Saturday, 26 January 2013

Becoming A Reality Gambler

Kahneman and Tversky's Loss Aversion

When I was a professional gambler I had to use my skills to make a living.  If you want to make money that way, it is good to be risk averse, because if you're taking big risks then you're investing in something with a minimal chance of reward.  Professional gamblers mostly have the skill to avoid such precarious situations - if they didn't they wouldn't be professional gamblers.  The primary reason that people are risk averse is that they quite naturally have an aversion to losses. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and the sadly deceased Amos Tversky wrote well on this, with many practical examples of how we hate to lose more than we like to win.  It's obvious that you'd rather gain an extra £100 than lose £100, but it's also good to know that people place a greater emphasis on avoiding losses than making gains. In other words, your joy in gaining £100 is dwarfed by your upset at losing £100. The natural corollary of this is you're more likely to take a bigger risk in trying to avoid a loss than you are acquiring a gain. 

Kahneman and Tversky coined the term loss aversion to refer to the human tendency to become disproportionately averse to losses – so much so that we pass up significant gains in our social world to ensure that we don’t incur small losses.  The point being, these losses mostly turn out to be trivial, but the gains can be immense.  If you ask out the girl or guy you like and get turned down, you aren’t really any worse off than you started.  But if he or she says yes, and you become beloveds for the rest of your lives, your gain is huge.  Someone who has high intensity loss aversion may well choose not to ask her out – so while he avoids the tiny loss of embarrassment or rejection he may rob himself of a lifetime’s happiness.  The situation is the same for the one you asked out, of course; she won’t lose more than two or three hours by going out with you and finding you’re not the one – but she gains an awful lot if you turn out to be the one to make her happy in love. Instead of having loss aversion we might be advised to embrace its opposite – what we might call benefit keenness.

It’s a cold winter night, you’re a poet, and you see on a notice board that a new poetry group is meeting in town.  Embracing benefit keeness means you should go.  At worst you turn up and waste some of your evening – but at best you might meet some great new friends, enhance your creativity, widen your social circle, and improve your publishing prospects too.  Or it might be that you’re pondering whether to send that email to the friend with whom you’ve lost contact.  Or you might be wondering whether to try horse riding, or whether to learn the piano, or whether to visit that city you’ve always liked the look of, or whether to give a new author or music artist a look.  There are so many things that might lead you to unexpected pleasures, and onto life changing paths, with only a small cost attached if those pursuits turn out to be not for you.

Naturally, one mustn’t be frivolous either; there are many choices that can be costly if they turn out to be wrong.  The last thing you want is to find yourself committed to a lengthy study course in which you regret the subject chosen, or find that you moved in with someone you no longer want to be with, or that you left the city to find employment in a place you’ll go on to hate. 

But I fancy that life is full of potential benefits on which we often miss out by being too circumspect.  I realised recently how guilty I’ve been of this too.  And having pondered it, I like the idea grabbing hold of life with both hands and seizing every opportunity.  Sure, it might turn out that the email you send to the friend comes to nothing much; it might emerge that horse riding gives you too many aches; you may not have the dexterity for the piano; the city visited might be a big let down; and the new book or CD might end up in the charity shop.  In all probability, many of your pursuits will disappoint – but you won’t lose much by trying them.  On the plus side, grabbing life with both hands and seizing more opportunities with benefit keenness is bound to bring unexpected pleasures and rewards that those inflicted by loss aversion never discover. 

Saturday, 19 January 2013

A Universe From Nothing? Forget About It!!

Why is there something rather than nothing?  It’s one of the philosophical biggies – maybe even ‘the’ biggest question we can ask.  I don’t know the answer, but then again, as I will show in a moment, neither does anyone else.  It seems that one man, though, Lawrence Krauss, thinks he has the answer, and he’s written a book to demonstrate it.

It’s not because Lawrence Krauss has got his facts wrong that I think his theory is undermined (although I do think he has got his facts wrong too, as we’ll see).  His main problem is that he is attempting to answer a question that humans aren’t primed to answer.  Let’s start with Krauss’s wrong way, and then I’ll offer a suggestion for the right way.

The Wrong Way
When Lawrence Krauss talks of the universe’s ‘beginning’, he is using a pretty shabby reductionist formula to talk of the early origins of nature being elementary, in order to offer a simple speculation about the universe’s cause. He says:

Whether there is something rather than nothing is really a scientific question, not a religious or philosophical question, because both nothing and something are scientific concepts, and our discoveries over the past 30 years have completely changed what we mean by nothing. In particular, nothing is unstable. Nothing can create something all the time due to the laws of quantum mechanics

The way Lawrence Krauss is using the term 'nothing' is as a crude off the peg concept put forward to eliminate the burden of having to run with cause and effect down its inevitable path of regression until we hit a conceptual brick wall.  In his head, up pops 'nothing', like a physical concept that just does a disappearing act right in front of his eyes, and ...voila!....we have a naturalism of the gaps, and the whole cause of existence explained – the universe came from nothing. 
Let me explain how Lawrence Krauss took his studies of physics and came to a misjudged inference.  The universe is really only made up of transformations of energy and matter (and information) – and at a very elemental level we see change in form and change in quantitative information in terms of existence or non-existence within (stress within) the universe*. I can say that Jack the butcher did not exist before he was conceived by his parents, but his composition did exist in the cosmos, it just existed as different transformations of energy and matter.

When Lawrence Krauss argues that “Nothing can create something all the time due to the laws of quantum mechanics” he is only saying something meaningful in relation to amounts of energy or mass which may sum to zero under a very specific kind of measuring system in the quantum world – a measuring system that when taken to its logical conclusion posits a universe of zero total energy.  But this is only the cancelling effect** in operation – zero energy has absolutely no impingement on the universe’s ability to come into being from ‘nothing’. 

Consider a wave such as we have in quantum mechanics. This wave provides information on the whereabouts of a particle. If you have seen a wave form you will know that it is additively symmetrical in that the troughs and peaks cancel completely under an additive transformation.  But in quantum mechanics the information on the probability of the whereabouts of the particle is found by squaring the troughs and peaks, and as a consequence we lose the cancelling negative terms. Hence under one system we have the additive “nothingness” of the wave, but it is meaningless ‘nothingness’ under a spurious measuring system. 

Lawrence Krauss ought to know very well (and I’m sure he does) that using a differentiated field of energy and summing up the squares of the components gives no indication of the entire universe’s origins.  Even Stephen Hawking jumped on the bandwagon recently with his own contention that there is no problem in the universe coming from nothing because current cosmological evidence points to a universe in which positive energy (among other things) is completely cancelled by negative gravitational energy (among other things) and therefore the universe could have come from nothing.  The general mistake being made by Krauss and Hawking is failing to admit that other operations are equally as important, particularly operations that reveal form and configuration rather than bulk accounting. 

You see, the argument from additive symmetry about x=0 gives no clue as to form and configuration, because when using cosmological principles, the WAY something manifests itself can only be measured using bulk accounting metrics, not form and configuration as Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking have tried to do.  The reality of physics is the bulk accounting in this sense, and the whole of reality is mathematical and of far greater form and configuration metrics than those found in physics.

Consider a spreadsheet as an analogy. In effect, Krauss and Hawking are putting all their eggs into the total bar on the spreadsheet and overlooking the importance of the other data bars.  That’s a bit like a shopkeeper's accountant looking at the annual figures for the local corner shop, seeing a zero profit/zero loss and presuming that no goods were bought or sold throughout the year.  To make it simple, you and I could buy and sell all day and find that our income exactly matches our expenditure, meaning at the end of the day we find we've broken even.  Using that analogy for the quantum systems in the universe, Krauss and Hawking are trying to focus on the fact that we've broken even on one small transaction (zero energy) but also trying to ignore all the buying and selling that went into the process.  The spreadsheet analogy is ideal because if you take the universe as we perceive it at the quantum level as being analogous to the information contained in the spreadsheet columns, there are various formulas that underlie the cell contents, giving us our gains and losses.   In the case of the universe, those bulk accounting formulas are the entire complexity of mathematics.

Yes, it is true there is a finding in the study of physics that shows positive energy (among other things) is completely cancelled by negative gravitational energy (among other things), and that at the beginning of the universe this could give us a theoretical ‘nothing’, using only one kind of measurement.  But once we start talking of a ‘universe from nothing' in terms of what kick-started the process, we get into trouble, because clearly a configuration of any sort, even though it returns zero on one mathematical index (such as the average position of random walk or the average energy of a field of energy) is “something” in terms of the universe as a mathematical object as a whole.  So that's why I think Lawrence Krauss has got it wrong in both his philosophy and his science. Here's how I think it should be done.
The Right Way
The first thing I would say on this issue is that I don't think natural selection built minds to answer some of the very complex questions we have gone on to ask - it built us for hunting and gathering.  I suspect the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", if it has an answer, is one beyond the capacity of the human mind.  It might be that we've put together the correct combination of words, but have actually generated a question that makes no sense, or is beyond our mental sphere.

When philosophers describe ideas and concepts as being true or false, we mean that they relate to facts in the natural world.  This has to flow from a reliable system of logic.  In other words, in philosophy humans created a logical system that works - but that system doesn't easily enable us to speculate about reality outside of that logical and empirical framework. Given that we humans are confined to interfacing within the physical universe (and maybe only a limited part of it, at that), our statements made within that logical framework are inextricably linked to the relationships between symbols, ideas or concepts from within our studies of facts in the natural world.  The question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” doesn’t sound a wholly unreasonable question, but I fancy that the reasonableness of the question may simply be a product of our ability to come up with seemingly consistent and logical statements related to our sensory data.  What I mean is, to the limited human mind that deals with the concepts ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ in everyday terms, it may seem reasonable to incorporate that kind of questioning into existence itself – but it may, in fact, be the case that existence itself is not amenable to the kind of conceptualisations we apply to the everyday world.

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume explores the concepts of cause and effect, and concludes (rightly I think) that they are only discovered through experience of the world.  This is almost trivially obvious really – it didn’t take Hume to figure that out – but to my mind Hume wrote most comprehensively on the subject.  It is through experience that we feel pain when we graze our knee, or put our hand in a fire, or have a headache after too much to drink.  Our whole range of experience is a collection of inferences where we say A causes B, and this gives us predictive power.  The problem with the “Why is there something rather than nothing?” question is that the only earthly inferences we have ever made, where we say A causes B, cannot be justifiably applied to any statement where the universe itself is the B being caused by the A.  I don’t even know if it makes sense to say that something ‘caused’ the universe with the same use of language where someone might say the vodka ‘caused’ Billy to wake up with a hangover, or the wind ‘caused’ the tree to fall to the ground.  And even if it does make sense to talk in those terms, it stands to reason that whatever is capable of causing a universe to come into being is probably beyond the understanding of a mind built within that universe by the laws of physics and biology. 

To us, the simple elementals of physical reality involve grammatical predicates where those predicates act as functions to subjects (an example of which would be ‘space is unstable’) – whereas ‘existence’ itself doesn’t logically have any function in terms of predication.  We use the term ‘exists’ to denote the appearance of X or Y (The laptop in front of me ‘exists’) but once we confront what the grand reality of ‘being’ actually is we find that the binary distinction between existence and non-existence does not hold for the whole of reality at all.  Some form of reality ‘just is’ – there is a reality completely unbounded by terms like ‘existence’ and ‘causality’ - it is a reality that ‘just is’ - no ‘time’ or ‘before and after’ or ‘changes in state’ - just an all-encapsulating ‘is’ that is beyond descriptive terminology. That is why I think all this talk of 'something coming from nothing' is, in the grand ontological terms, meaningless.

So why, then, do people come out with so many absurd statements that they have no hope of justifying, and that are quite clearly beyond the remit of our ordinary use of language?  I think it must be that they are just not very good at philosophy or rational thinking.  Lawrence Krauss has claimed that it has been shown that the universe could have conceivably come from "nothing”, so has Stephen Hawking, which just demonstrates that scientists at the top of their field are just as prone to absurdity as everyone else.  When formulated as a sentence the order of words gives form to an expression of feeling, but as we’ve seen above, it is so philosophically abstruse that it only really exposes the questioner as being unable to deal with difficult questions in the right way. 

If you were to ask them what they actually mean when they make assertions like that, most would be unable to add any qualification at all, certainly not if we insisted they elaborate on the meaning of the terms used.  Let’s break down the statement – “Physics has shown that the universe could have conceivably come from nothing”.  What do they mean “physics has shown” – what specifically has it shown, and how has it done so?  How can it show something like ‘nothing’ when ‘nothing’ is only an abstract concept?  What do they mean by ‘nothing’ – what is nothing?  It is not zero energy, or an empty set, or the number zero, so what is it other than a vague concept?  And what does ‘come from’ mean here?  Is this a causative state from one homotopy class group to a change in form?  How does nature cease from being homotopic – is it by breaking the homeomorphism between N0 and N1 where N = nature in totality?  If we have two continuous functions f and g from a topological space X to a topological space Y then how does a family of continuous functions become nothing when H : X × [0,1] → Y from X given unit interval [0,1] to Y such that, if x X then H(x,0) = f(x) and H(x,1) = g(x)?

They usually try to get round this by smuggling in the multiverse argument, which in relation to the above, basically contends that we have an infinite number of universes which eventually would produce one like ours.  But this is just an example of trying to have it both ways.  Which is it – does the N continuity of functions break to nothing or does it continue N1, N2, N3 to NX where X = infinity of universes?  An infinity of universes suggests one giant mathematical nexus that has sub-nexuses whose space-time manifolds cannot overlap  So how are they homotopically related – and if they are not, how does multiverse solve the problem? Whether we have one universe or an infinite number, the problem of positing ‘nothing’ as the cause doesn’t go away.  Once they ask why such a complex nexus exists at all, it leads them full circle to ask whether it can possibly be ‘something from nothing’ - and that, of course, leads them to question what ‘nothing’ actually is, so they are back to where they started, because if they cannot define ‘nothing’, they have no business claiming it can bring about a universe.  And if there are an infinite number of universes then how did the mathematics come about?  The upshot is, I think, questions like why is there something instead of nothing? are questions the human brain has not evolved the capacity to answer. 

* On top of this, we have the law of conservation of mass, which translates as mass can neither be created nor destroyed, but it can be reconstituted into rearrangement in the closed system of our universe.

** You can even see this on a two-way mirror reflection, in which two frequencies of light create physical regions in which that frequency of light cannot travel, due to repetition of internal structures, amounting to an almost entire cancellation of energy.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Government's Home-Made Fallacy

I don’t know how much longer we are going to have to keep hearing from politicians that they plan to appease the electorate (they never use those words, of course) by artificially creating industrial jobs in Britain (particularly in the north of England).  When they tell you this, you know they are either lying, or they don’t understand how industry works.  Industries and services are effective for one reason – the economy has a price system that almost perfectly balances the interests of the buyer and seller.  Consequently, it cannot be interfered with artificially with any predictable success because the competitive marketplace aligns private and public interests (and prices) far more effectively than any Government can by means of artifice (some forms of regulation excepted, but they are not important here). 

I do admit, though, this self-governing system is quite rare; in most areas of life the needs of the individual and the greater good are not ideally matched.  In a football stadium when an exciting incident occurs everyone stands up for a better view, which means nobody succeeds in improving the greater good.  At busy house parties, every individual talks louder than they need to, due to everyone else talking louder than they need to – so all guests strain their voice boxes more than they would need to if attendees were mindful of the greater good.  In a fuel crisis the majority over consume, leaving many with no means of consumption.  The economy is the rare exception to the rule; if you invent a brand new product, and have no idea how much to sell it for, the system of supply and demand will soon put your product at a rate that matches the value the consumers place on it.  So despite what you are frequently told, MPs cannot easily interfere with the supply and demand balance of the market economy.  That’s the first mistake made, or lie told, by too many politicians.

The second is even greater – they make mistakes, or tell lies, about our own industry.  As much as it rankles people in Britain (particularly those outside of London), there is one simple reason why British manufacturing has gone downhill; manufactured goods acquired from other countries makes Britain richer (by the way, it also makes the exporting countries richer too).  How do I know that things would be worse if anyone tried to change Britain’s manufacturing exports artificially?  I know because in the vast majority of cases the price system in the competitive marketplace couldn’t have favoured the companies that are no longer manufacturing in Britain – quite simply because consumers started to buy from cheaper manufacturers abroad.

This is the essence of a global trade system that ideally aligns supply and demand.  Amazingly there are people who deny this is true.  I can offer a schoolboy example that shows the logic is correct.  Pretend that instead of two countries we have two schools – School A and School B, neither of which is permitted to trade with the other.  Johnny at School A has a monopoly on pencil cases.  Johnny can sell Billy a pencil case for £5.  Now because of a new policy which enables School A to trade with School B, Billy can now buy a pencil case from Charlie in School B for £3.  Johnny has two choices, he can match Charlie’s £3 selling price or he can find something else to trade in.  If he chooses the latter he will ensure he is no worse off than a £2 loss, otherwise he might as well choose to match Charlie’s £3.  So the worst case scenario is that Johnny carries on trading, losing £2 per unit. Billy’s £2 gain matches Johnny’s £2 loss, so there is no net gain or loss.  But now consider Freddy at School A.  Freddy, who was never willing to pay £5 for a pencil case, buys one for £3 from Charlie in School B, and goes home happy (as does Charlie with another sale). 

Billy’s gain and Johnny’s loss cancel each other out, but Charlie’s gain amounts to a net gain.  The logic is compelling and simple – in net terms both School A and School B benefit from being able to trade with each other.  Instead of two schools, relate that model to every country in the world, multiply that simple pencil case model by factors of billions to allow for an open and competitive market, and different countries’ resources, strengths and geographical positions, and it is obvious that each country benefits from unconstrained trade potential. 

But that’s not the whole story; I have only said why free international trade is good for economies.  There is another important factor in this picture – impeding the process of free international trade actually harms the people the Government wants to protect – its own industry (and thus, its own citizens).  Here’s how it happens.  Let’s use a simple and extreme illustration to explain what is a more complex but no less valid truth about why Government interference is bad.  Let’s suppose there is a car factory in Newcastle that isn’t doing as well as the Executives or the Government would like, due to consumers’ preference for cars in Japan.  The Government introduces a policy that favours car production in Newcastle over car imports from Japan.  How on Earth could that not be good for the British economy – Britain’s gain is Japan’s loss, right?  Wrong.  Quite simply, what you put into the pockets of the car factory in Newcastle you take out of someone else’s pockets elsewhere in Britain (as well as having people probably paying more for their cars).  Consider Slough’s boiler factory; what you don’t see is an almost invisible chain of events; the boilers made in Slough are shipped off to Japan and sold to a company that makes its money producing nuclear reactors, the buyers of which are companies who trade in mineral oils, and those companies deal with companies who make cars in Japan and ship them to Britain. 

In other words, there is a complex economic process that is going on outside of your peripheral vision, whereby both the car factory in Newcastle and the boiler factory in Slough are both bringing cars into Britain.  That is to say, if you protect the car factory in Newcastle from competition you must damage Slough’s boiler factory because somewhere down the line they are the competition.  So the next time you hear a politician announcing how much he or she wants to do to protect British producers in one industry from foreign competition, be aware that he or she is unknowingly proposing an action that hurts other industries in Britain, and amounts to a net loss in economic efficiency. 

Thursday, 10 January 2013

The 2% Rule - And What You Can Do With It.

In my last Blog I suggested in one of the footnotes that when it comes to progression it is not the masses that drive us forward, it is the top 1-2% of every generation that brings about this progression, and that were it not for them, humanity probably would have remained in the Middle Ages. I think that probably requires a Blog post all of its own, so here goes.

There are two sides to that coin; one side is to laud those in the top 1-2% and to be thankful that they were ones that projected us forward.  But the other side of the coin says that we live in a world in which the vast majority of people make no real contribution to the furtherance of the human race. 

That does not mean that people don’t bring many other qualities and benefits to the world (I’ve already mentioned plenty in the ‘overpopulation’ Blog) – I mean simply that around 98% of the people in every generation are not innovators, scientists, economists and great thinkers to whom society owes a great debt in helping humanity leap forward. 

If you have trouble believing this, here’s what you should do. Make a list of everyone you know, and divide them into two groups; those who are innovators, scientists, economists and great thinkers that have made contributions that history will record as being hugely significant to mankind’s progression, and those that haven’t. I’ll bet that those who fall into the ‘haven’t’ group make up a majority that either matches or exceeds 98% of the ratio. 

As a simple test to illustrate the few people that make any mark on history, consider that everybody reading this had 16 great-great-grandparents. I’ll bet that almost no one knows the names of any of them, much less something about their contribution to history that they have left for future generations. 

This, however, is no reason to be downbeat – it is just one of those patterns in the social world (like Pareto’s famous 80/20 rule - 80% of x is the result of 20% of the people) that is a result of nature not being very democratic in her distributions.  People should be rewarded according to their abilities – but let’s not pretend that that is not any fairer than the alternative, because people don’t choose their abilities either.

Many are appalled at the huge wealth divide and the income gap in Britain* – well that is nothing compared with the gap in intelligence between the top few % and the rest. With the wealth gap, at least governments can suppress or compress the factors causing the huge polarity – with intelligence this is not something that can be subjected to external manipulation.

Moreover, there is huge asymmetry in statistics; for example, if you picked two random people off the street and found that their combined earnings were £500,000, the chances are they don’t earn £250,000 each – more likely one earns £480,000 and the other earns £20,000. Similarly, take two random music artists who’ve sold a million records combined and it’s much more likely that one has sold close to a million and the other next to nothing than it is finding two who’ve sold 500,000 each. 

The upshot is, as much as people would like wealth, success, earning, talent, appreciation, intelligence etc to be equitably distributed, it plainly isn’t - and instead of realising and accepting this, they make injudicious comments about how wrong it is that the gap between rich and poor keeps increasing. 

This isn’t the Blog post to list all the reasons why this is misjudged – but suffice to say that free market economics is the primary thing that lifts people out of poverty into prosperity, and in a lot of cases, for that to happen, you are going to see the rich getting richer. 

The whole point about the rich getting richer (which is so often overlooked) is that the poor are getting richer too. In a great many cases the poor are only getting richer because the rich are getting richer – so only complain about the richness of the rich if you have a complaint about the poor prospering too.

The main reason prosperity is increasing is because with the 2% rule we find that with each increase in population the 1-2% of innovators increases numerically too. When there were only 300,000 people in the world, the top slice 2% innovators were only 6000 per generation. In a population of 7 billion, the top slice 2% innovators can be as many as 140 million. Once an idea is conceived, it can be shared by millions. Once cat's eyes are invented, the whole world benefits. Once a computer chip is prototyped by the first innovator, the whole world reaps the rewards, and so on. 

With more competition the talented people strive harder to accomplish things ahead of their competitors, and they learn from each other too. But to borrow an analogy from Horace Mann, most people will change with the course of the popular wind, but there are a few exceptions who, like mountains, actually change the course of the wind.

With the 2% rule I’ve said that the vast majority of people that have ever lived end up living and dying unnoticed by most in the vast prism of history. The question is, given our increased population, will that 2% figure increase in modern times? I think it might. Rousseau identified the foundations for our dependency of leadership – and what logically followed was that because most people make little impact on recorded history, the primary influence used to be left to the minority of charismatic figures that can. 

Rousseau referred to the leadership mandate as being ("the Legislator") whereby figures arise to change the values, ethics, politics and customs of the people. Back then, the fact that only 2% of the people made any major contributions to world history was partly due to the fact that leadership and innovation went hand in hand. Higher figures got to be innovators and innovators got to be higher figures.

But nowadays the shared mental matrix (seen most notably on the Internet) gives people a new power. Instead of their being a 2% minority that do all the innovating, I suspect it will be spread out a little more. Maybe not by much, but enough to see changes in the way things are done – and hopefully with enough intellectual diversity and idea-sharing to help increase the minority to a larger percent.

Lastly, remember something important if you remember nothing else – even those in the top 2% were there only because of hard work and diligent persistence. The scientific and technological innovations of the world can easily give the illusion of brilliance in what instead is really gradual, incremental progression, involving lots of trial and error and cumulative improvements costing us a lot of sweat and mental resources. Our knowledge and our technology is the cumulative effect of lots of time and effort. 

Many of the illusions of individual brilliance comes from caricatures like the ‘light-bulb’ effect, where the image is shown to be hovering over the head to illustrate a ‘eureka’ idea. This was first conceived to represent the inventing of the light bulb by Edison – which is unfortunate because (like all inventions) they do not come to mind as a fait accompli achievement, they involve many proto efforts beforehand. The truth is, the light bulb illustration was never a very good example to begin with, because Edison didn't really invent the light-bulb; it was prototyped a couple of dozen times, the first time nearly a century before. 

What Edison did was refine the filament – but it wasn’t just him – it involved the input of his colleagues too. Even their cumulative effort wasn’t plucked from the air - it owed much of its success to Hermann Sprengel from whom Edison's team learned how to use dripping mercury to create a better vacuum inside their bulb. It was only through trial and error that they could have realised that without that simple chemical vacuum technology the carbon filament burns up.

That is just one example; anyone with a tincture of knowledge of the history of science knows that there aren’t really any eureka moments in isolation from the efforts that preceded them. If you fancy being in the top few percent of your generation, it’s not too late – you just need to be prepared to work as hard and as diligently as the greats that preceded you. You might need a little luck too – and I hope you have it!
* Although heaven knows from whence this natural assumption that everyone has similar levels of income came – it is an absurd supposition.


Saturday, 5 January 2013

Why The World Is Not Overpopulated

In the backwaters of Blogosphere there is nothing worse than speaking the obvious.  The flip side of that coin is that there is nothing better than taking a viewpoint that the majority of people believe to be right and showing it to be wrong.  This is what I’m going to do with the 'overpopulation' myth. The reason that the overpopulation scaremongering seems to be back in vogue is because of the continual literature on climate change, and also because recently the world population exceeded 7 billion (people love a good round number as a catalyst for such pronouncements), which must mean the world is overpopulated and that we are consuming far too many resources. Also Professor Stephen Emmott of Oxford University has been pulling in the crowds with his Ten Billion lecture, which is a proclamation of doom and gloom for the 21st century.

Professor Stephen Emmott is preaching to the choir, because if you ask people whether they think the world is overpopulated, most will tell you they feel sure it is.  There are two reasons for this (well three actually, but I’ll come to the third in a while).  The first reason is that ideas are like memes – they are passed on in the form of cultural viruses (just like the biological analogue).  ‘The world is overpopulated’ is one of those memes – it has been heard so often that people just accept it must be true.  The second reason is a development of the first reason; it is because people start with the natural assumption of overpopulation that they find it very easy to observe evidence to support their view.  Whether it be a huge metropolitan city ring road full of traffic at a stand still, or a London tube station in rush hour, or a crowded African region struggling for food and water, or a diminished animal community on the verge of extinction, it’s easy to assume the world has too many people*.

People are wrong about the over-crowdedness issue in a similar way to how they are wrong about the over-pollution issue – in both cases they have their reasoning backwards.  To see why, we first need to see why it is a good thing that you and I were born – and to do this we must go back to 1798.  The bad idea that “the earth is overpopulated” was started most prominently by Thomas Malthus in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argues that the population increases geometrically but food supplies only increase arithmetically, which means an eventual and inevitable case of worldwide famine and disease.  I’ll explain what that means in a moment, and why Malthus was wrong.

Now there is no denying that in some parts of the world increased population, poor resources and lack of birth control is a problem.  But that doesn’t mean that the world is overpopulated - it means that the population of people that are alive are not doing as well as they could in aiding those that need more help than they are getting.  It is true that humans do damage to the environment and to other animals, but a countersceptic could point out that animals have been doing harm to other animals for millions of years before humans came about - and also that environmental events have ‘damaged’ parts of the planet for even longer.  If you take the entire history of life that has ever lived on this planet, over 99% of that life lived and became extinct before humans came about – so it seems absurd to suggest that humans being alive is a unique and unprecedented cost to the animal kingdom. 

Here’s what the sceptics fail to realise.  Yes, we certainly can do more to be mindful of other animals, but the fact that there are parts of nature that are worse off because of humans is not an argument that says there are too many humans, it is an argument that humans need to be more mindful of the effects they have on nature, and seek better ways to improve the status quo.  Similarly, the fact that there are so many divorces is not an argument against marriage, it is an argument that humans need to be more mindful in selecting the right partner, and work at being better husbands and wives.  I’m going to show why the solution to the ‘natural’ problems that overpopulation proponents describe is not fewer people, it is more people – which is why I say the world is under populated, not overpopulated.  To see why, let’s look at how Malthus got his reasoning wrong.  Malthus’s distinction between Arithmetical ratios and Geometrical ratios is as follows:

Arithmetical ratios (technology growth) are: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 etc

Geometrical ratios (population growth) are: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512 etc

What he’s saying is that as the population grows and grows with increased rapidity, the food supply grows at a much slower rate, leaving us eventually over-populated and out of resources.  That’s what the ratios mean.  Malthus was right about these ratios up to the time of writing his essay – but what he didn’t predict was how the world was about to change, most notably with the Industrial Revolution** and later contraception.  The reason Malthus got it wrong was that he didn’t work out that progress in technology is proportional to the number of people alive in the world, which means that technological growth will eventually grow geometrically along with the population.  In simple terms, with more people alive there are more innovative ideas being produced at a greater rate.  Before the world’s big population boom in the past two centuries, technological progress was so slow that Arithmetical ratios and Geometrical ratios were all but indistinguishable, because population increase and technological innovation were slowly and steadily moving along the same coterminous lines in history.  Geometrical ratios become more noticeable when you have a large foundation to facilitate the exponential increase, and that happened after the industrial revolution, and will continue to happen henceforward at an even greater rate.

This is the key distinction between qualitative changing and quantitative changing – the former gives us the real breakthroughs in economic and technological change, the latter only gives us more of the same.  Here’s an example.  It was once forecasted that economic progress in Manhattan was coming to a close because the island had nearly reached its capacity regarding the horses it could contain.  If you’re only focusing on quantitative change your narrow vision only has you looking to see where you can fit more horses; whereas if you’re focusing on qualitative change you look to advance beyond horses to industrial machinery, and eventually from industrial machinery to computers.  Another example, the Great Irish Famine wasn’t just due to unfortunate infestations in potatoes – it was over-reliance on one single crop that severely added to the plight.  Whether it is potatoes for food or horses for transportation, it is important to diversify, because diversity leads to increased qualitative change.  That's another reason why you can be sure that our technology will continue to progress - we diversify our skills and our imagination by not having an over-reliance on too narrow a range.

Consider this in terms of an analogy in which we are recording planetary temperature. Planet A increases its global temperature of 100 degrees at a rate of 1 degree per year (arithmetical), whereas Planet B increases its global temperature of 100 degrees by 1% per year (geometrical).  In one thousand years Planet B, which is increasing geometrically, would be 2000 times hotter than Planet A, and growing 2000 times faster too.  If you looked at the temperature differential in the first few years the difference between the two planets would be minimal – whereas after a couple of thousand years it would be immense.  That’s what is happening with our technological progression – it is getting hotter and hotter because technological progression is increasing like the heat on planet B, not Planet A as Malthus thought.  Our probability of running out of any resources has always been superseded by our ability to advance the sufficient technology or innovation to wean ourselves off the dependency of those resources.  It is the geometrical ratios of both population growth and technological progression that make this exponential progression more or less inevitable. 

If you want some kind of qualification for that, it’s easily done.  I’ll give you some empirical indication based on how the world has gone for the past 200,000 years.  For the past 199,800 years we’ve had low global populations, and humans lived in meagre conditions, with lots of primitivism, low life expectancy and frequent infant mortality.  Until recently in our 200,000 year history we have lived in pretty poor circumstances, just above the subsistence level.  Then a couple of hundred years ago something changed.  People started to become more scientific, more empirically minded, richer, and populations began to increase more rapidly (it’s still going on).  This progression can be explained by a simple rule of thumb – people innovate, improve and provide answers to problems - and the more people, the more innovation, improvements and problems solved.  The more ideas and the more people to share those ideas with, the more humans prosper. 

It’s no coincidence that each half century has been progressively better than the last, and that the most recent times have been the most globally prosperous than any time in history.  That’s largely because we have 7 billion people on the planet – more ideas, more innovation, better technology, improved economic freedom, peak human liberation, and more global communication and potential to help the neediest***.  When the world has 8 billion people it will be even more prosperous; when it has 9 billion, yet even more prosperity.  It’s no coincidence – the recent burst in population in the past 200 years has been the primary cause of our burst in prosperity (200 years is only 0.1% of 200,000 years).  That we have a maximal population and progression dialect in 0.1% of the entire human history suggests that the answer to our worries about the world is that we haven’t had enough children in the past 200 years, not that we’ve had too many. 

It is easy to look at some of the worst places in the world, like Africa****, and say that many of the countries there have too many people in relation to the available resources, and this is true.  But those countries do not amount to an argument that supports the overpopulation proponents – they show that there are places in the world in which the economic conditions are unable to take advantage of the benefits of having a large pool of potential innovators, and fruitful trade potential.  This is usually because the countries in question are run by dictators or oppressive political groups that keep the masses starved of food and knowledge.  They are being denied the very thing my argument says will enrich them – the ability to contribute to their nation, and to the wider world.  If simply having a densely populated nation was inimical to success then Japan and Hong Kong would be as bad as much of Africa. 

It’s good that you were born
Now that’s cleared up, let’s consider the costs and benefits of an individual being born.  First off, you probably know all the facts about the incredibly tiny probability of the unique 'you' being born - 1 in the millions of sperm that made it...same for your ancestors…etc etc - so the upshot is you're very fortunate to be alive to experience a life on this planet. I'm glad you were born, and I don't think you'd wish you weren't here to experience life on this incredible planet.  If you'd never been born, your family would have ever so slightly more resources consumed, due to your not being born to consume them – but your family probably are the ones most glad you were born. 

Notice I said “your family would have ever so slightly more resources” not “the rest of the world would have ever so slightly more resources.  Let’s consider the resources humans consume.  It is thought by many that if you weren’t born the rest of the world would gain from what you don’t consume.  That’s not true.  When you were born you cost the world very little; the only people who would have felt a cost would be the people whose resources (time, energy, economic) you took up – and that would only really apply to your immediate family.  And as I said, your immediate family are the ones who have gotten most pleasure out of you – your parents spent a lot of time, energy and money on your upbringing, but you (and any siblings you have) are probably their greatest joy in life.  If you hadn’t have been born your family would have more resources, and the rest of the world would have the same as before.

It is clear that life has a multitude of net benefits that have no attached costs, as well as costs that do have concomitant attached benefits, and also some net costs too.  I said the main costs you bring are to your family – the reason being is that your external spillover costs mostly have benefits for others, and most people’s net costs that confer no benefits are comparably tiny.  Over-population theorists tend to only see the costs and miss the benefits.  The car in front of you in the morning rush hour is imposing a cost because the driver is delaying your journey slightly.  But he is probably going to his place of work in which the benefits he brings to the company, and to society, far outweigh the costs of delaying your journey by a minuscule amount.  Your partaking in the auction on Sunday helped bid the price up, which was a loss to the eventual buyer.  But the buyer’s loss is simultaneously the seller’s gain.  If you are successful in a job interview the other candidate sees you as a cost to his aspirations, but you succeeded because the interviewers saw that you could bring more to the company than the other candidate.  His loss is yours and the company’s gain.  The upshot is; it is easy to focus on the costs and omit the benefits.

Now then, seeing as though the costs are minimal, let’s look at the benefits to your being born.  Apart from all the obvious benefits you bring to your closest family, look what else you bring to the world; you contribute skills, you earn money, you work, you are a friend to many, a caring neighbour, a parent, a lover, you think up new ideas, you bring a unique perspective based on a unique experience of the world, you bring support, and conversation, and with that comes anecdotes, wisdom, retrospective prudence, humour, and many more things.  The reason why your existence is a blessing to the world is the same reason why increased population has made the world more prosperous; you have brought much more into the world than you have drained from it. 

Now let’s consider the cost-benefit analysis from the point of view of the people who chose to bring you into this world – your parents.  When your parents decided to have you, they knew that you would be a drain on their resources – both their financial resources, and their time and energy.  But I’ll bet having you was one of the best days of their life – and I’ll bet they haven’t regretted it since.  In other words, they focused on all those costs, weighed them up with the benefit of having you, and thought you were worth having, even though they must have overestimated the costs and underestimated the benefits.  I say “underestimated the benefits” because to begin with most parents think of a having a child only in terms of that effect on the family life – they are not taking into account all those benefits I mentioned above, because they are spillover benefits that come later, not direct benefits to your parents.  Hence, they overestimated the costs and underestimated the benefits, and still thought you were worth having – and that single case can be applied to the parents of just about all children.

The ‘overcrowded’ myth
I’d guess by now you’ve now got ahead of me and realised how fallacious the over-crowded argument is.  Crowded cities are popular because people like to live in crowded cities.  They like crowds because crowds have more people, and more people means more of the benefits I mentioned above.  Rural areas are quieter because fewer people like to live in them, and house prices are very expensive in Central London and Manhattan because more people want to live there.  Its simple logic - the reason London has 8.6 million people and rural towns have only a few thousand is because more people prefer to live in London than they do rural towns. The reason being, not only is there is a greater abundance of the aforementioned benefits in more populous areas, there is also better career prospects, higher salaries, better nightlife, greater choices of restaurants, a richer choice of entertainment, more tourist attractions, better public transport, greater diversity of people – the list goes on. 

On the pollution argument, well, my 0.1% observation is a bit like the reverse of pollution.  The benefits of pollution (profits from owning a factory, pleasure from driving a Subaru, etc) are outweighed by the costs of pollution to others, which means polluters pollute too much.  Parents and prospective parents vastly underestimate the benefits that children bring to the prosperity of the world, so they end up having too few children.  Progression and increased population is an inevitable concomitance because each generation reaps the benefits of the inventiveness of its ancestors.  Not only that, but population growth drives technological and industrial innovation, which drives economic growth.  The ‘overpopulation’ proponents have got their reasoning backwards; our improved technological abilities and economic prosperity have both engendered significant population growth as well.  Economic prosperity has continued to increase for the past two thousand years, with every century more prosperous than the last, and this is because there are more people on earth to contribute to the strategic and technological advancements. 

So not only is overpopulation a clear myth – the reverse is true - if you want to help solve the problems of the world like damage to the environment, bad living conditions for the neediest, and the diminishing populations of endangered animal species, you’ve got more chance if you have six kids than if you have none – because one of them just might be the one who puts a better solution in place.

* Not too long ago the entire world’s population could be housed quite comfortably in the State of Texas.

** It may actually be true that things like the industrial revolution had to wait until humans had the capacity to support large-scale innovation.

*** One point of note, despite increases in population it's not the masses that drives us forward, it is the top 1-2% of every generation as a rule. Were it not for the top 1-2%, humanity probably would have remained in the middle ages.  The reason why the model I gave you works is that with each increase in population the 1-2% of innovators increases numerically too.  When there were only 300,000 people in the world the top slice 2% innovators were only 6000 per generation.  In a population of 7 billion the top slice 2% innovators can be as many as 140 million.  That's a lot of people with a lot of ideas - so despite a justified pessimism regarding the overall abilities of most humans, such pessimism doesn't impinge on my model of progression. Once an idea is conceived it can be shared by millions. Once cat's eyes are invented, the whole world benefits. Once a computer chip is prototyped by the first innovator, the whole world reaps the rewards, and so on. 

**** You may also like to note that the countries with the largest populations - China, Brazil, Russia, India (and several African nations) – are actually showing the world’s fastest economic growth rates. 

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Happy New Year - You Are Lucky To Be Here!

Happy New Year to you all!  If you are reading this at the beginning of 2013, then you are one of 7 billion people that is astronomically lucky to be alive today.  It is quite common for biologists and religious people to make calculations of the odds of your being born, but it is a largely faulty endeavour because such models only ever focus on a few of the variables, and they fail to take into consideration that many of the contingent facts are post hoc and not amenable to straightforward probability calculations (the picture at the bottom of the page gives exhibition to the same flawed model). So, in trying to tell us the incredibly small chance of any individual being born, they choose a method that underestimates the real chances by a factor much larger than the figures they give us.  That's like a multi-billionaire trying to show off his wealth by emptying the moneybox next to his bedside table.

But that said, it is at least true that despite the flaws in the oft-presented probability models, you had an alarmingly fortuitous journey in being born.  Even if we calculate solely on the direct male line with the figure of your one lucky sperm with the unique set of DNA that makes up your father’s genes you inherited amongst 250 million sperm per intercourse, then going back a mere 40,000 generations you only had a 1 in 1.8 x 10403167* chance of making it here. 

Now that you have made it here to 2013 after 40,000 generations of 1 x 250 million chances of being the lucky sperm, consider something else – the reality you create by being human is an astoundingly brilliant illusion that requires a human mind to experience it.  Here’s why;

The following things can be said to exist: table, moon, freedom of choice, chair, love, jealousy, the play Hamlet, a dream about the play Hamlet, the sun, gravity, atoms, fear, admiration, generosity, and a hurricane.

If asked to put them into two distinct groups, most would do the following:

Group 1: table, moon, chair, the play Hamlet, the sun, gravity, atoms, a hurricane.

Group 2: freedom of choice, love, jealousy, a dream about the play Hamlet, fear, admiration and generosity.

The demarcation is usually centred around separating things that exist conceptually or as products of mental cognita (group 2) from things that exist in physical form in the external reality out there (group 1) – not dissimilar to how Kant separated noumena and phenomena. 

But I think this is a hugely (and implicitly human) limited view of reality, naturally resulting from our evolution of very limited parts through natural selection.  Natural selection built us to survive and understand a world of hunting and gathering – we are not well equipped to understand the full depths and complexities of reality. 

To understand reality more proficiently is to understand the following. Both of the above groups represent not too dissimilar objects in that the whole of reality with which humans interface is, in fact, a brilliant illusion constructed by the human mind.  That reality is different for every other kind of animal, and maybe without minds to perceive external reality, mother nature would be nothing more than mathematics (or thoughts in the mind of God, as per Berkeley’s Idealism, if your beliefs lean that way).

Either way, the existence of, say, table, moon and chair in the form perceived by humans is no more or less real than the existence of freedom of choice, love and jealousy – in that both sets of objects of study are as they are because of how the human mind interfaces with reality.  It’s a secret not many people know – but outside of human perceptions, the world doesn’t really have atoms, motion, heat, colour, water, rocks, dust and things of that kind.  Yes of course these things existed before humans (and other living things) came along, but they did not, and do not, exist as you know them, outside or apart from how you know them – they exist only in non-reified mathematical form, and they are probably existent in the reality of some kind of mathematical patterning that is able to bring to bear the physical substrate you and I know as the material world. 

As you begin 2013, have a little smile as you consider that at the beginning of the universe there was a vanishingly small chance of your ever being here – and also that having made it here, the whole of reality with which you interface is a brilliant illusion constructed by virtue of the fact that that is how humans perceive reality and make conceptions within it.  If that’s not a reason to marvel at being alive, I don’t know what is. 

This is a good example of underestimating the real probability by focusing only on a small sample of the factors involved.

* That’s 403,167 zeros