Thursday, February 23, 2012

Links for 23 February 2012

First, a charming article by Carl Zimmer in the, about biologist Thomas Seeley and what he has learned about bees. When they began to talk about what we can learn about group decision making from bee-hives, this reader (who has read about eusociality and inclusive fitness) began to mutter to himself "but hives are essentially one big organism! How can decision-making in hives have any lessons for genetically diverse groups of humans?! What about free-riders?"

Whereupon I had to tell myself that Seeley knows that, just shut up and try to understand.
Groups work well, he argues, if the power of leaders is minimized. A group of people can propose many different ideas—the more the better, in fact. But those ideas will only lead to a good decision if listeners take the time to judge their merits for themselves, just as scouts go to check out potential homes for themselves.

Groups also do well if they’re flexible, ensuring that good ideas don’t lose out simply because they come late in the discussion. And rather than try to debate an issue until everyone in a group agrees, Seeley advises using a honeybee-style quorum. Otherwise the debate will drag on.
There are any number of ways for groups of people to take decisions collectively. Seeley is describing a way to use norms to arrive at better decisions. It won't work in all conditions. There are reasons why it works well in New England. However, I think our love affair with leadership is such that we may not be giving it a chance where it could be useful and given our present norms, it may not make sense for any one leader to try and change the way we take decisions.

Second, Felix Salmon rips into Bob Shiller for recommending that countries issue GDP bonds. Excellent points all. One point he makes severely weakens JW Mason's argument for rent control. JW Mason argues that
if an asset lasts forever, the share of its present value -- which is what matters for the decision to buy/build it -- that comes from the later years of its life goes arbitrarily close to zero.
When I read that, I should've remembered that rents typically go up, and so what Salmon says here about bonds more or less applies
If the coupons are steadily increasing, however, the math becomes very dangerous. The coupons will rise at the rate of nominal GDP growth, which in the US will probably be somewhere in the 4% to 5% range over the long term. As a result, if you’re a risk-averse person who wants a perpetual US government security and your discount rate is say 3%, then the expected value of a singe Trill is actually infinite. Of course, no security trades at a price of infinity. But the fact that valuations can get so high in a low-interest-rate environment is all you need to know about just how volatile Trill prices could get.
I like Shiller though, and I hope Salmon is wrong in his guess of why Shiller backs GDP bonds.

Third, another excellent post by Felix Salmon, this time about the market for art. I agree with everything he says here
I do hold out some small hope that the Chinese art market will provide a correction to this syndrome — there, I’m told, the value of an art work is (at least sometimes) much less a function of its recognizability as the work of a certain artist, and much more a function of the way that it can fit itself into a long artistic tradition.
I recently exchanged emails with a close friend, in which I expressed a similar hope: that the (expected) rise of China, India, South America, and hopefully Africa will someday change art forever, that the European tradition which we all now consider to the mainstream of art worldwide will prove to be a tributary of a something much greater. It will mean that many artists we today consider established masters will be relegated by our descendents into the second rank, but it is our best bet for a fresh start in art.

Fourth, via a tweet by @EpicureanDealmaker, an excellent review of David Graeber's new book Debt: The First 5000 years by Gabriel Rossman.
Other interesting points he makes on debt are various ways that it becomes a moral obligation such that debtors are seen as sinners and religious salvation is seen as a spiritual analog to redemption. This helps explain something I never completely understood when watching The Sopranos, which is why gangsters first go to the trouble of getting someone to incur an illegal debt before shaking them down? It turns out that the point of loan-sharking instead of mere naked extortion is the victim feels a certain moral obligation to repay the debt and so loan sharks exploiting gambling addicts has the same logic as how many grifts (e.g., 419 advanced-fee fraud, the fiddle game, etc.) first involve the victim as co-conspirator in a crime against a real or imagined third party.
I've not read the book yet, but the many excellent reviews have made me really think and shaken some of my assumptions. However, like Grossman, I am very worried about Graeber's biases. We'll see.

Fifth, Richard Wiseman pays tribute to psychologist Ulrich Neisser. The monograph which he links to is great fun to read, and I had no idea that Neisser was the grandfather of the Invisible Gorilla experiment.

Sixth, via @MathUpdate on Twitter, an article: Ten misconceptions from the history of analysis and their debunking. I've only just begun to read this, but seriously, we need more such works. Too many laypeople assume that Mathematics is complete and have no idea what living Mathematicians do, but why blame them when there are so many mathematicians who assume that Mathematics is complete and all that living Mathematicians are doing is uncovering what remains hidden of its Platonic reality. Works like these help to complicate that picture, bring to the forefront the actual human process of making Mathematics.

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