Explorations (Or, Unanswered Questions)

Below is a repository of all the questions I’ve been thinking about but don’t yet have the tools to answer.


Technology and the Human Condition

Is human dignity tied to work?

In his 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren," John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour work week in the 21st century. For him, the implication of less work, however, is not more human flourishing but confusion over what to do with the unprecedented amount of free time. Keynes writes:

There is no country and no people … who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.

For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented.

In the contemporary debate on Universal Basic Income (UBI), one hears similar arguments. Here’s the host of EconTalk Russ Roberts:

[UBI] shows a total lack of what gives people’s lives meaning and makes their hearts sing and makes them feel important, dignified, and loved… It’s not the way to cope with this pace of change.

Is human dignity tied to work? I don’t think the answer is obvious either way, and it probably depends heavily on how one defines work. If the day of true automation does come, I hope we conduct rigorous analyses before jumping to conclusions about how people would feel about “leisure.” (I don’t think randomized control trials work here.)

Has technology and material abundance made us happier? How do we quantify and compare life satisfaction over human history?

Measuring subjective wellbeing is incredibly hard. Two groups' subjective ratings are comparable only if we make strong distributional assumptions (see this 2019 paper by Bond and Lang in the Journal of Political Economy). The authors write:

Even within this class of distributional assumptions, we cannot draw conclusions stronger than “Nigeria is somewhere between the happiest and least happy country in the world” or “the effect of the unemployment rate on average happiness is somewhere between very positive and very negative.”

Economists mostly study how income, marriage, or a social policy affects individuals' subjective wellbeing. If their job is hard enough, what tools do we have to compare life satisfaction across generations and over all of human history?

There’s no question that technology and material abundance made us live longer. But have they made us happier? By what orders of magnitude?

The literary side of me thinks that suffering is the human condition, but perhaps material improvements did make us relatively happier – Is there a way to test the hypothesis rigorously, given that we don’t even have survey data on past people?


Under the effective altruism framework, does art ever have value? Is the value of present people’s lives always outweighed by the sum of all future people’s lives?

My interpretation of EA leaves little space for art or the lives of present people. In terms of impact, a piece of extraordinary art (e.g. a Shakespeare play) always pales in comparison to a mosquito net, not even accounting for the huge difference in the cost of production. In terms of total impact over time, the lives of present people are always lower in value than those of the people that will ever live.

The implication, therefore, is that funding art is a terrible idea. Causes that affect future people (e.g. preventing existential risk from AI) also take priority over those that affect mostly present people (e.g. local environmental or legal causes). If one’s time horizon is long enough, any disaster that has a small chance of happening or any innovation that has a small chance of materializing becomes more important than the urgent crises we face today, since the number of future people that will ever live vastly outnumber the number of present people.

Leaders of the EA community discussed these issues multiple times. (See this GiveWell blog post by Holden Karnofsky and this podcast interview with Will MacAskill.) Their arguments can be summarized as follows:

  1. The vast majority of donors are not following the EA principle, so we don’t need to worry about what EA means for the value of art or the value of present people.
  2. Just like how EA is not advocating for everyone to work in finance and donate their income, EA is not advocating for mosquito nets in every circumstance. Funding decisions take many factors into account.

I find the answers unsatisfactory because they don’t address my question of whether art, present people, or the less well-to-do in developed countries have value under the EA framework.

It’s commendable that EA has pushed large donors to focus on impactful causes rather than vanity projects. On the other hand, I don’t know what adopting the EA philosophy would mean for the average person.

Making art and helping present, proximate people could be viewed as instrumentally valuable – Doing these activities helps you and the ones affected become happier individuals, allowing all of you to do more EA work later on. But does art and present, proximate people ever have intrinsic value in a consequentialist framework?

When helping the same cause, how does the effectiveness of private donations compare to that of tax spending?

There must be a lot of empirical research on this issue, but I haven’t been able to find anything. I was curious because some philanthropists are calling on all private foundations to spend their funds within 15 years, or else the tax deductions no longer apply.


How did Wikipedia and many subreddits continue to produce high-quality information after their communities grew?

Wikipedia and subreddits such as r/AskHistorians and r/personalfinance are the few public online communities that lived up to our ideal of the Internet.

It’s fairly easy to create and maintain a small community (e.g. HackerNews and many music forums). But once the number of users reaches the millions or the tens of millions, things fall apart.

The potential returns to vandalism and spam on Wikipedia and the subreddits are also huge relative to the cost:

  • Wikipedia and Reddit pages are highly ranked in search results
  • Finance-related subreddits are read by lots of people ready to move their money

Jimmy Wales said in interviews that the serious tone of the writing on Wikipedia in its early days set the norms for future interactions. I suspect the publicly available logs on both Wikipedia and Reddit, as well as their user reputation systems all contributed to their success.

But I can also think of many online communities with those features that failed. Clearly public logs and examples of good behavior are not sufficient. What are the secrets to their success, and how do we replicate it in other types of online communities?

Why do tech companies publish internal research?

I’ve learned a great deal about recommendation systems from the company blogs of Spotify and Stitch Fix. At large conferences such as CVPR and NeurIPS, half of the papers are written by people in industry.

Why do tech companies encourage employees to publish internal research? I can think of two reasons:

  1. To increase the adoption of the company’s own tools/protocols (e.g. Facebook’s PyTorch)
  2. To recruit employees: publishing at conferences increase the company’s name recognition; allowing employees to publish attracts more research-oriented people to join the company

On balance, though, it’s not obvious that the costs of publishing internal research outweigh the benefits. Potential downsides include: 1) trade secret leaks, 2) waste of human resources (writing papers, submitting to and presenting at conferences all take time).

If the benefits of publishing do outweigh the costs, why don’t more research-heavy industries do it?

In what way is governing a country different from managing a company? How far does the analogy stretch?

[Section under construction]


Why do musicians still release albums (a collection of songs) rather than individual songs (e.g. only the hits)?

Now that distribution is almost entirely digital, musicians face no cost constraint when releasing songs. Why don’t they pick their “best” work and space out the release to maximize publicity?

From my conversations with people in the Chinese entertainment business, the reasons are threefold:

  1. Path dependence: Entire teams at record labels and talent management companies have been structured around “the album.” Continuing with the old model takes the least amount of effort.
  2. Musicians' personal preference: Musicians themselves grew up with the idea of an album, so they want to present a coherent body of work. Judges of music awards, music critics, etc. also look for coherence when evaluating an album. (The analogy in book publishing would be that writers can and do publish individual short stories, but at the end of the day, they still want a short story collection published, preferably with a nice cover and a nice font, even though few will actually read the physical copy.)
  3. Touring: Musicians organize tours around albums. If they release individual songs periodically, it would be difficult to find an overarching theme to organize the tour. (Musicians don’t make that much money from touring though, so #1 and #2 are probably more important factors.)

There might also be other reasons:

  1. For musicians that have nonmaterial incentives, an album is a good way to mix the commercially viable songs with the personal favorites. For many artists, the two barely overlap. So the commercially successful songs are, in a way, subsidizing the ones of greater artistic value.
  2. From the record labels' vantage point, perhaps putting a few “duds” in the mix also allows the hits to stand out more, similar to how sellers list products at three different price points, inducing people to choose the middle one.

In both China and the U.S., there are younger artists skipping all middlemen and releasing one or two songs a month directly to their fans. The old model might just go away very soon.

Why is there so much investment in Chinese education/edtech?

Update July 2020: The question is irrelevant now after the government crackdown on for-profit tutoring.

ByteDance has 100k employees, 30k of whom work on education products (on-demand tutoring, automated grading, etc.). The company poured $7 billion into education in 2020 and is hiring 10k people alone this year (2021) for its core education product.

In contrast, Facebook has 50k employees, 10k of whom work on VR.

Is the education market really that big in China? What accounts for the difference in strategy?


Does East Asian music sing more about family?

Some of the greatest Mandarin and Cantonese songs talk about family: 新写的旧歌 by Jonathan Lee is about Lee’s relationship with his deceased father; Shall We Talk by Eason Chan (writers Chan Fai-young and Albert Leung) is about Leung’s relationship with his estranged father; 家 by Lo Ta-yu is also about Lo’s family. You’d probably find more if you look at the popular songs.

In contrast, I don’t think as many English-language songs deal with family.

As my question is empirical, I can analyze song lyrics and compare. It should be noted that many family-themed songs – I’d say especially the good ones – do not mention “family,” “father,” or “mother” explicitly, so the computational classification methods would likely fail.

If it is the case that Chinese music touches more on family, it would be interesting to think about why.

The most obvious answer is that Chinese people are culturally more family-oriented and westerners more individualistic. The World Values Survey asks people around the world to rate how important their family is to them on a one to four scale. In almost all countries, 90% of the people surveyed say that their family is very important. China’s average is in fact lower than that of most European countries (e.g. Norway, Germany and Italy) as well as the U.S.. I think we need a better measure of the strength of family ties (to get around potential social desirability bias, acquiescence bias, etc.).

A more interesting (and, in my opinion, more plausible) answer is that pop music was introduced to China during a period of rapid urbanization (1980s - 1990s). The increasing physical distance between family members and the increasing demand on one’s time from work led artists to write more about family. One way to test this hypothesis would be to compare the pop songs of Japan, South Korea, and China. They are culturally similar but experienced urbanization at different points in time. But again, this analysis hinges on the ability of language models to classify the topic of songs. I think good art is too subtle for the models to work.


Has there been an effort to study how concepts map on to words in different languages? What does having more words for the same concept mean?

I have fewer opportunities to speak Chinese now, so sometimes I mix up Chinese words for which there is only one English word. An example is the English word “interview.” It has two distinct meanings:

  1. A meeting of people face to face, especially for consultation;
  2. An oral examination of an application for a job, college admission, etc.

These two concepts map on to different Chinese words, the first being 采访 and the second being 面试. When I interviewed Chinese researchers, for example, I said that I wanted to 面试 them (i.e. examine them as applicants for a job). What a terrible mistake!

Chinese also has words that map on to multiple concepts in English. For example, the word 弹性 refers to flexibility in both the literal and the metaphorical sense. You can use it to describe a surface, a hair band, or a person’s schedule. In English, however, “flexible,” “elastic,” and “bouncy” describe different things.

The analogous example in Spanish would be perder. “Missing (the bus)” and “losing (money)” are different concepts in English, but they are both perder in Spanish.

I hope that there is (or will be) a systematic effort to list all concepts humans in any society have words for. Then we can create a network graph where multiple concepts map on to one word in some languages and one concept maps on to multiple words in others.

When I was studying English, I used to group words with similar meanings in one stack. The tallest stack I had was a group of words that meant overused or commonplace: hackneyed, trite, banal, cliched, platitudinous, vapid, threadbare. Funny how English has so many words to describe something that’s overused!

I don’t think Chinese has as many words for that idea, but what does it mean when a language has multiple words to describe the same thing?