Sunday, 15 July 2018

The Outsourcing Disaster

In one of the chapters in one of my books, I wrote a section of advice to a teenager about not outsourcing your thinking. Because the good human inclination to learn from others is so prominent, it's easy to fall into the bad human inclination to outsource your own thinking to others - and that makes you very susceptible to significant damage to your own thought systems, as you open yourself to all kinds of nonsense.  

The distinction is an important one: when you are learning from others, your thinking is heightened and highly engaged, as you interpret facts, opinions and ideas, and apply your own mental cognition to the accountability process. Learning from others ought to feel a bit like being in a courtroom, where you rigorously examine the data in front of you and arrive at accurate conclusions. To that end, truth is to epistemology as justice is to a court of law.

Outsourcing your thinking is different: it is uncritically accepting the thoughts and opinions of others without any kind of self-imposed critical evaluation or accountability. Outsourcing your thinking makes it inevitable that you will fail to engage in the full complexity of ideas, and that you will be a lazy-minded reviewer of the world who latches on to the sloppy views, beliefs and sound-bites of those to whom you've outsourced your thinking.

The rise of Corbynism is perhaps the best recent example of the mass outsourcing of thinking to an intellectually incompetent, political dangerous cult of personality figure. Within a very short time, Jeremy Corbyn went from being a rank outsider in a Labour leadership contest to a celebrity figure so ubiquitous that he was able to draw the attention of a crowd of credulous Glastonbury festival goers who believe he is the best thing since sliced bread.

Once something big happens like the emergence of a political cult, or religious cult, or Gaia cult, there is a pool of adoration waiting to outsource their thinking to someone who will feed their minds with ideas like dolphins awaiting their feed in a zoo. What emerges is a kind of mass hysteria where the thoughts of the dominant figures seamlessly become part of the cultural milieu that supports it, until it operates from a hermetically sealed discourse that indolently enshrines those ideas as part of their identity, and shuts them off from any contra opinions that may rattle their epistemological framework

But there's another important element to this. As well as divesting yourself of accountability for your opinions, there's another big reason why you shouldn't outsource your thinking to others. You may well be smarter than them, and as a consequence, they are unworthy repositories for your outsourcing. In fact, given the types of people who command a following based on superficial and intellectually lightweight views and beliefs, there's a fair chance that a great many of the sheep are smarter than the shepherd herding them.

To finish, here's an off the top of my head list of ideas, terms and belief systems that act as socio-cultural receptacles into which a lot of people have poured their outsourced thinking, from which they would be solemnly advised to recoil immediately, and over which they should look to restore their own intellectual sovereignty in pursuit of a change of mind:

All religions except Christianity

Young earth creationism

Intelligent design

New wave atheism



Climate change alarmism

Trickle down economics

Economic Protectionism

Intellectual Protectionism


Price fixing

Positive discrimination

All women shortlists

Diversity quotas

Equality of outcome

Subsidies and bailouts

Contemporary Feminism


Identity politics

Male privilege

Unfair gender pay gap



I'm sure there are more, but it's been a tiring weekend, and that's all I can come up with for now. If you've outsourced your thinking to the extent that you are on side with any of the above, there's a whole new world of lucid discovery awaiting you when bring your thinking back in house on these matters.  

Developing an outsourcing mentality will soon become habitual inability to interpret and process yourself - you'll merely parrot ideas, phrases and beliefs that you've picked up from others, and in the end you'll put on a mask and the face you wear will grow into the mask until the two are indistinguishable.

A good indication test:

1) Think of an objective view you hold that your smartest friends think is plain wrong

Then another:

2) Think of an objective view you hold that your least smart friends think is plain wrong but your smartest friends think is right

Score yourself one point for every example you can think of in each category.

If you are an outsourcer of your thinking you should find you score high in category one and low in category two. If you are a master of your own cognitive domain, subjecting everything you hear to a rigorous, balanced analysis, you should score low in category one and high category two.



Saturday, 14 July 2018

The Pink Tax and Women Drivers

On her Facebook thread, a friend of mine presented me with a few questions about the so-called 'pink tax' - that is, the extra amount she believes women are unfairly charged for certain products or services, especially products related to sanitary needs and hygiene. My friend thought the price differential 'unfair', and another contributor insisted that these things should be priced the same.

The problem with saying something complex like a price is 'unfair' is that prices are not just figures slapped on products - they are a very complex nexus of information signals that reveal what people perceive as valuable, and how (in)elastic they are in their demands.  

There is no systematic unfairness, unless you count 'unfairness' as being a world in which different people are price sensitive to different things. Both men and women prioritise different things in their spending patterns, and prices go up and down in accordance with those demands. Sellers will pitch their prices in relation to perceived demand and perceived elasticity. To that end, the products are not as similar as it may first appear, because they mean different things to different people.

Because value is subjective to the consumer, it is difficult to look at the system overall and exclaim it is unfair to one particular sex. Take smellies as a good example. I know very little about aftershaves and perfumes, but it is easy to tell from the range of products available that women value them more than men. There is a greater variety of women's clothes and women's bags for the same reason.

Consequently, just as one could frame the debate in terms of women paying more for similar smelly products, one could equally frame it in terms of men are getting less variety in their smelly purchasing options. But there's a good reason that neither sex minds this being the case. If men cared about how they smell as much as women, there would be as many aftershaves as there are perfumes, and aftershaves would be more expensive than they currently are. The people who lose out in this scenario are not just men or just women - they are men who are price insensitive but more discerning about the variety of products, and women who are price sensitive but less discerning about the variety of products.

Sellers are profit maximisers - they will try to get as much as possible for each and every product. Sell a plain rucksack and you might get £10 for it. Sell an otherwise identical rucksack with a picture of Spiderman on it and it may fetch £15-20. The reason is obvious: boys prefer a rucksack with Spiderman on it to a plain one. If there is a rucksack with a picture of Elsa from Frozen selling for less than the Spiderman rucksack, it is a signal that boys tend to care more about Spiderman rucksacks than girls do about Elsa rucksacks, even though the conceptual difference is negligible. Demands for price equivalence will only be realised if there is value equivalence - and when there is not, expect to see men and women paying different prices for very similar things based on how much they are willing to pay.

Ironically, the genuine cases of unfairness I've seen in the marketplace are when men and women should be paying different prices for similar things but are forced to pay the same price, thereby negating very important differences in the sexes. For example, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) once ruled that the long-established practice of setting insurance prices according to gender is illegal discrimination. The Court's decision forced members of the European Union to introduce a ban on gender-based pricing.

So, in basic terms, car insurers used to yield to market-based risk calculation (using a reliable tool called actuarial mathematics) and offer statistically safer drivers cheaper premiums (perfectly sensibly, as any sane person would agree). Then the EU decided that it's much better to ignore all this data and assent to a spurious anti-unfair-discrimination policy, while failing to see the irony that in penalising statistically safer people for purposes of parity they are unfairly discriminating against safer drivers.

This beyond absurd. The primary measure of unfair discrimination in actuarial analyses is not treating different people differently, it is treating different people the same. Women are statistically safer drivers than men, which means they are cheaper customers, which means to increase their premium to the same as men is to unfairly discriminate against women.

The reasons why women are safer drivers are well known. Women are, on average, less likely to have fast cars, they drive fewer miles, they drive slower, they take fewer risks, and they are less aggressive than men. Giving women a lower premium based on those facts amounts to a simple and rational statistical evaluation of risk.

The same is true of other considerations too - age, post code, miles per year, type of car, and so forth - each of these are important factors in risk evaluation, and the ECJ should leave well alone. The free market is the best tool for eradicating unfair discrimination in business, because pretty much any time a company decided to discriminate against women, black people, gay people, tall people, fat people, or whomever, they would pay for it with a reduction in profits*.

Of course, we know the probable motive in the ECJ's equalisation of gender - it is to guard against people with identical data having different premiums based solely on gender. But that misses the whole quintessence of how competition works in the free market. Suppose we have Jack and Jill, who are the same age, with the same car, same post code, and driving the same miles per year - the ECJ would have it that they should be given equal premiums because to do otherwise would be to discriminate on the only variable factor - gender.

But that is not what happens - while the data picks up facts like age, car type, post code, and miles per year, it doesn't account for those significant differences - speed of driving, risk-taking, aggression and other factors of mentality behind the wheel that make women more likely to be safer and have fewer accidents, and better candidates for cheaper premiums.

The ECJ is guarding against the general being applied to the particular - but this is part of what makes competitive business healthy. In a free market we can work under an assumption of cheaper insurance premiums for a safer driving record at the individual level anyway - so it's a law that only actually compounds what already happens.

But we can extend far beyond that too - competing firms can solicit new custom by offering deals to acquire that custom. This proves very effective in the insurance market: some providers specialise in good deals for modified cars (like my modified Subaru), some specialise in good deals for women, some specialise in good deals for the elderly, some for first time drivers, and so on.

Insurance companies have asymmetry of information when it comes to those vital premium-changers - they have transparency with data like age, post code, miles per year, type of car - but they don't have anything like the same transparency with things like speed of driving, risk-taking, aggression and other factors of mentality behind the wheel - which is where the actuary matters.

A company that's free to offer deals for women is acting on probability related to those invisible factors - but that also means women are free to look for insurers sensitive to such data, as are Subaru drivers, as are the elderly, and so forth. That's how beautifully the market for insurance rewards this innovation.

If women are consistently safer, then they are consistently on average cheaper customers, which rewards those companies that are prepared in response to lower the premium for women. But if the data is spurious and women are less consistently as safe as the premium indicates then those same companies will incur a loss and adjust their women-favoured premiums to accord with that. It's a hugely efficient system that the ECJ hasn't properly factored into its considerations.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Sometimes The Important Things Are The Hardest Things To Accept

The dogmatic interventionists, by whom I mean people enchanted by socialism and green politics, get so much wrong primarily because they have never understood the big tension that underwrites human beings' relationship with nature. That tension is one of conflict between order and disorder in the natural proceeding of things. Here's how it goes - and if I succeed in my task of making this easy to follow, some of you may acquire a fresh perspective on the matter of how we could view human beings and our interface with nature.

The fundamental axiom about being humans (or at least one of the fundamental axioms) is that we are evolutionarily primed to strive for order over disorder in just about everything we do. We may experience minor peaks and troughs, but the overall goal of each human is to be in a constant state of improvement - to favour ‘better' over 'worse’ and ‘right' over 'wrong’ and ‘true' over 'false’. The species wouldn't have been able to thrive without these qualities.

The human journey, especially in recent decades, has seen the explosion of millions upon millions of thoughts and ideas into standards and values that draw us gradually nearer to cultural and social convergence, and keep us pressing forward together in search of more and more improvement. Order instead of disorder is our cultural and social analogue. Whether it is a simple act like cleaning up some spilled juice, or pruning a garden, or something more complex like improving our own individual life, or trying to help a family get on the straight and narrow, or bringing about peace in a war ravaged country – progression is our shared preference. Where there is disorder we look to bring about order. 

But if you've been attentive throughout your life, you may have noticed that this puts us at odds with nature's natural tendencies. The reason being: nature tends towards the opposite direction - it tends towards disorder - and this is primarily due to the first two laws of thermodynamics. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy is conserved in any process involving a thermodynamic system and its surroundings.  That is to say, the increase in the internal energy of a system is equal to the amount of energy added by heating the system minus the amount lost as a result of the work done by the system on its surroundings.

The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of an isolated system which is not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time. This is what is meant by the notion that nature's tendency is towards disorder, not order. In a closed system, disorder increases with time, but amongst the tend towards disorder, when one bit of the system becomes quite ordered, there will be an exhaust of disorder elsewhere to offset the decrease in entropy, meaning the overall effect still produces higher disorder. This process is what we call thermodynamic disequilibrium, which exhibits a driven directionality of time irreversibly (that's why we see time going in one direction not two - forwards but not backwards).

But as you have no doubt noticed, nature is not maximally disordered. If it was, we would not be here to talk about it. In biological evolution we see this directionality of order in action, because there is an evolutionary arrow of time which locks in organised complexity in biochemical systems. That does not mean we have to believe there is intentionality in the system, much less that evolution has an end goal – but in the sense of being good at surviving at the genetic level, the ratchet mechanism that occurs in the system creates pockets of order. This is the process that humans try to mirror in our own endeavours.

And here is where things get even more interesting, because although nature's tendency towards disorder puts humans in tension with nature as we try to bring about order, there is another one of nature's fundamental principles that humans have adopted to make the progress as efficient as possible - and that is the principle of least effort (also known as the law of parsimony). Because the total energy content of the universe is constant and the total entropy is constantly increasing, nature always prefers low energy, to tend towards maximum entropy - that is, it will make the least effort to reach any observable pathway it tends towards. That is why, for example, when light travels it reverts to the path of least time; and it is why a hanging chain reverts to the shape of lowest centre of mass; and it is why soap bubbles revert to the shape of least surface area and volume.

Similarly, in human nature, the physical mechanisms that underwrite our drive forward, our biological evolution, the global economy, and the state of living things in terms of the planet, are also all bound up in nature's thermodynamic principle of the law of parsimony. Whether we are talking about Newton's laws of motion, the biological mechanism of natural selection, electromagnetic radiation, the second law of thermodynamics, or running a successful clothing business, installing machinery in a new factory premises, trying to get from London to Brighton, or setting up a remote controlled railway system for your children at Christmas time, all these things are underpinned by the law of parsimony - that what works most efficiently is the path that takes least effort and uses the least energy.

Consequently, then, there is often a big price to pay for the kind of short-sighted meddling we frequently see in things like climate change alarmism, strivings for enforced equality, stifling competition, price controls, state subsidies, damaging regulations, censorship, and most taxes you can think of - the human state of affairs would be greatly enhanced if left to many of its natural paths of efficiency, and would progress a lot quicker than it is being allowed to with the meddlings of the socialists and the eco warriors.

I'm not saying that everything the state does is a hindrance to progress; and nor would I wish to gainsay the idea that some social justice warriors begin their endeavours with good intentions. But quite often the motives of the establishment are not conterminously aligned with the overall human drive for improvment, which is cooperation and mutually beneficial transactions according to the Nash equilibrium of whichever system is in play during the transaction. Because of humans pursuing their best possible approach as per Nash equilibria, the agents of participation have to negotiate strategies that identify risk in order to have sufficient transparency to obtain an optimal (or efficient) end goal. When there is negative outside interference that distorts this process and diminishes transparency, we get perverse incentives and less-efficient outcomes.

And lastly, this has a big implication on the other of society's big incompetence - the hugely pernicious model of fabricated equality, whereby people try to artificially level the playing field to achieve equal outcomes. Given that the underwritten hardwiring of humans is competition for fecundity and species resilience, it is inevitable that strivings for equality of opportunity are problematical (although not necessarily undesirable) and drives for enforced equality of outcome are mostly reprehensible.

Equality of outcome should not be enforced because of its ultimate futility - it is anti-human nature. It would be tantamount to forcing the species into a reduced level of prosperity on the basis of a highly questionable, undifferentiated uniformity. The reality is, if humankind was artificially flattened down to the common denominator of the most unskilled, least hard working, uncompetitive members, it would not be able to thrive as a species in the way it has.

There is transparent knowledge and empirical understanding of how reality operates, how humans thrive best, what helps our development along, what aids our psychological well-being, and what retards progress - and whether you choose to swallow the red pill or the blue pill is entirely a matter for your own conscience and whether you want to embrace reality, truths and facts, or dwell in the realm of illusion and denial. Just remember that no one really ever gets away with anything negative they do; and no one ever really fails to benefit from anything positive they do.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

On Memes (Before There Were Memes About Memes)

I was scrolling through some of my archival writings when putting together one of my books, and in my 'Essays' folder I found this piece I'd written in 1997 about memes, which seemed oddly pertinent given today's news about the latest foolish EU directive to force online agencies to automatically filter out any copyrighted material uploaded.

I thought it worth sharing for one simple reason - not because I have anything fresh to say about memes, but because it did strike me that this is one of those rare opportunities to share an old perspective on something that may be widely in common parlance now, but that at the time of writing was a fairly esoteric term known only by those familiar with Richard Dawkins' seminal 1976 book The Selfish Gene, from which the term 'meme' was first coined.

So I'm sharing my meme essay, solely for the purpose of giving readers the chance to see what my younger self thought about the memes 21 years ago when he had no idea they would go on to be so widespread, and that the term would be co-opted to represent far more than in its inceptive use.

Reprinted below:

On Memes
A lot of people share ideas and views that are valuable (don't steal from your boss, look before you cross the road, white t-shirts are better than black ones on a boiling hot day, and so on). But a lot of people also share ideas and views that are foolish and damaging (give pregnant women thalidomide, price controls are a good idea, vandalism is cool, and so on).

One word can aptly describe why all this happens - and that word is 'memes'. Just like mutations in DNA, ‘memes’ are packets of information passed from mind to mind. Just about any piece of information has the potential to be passed on like a meme, so long as there is a reason for it to be passed on. When a pregnant woman thinks it's fine to smoke 40 a day, and when a leftie asserts that the world is unfairly unequal and that we need a revolution, they are both acting on past, often very subtle, information signals.

Consequently it is to be expected that people believe all sorts of great and foolish things, as society involves lots of meme sound-bites that get passed on rather like how germs get passed on - by contagion. The reason memes are somewhat analogous to genes in biology is that they have characteristics that lend themselves to being preferentially duplicated or repeated.

Of course, memes are not simply the copying of the same information over and over again; just like genetic mutations, they are susceptible to insertion (where something extra is added to an idea), deletion (where something is taken away) and point mutation (where a part of the idea is changed into something else), as well as straightforward duplication (the copying of an idea).

Memes are cultural, and as such they are Lamarckian in that they are acquired characteristics that are inherited. They comprise elements of cultural ideas, symbols or practices that transmit from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena - and as a consequence, they demonstrate both the wisdom and the foolishness of the human race.

They act as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures. If one thinks of examples such as catchy melodies, catchphrases, religious beliefs, superstitions, jokes, clothing, fashion and technology, we see that this gives evidence of the memetic propagation of language, terms and ideas. 

Here's an example. Suppose we have two memes with regard to girls’ hairstyles. Meme 1 involves a girl tying her hair in a pony tail, whereas meme 2 involves a girl tying her hair in barrel hitch knots. If tying one’s hair in a pony tail induces comfort, convenience, happiness and positive feedback, then meme 1 will be duplicated and repeated with increased frequency. If, however, tying one’s hair in barrel hitch knots induces more comfort, convenience, happiness and positive feedback, then meme 2 will be duplicated and repeated with increased frequency.

As a general rule of thumb, a meme will spread depending on how its characteristics affect the organism. The mark of a good meme is one that is often expressed in voluntary behaviour, relative to other memes, due to the fact that it has left the organism feeling rewarded. The fact that pony tails are popular and barrel hitch knots are not tells us everything we need to know about their selectability in girls' hairstyles.

Even as I observe the first few pages in today's edition of a friend's daily newspaper, meme theory seems well suited to describe the cycles observed in fashion trends (in today’s case, the rise and fall of skirt lengths depending on whether girls would rather be modest or feel suggestive), or the popularity of certain belief systems (in today’s case, the popularity that Buddhism is gaining as a reaction to the hectic pace of modern life, and the popularity that both Scientology and Kabbalah are gaining due to the celebrities that endorse them).

Not wishing to invoke any ‘conscious thinking’ to memes (at least, not in the sense we are discussing here), but given that memes are packets of information looking to get themselves copied through various kinds of receptacles (computers, newspapers, magazines, billboards, radios, letters, and most generally of all, brains themselves) there are inevitably going to be a great many bad memes that spread throughout populations causing harm to their hosts. 

In fact, in many respects a lot of the bad memes are more likely to be passed on than the good memes, because many of the ideas and beliefs that are most easily embraced are the overly-simplistic ones that we don't take enough time learning to resist. For example, a lot of beliefs are adopted because they facilitate polarising black vs white thinking, highly selective worldviews, emotional appeals for quick-fix solutions to complex problems, and attraction to the kinds of dogmatic certainty and trivialisation of contra-contentions that we see in cults and ideologically driven political groups.

Given the ease with which new memes are formed, and how rapidly they spread, humanity will always have memetic diversity, and this yields lots of competing ideas and human flaws regarding how to assimilate a multitude of ideas into a coherent worldview.

With genes there is selection for the fittest organism, where biological forms acquire traits that better enable them to adapt to specific environmental situations, which results in their improved evolvability due to the perpetuation of those beneficial traits in the generations that succeed them.

With memes there is nothing quite so effective. For memes, there is selection for the behaviour that the organism finds the most satisfying, easy to understand, personally self-congratulatory and culturally consistent - and this gives no guarantee that bad ideas won't endure - especially if, as seems inevitable, the world's population becomes more and more closely connected through increased technology capacity.

 James Knight 1997

Sunday, 1 July 2018

It's Hard To Say Goodbye If You Won't Leave

Humans, through their short-sightedness, frequently make it difficult to get rid of the things they do not like, because they continually change the definitional goalposts to ensure the things they dislike do not die out. This is likely due to the fact that humans appear to show susceptibility to prevalence-induced concept change.

Take poverty as a good example. In his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith cited the linen shirt as an example - that is: not being able to afford a linen shirt does not mean you are in poverty, but a society that deems poverty to mean you are unable to afford a linen shirt will see you as poor if you can't afford to wear one.

Many relatively poor people in the UK today have riches that their great grandparents wouldn't have thought possible. In the year 2018, the smart phone might be the present day linen shirt, as even most relatively poor people have one. In the future the linen shirt equivalent will be something only the richest today own - or it may be some technological wonder that hasn't yet been invented.

Another definition of poverty, the EU one, is any household income that is below 60% of the median income. This is a truly asinine definition (as I blogged about here) - not least because it ensures that poverty cannot fail to exist. If such a thing is measured by proportions of the middle of the income distribution, it is literally impossible for some people to avoid being in poverty, however well off they are.

I can think of numerous other examples where definitions are shifting to ensure it is harder for them to die out. Racism is a good case in point. Once upon a time racism would have been something like disapproving of inter-racial marriages or displaying a "No blacks, no Jews, no Irish, no dogs" sign in your shop window. Now it can be something relatively innocuous like not having enough ethnic diversity in your film crew or at your university, or being highly critical of terrible human inventions like Islam.

Sexism is another good case in point. Once upon a time sexism would have been something like believing a woman's place is in the kitchen. Nowadays even inequalities that have a perfectly natural outcome on the basis of individual choices can have sexism levelled at them.
People of 50 or 60 years ago would be amazed at how less racist and sexist society is today - yet hear some people speak and they give the impression that societal progress is imperceptible to them, and that they always want to be consumed by dissension and incongruity.

Aggression used to mean antipathy towards a person that results in violent behaviour or readiness to attack. Nowadays you can be accused of being aggressive if you mildly offend someone with a view that departs from the mainstream. Injustice used to be a more powerful concept, as did the concepts of truths and facts - but today the power of their meaning has been eroded away into a passive-aggressive relativism that seeks to undermine the edifice of human progression. The list goes on and on.

Consequently, in a world in which we've never been more prosperous, more knowledgeable, more equal, healthier, wealthier and with the highest standard of living, it seems that many people want to perpetuate their dissonance and actively seek ways to be unhappy with the world. We should, of course, continue to challenge genuine injustices and societal ills - but too often by changing the definitional goalposts people have an easy pretext for losing sight of perspective.

Because if the medium to long-term future resembles the past, I can conceive of upcoming scenarios in which almost everyone has a living standard that people of today would marvel at, but yet they habitually partake in complaints about annoyances that would make us scoff.

Perhaps it would be similar to how a young teenager from the Victorian period, who had to work all day in grotty, polluted, laborious, precarious conditions almost as soon as he was able, would be somewhat insensitive to the complaints of a young person of today who feels oppressed by patriarchy, and who hasn't yet managed to acquire the latest smart phone on sale in the shops.

Finally, with all this in mind, I will leave you with this prescient passage from Phineas Finn, which I think is easily Anthony Trollope's best novel:

"Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;—and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made."

"It is no loss of time," said Phineas, "to have taken the first great step in making it."

"The first great step was taken long ago," said Mr. Monk,—"taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards."