Category: General Law


Recovering from collapse

Robin Hanson has written a characteristically interesting article about the possibility of human extinction. And with characteristic understatement, Hanson notes that “[a] disaster large enough to kill off humanity … should be of special concern.” Indeed. Hanson’s point, of course, is that wiping out all of humanity is much worse than wiping out almost all of humanity.

Hanson appears to worry about extinction in part because, he observes, disasters sometimes follow a power law distribution in the destruction that they cause. This suggests that in expected value terms, we should perhaps worry as much or more about disasters that wipe out humanity as about disasters on the scope observed in past human history.

Extrapolating from some assumptions, Hanson suggests maybe there is a one in three million chance per year of an event that would kill everyone (perhaps not instantaneously, but in a gradual collapse, as the failure of some social systems lead to the failure of others). My inclination is to agree with Hanson that the danger of extinction is sufficiently severe that it’s worth worrying about. But I wouldn’t rely too much on extending a power law distribution beyond previously observed events. That may actually understate the danger of extinction, which seems to me to be very low but a lot higher than one in three million. In part, this is because modern technology creates many scenarios for catastrophe (nuclear war, superviruses, nanotech gray goo, the possibility that the Knicks could keep Isiah Thomas after this year) that could not have occurred hundreds of years ago.

One argument that Hanson makes is that it might be useful to establish refuges to ensure that if a disaster occurred, at least some small number of people (perhaps 100) would survive. Eventually, these people could return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, eventually develop the capacity to communicate innovations, and then within maybe a mere twenty thousand years, a blip of cosmic time, returns to where we are now. While there is value in such an approach, government policy might not make a big difference. If some calamity is strong enough to prevent the survivalists from surviving, it would seem hard to believe that government-produced sanctuaries would do much better. It seems a narrow class of extinction events that would kill even those who, from the perspective of most observers, have absurdly exaggerated estimates of the probability of catastrophe while sparing a government project.


“We are disappointed that someone dressed as Chewbacca would behave in this way.”

While I had a great time at yesterday’s UCLA Law Review symposium on Constitutional Niches, I’m heartsick that I missed a major event in criminal law not far away; here’s the L.A. Times story:

LAPD officers arrested “Star Wars” street performer Frederick Evan Young … in his furry brown wookiee costume Thursday on a charge of misdemeanor battery for allegedly head-butting a tour guide …. The incident — witnessed by Superman and other impersonators — is the latest clash outside the landmark cinema between visitors and performers dressed as movie and cartoon characters [who] collect tips from tourists who pose for pictures and watch them perform …. Continuing disputes led to a “superhero summit” last year between authorities and about a dozen performers, which police said significantly reduced conflict on the boulevard.

I couldn’t have made up something this bizarre (though I feel a little bad laughing, given that an innocent guy got head-butted). The quote in the title of this post is from a Lucasfirm spokesperson; no word on how she would’ve felt if the perp had been dressed as Jabba the Hut or Greedo.

Hat Tip: Greg O’Meara, the only friend I have who was willing (even eager!) to watch the infamously bad Star Wars Holiday Special with me.


Other experts needed to cool things down

Now that an international group of climate scientists predicts confidently that global warming will occur, Scientific American’s David Biello concludes that “the science of climate change may partially undergo a shift of its own, moving from trying to prove it is a problem … to figuring out ways to fix it.”

But there is at least one other step that should be taken too, and that is to try to achieve some economic consensus on the best measures to take. There remains serious debate among economists looking at the costs and benefits of various global warming mitigation strategies. (See, for example, this review by one economist of another’s work.) We should be just as wary about the danger of junk economics as we should be about the danger of junk climate science. Economists should take the assumptions of climate scientists as a given, and give bottom line assessments of the costs and benefits of different strategies. My instinct is that major policy changes would be recommended, but if it turns out that the costs of mitigation are greater than the benefits, we should accept that too.

Ideally, we should convene other expert groups as well — such as experts on agriculture, oceans, and on and on –so that their numbers too can be plugged into economists’ calculations. Some important questions, unfortunately, don’t necessarily suggest expert groups uniquely qualified to answer them. For example, we should probably predict the political dislocations from agitation due to global warming, but it’s hard to know whose models are best suited to making such a forecast.

Other individual questions probably need many different types of experts. We should seriously consider geoengineering strategies such as pumping sulfates into the stratosphere, even though such consideration might well result in a conclusion that these strategies would not be worth undertaking. Each of these postulated strategies probably demands various groups of expert assessors, including climatologists, economists, materials scientists, and even they may have an almost hopeless task given the difficulty of predicting the feasibility of technological solutions many years from now.

Of course, even if we can figure out the best strategy incorporating all relevant perspectives, we then need to figure out which second-best strategies are worth taking given political constraints, such as countries that won’t cooperate with an effort to reduce carbon emissions. In the end, we can throw all the experts in the world at this problem, and we should, but the ultimate decisions will be made by our very imperfect political systems, so rational responses are probably too much to hope for.


Prizes, pieces, and property rights

David Leonhardt’s Economix column today suggests that prizes may be a useful way of stimulating innovation. His primary example is’s million dolar prize for any one that can improve its movie suggestion algorithm by 10%. The current best team is at 6.75 percent. Netflix may be better positioned than most companies to be able to offer prizes that will provide the winners reputational benefits that may exceed the value of the prize itself, but Leonhardt may still be right that prizes are an often overlooked means of accomplishing corporate goals.

The prize is an example of “crowdsourcing.” The web site Innocentive contains many such crowdsourced offers. If, for example, you can develop a pressure sensitive adhesive for re-sealing flexible bags for salty snacks (the adhesive must not adhere to potato chips or hands reaching in to take out chips), you can make $50,000 (plus the eternal gratitude of me, a Doritos connoisseur). An advantage of this approach over conventional sourcing is that the project sponsor does not need to assess the quality of those who may work on the project.

Why do we not see more crowdsourcing via prizes? See my comments after the jump.

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Market mysteries: The case of Extra Innings

Major League Baseball is reportedly entering a deal that would shift its Extra Innings product, which has been available to up to 75 million customers, to being available exclusively on DirecTV, which currently has only 15 million subscribers, for the next seven years. My primary reaction to this has been genuine sadness. Watching baseball games is my number one hobby, and my house can’t get DirecTV signals because of nearby trees. It did occur to me that if I chopped down my neighbors’ trees, I would probably do a year in jail, which would leave me six years to enjoy the games. More likely, I’ll have to find a new hobby besides watching baseball. Other alternative approaches to following the Mets — going to a sports bar, watching on my laptop — just won’t cut it.

But I’m also intellectually puzzled. How is it possible that it ends up being more profitable for MLB to sell Extra Innings as an exclusive franchise? Even putting aside possible loss of fans and thus revenue on other products (such as tickets), I would have guessed that whatever MLB could have received in nonexclusive deals for 75 million customers would be greater than what MLB could receive in an exclusive deal for 15 million customers. Obviously, that guess would have been wrong. What explains this?

A partial explanation is that the subscriber base for DirecTV is not fixed. If all cable Extra Innings subscribers could be expected to just switch over to DirecTV, then the initial subscriber populations would be irrelevant to the revenue calculation. But many people won’t — either because they (like me) can’t get satellite, or because they have some preference for cable over satellite. So, on reasonable assumptions, the Extra Innings subscriber base will be much lower in the future — and yet DirecTV seems to be able to pay more than everyone combined in a nonexclusive arrangement.

The answer to this market mystery probably has to do with branding. DirecTV expects to have a hipper brand by virtue of its exclusive deals on MLB Extra Innings and NFL Sunday Ticket. The exclusive contract thus sends a signal to consumers. I suppose that this could be an efficient result if consumers somehow underappreciate the virtues of DirecTV, or if consumers who still buy Extra Innings will value it more because others don’t have it. But I’m more inclined to think that the property rule protection that MLB has for its copyrighted shows leads to an inefficient result here, even if one that genuinely benefits MLB and DirecTV.

I generally believe in property rights, but this deal is creating a personal crisis for me that is making me challenge my views. Should the law in some way seek to discourage such deals?


Eat your broccoli and win a Nobel

Matthew D. Rablen and Andrew J. Oswald have written a very interesting paper comparing the life spans of Nobel Prize winners and individuals who were nominated but didn’t win. (Hat tip to the Economist.) They conclude that winning a Nobel confers about one or two years of extra longevity relative to being merely nominated for one.

The paper is admirably careful. For example, it exploits variation in the amount of purchasing power provided by the Nobel, factoring in cases in which someone wins only a portion of a Nobel, as a way of teasing out the possibility that extra longevity is a result of the money provided by a Nobel. In the end, the paper certainly seems to boost the conclusion that status is important for longevity, and more broadly, that status is something separate from money that people care greatly about.

Nonetheless, there is reason to be skeptical about results like these. Maybe the population of Nobel winners differs from the population of Nobel nominees. Perhaps the Nobel winners had better health than the also-rans, and this allowed them to do extra work that led to the Nobel, or maybe they had more or fewer children, or maybe they were smarter, or maybe they had better home lives, or just had better genes. The problem, of course, is it’s not feasible to control for all of these things, plus the many that one might not think of.

Here’s a suggestion for a study: How does winning a seat in Congress (or any other legislative body) affect longevity? An advantage of this study is that one might be able to exploit random variables that affect the probability of winning independent of the characteristics of the candidate, such as recent economic growth rates at the time of the election. In the second stage of the regression, the dependent variable would be the expected probability of victory given existing conditions exogenous to the candidate. I realize that it’s hard to assemble the data, though.


Making patent claims easier to read

A principal reason for the profusion of claims in individual patents is that patentees offer narrower versions of their claims. A court might invalidate a broad claim, yet accept a narrower one. And so, sometimes claim 2 will read something like this: “A method according to claim 1, further comprising …”, with the language following adding some additional feature of the invention. (The more features in a claim, the narrower the invention.) Even understanding this approach, I’ve always found that it makes patents frustrating and confusing to read.

This approach also produces a practical problem. Let’s suppose that I believe that I have patented a version of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but just in case a court disagrees with me, I’d like to point to ten additional features of my invention that could be used to narrow my claims. The challenge is determining how to group these. For example, claim 2 could be “The invention of claim 1, further comprising” five of the features. But I would rather add only four of the features if I can get away with it. In theory, I could have a total of 1024 (= 2^10) claims, to cover all combinations of possible additional features, but that is cumbersome and expensive.

It would be nice if one could draft patents in a kind of collapsible outline form. (If you don’t know what I mean, see this example of a collapsible outline.) One’s broadest claim would appear without any need to click on a “+” sign. Narrower versions of the claim could be viewed by clicking on “+” signs, revealing either additional elements of a claim or, indented below a particular element, narrower versions of those elements (or, recursively, of subelements).

A possible counterargument is that such cascading claims would be easy to read on a computer, not so much on paper. I’m skeptical, though. I think it would be simple to adopt typographical conventions that would make it easy to read such claims on paper, too. The elements constituting the broadest claim could be in Roman type, with everything else in italics. As with the collapsible outlines, different indent levels would specify narrower versions of claims. Dividers could be used to separate alternative means of narrowing a claim (so that one could patent the almond-butter-and-jelly sandwich and the cashew-butter-and-jelly sandwich). I would show you just what I mean, but it’s not easy with this blogging software!

Granted, this is not a patent reform priority, and the PTO would need to develop some new means of calculating application fees. But are there any substantive or stylistic reasons to oppose such a reform?


Workshops, redux

A few weeks ago, I posted a request for information about where colloquia or workshopping programs are. (There were not a whole lot of responses at the time, perhaps because of AALS timing — please feel free to weigh in if you haven’t yet done so.) One reader, a junior professor, e-mailed the following question which I thought was worth a follow-up post:

I saw your post about Solum’s suggestions about getting around and workshopping papers. Was there any discussion of whether it is permissible/proper/polite/good etiquette to contact schools about doing workshops? I always had the sense that (somewhat like lateral hiring), schools found you. Am I wrong about that? Because I agree with Solum that workshopping is the best way to get your name and your stuff out there. Just curious.

What is the best way to put out feelers or contact a school about workshopping? Do any of our readers or participants have suggestions or comments?


Virtual reality rate-of-time preference conflicts

Suppose we believe futurists who anticipate that someday, we (or our descendants) will gradually replace our brains with computers that are trillions of times more powerful, and we will spend much of our time interacting in virtual reality, unencumbered by the annoyances of physical space (like the need to travel).

The general assumption is that we would use our new brain/computer power to make ourselves much more intelligent. But it also might be possible to use some of the power to speed up our perception of reality. So, one might enter a virtual reality space and have an experience, perhaps participation in what Nick Bostrom calls an ancestor simulation, that feels like a hundred years in a second or two.

The problem is that different people might have different preferences about how quickly they want to perceive the world. Larry might want to have a billion-to-one ratio of perceived time to real time, because he wants to have as many experiences as quickly as possible. His wife Cheryl, though, might prefer to live only in real time (whether in real or virtual space), pointing out that with the miraculous improvements in medical science that occurred at the same time as virtual reality, we’ll all live to have plenty of experiences eventually anyway. This could put some real strains on Larry and Cheryl’s marriage. Even if he only spends a few minutes a day in virtual reality, he would be living only a tiny percentage of his existence with Cheryl (or at least with the real Cheryl). On the other hand, if he picks his virtual reality simulation carefully, he won’t need Cheryl or anyone else to be entitled to use the HOV lane.

How will individuals mediate such conflicts? Should the legislature step in and mandate that everyone perceive reality at the same rate?



David Pennock is Time’s Person of the Year. This is quickly getting to be an old joke, but Pennock is one of the people who should be entitled to the award based on this year’s theme of crowd wisdom and production. He has done great research on subjects such as collaborative filtering and prediction markets. (I also do research on prediction markets, and that is how I initially encountered his work.)

On his new Oddhead blog, Pennock has a clever post with which I nevertheless disagree. The post, entitled “Irrefutable evidence of inefficient markets,” tracks the stock market’s reaction to Apple Computer’s announcement of the iPhone. It notes that the stock price increased more than $2 just as the iPhone was announced, but then gradually increased about another $3 over the remaining twenty minutes of the keynote address, even though there were no new product announcements.

After the jump, I’ll explain the two reasons Pennock indicates this might be irrational, and why I disagree.

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