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Archive for the ‘Asymmetry’ Category

Have you ever heard of anyone selflessly helping out a stranger by buying their house at a bank foreclosure auction and just giving it back to them?  Well, now you have.

More likely, you’ve probably heard of private investors taking advantage of the banks’ unwillingness (or inability) to deal with all the bad loans on their books. Like the group of investors in Act 2 of this This American Life episode, you buy a house that’s in foreclosure for a significant discount on its true market value and then “you get the homeowner into either a mortgage they can afford, or they’re able to rent it, or you pay them a bit to move somewhere else.”

Well, what if there was a way to combine these two activities so that you are doing good for someone else while doing well for yourself financially?  There are many variants of how this could work, but here’s the basic concept:

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1. Smile.

2. Spend time with friends, or even try and make a new one.

3. Help another person. Donate a small amount of money, that has nominal value to you, but significant value to someone else. (Kiva, Vittana Foundation.)

4. Quit Smoking. It might be even worse for you today.

5. Stop worrying about tomorrow.

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As part of President Barack Obama’s stimulus package, NIH is awarding $200 million in “Challenge Grants.” But, according to Science Magazine, these grants are far more competitive than initially intended:

A frantic grant-writing effort that has consumed biomedical research scientists this spring came to an end last week, resulting in a huge pile of new applications—more than 10 times larger than expected—to be reviewed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After this enthusiastic response, there will be many disappointed applicants: The rejection rate could run as high as 97%.

Increased time cost spent not just applying for money but also reviewing applications to allocate the funds. Additionally, many qualified researchers chose not to apply for funding after hearing how competitive the grants were. Is this a good thing? Does this competition result in better science? Could there be a better way to allocate scientific funding?

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Tweeter, Claus Metzner (@cmetzner) alerted me to this cool area of study with this paper.

Suppose you meet a Wise being (W) who tells you it has put $1,000 in box A, and either $1 million or nothing in box B. This being tells you to either take the contents of box B only, or to take the contents of both A and B. Suppose further that the being had put the $1 million in box B only if a prediction algorithm designed by the being had said that you would take only B. If the algorithm had predicted you would take both boxes, then the being put nothing in box B.  Presume that due to determinism, there exists a perfectly accurate prediction algorithm. Assuming W uses that algorithm, what choice should you make?

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It’s not hard these days to find vignettes like this one (starting at minute 1:45) that describe a microeconomic chain of events that give you a glimpse into the recessionary dynamic.  I think it’s a good starting point to explain my personal theory of why asymmetry is the root of all value (economic and otherwise).

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