Things I Wish I Said
Making group decisions
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

There's a huge amount of advice available for decision-making, well-being, spiritual development, and the like at the personal or individual level. It's far from a solved problem. More attention needs to be paid to the problem of figuring out what larger groups of people ought to do, though. Just a for-instance, the Bible has quite a bit of material on how to behave personally, but the best known group governance advice is treated as uniform individual admonishments ("Noone should kill other people.")

This seems to be a common feature of thinking aimed at the governance of groups -- "if everyone would just follow these uniform mores, everything would work out well!" Well perhaps so, but if you haven't noticed, that's not happening. Exhortation would appear to be fruitless. Making group decisions and deciding on group governance is not a process well modeled by gas laws (treating all the individuals as interchangeable and with simple inter-personal mechanics), even, perhaps surprisingly, for quite large groups of people.

I'm not sure what the technical terms are, but I even wonder how applicable lessons from smaller groups are to larger ones. For instance, countries are heterogeneous groups of people with largely involuntary memberships. (You can't just declare that you're not bound by a country's decision-making process, and conversely, the country can almost never just kick you out.) The sanctions available to countries, then, are radically different from those available to smaller groups which are more homogeneous (at least in some dimension) and have voluntary memberships, and from small groups like families which are genetically related. Do many lessons from families apply to corporations, clubs, or churches? Do the principles of organization of these kinds of communities apply well to countries? At first glance, it sure doesn't seem so. Even if there are principles of human psychology which apply to all these regimes, it seems more than just plausible that they manifest quite differently in different types of organizations.

Informally, quite a bit of the thinking on this topic that I'm aware of without digging in very deeply seems to be aimed at figuring out how to make country-level governance operate as an extension of smaller homogenous-and-partial group dynamics. That is, the idea is that there should be some kind of proper subset of the country, which is easier to think about in terms of the dynamics of voluntary and partial group processes, and which should be in charge of making decisions that bind the whole country. The thinking is mostly about establishing the composition and selection and size constraints on this group. That is, the theory is that if you can figure out how to specify "the perfect ruling elite" with just the right rules of behavior on it, then it will be appropriate to vest governance of the whole in that body.

Whether you are a royalist who thinks direct personal ownership of the country by a bloodline of monarchs is the optimal elite, or a republican who thinks that a set of rules specifying the operation of some sort of legislative body is correct, I wonder why we seem to be so drawn to this way of thinking. What evidence is there that this is the best (or even a good) way to do governance at the level of a country?
 
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Having a Title and Description

I was listening to the
Stack Overflow podcast today. I was struck by something that seems like an obvious procedural thing that is so often missing from software projects: having a title and description. This is often called the 'elevator pitch.' Or, as the podcast calls it, a 'vision statement.'

The idea is to answer the question, "So, what are you doing?" or "What is your project about?" Here's a stab at a necessary and sufficient list of constraints on the answer to that question.

1. It has to be short. That is, think about it as the title and paragraph description on SourceForge, or the title and a snippet in a search result or in an RSS reader. The canonical 140 characters is a good upper limit.

2. It has to be written. Written like *written*. Like writers do writing. Not like "I put a bunch of ascii characters in a row."

3. It has to be concise and descriptive. More nouns and verbs than adjectives.

How come? First of all, it should be short because it should be easy to explain. It should be easy to explain because it should fit into the world in a way that is easy to explain. If it isn't, it is probably a waste of time.

It should be written in order to solve two problems. One is communicating it to people who aren't in the elevator with you. This also puts a proper scope threshold on the project. A project which isn't worth titling and describing is not a software project. It is something you should do with awk or grep.

The description should be mostly nouns and not many adjectives. This makes sure that you know what it is you are trying to do. The writing of this description commits you to some thinking. Fine. You may be wrong, but fortunately this needn't be your last project. You can change the description and try again.

These constraints imply a certain level of thinking and iterating and refining about what it is you are doing. That's fine. That's basically writing like writers do.
 
Being Smart
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Here are some things I've learned about being smart. All else being equal, it's good, but there are things that are more important. Whether or not being smart is genetic, these skills can largely be cultivated.

1. Listening. There are thousands of really smart people, and the weird thing is that a surprisingly large number of the best, in whatever area, are constantly blabbing about whatever great thing they thought up. All you have to do is figure out who they are and pay attention. That's substantially easier than thinking up good ideas yourself. It requires skill at evaluation, because such people will throw off a dozen horrible ideas for every good one. That's expected. But it is easier to cultivate a careful ear than to arrange to be born a genius.

2. Persistence. 90% (or whatever) of success is showing up, and there are lots of forces aligned to make persistence pay off. Working hard and sticking with something is key. An idea has low value compared to sustained execution. This has to be balanced against adaptability and knowing when to make course corrections, of course, but that's really just another way to look at persistence: you persist despite the need for course corrections, not fighting them.

3. Planning. You can cultivate the ability to be tremendously productive by being attentive to what the most important thing is to do. It isn't always easy to plan that ahead, but it often is. Getting things done by setting intermediate goals, doing simple workable things first. Practicing.
 
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What's the news?
Friday, November 6, 2009

I'm interested in following the rapid evolution of the news business. Something that puzzles me is the conviction on the part of many people who are experts in this (i.e.
Jay Rosen), that Twitter is somehow emblematic of the new news system. That's true to an extent, but only insofar as what the news system has allowed itself to become.

As the news system has become more driven by individual personalities, and replaced the apex of the profession with the blow-dried TV anchor, coverage has gotten more and more shallow, driven by the logic of the news organization itself instead of by facts and reality. In short, news is now optimized for sharing unattributed gossip about celebrities, and basically treats every story in that way.

In that sense, Twitter is great for news -- the perfect online match for the attribution- and research-free milieu of today's journalism. But that match is dancing with the devil. Any modern news system that is going to be successful is going to look very little like Twitter, and rely on such knee-jerk low-information tools in only the most rudimentary way. Recent examples as I write this: Balloon Boy and the Fort Hood shootings. In these and similar stories, the news might as well be reading twitter streams -- they put on ignorant "experts" and relay breathless and almost invariably wrong reports from on-the-scene reporters.

But what is going to be successful in a world where passing on vapid chatter is zero cost is adding the values of reputation and authority. That is only going to be earned the hard way -- by taking the time to not get it wrong. To get it right. To explain. To find the facts behind the facade. To investigate. To ask the follow-ups.

What does Twitter have to do with that? If the existing news business abdicates its role of spending the time to get the story to doing low-value "curation" (that is, largely link-blogging), then someone else (probably what we now call "bloggers") will step into the role. The real lesson of Twitter is that curation is easy, and can be done largely through algorithmic aggregation. Unless you are occupied with doing the thinking, investigating, and explaining, you're simply not doing news. That today's news infrequently thinks, rarely investigates and seldom explains, is not evidence that Twitter will save it, but that Twitter will destroy it.
 
Why people can't think morally
Monday, September 14, 2009

There's an old saw about a fox and a hare sitting down to decide what's for dinner. This mental image, though, is very similar to arguments humans have about ethics. That is, when deciding what claims people have on each other, we traditionally start with actual people. This premise is absolutely emphatic in western law, where the issue of "standing" (that is, actually having been wronged) is critical in any legal action.

This starting place leaves a lot to be desired, however, when engaged in moral philosophy. The most glaring flaw is that individuals manifestly don't start life on equal footing. Their circumstances of their birth vary, as do their environments and genetic histories.

Which seems more morally strange, that two babies, through no action of their own, might be born one to wealth and power, and the other to poverty and struggle, or that at birth, one baby has any sort of ethical claim to participate in the benefits that may be enjoyed by another? Perhaps these two intuitions are the basis for left wing and right wing sympathies, but perhaps the difficulty in both of them is that they lead us astray.

That is, the situatedness of these claims is why we can't get traction in resolving the intuition gap. Imagine, for instance, that these future babies were sitting in Babyland considering how they might organize the world. Would they both agree to structure the world such that one of them (chosen at random) would be well off and the other suffer? Or, if they made the rules, would they change this circumstance? If so, how much? If we take this frame of reference as superior, it gives us a way to reason about how we want to organize the world which would be most satisfactory to those currently in Babyland.


See
Peter Singer and Aaron Swartz for more on this.
 
Legitimacy
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

There's an interesting new
poll breaking down what people who suspect Obama isn't a natural-born citizen believe.

It is really pretty crazy that 24% of Americans believe this, but that's about the number who still thought George W. Bush was doing a good job in 2008. Perhaps these two beliefs are correlated.

But two other results struck me as even more interesting than that. First of all, the basic theory by people who talk about such things is that Obama was born in Kenya. That's what the faked documents are made to show, and where the real action is in the "discussion" (such as it is). Yet of respondents, 10% think Obama was born in Indonesia, and only 7% in Kenya. (More about the remaining 7% presently.) What does this mean?

What it must mean is that most people formed some kind of early belief about this, based on email forwards or something, and have interpreted all subsequent talk as confirmatory of their belief, when in fact they aren't even hardly talking about the same theory any more. These countries are basically on opposite sides of the world, the proposed mechanisms for Obama having been born in them are different (as they'd have to be).

And the other 7%? Well, 6% of respondents say that they don't think Hawaii is part of the United States. Others probably know that it is, but believe that since his parents weren't born in the United States, that makes him not a "natural born citizen." These geographical and legal misunderstandings mark the bearers as not just not paying attention to an arcane conspiracy theory, but in fundamental default on basic facts of the political reality around them.

So what's going on?

One possibility is that people who tell pollsters they don't think Obama is a natural born citizen don't actually believe it. That is, this belief is more of a statement that Obama oughtn't to be president rather than indicative of what they think. But why? Why express this opposition in such a silly and baseless way? It is manifestly clear that this theory has no chance of ever bearing any political fruit, and in fact may end up being harmful to the cause. But as is clear by the fact that virtually all of the people who believe in this are unmoored, not only from basic geographical facts, but from the conspiracy discussion itself, they are probably not well equipped or care particularly much what the political realities are. They may be in the mindset that opposition to Obama implies that they should believe he isn't even qualified to be President. That is, it is just a facet of the unacceptability of his presidency that infuriates them as a whole. Evidence suggests this may make up quite a substantial fraction of the people holding this view.

A fruitful exercise is to look at the circumstances surrounding George W. Bush's election in 2000. Most people opposed to his presidency believed that the Florida election was not fair. The fact that it hinged on such technicalities, and the realities of the error-prone ballots, made it appear that the outcome of the election was within the error bounds of the voting process itself, and that consequently, control over the process of vote-counting was determinative. The fact that Bush's brother and his campaign officials were in a position to exert such control made that belief irresistible.

I'm not saying these beliefs are based on the same kinds of footing; what I'm saying is that we don't have to look back very far before finding an instance where opposition to a president was tightly coupled with various theories of his illegitimacy. Polls in 2001 might have shown that a lot of people believed various versions of how Bush won Florida, all of which would be expected to occur in people opposed to him, and which formed part of the overall complaint about him.
 
What's up with agency?
Saturday, August 15, 2009

The
agency problem seems to be getting worse. Or perhaps it's as bad as it's ever been, but we're in a payback period now where it's more noticeable how bad it actually is. Whatever the case, we should take advantage of the situation to try to think of ways to improve it.

In business, it seems like stock ownership isn't proceeding under the agency theory. That is, managers of firms don't appear to act as agents of investors, at least, not to the extent that investors wish or believe they ought to be. Instead, shareholders are more accurate characterized as investing in the talents of the managers. Or perhaps better yet, as making side bets on the bets the managers are making. Is this because of incestuous board relationships and other conflicts of interest? Or will the downturn cause investors to stop wanting to make these kinds of side bets?

The prevailing wisdom on the problem is that you attack it by means of incentives. That is, you assume that you are hiring a crook, and that your responsibility is to make sure that the crook is cheating for you, instead of on you. I am suspicious that whole approach may be wrong.

In a similar fashion to the microeconomics result that charging parents for picking up their kids late at daycare leads to even more tardiness [Freakonomics], I suspect that this implicit posture that managers are crooks and need to have their interests mechanically aligned with owners ends up producing a system in which managers feel entitled to exploit their information asymmetries to get around these rules. (After all, if "the incentives aren't properly aligned," they can't really be blamed for exploiting them, right?)

Perhaps the answer is the same: a return to moral argument. But a diffuse set of shareholders of a public company has a lot of obstacles in making moral demands on a company's management structure. Presumably the board is the vehicle by which this happens, but there's a lot of risk there of over-coziness, an agency problem on stilts (the board is itself the shareholders' agent), and classical information asymmetry.

So how would shareowners exert moral pressure in a more direct, socially powerful way? Putting it another way, how should they make better decisions about hiring morally competent managers, rather than ignoring that and hiring ones they think are managerially competent (but perhaps morally questionable)?

In government contexts, how do voters exert direct moral pressure on lawmakers and executives to provide the leadership they are elected to provide, rather than using the information asymmetry and systemic lags to engage in featherbedding and other kinds of corruption?

Both areas suffer from common problems: historical methods of direct social pressure available to the majority of the stakeholders simply aren't effective. Voters by and large don't go to the same parties as politicians, so if they stop inviting the politician to parties because he or she is corrupt, the politician can just go to the parties of the people whose influence they are transmitting. Same goes for CEOs and shareholders.
 

A blog by Greg Billock

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