The ethics of music in public spaces

On multiple occasions, I have toyed with the idea that it is unethical to play music in public places. It’s an idea that is difficult to take seriously, because it’s just so contrary to the culture we currently live in. Current norms surrounding public music seem to work just fine, so why try to fix what ain’t broken? And yet, it’s difficult for me to say exactly why the status quo is okay.

What follows is my argument as to why playing music in public spaces might be wrong. The goal is not to persuade you of the argument’s conclusion, especially when it’s a conclusion I don’t believe myself, but to persuade you that it’s a nontrivial question.

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More on the food truck game

In an earlier post, I was talking about the economics of entertainment media. As a way of starting that discussion, I introduced a very basic model which I called the Food Truck game. Several food trucks park along a single street, and each customer patronizes the nearest food truck. It’s a neat little problem, similar to the cake-cutting problem, but it’s not a very realistic model of entertainment media.

So I thought about it some more, and came up with some possible adjustments. With these adjustments, I hope to tease out some real implications. The question I want to answer is, what is it like to have fringe tastes in entertainment media, vs having mainstream tastes? How many businesses will cater to your preferences?  What prices will they charge you?

This also plays into a larger discussion I’ve been having, about the differences between capitalist systems, utilitarian systems, and fair systems.  Here I will show that each system leads to a different solution to the food truck game.

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Evolutionary Prisoner’s Dilemma sim

This is a small programming project I worked on in 2013-2014.  Although I wrote a blog series about it at the time, this is not a repost of that series.  Instead, this is a repost of the explanation I wrote earlier this year, when I uploaded the project to github.  If you liked this article, you might also enjoy this interactive game, although I had nothing to do with that one.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is an important concept in game theory, which captures the problem of altruism. Each of the two players chooses to either cooperate or defect. Cooperating incurs a personal cost, but benefits the other player. If both players cooperate, then they are better off than if they had both defected. In a single Prisoner’s Dilemma, it seems that it’s best to defect. However, if there are multiple games played in succession, it’s possible for players to punish defectors in subsequent games. When multiple games are played in succession, it is called the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (IPD).

The best approach to the IPD is highly nontrivial. In 2012, William Press and Freeman Dyson proved that there is a class of “zero-determinant” strategies that seem dominant, and which would lead to mostly defection. However, Christoph Adami and Arend Hintze showed that the zero-determinant strategies are not dominant in the context of evolution. Understanding this issue could elucidate why humans and other creatures appear to be altruistic.

How the simulation works

  1. We have a population of 40 individuals. Each individual has 4 parameters that govern how they play IPD.
  2. Each individual plays IPD against 2 other individuals in the population, and their fitness is calculated from their average score.
  3. One individual dies, and another reproduces. The probability of reproduction increases with fitness, and the probability of death decreases with fitness.
  4. All the parameters of the individuals are mutated by small amounts.
  5. Steps 2-4 are repeated a million times. Each repetition is called a “generation”.

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A toy model of media economics

One thing I’m interested in is the theoretical economics of entertainment media. For instance, we know that people have a wide variety of tastes in movies, but movie producers aren’t necessarily interested in catering to everyone’s tastes, they’re just interested in maximizing profit. You can imagine situations where this would lead most movie producers to cater to the most popular tastes, and to ignore fringe tastes.

Economists would describe this system as a kind of monopolistic competition. The problem is, monopolistic competition is super complicated and dependent on details, and I for one don’t understand it. So in order to better understand monopolistic competition, I want to build a toy model–the very simplest model that vaguely resembles monopolistic competition. The goal is not to build a realistic model, it’s more of a conversation piece.

Disclaimer: I have no education in economics, I’m more of a game theory guy.

Movies, democracies, and food trucks

Monopolistic competition is a system where different firms produce goods that are differentiated from each other. To make the very simplest model, we’re going to imagine that goods are differentiated from each other along only a single axis. For example, suppose that each movie falls along a one-dimensional spectrum from “drama” to “comedy”. And where a movie falls along this spectrum is the only thing that could differentiate it from other movies. Some viewers prefer comedies, and some prefer dramas, and some prefer dramedies.

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Sexual economics, a theory in need of reworking

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015.  It’s just some good old-fashioned making fun of pseudoscientific nonsense.

Recently, my attention was caught by the idea of the “sexual marketplace”.  Specifically, there’s a theory of sexual economics created by Baumeister and Vohs.  If you’d rather not read the paper, the Austin Institute* made a fancy video about it:

*Apparently, it’s a think tank run by Mark Regnerus.  Yes, that Mark Regnerus.

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An altruistic Prisoner’s Dilemma

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015, with a short postscript added.

Jeff Kaufman talks about an ethics trade that he sometimes does with a friend.

I have a friend who is vegan for animal welfare reasons: they don’t think animals should be raised for food or otherwise suffer for our benefit. On the other hand, they used to really enjoy eating cheese and miss it a lot now that they’re vegan. So we’ve started trading: sometimes I pass up meat I otherwise would have eaten, and in exchange they can have some cheese.

This is a win-win for the vegan, since they get to have some cheese, and there is no net harm to animal welfare.  It is not clear what’s in it for Jeff though, except for his idiosyncratic preference to have such trades.  I am not sure this is an interesting scenario by itself, since, in general, any trade is possible with sufficiently idiosyncratic preferences.

Therefore, I propose a similar scenario, which I’ll call the vegan/omnivore dilemma.

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Homeownership sure seems like a bad investment

It’s said that homeownership is one of the markets that millennials are killing. Well color me a typical millennial, because I don’t own a house, and I can’t see why I would want to. Renting housing just seems like a better deal. I’m going to explain why I have this intuition, then I’ll actually do some research to see common rebuttals.

Similarities and differences

Let me start with some caveats and basics.  While homeownership and renting fulfill the same need, they are not directly comparable. At least around here, if you rent housing then you tend to get a smaller apartment, and if you buy housing, you tend to get a larger house. If you want to spend more money for more space, or less money for less space, that may make your decision for you.

The other main difference is that homeownership is kind of a two-for-one deal. If you rent housing, you’re pretty much paying money for living space, and that’s it. If you buy housing, you’re not just paying money for space, but also investing some of that money. If you don’t want to invest money (say you can’t afford to), then homeownership is a bad deal for you. If you do want to invest money, then you could buy a house, but it’s not like that’s your only option. You could just rent housing, and then invest the money you saved by not buying a house. Thus, the comparison I’m making is not between a house that you own, and a house that you rent. The comparison is between investing in a house, and investing in, say, an index fund.

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