Category Archives: Uncategorized

Triple threat results understood as probability

“[I]f you want something extraordinary, you have two paths. 1) Become the best at one specific thing. 2) Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things. The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. […] The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.” p. 269, Tools of Titans, Scott Adams being quoted by Tim Ferriss, 2017.

Scott Adams actually lists 3 things he combines. You can think of it this way. To become top 1% at one skill is usually more difficult than becoming top 25% at 3 skills. If those 3 skills are relatively unrelated, then the chance someone else has similar skills is about 0.25*0.25*0.25, or … 1% (or so). So, you are in about the top 1% when it comes to that combination.* So, the easier route to extraordinary results is to cultivate and creatively combine talents that fit you, such that you are in the top 1% for that application of talents.

*Top 25% is .25*.25*.25 = top 1.56%, top 20% is .2*.2*.2 = top 0.8%, top 15% is .15*.15*.15 = top 0.3%, top 10% is .1*.1*.1 = top 0.1% for that combination.

What is the cause of the obesity epidemic?

One of the more spectacular failures of modern science and technology has been its inability to solve the obesity problem. What is the cause of the obesity epidemic? There are probably a significant number of causes, some of which might include:

  • reduction in average will power
  • rise of certain kinds of fast food
  • decline in home cooking
  • rise in relatively sedentary occupations
  • rise of television and other relatively sedentary past times
  • introduction of sugar to more foods (brought on in part by the rise of cheap sugar), and increase in sugar in general (including fruit and fruit juices)
  • misguided nutritional advice (for example, eat less fat, and instead make relatively high-glycemic index carbs basis of diet, or calories-in calories-out theory)
  • more driving, including longer commute times and more generally suburban environments
  • increase in hedonic ethic (through advertising, for example)

and so on.

Not only are there plausibly a significant number, but many of these causes are tangled. It’s not easy to separate one from another – they often interact in circles of causality.

That is why asking: “What is the cause of the obesity epidemic?” isn’t always that useful of a question. The human mind is drawn to uncomplicated answers, but in a complex system there might not be a simple causal story that is adequate.

A better question might be: “What things can we realistically change, that will significantly decrease the levels of obesity?”

In some cases, a solution is all-or-nothing, and might require multiple parts coming together to solve the puzzle. In this case, though, it seems plausible we can get partial solutions that in themselves are significant.

If we are talking about how to change things, then a useful concept might be that of a ‘causal lever‘. Something that, given the background causal situation, can when added cause a large difference. There might be multiple ones in any given situation. In this case, my guess is that the most at-hand causal lever that will make a significant difference is changing the standard theories about weight gain or loss (the ‘misguided nutritional advice’ above), because this will then ripple out to a large number of other areas of society.

Also see here.

Tyler Cowen and scientific progress

One of the recommendations Tyler Cowen – Professor of Economics at George Mason University – gives in The Great Stagnation (2011) for reversing the (supposedly) declining trend in technological innovation is to:

“Raise the social status of scientists.

[…] If we are going to see further major technological breakthroughs, it is a big help if people love science, care deeply about science, and science attracts a lot of the best […] minds. The practice of science has to yield social esteem, and teams of scientists should have a strong esprit de corps and feel they are doing something that really matters.

When it comes to motivating human beings, status often matters at least as much as money. […] Right now, scientists do not earn enough status and appreciation. […] Science doesn’t have the cache of law, medicine, or high finance.

[…] I don’t want a bunch of extra science prizes […]; what I want is that most people really care about science and view scientific achievement as a pinnacle of our best qualities as leaders of Western civilization.” (pp. 83-5)

What Cowen is arguing for is similar to what Sir Francis Galton argued for (and what subsequently was achieved, relatively speaking) near the end of the 19th century:

“As regards the future provision for successful followers of science, it is to be hoped that, in addition to the many new openings in industrial pursuits, the gradual but sure development of sanitary administration and statistical inquiry may in time afford the needed profession. These and adequately paid professorships may, as I sincerely hope they will, even in our days, give rise to the establishment of a sort of scientific priesthood throughout the kingdom, whose high duties would have reference to the health and well-being of the nation in its broadest sense, and whose emoluments and social position would be made commensurate with the importance and variety of their functions.” (English Men of Science, 1873, p. 259)

Galton was writing this in the exact year that, according to Jonathan Huebner (whose work Cowen references), technological innovation per capita peaked, i.e., 1873. Yet, since Galton’s time scientists’ emoluments and social position in broader society have risen significantly. So, over precisely this period where scientists’ status has increased, innovation has fallen. The sort of achievements made by a handful of men in Galton’s day have not been replicated in more and more cases per capita as more people have become scientists.

Compare the above with what Bruce Charlton writes in ‘The main reason science has declined‘:

“When scientists believe in reality and are motivated to seek the truth about it, then science will work.

That is all that is needed.

Therefore real science is very, very simple.

Questions of scientific methods are irrelevant, questions of organization are irrelevant – such real scientists will find a way.

But, since the pre-requisites are rare (not many reality-based people are truly truth-seeking and truthful), and the pressures for corruption are so strong, that real science is both rare and fragile.”

Increasing emoluments or social position increases the pressure for corruption, i.e., tends to attract people who then have an interest in those things instead of just figuring out the truth. My guess is that this is one reason why ‘amateur science‘ has been so successful – the people practicing it do so more to find things out than for status.

On reasoning

A simple way to see one aspect of the fragility of human reasoning is through joint probabilities.

P(1 .. n) = P(1) * P(2) * … P(n)

So, if I have an argument whose conclusion relies on 3 premises, and the argument is valid, then the chance that the argument is sound is:

probability (first premise being true) * probability (second premise being true) * probability (third premise being true)

(Assume independence of probabilities.)

Let’s say I’m ‘fairly sure’ about each premise, assigning each one a percentage of 80. That is, at each point along the argument, I’m fairly sure that it is right. At the end, I may then have the feeling that I should be fairly sure about the argument. Yet, this is not the case.

0.8 * 0.8 * 0.8 = 0.51, i.e., almost as likely to be unsound as sound.

Also see here.

Demographic shift

One of the most important things that will happen in the next 50 years is probably global population decline.

Most of the people I talk to think that the Earth is set for a population explosion, but that mode of thinking is several decades out of date. By about 2050 (in less than 40 years), given current trends continue, population will begin to decline. My guess is that it will occur sooner than that – perhaps 2040. So, as far as we can tell, marginal indigenous population collapses like we see happening already in countries like Japan, Korea, Germany, and Russia will be happening all over the globe in about a generation.

The following documentary called Demographic Winter is an introduction (from a specific point of view) to the general topic. It was published in 2008 as far as I can tell:

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11

Exclusion and community

Some people think that exclusion is ‘bad’. I was discussing the topic with someone the other day, and his point was that exclusive communities are founded on acts of (emotional, social, or physical) violence. Therefore such communities are bad in some relevant sense.

My response was fairly straightforward: if ‘violence’ is defined in a weak enough sense, then the initial point is granted. Exclusion requires some method to exclude, and ultimately this usually depends on some mechanism to compel others away.

Yet, it is an incomplete analysis: to determine whether such exclusion is good or bad also requires looking at what value the communities so established are creating.

For example, if you want to create a successful orchestra, you have to exclude certain people from being hired. Turning down applicants probably will involve some disappointed hopes, feelings of sadness, and so on. This especially will be true as the organization gains status and more and more people want to join it. Yet, if one were not to exclude anyone, in very short order the orchestra would be ruined by poor players, or people who couldn’t play at all.

General idea: exclusion is required for the creation of most kinds of value.

This applies to not only human communities – take a human body: the developing organism must exclude large numbers of things, and create barriers to protect itself from those things.

Corollary: if one has a valuable community, as soon as one loses the will to selectively exclude in a relevant sense, one will start to lose the respective value that is in one’s community.

This does not mean that all kinds of exclusion make sense. If the orchestra above were to exclude good oboe players, say, that might not be a good idea (depending on how many they already had, and other factors).

My basic point can be summed up as: If you want to create value, there has to be some cost somewhere. This applies for almost anything of value, beyond just communities.

(It is relevant to note that various forms of ‘inclusion’ are in fact forms of exclusion. In many cases the number of people in an organization is relatively fixed, or the number of applicants exceeds the number of places available. In these cases, then, debates about ‘inclusion’ are more properly understood as debates about the precise form of exclusion.)