and values. Choosing friends is thus a game with one’s future self. The goal is to direct the future self to a path preferred by the current self. The future self in turn directs its future selves. It takes time and effort to replace one’s friends, so there is a switching cost in one’s social network choice. A bad decision in the past may have an impact for a long time.

It may be difficult to determine who is a good person and who is not. Forming a social connection and subtly testing a person may be the only way to find out their true face. For example, telling them a fake secret and asking them not to tell anyone, then observing whether the information leaks. One should watch how one’s friends behave towards others, not just oneself. There is a tradeoff between learning about more people and interacting with only good people. The more connections one forms, the greater the likelihood that some are with bad people, but the more one learns. This is strategic experimentation in a dynamic environment.

Probability of finding true love

The concept of true love has been invented by poets and other exaggerators. Evolutionarily, the optimal strategy is to settle with a good enough partner, not to seek the best in the world. But suppose for the sake of argument that a person A’s true love is another person B who exists somewhere in the world. What is the probability that A meets B?

There is no a priori reason why A and B have to be from the same country, have similar wealth or political views. Isn’t that what poets would have us believe – that love knows no boundaries, blossoms in unlikely places, etc?

Given the 7 billion people in the world, what fraction of them does a given person meet per lifetime? Depends on what is meant by “meets” – seeing each other from a distance, walking past each other on the street, looking at each other, talking casually. Let’s take literally the cliché “love at first sight” and assume that meeting means looking at each other. A person looks at a different number of people per day depending on whether they live in a city or in the countryside. There is also repetition, i.e. seeing the same person multiple times. A guess at an average number of new people a person looks at per day is 100. This times 365 times a 70-year lifespan is 2555000. Divide 7 billion by this and the odds of meeting one’s true love are thus about one in three thousand per lifetime.

Some questionable assumptions went into this conclusion, for example that the true love could be of any gender or age and that the meeting rate is 100 per day. Restricting the set candidates to a particular gender and age group proportionately lowers the number of candidates met and the total number of candidates, so leaves the conclusion unchanged.

Someone on the hunt for a partner may move to a big city, sign up for dating websites and thereby raise the meeting rate (raise number met while keeping total number constant), which would improve the odds. On the other hand, if recognizing one’s true love takes more than looking at them, e.g. a conversation, then the meeting rate could fall to less than one – how many new people per day do you have a conversation with?

Some people claim to have met their true love, at least in the hearing of their current partner. The fraction claiming this is larger than would be expected based on the calculations above. There may be cognitive dissonance at work (reinterpreting the facts so that one’s past decision looks correct). Or perhaps the perfect partner is with high probability from the same ethnic and socioeconomic background and the same high school class (this is called homophily in sociology). Then love blossoms in the most likely places.

Organ trade restrictions

Trade in human body parts is mostly forbidden, although donations without compensation or for “coverage of reasonable costs” are allowed. One reason is that trade creates the incentive for criminals to harvest organs against people’s will. In the worst case, a young and healthy person is killed to get all their marketable body parts. Another problem is that stupid people may sell their organs voluntarily and later regret it.

The dangers differ depending on how damaging the removal of the organ is. Trade in hearts encourages killing more than trade in donor blood, although even for blood a victim can be drained completely if the price is high enough. For criminals, the complexity of organ removal and how fast it needs to be delivered to the recipient also matter. It would make sense for the restrictions and punishments to correspond to the danger of organ robbery and the associated damage.

The one tissue type currently transferred between people for which organ robbery and overdonation seem nonissues is sperm. Forcing someone to donate against their will is possible, but causes no permanent damage (in my medically ignorant opinion). Too frequent donations lower the quality (number of cells per unit of volume) in a detectable way, which would make most robbed sperm unmarketable. Yet payment for donor sperm is still forbidden in Australia (Human Tissue Act 1982) and many other countries. This may be a knee-jerk extension of the laws against trade in human organs, or there may be some reason I have missed.

On journalistic privilege

Journalists have certain privileges over the average citizen – they get access to inside information, public figures and press conferences. An attack against a journalist creates more outrage, because it is seen as damaging the free press. These advantages are not given so that journalists could make money or satisfy their curiosity. The privileges are provided to help journalists serve the public interest, similarly to the delegation of decision power to politicians. People being people, some journalists abuse the privileges. They do not inform the public, only entertain to make money. This takes the form of sensationalism: covering frivolous topics that sell well, but do not provide useful knowledge. For example celebrity gossip, funny animals, manufactured controversy.

It would be fair to remove journalistic privileges from tabloid reporters and stop calling them journalists. They are just nosy people. The problem is that whoever decides on giving or taking privileges, gets power over the media. Therefore this authority should not be the government, but an independent organization. However, some rights and protections of the media are legislated, so a non-governmental body cannot change them. The legislature would have to delegate its authority in this sphere to the hypothetical independent regulator first. Given how much politicians wish to influence journalists, this decision seems unlikely.

Why taxes hit the middle class

The poor don’t have much wealth or income, so not much to tax. The rich find it worthwhile to hire accountants and lawyers to find loopholes useful for avoiding taxes. Optimizing one’s taxes is almost a fixed cost (does not depend much on the wealth or income), but the benefit is proportional to what is taxed. In other words, there are economies of scale in tax evasion. The middle class is not rich enough for professional loophole-seeking to be profitable, but has enough to tax.
This is only theoretical reasoning. Empirically, the average tax rate increases in income, as far as I know. Whether the rate of increase should be higher or lower than at present is a matter of political preference.
To avoid the unequal treatment based on the ability to hire tax advisors, the tax system should be simple. Changing income from one form to another (salary to dividends for self-employed for example), or changing the source (foreign corporation vs its domestic subsidiary) should not change the tax rate. Minimizing loopholes means no special deductions for belonging to select groups (farmers, pensioners, veterans, parents).
The existence of a profession for providing tax advice to ordinary people is a sign that the tax code is too complex. Those in a common salaried job should be able to understand and file their taxes themselves.