Beginning with the end

Tyler Cowen interviews Margalit Fox, the lead obituary writer for the NYTimes.

The criterion we look for, if we had to pick a single question that can be asked of every applicant at our gates, is: Did he or she change the culture?

Since death is a lagging indicator of cultural influence, it's reassuring but also depressing that we're now starting to see a shift away from obits for mostly white men.

FOX: No. But remember, think about what an obit is. It is not only the most narrative genre in the paper; it is the most retrospective. We are writing about the movers and shakers who made our world. I think of obit writing as the act of looking through a sliding window onto the past, a kind of window that slides back along the rails of time.
When I first started the job in 2004, we were writing overwhelmingly about the people on either side of World War II. We edged up into the Cold War. We’re now writing about Vietnam and the civil rights era.
And no matter how we feel about it in light of modern sensibilities, the stark reality of our world is, pretty much the only people who were allowed to be actors on the world stage in the 1940s, ’50s, were overwhelmingly white men.
I’m happy to say that in the 12 years I’ve been doing this job, as that window has slid up into the civil rights era and even the women’s movement, that page of ours has started to diversify.

One would imagine it's more efficient to pre-write obits for famous people, especially those who are veering closer to death, and indeed that's the case (with the exception of maybe Keith Richards, it's unlikely to be wasted work):

It is indeed the case that obits for many of these major historical figures — presidents, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, old-time silver screen stars — those are indeed written in advance.
Things happen. Rockers OD. Planes go down. Things happen. But in general, we try to have a certain level of preparedness with the major figures. We do indeed have the advance obits — all but the top, as it were — written, edited, on file. We have about 1,700.

We had similar pre-written obits at Amazon back when there was a larger human editorial team there. Editors would assign obits for famous authors, musicians, and filmmakers/actors who were still alive but on the far side of the age curve. This batch of obits was referred to, with all due affection, as the ghoul pool.

It strikes me as a useful exercise, if you can get over the usual morbid associations around death in the West, to write an obituary for yourself and update it once a year, almost like maintaining a resume or LinkedIn profile.

Meaning without death

AA: If we can indefinitely prevent death, would it still be possible to create meaning without what Saul Bellow called “the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything”?

I think so, yes. You have other problems with what happens when you overcome old age, but I don’t think lack of meaning will be a serious problem. Over the past three centuries, almost all the new ideologies of the modern world don’t care about death, or at least they don’t see death as a source of meaning. Previous cultures, especially traditional religions, usually needed death in order to explain the meaning of life. Like in Christianity – without death, life has no meaning. The whole meaning of life comes from what happens to you after you die. There is no death, no heaven, no hell… there is no meaning to Christianity. But over the past three centuries we have seen the emergence of a lot of modern ideologies such as socialism, liberalism, feminism, communism that don’t need death at all in order to provide life with meaning.

From reader questions for Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens.

Zygmunt Bauman

But by the end of the century, under pressure from various sources, those institutions were withering. Economically, global trade had expanded, while in Europe and North America manufacturing went into decline; job security vanished. Politically, too, changes were afoot: The Cold War drew to an end, Europe integrated and politicians trimmed back the welfare state. Culturally, consumerism seemed to pervade everything. Mr. Bauman noted major shifts in love and intimacy as well, including a growing belief in the contingency of marriage and — eventually — the popularity of online dating.
In Mr. Bauman’s view, it all connected. He argued we were witnessing a transition from the “solid modernity” of the mid-20th century to the “liquid modernity” of today. Life had become freer, more fluid and a lot more risky. In principle, contemporary workers could change jobs whenever they got bored. They could relocate abroad or reinvent themselves through shopping. They could find new sexual partners with the push of a button. But there was little continuity.
Mr. Bauman considered the implications. Some thrived in this new atmosphere; the institutions and norms previously in place could be stultifying, oppressive. But could a transient work force come together to fight for a more equitable distribution of resources? Could shopping-obsessed consumers return to the task of being responsible, engaged citizens? Could intimate partners motivated by short-term desire ever learn the value of commitment?
Finally, he worried, wasn’t there a risk that those whom “liquid modernity” had not treated well would turn to a strongman, a leader who promised to restore certainty and send cosmopolitanism packing?

From a remembrance of Zygmunt Bauman, who recently passed away. Given recent happenings in countries all over the world, Bauman's thinking on a variety of topics, including the Holocaust, seem particularly relevant. I like that term, "liquid modernity".

When I read the following, I couldn't help but think that were he alive and still writing now he'd be a leading intellectual blogger.

Any sober appraisal of Mr. Bauman’s work would conclude he spread himself too thin. Much of his writing was scattershot, aphoristic and repetitive. He knew nothing of disciplinary boundaries, veering into philosophy, literature, anthropology; it could be fruitful or dilettantish. Empirical evidence was equally unknown to him. Imagination and acumen counted for everything.
American social science doesn’t have much room for thinkers like Mr. Bauman. Our leading researchers prefer the concrete to the abstract, the causal claim you can rigorously test to the flowery theoretical description you can’t. And there’s clearly a lot to be said in favor of such a fact-based approach.
But we could do with more of the broad intellectual sweep and vision that Mr. Bauman brought to the enterprise. His writing — eagerly consumed by European audiences, especially — helped readers think about the times, and their own lives, in entirely new ways.

Pareto's two types of elites: lions and foxes

Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. He used the metaphor of a river to make his point. Most of the time, the river flows continuously, smoothly incorporating its tributaries, but sometimes, after a storm, it floods and breaks its banks.
Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.
The relevance of Pareto’s theories to the world today is clear. After a period of foxes in power, the lions are back with renewed vigour. Donald Trump, as his behaviour during the US presidential campaign confirmed, is perfectly at ease with the use of intimidation and violence. He claimed that he wants to have a wall built between the United States and Mexico. His mooted economic policies are largely based on protectionism and tariffs. Regardless of his dubious personal ethics – a classic separation between the elite and the people – he stands for the traditional (white) American way of life and religion.

I had no idea Pareto (of Pareto Principle fame) had done so much thinking on politics. A good read on his theory of lions and foxes and its obvious applicability to the world today.

The pendulum is swinging back to the lions. In some respects, this might be welcome, because globalisation has left too many behind and they need to be helped. However, Pareto’s lesson was one of moderation. Both lions and foxes have their strengths and weaknesses, and political elites are a combination of the two, with one element dominating temporarily. Pareto, as he did in Italy in the 1920s, would have predicted a return of the lions. But as a liberal, he would have cautioned against xenophobia, protectionism and violence.
If the lions can serve as correctives to the excesses of globalisation, their return is salutary. Yet the circulation of elites is a process more often of amalgamation than replacement. The challenge to liberal politics is to articulate a balance between the values of an open, welcoming society and of one that takes care of its most vulnerable members. Now, as ever, the task is to find the balance between the lions and the foxes.

Deontology Or Trustworthiness?

Conversation between Daniel Kahneman and Molly Crockett:

What we found was that if you enhance people's serotonin function, it makes them more deontological in their judgments. We had some ideas for why this might be the case, to do with serotonin and aversive processing—the way we deal with losses.

It certainly seems as if the internet renders everyone more deontological than consequentialist. Perhaps it's the performative aspect of publishing on that stage, the norm of using those networks for signaling, that leads everyone up the steps to their high horses.

CROCKETT:  Yeah. Indignation, or a retaliative desire to punish wrongdoing, is the product of a much less deliberative system. We have some data where we gave people the opportunity to punish by inflicting a financial cost on someone who treated them unfairly or fairly, and we varied whether the person who was going to get punished would find out if they'd been punished or not. We were able to do this by making the size of the overall pie ambiguous.
If people are punishing others in order to enforce a social norm and teach a lesson—I'm punishing you because I think you've done something wrong and I don't want you to do this again—then people should only invest in punishment if the person who's being punished finds out they've been punished. If punishment is rational and forward‑looking in this way, it's not worth it to punish when the person isn't going to find out they've been punished.
This is not what we find at all. In fact, people punish almost the same amount, even when the target of punishment will never find out that they've been punished. This would suggest that punishment, revenge, a desire for retaliation are a knee-jerk reaction, a retrospective evaluation of the harm, rather than a goal‑directed deliberative desire to promote the greater good.


We've done experiments where we give people the option to play a cooperative game with someone who endorses deontological morality, who says there are some rules that you just can't break even if they have good consequences. We compare that to someone who's consequentialist, who says that there are certain circumstances in which it is okay to harm one person if that will have better consequences. The average person would much rather interact with and trust a person who advocates sticking to moral rules. This is interesting because it suggests that, in addition to the cognitive efficiency you get by having a heuristic for morality, it can also give you social benefits.

One of my sisters won a school auction prize in which my niece Lyla, who is six, could have a special lunch with her teacher. She had the opportunity to invite one friend, and rather than choose her best friend, she chose the girl in the class with special needs. This girl can't speak, so Lyla spent the day communicating with the girl through an iPad. I saw the photos and was so moved that she would be so generous at such a young age.

In a family email thread one of my brothers joked that we needed to send around photos of all my other nieces and nephews (nine in total!) doing noble things as confirmation they weren't all monsters. Smiley emoji's all around, but there's an element of that on the web now. If something grave happens in the world and you haven't heard of it, god forbid you post some humorous at that moment lest ye be judged summarily and without mercy by the humourless scolds on the internet.

But observe enough trolls on the internet and you see why signaling your virtue, or your deontological creds, might be critical to passing through the morality filters which maintain the norms of good decorum on whatever internet space you're traveling through.

KAHNEMAN:  The benefit that people get from taking a deontological position is that they look more trustworthy. Let's look at the other side of this. If I take a consequentialist position, it means that you can't trust me because, under some circumstances, I might decide to break the rule in my interaction with you. I was puzzled when I was looking at this. What is the essence of what is going on here? Is it deontology or trustworthiness? It doesn't seem to be the same to say we are wired to like people who take a deontological position, or we are wired to like people who are trustworthy. Which of these two is it?

CROCKETT:  What the work suggests is that we infer how trustworthy someone is going to be by observing the kinds of judgments and decisions that they make. If I'm interacting with you, I can't get inside your head. I don't know what your utility function looks like. But I can infer what that utility function is by the things that you say and do.

This is one of the most important things that we do as humans. I've become increasingly interested in how we build mental models of other people's preferences and beliefs and how we make inferences about what those are, based on observables. We infer how trustworthy someone is going to be based on their condemnation of wrongdoing and their advocating a hard-and-fast morality over one that's more flexible.

I Will Always Love You

Sorry for the radio silence here recently. I thought I was dying there for a bit but it turned out to be just a really bad bout of pneumonia. Not having contracted it before, I thought it was just a return of the flu, but that changed when I started coughing up blood. It knocked me sideways for weeks, I still have muscle pains from the violent coughing fits. Two weeks of antibiotics have set me back on my feet, with just a lingering cough and shortness of breath still to conquer.


This excerpt from Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Digital Culture is a lovely piece of music writing (even as the excerpt just ends abruptly). I love this passage on Whitney Houston's cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" from the Bodyguard soundtrack. It remains the all-time bestselling single by a female recording artist.

From the outset, Parton’s lyrics and melody become secondary to Houston’s modulations on them. Whitney inserts pauses, extends syllables, redraws the melody to fit the moment. Her arabesque vocalizations become something in their own right, codependent and contingent yet emotionally, viscerally, musically real. The ornament swells to become the heart.
These effects flow from her masterful use of a technique called melisma. Technically speaking, melisma occurs when vocalists use melodic embellishment to extend a single syllable. Emotionally, it’s something else entirely, a mode of expression that bucks against the very limits of language. Indeed, the crushing power of “I Will Always Love You,” its meaning in sound, results from how Houston’s melisma activates a mysterious, even mystical relationship between overflowing emotion, life’s vicissitudes, and ultra precise self-control. Rather than simply sing about the bittersweet conflicts involved in saying goodbye to a lover, Houston deploys melisma to enact in sound a heart-felt struggle between holding on and letting go. Like life as it unfurls, each moment is un-anticipatable until it happens, whereupon we can’t possibly imagine it any other way.
Such is the power of melisma. The technique breathes life-flow into fixed text. Melisma is vocal embellishment’s purest form, almost always improvised and therefore rarely written down. Melisma locates meaning in the instant. It reveals to us the risk and control of a singer at her most unpredictably alive.

I love learning terms like melisma which refer to very specific and arcane things in various fields. Linguistics is full of them, like anaphora, synecdoche, and metonymy. The rest of this passage takes an unexpected, almost Seinfeldian turn to discuss how Auto-Tune rose to prominence in North Africa.

Though Kevin Costner got dragged for playing a white savior of sorts in Hidden Figures, this is one time where he earns partial credit for fighting for the a cappella opening of Houston's cover.

Houston begins unaccompanied, as if the string section and other instruments have, like me, been stunned into silence by the quality of movement inside the filigreed pathways of her voice. Houston doesn’t stretch each word out so much as give it wings to fly around in. I and you—these brief words can last for seconds here, long enough to make sure we all know just how large they really are. The vulnerability of her naked voice ups the bravura. It’s a tightrope walk without a safety net (Auto-Tune hadn’t been invented yet). As with Cher’s Auto-Tune innovation, the record company executives were dead set against the now-famous a cappella opening. It took protests from Houston and Bodyguard costar Kevin Costner to keep it intact. (Tone deafness or outright hostility toward music as an art form may not be required to land a job as a major-label exec, but all indications suggest that they sure won’t hurt your chances.)

Learning curves sloping up and down

One of the great inefficiencies of humanity as a species is the need to re-educate every successive generation. I think of this when playing with my nieces and nephews and my friends' children. Adults have to spend so much time teaching infants and children things we've already learned, and the process of knowledge transfer is so lossy. The entire education system can be seen as a giant institution for transferring knowledge from one generation to the next, like some crude disk drive, and these days it's rising in price despite not measurably improving.

Artificial intelligences need not go through this because they don't die abruptly like humans, they can evolve continuously without hard resets. This is one of its chief advantages over human intelligence. To take a modern example, self-driving cars should only improve from here on out, and each new one we build can be as smart as the smartest self-driving car as soon as it's assembled. Every node on the network has access to the intelligence of the network.

All this human intelligence cut short by mortality is a curse, but given human nature, it is also critical to forward progress. People's views calcify, so death is a way of wiping the slate clean to make way for ideological progress. Part of why racism and sexism, to take two social ills, decline over time is simply that the racists and sexists die out.

This plays out at a corporate level, too. Companies can have both too long and too short a memory. New employees have to be taught the culture and catch up to what others before them learned so they can be as productive as possible. On the other hand, institutions can become set in their ways, less adaptive as their environments evolve. New blood can bring fresh eyes.

One form of this is institutional trauma. A company tries to enter a space, fails, and doesn't venture into that space ever again, even if the timing for entry shifts to a more favorable one. I look at a product like Google Wave and think that if Google had stuck with it, they might have built something like Slack.

Why do companies slow down as they grow larger? One reason is that in a hierarchical organizational structure, the more people and more levels you pile in, the more chances someone somewhere will say no to any idea. Bureaucracy is just institutionalized veto power growing linearly with organizational size.

One theory for why evolution gives us just enough of a lifespan to bear offspring but not stay around too long is that it reduces competition for resources for our offspring. Old timers who rise in an organization can compete for resources with new employees, but without the disadvantage of old age. Most who survive at a company have risen to the level where they have disproportionate institutional power. It's often deserved, but it's also dangerous. True disruption of a company is difficult to counter because it attacks the strongest part of your business, and that division or unit tends to be the one that has the most power in the organization.

Companies try to counter this by dividing themselves into smaller units even as they grow in the aggregate. Jeff Bezos tried localizing decision-making power at Amazon in what he called two-pizza teams (the size of the team being one that could be fed by two pizzas). Facebook acquires companies like Instagram and WhatsApp but lets them run largely independently. Google's new Alphabet org structure breaks itself into a looser coalition of entities where each division has more degrees of freedom strategically. All are attempt to keep the weight of bureaucratic middle management off of the creatives, to preserve greater dimensionality and optionality throughout the organization.

Amazon is one company which often wins just by being more patient than its competitors, playing games on a much longer time scale than most. It tends to be less susceptible to institutional trauma than most. Of course, part of this is the result of the unique ownership structure that companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google have managed to pull off: ultimate decision-making power rests in the hands of the founders even as they leverage the benefits of the public market.

However, it's more than that. When Bezos was asked at Recode last year how he decided when to give up on a project, he said something striking: we give up on something when the last high judgment person in the room gives up on it.

What a brilliant heuristic. Simple and memorable. Of course, deciding who is high judgment is its own challenge, but this concept reverses the usual problem of bureaucracy, which is it takes only one person saying no to kill something. Jeff reverses that; he wants the company to be as smart on any topic as its single smartest person. 

At some point in life, it probably is rational to be that old dog who eschews new tricks. If you're going to die soon anyhow, you're more likely to just suffer the discomfort of having to adjust and then die before you can reap any awards. The corporate version of this is the concept that most executives should just squeeze the maximum profit out of their existing thinking and not bother trying to stave off disruption. It might be more energy and resource efficient to just have some of the stalwarts die off rather than shift the thinking of tens of thousands of employees, or change a culture which has evolved over decades.

The path of least cost/energy

We've passed that inflection point in the cost/quality curve of visual effects where it is almost always more cost effective now to use compositing than to use physical locations, props, and extras. Not the case yet for actors, but you can still save a lot of money on everything else. It's amazing how much of the mundane shots in almost every TV series now are just executed in a computer.

This a precursor of what virtual reality will do to reality given all the shadow costs of reality. A producer ordering VFX in place of sending a crew on location is pursuing the most cost-efficient strategy. What Tyler Cowen refers to as the complacent class of people sitting at home watching Netflix on a Friday night rather than paying to go out to a crowded public place is also just cost efficient (or energy efficient) behavior.