Wednesday, 28 December 2016

We Really Need To Talk About ABBA & The Peculiar Nature Of Genius

We really need to talk about ABBA; I just need to get it off my chest. ABBA are, to me, the music equivalent of science's string theory (super trouper string theory, perhaps) - and what I haven't resolved since childhood is quite where ABBA belong in popular music's pantheon. The thing about ABBA is that they have this rather arcane qualitative thing going on whereby they are superior to the level they are required to be to produce the thing they are producing.

What I mean is, to make good pop you only have to be at the kind of Duran Duran, ABC, Supertramp, 10cc, the Bangles or Ace of Base level - a kind of n where ABBA are n+1, and where 1 = some obscure quality that outputs material that's superior to what it needs to be.

The sixties pop equivalent would be The Beatles n+1 where n is bands like The Animals, The Small Faces, The Hollies, The Monkees and the Spencer Davis Group. And the same with prog rock and Pink Floyd too. To be a decent prog rock band you only need to be Yes, Jethro Tull or Rush. Pink Floyd were far better than they needed to be - the n+1 to the others' n.

And for me what adds to the mystery of ABBA's high quality singles is that generally their album tracks are little more than mediocre filler. When other great bands make great songs you usually get a sense of their qualities from the other songs on the album too. Not so with ABBA - the brilliance of songs like Dancing Queen, Take A Chance On Me, S.O.S and Mamma Mia are not hinted at anywhere on their non-single tracks.

It's almost as if ABBA were a band with flashes of absolute brilliance trapped inside the body of a mediocre band, bursting out every now and then with enough inspiration to wow us with enough brilliantly arranged and executed pop singles to secure them a place in music's pantheon. They had bursts of genius without being anything close to geniuses.

On the subject of genius, I recall in his considerations of tonal and nagual art, William Burroughs saw the nagual as much more unmanageable in the sense that it was unpredictable and harder to creatively construct than the more predictable patterns of the tonal. The tonal universe is the more empirically predictable cause-and-effect universe, whereas the nagual is the less foreseeable, intractable elements of reality that burst through unannounced and linger beyond the radar of prediction. As Burroughs put it, "For the nagual to gain access, the door of chance must be open"

Whether it be the painter with his formulae of form and colour applied to a canvas, or the writer with the formulae of words to paper, the true ‘genius’ of creativity was not thought to be in the person being creative, it was instead being continually re-crafted by tapping into something transcendent of the individual self - even if that transcendent thing could still be classified as human creation.

It ought to be noted that this wasn’t a scientific viewpoint, but an artistic feeling. Norman Mailer has suggested that William Burroughs was "possessed by genius" as opposed to ‘being’ a genius or even ‘possessing’ genius.  The dynamic spontaneity of ‘genius’ is nagual according to Mailer and Burroughs, and to be possessed ‘by’ genius is to tap into something altogether special – something that seems to find itself located in the collective nature of human minds, in that we share it and all in our own way seek to take possession of it, yet so often find it elusive. 
If this is the case about genius then the old maxim that genius is more about perspiration than inspiration probably has some mileage, particularly bearing in mind that the greater the output in terms of quantity, the more opportunities for the door of chance to be opened to let the nagual genius creep in.

Then again, if one looks at some very ungenius-like highly prolific artists in output - such as Paul Weller, The Fall, Tangerine Dream, The Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen - one gets the impression that however long they keep trying they will never produce something of genius that's on a par with the really great artists.

One final point about greatness is that it so often requires the lens of retrospection to reveal its quintessenve. For example, if you asked 1000 keen music fans at random in the UK which 3 albums from the 14 years of 1966 to 1979 they considered to be the best and most innovative, I think the range of different albums chosen would be narrower than if you asked 1000 keen music fans at random in the UK which 3 albums from the past 14 years (the noughties - the years 2003 to 2016) they considered to be the best and most innovative.

However, I suspect that if you asked 1000 keen music fans at random in the year 2050 which 3 albums from the years 2000 to 2013 they considered to be the best and most innovative you'd find the range of albums chosen probably would be as narrow as the current 1000 keen music fans choosing from the 14 years of 1966 to 1979.

I think that's probably because while there are more albums being produced in the modern era, there are fewer great ones - but also because people need a considerable passage of time to assess what makes an album really great, and today probably is too soon to assess the past 14 years with a proper consideration.

Friday, 23 December 2016

And The Award For Most Confused Article Of 2016 Goes To....

Generally, The Guardian writers are to economics as astrologers are to astronomy, and George Monbiot has been trying very hard in 2016 to win the 'Most foolish article of the year award'. However, for your humble author, Monbiot was beaten to the title at the final furlong earlier this month by Patrick Collinson, who spent a whole article trying to explain to us how people earned less in the 1960s but could afford more.

It's rare to see so much confusion crammed into one short piece of writing, but what helps Collinson achieve this feat is that he has no real clue about how inflation works. In the title he declares

"Oh for the 1960s! People earned less but could afford more."

This is factually untrue on every level: it's untrue in the sense that your earnings do very much determine what you can afford; and it's untrue in the sense that people of today can literally afford a lot more for their money than in the 1960s. He goes on:

“By chance it was the same week my 90-year-old father decided to show me his carefully filed tax returns from the 1960s (yes, that’s what counts for fun in the Collinson household). In 1963-64 his pay as an accounts clerk in London was £1,357 a year. In today’s money that equals a little over £25,000 a year once inflation is taken into account. In some ways that £25,000 doesn’t look so great. After all, someone working in a similar role with his level of experience at the time might expect £35,000-£40,000 today. But then look at what an income of £25,000 bought in 1963 in London. His granddaughter now works in the same city, London, for the same pay, £25,000. But what does an income of £25,000 buy you in 2016?"

Wowsers, this is also absurd! Apart from a few minor details that don't affect the efficacy of the point, by and large inflationary measurements mean that if £1,357 in 1963 is the same as £25,000 in 2016, then £1,357 in 1963 buys you pretty much the same value of goods and services as £25,000 does in 2016. I included the disclaimer because relative prices means different relative quantities in some goods over time, but on aggreggate considerations, inflation is calculated on the basis of comparable goods for comparable sums of money.

He then goes on another lament, this time about how much harder it is to afford property in London nowadays than it was in the 1960s, concluding that "If any government really wants to help the left-behinds, then cutting house prices and rents must be their first priority". The first glaring mistake is that governments don't cut house prices and rent - it's the private sector that determines prices. The second mistake is that it may have been easier to buy property in London in the 1960s than it is now, but some of the variance is down to how much more of a high quality and hugely desirable city London is today than it was in the 1960s. Lastly, there are numerous ways that the government is very much to blame for why London house prices are so hard to afford.

But really, the primary criticism of Collinson's lament about how things were better in the 1960s because people earned less but could afford more is that it inanely overlooks all the absolute gains in terms of quality of life, quality and quantity of goods and services, increased leisure time, and the numerous other ways that it's better to be alive today. To illustrate this, I would ask Mr Collinson questions I first raised in this Blog post - questions I think we know perfectly well how he would answer them:

1) Would you rather go about making Sunday lunch for five guests in a 2016 kitchen or in a 1960s kitchen?

2) Would you rather need a heart operation in a 2016 hospital or in a 1960s hospital?

3) Would you rather have the holiday options in a 2016 travel agent or the holiday options in a 1960s travel agent?

4) Would you rather be defended by the UK's 2016 armed forces or by the armed forces in the UK in the 1960s?

5) Would you rather be a woman, or a black person, or a homosexual in London in 2016, or a woman, or a black person, or a homosexual in the London in the 1960s?

6) Would you rather have the knowledge of the world available to you in 2016 or the knowledge of the world available to you in the 1960s?

7) Would you rather have the working week of 2016 or the working week of the1960s?

8) Would you rather have the digital technology of 2016 or the digital technology of the 1960s?

9) Would you rather be driving a car of 2016 or a car of the 1960s?

I think we know which options our Guardian writer would choose - and on that note we can end.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

How The Relative Misleads

Qualities in life - be they ability, money, looks - have both an absolute value and a relative value. Let’s take wealth; your absolute wealth is the intrinsic gains and losses that occur in your own finances, whereas your relative wealth is how those gains and losses are perceived in relation to others.

Everyone can appreciate the changes in their own absolute wealth. If your first effort as a novelist earns you £250,000 you'll be happy. If it earns you £350,000 you'll be happier still. Sometimes, though, your views on absolute wealth change when presented with different comparisons related to relative wealth. For example, suppose you were looking for the balance between financial rewards and critical acclaim - and for simplicity’s sake let's suppose you're never going to write another novel again, meaning that critical acclaim or critical derogation won't affect future publishing potential. Consider the following choice:

Scenario 1
Option A) £350,000 and worldwide critical derogation
Option B) £250,000 and worldwide critical acclaim 

In the above scenario you would choose option B if your value of critical acclaim (and the corollary, your aversion to derogation) exceeds £100,000. If your value of critical acclaim is less than the difference between A and B then you’d choose option A. Let’s suppose from now on that you value critical acclaim at £35,000, you would opt for option A in the above scenario.

Now let's look at two more different scenarios, where you value critical acclaim at £35,000.  Consider the following choice:

Scenario 2
Option A) £375,000 and no critical acclaim
Option B) £350,000 and critical acclaim

In scenario 2 you should choose B because the value of the sum earned (£350,000) plus the value of critical acclaim to you (£35,000) amounts to £385,000, making it more favourable than option A, which at £375,000 is worth £10,000 less. Most people who valued critical acclaim at £35,000 would, I suspect, choose option B.

But suppose you still valued critical acclaim at £35,000 but were given a third scenario:

Scenario 3
Option A) £50,000 and no critical acclaim
Option B) £25,000 and critical acclaim

In scenario 3 your decision should be no different to scenario 2. Nothing has changed in absolute terms: in scenario 3 the sum of your valuation of critical acclaim (£35,000) and the earnings (£25,000) amount to £10,000 more than the option A (£50,000). But I suspect you'd be much less likely to choose option B in scenario 3 because your concern for critical acclaim would reduce your cash earnings by 50%, whereas in scenario 2 it would reduce your cash earnings by just 6.7%.

That is to say, in relative terms the difference between £25,000 in scenario 2 (6.7%) is a lot less painful than the difference between £25,000 in scenario 3 (50%) even though the absolute value doesn't change.

Clearly this is understandable; a 50% increase from £25,000 or £50,000 can change your life by a very great amount, whereas if you've obtained the life-changing amount of £350,000, then that extra £25,000 increase to £375,000 changes your life by considerably less. This is called the law of diminishing marginal utility, where the first unit of consumption of a good or service brings about greater utility than the second unit of consumption, with diminution continuing with more and more units.

In the above scenario your relative considerations were not against the earnings of other authors, they were considerations related to the trade off between earnings and critical acclaim. Quite often, though, the earnings of others is a big factor in people’s decisions. Let’s consider a different example, which shows how much emphasis people place on relative value over absolute value. If given the following choice:

Option A) You increase your earnings by £12,000 per year, and all your same-sex friends increase theirs by £15,000 per year

Option B) You increase your earnings by £11,000 per year, and all your same-sex friends increase theirs by £8,000 per year

Surprisingly, a lot of people would choose option B, because their relative wealth in comparison to their same-sex friends is more important to them than an increase of £1,000 in their absolute wealth if their friends' absolute wealth increases by more.

I think this is irrational. £1,000 is still as valuable to you in monetary terms irrespective of whether your friends increase their absolute wealth by £8,000 or £15,000. Only if your social status is more valuable to you than £1000 should you choose option B - but I think it'd be a sorry thing if you valued social status that much.

Here's another example - this time an example of how humans are irrational when faced with different numbers.

Scenario 1
You are about to buy a specialised pair of welding gloves for £60 in Lewisham, when an app pops up on your phone telling you that at a shop in the centre of London the welding gloves are £30 cheaper (that's a £30 saving even after Tube costs and additional time have been factored in as well).

If you asked 1000 people if they would go into London to make that saving, many would, as it's a 50% discount. Now here's a variation on that question.

Scenario 2
You are about to buy a brand new Nissan Micra for £1499 in Lewisham - but in the centre of London the same car company has the exact same car that will cost you £1469 (that's also a saving of £30, again with Tube fare and additional time factored in).

Suppose every other detail is the same except the relative nature of the £30 saving, I'll wager that if you asked 1000 people whether they'd now bother to head into the centre of London to save £30 on a Nissan Micra, most would say no.

Given the relative infrequency with which we buy a new car, there should be no difference in the two options - if you value the £30 saving on the first product you should value it on the second product too - but almost no one does, because relative to £1499 a £30 saving is nothing like a saving relative to £60. 

After putting questions like this out there for public consideration I've also found that people are often irrationally more cautious with large numbers than small numbers, even if the same probability occurs in both situations. For example, suppose I gave the average person the following scenario:

Option A) You have a big bag with 1 black ball and 999 white balls inside. You get to pull one ball out; if it's black you die, if it's white you get £1 million pounds.

In that scenario most people would feel pretty confident and probably take up the offer. Suppose now I gave the average person this scenario:

Option B) You have a very big bag with 1000 black balls inside and 999,000 white balls inside. You get to pull one ball out; if it's black you die, if it's white you get £1 million pounds.

Regarding Option B, my results overwhelmingly show that people would be more cautious than with Option A even though the probability is the same. In fact, I fancy that if you gave 1000 people Option A, got them to choose to take part or not, then wiped their memories of Option A and proceeded to give them Option B, a large number would give a different answer.

When it comes to things like wealth inequality in the world, humans still tend to be much more interested in relative wealth than absolute wealth. The trouble is, unless this is done sensibly it causes people to forget arithmetic and to think irrationally. My advice is that unless there is a jolly good reason for thinking relatively, people should get into the habit of thinking in terms of absolute gains and losses, and not be anchored by how those absolute gains measure relative to other people's absolute gains.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Biomimicry: When Nature Is The Smartest Inventor

By mimicking the way biological organisms have already conducted themselves in a long history of natural selection, human beings have been able to innovate and solve many of the technological and sustainability problems confronting our species.

Here are some examples: modelling echolocation in bats has brought about technology such as car reversing alarms and devices for the blind; the spider’s web was influential in designing things like the bulletproof vest; some forms of display technology are based on the reflective properties of certain kinds of butterfly after it was discovered that butterfly wings contain microstructures that create the colouring effect; the Bombardier beetle's powerful repellent spray inspired low-carbon sprays in eco-friendly canisters; some anti-bacterial substances were inspired by marine algae; and the friction-free surfaces on various electrical goods were inspired by studying types of lizard skin.

Some more examples: the pacemaker was modelled on the wiring system of the humpback whale’s heart; velcro was inspired by looking at the tiny hooks at the end of each spine on burrs under a microscope; whale fins, tails and flippers make good engineering templates for wind turbines; studying van der Waals forces on the miniature hairs on the feet of geckos has given us ideas for strong types of adhesive; and studying how epoxy resin restores fibres in skin has helped bring about the idea of self-healing plastics that mirror the human ability to heal cuts. Those were just a few examples, and perhaps the tip of the iceberg for what is to come in the future.

Ideas can come after lengthy study or in quick-flash moments. When designing aircraft wings, engineers closely observed birds and fish, and they designed those wings to morph their shape depending on the speed and duration of flight. Apparently, the Wright brothers were inspired to build aircraft after briefly observing pigeons. Engineers in Zimbabwe studied tower-building termites and how they construct their mounds to sustain a constant temperature by convection currents of air. They do this by constantly opening and closing vents throughout the mound, which draws in colder air near the bottom and releases hot air from the top. The hugely energy efficient Eastgate Centre building in Harare (pictured below) is based on this termite design.

All these examples serve as a great template for understanding the reality behind our ability to mimic nature, as we find that our ways of thinking mirror how nature behaves. You’ll find that laws in logic represent the laws in physical reality, and patterns in economics mirror patterns in the natural world – and this realisation provides us with an ideal foundation for understanding the world. Not only do such endeavours undergo evolutionary change in the artificial selection process in industry – quite often we stumbled upon new ideas without very much pre-planning or foresight.

Think of inventing an aircraft or, even simpler, a car – it’s not just a one-step fait accompli, it's a lengthy bit-by-bit process of trial and error. That's why cars of today have Air Con, CD players, more BHP, better wheels and tyres, and so on - features that old cars do not have. Also, many of the proprietary parts of the car (wheels, glass, engine parts, electrical components, leather interior, the oil sump (to name but a few) were all invented or discovered without the car being conceived or envisaged as a goal (and that's to say nothing of the agriculture, cities and writing which set the social base for industrialisation in the first place). 

All these bit-by-bit improvements come down to experience, theory and concept, because experience bootstraps theories and concepts, which pre-date the inventions that reify those concepts. This shows the precedent for gradual step-by-step increase in complexity to the extent that it allows limited human intelligence to make advances and achieve results beyond that which is available to a single act of inventive foresight and goal formulation.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Amber Gets The Red Light On Carbon Tax

Oh dear, this is not what we want to see! Energy Secretary Amber Rudd was on Sky News earlier talking about the necessity of carbon tax as a means of reducing emissions down to a state-mandated nominal level. Now I’ve argued before that carbon tax has its uses, and is not to be entirely frowned upon – but frankly, Rudd’s definition of the goal of carbon tax is remiss. Ruddy confused, in fact.

A carbon tax is not a means of reducing emissions down to a nominal figure; it is supposed to be a tool for maximising utility. That is, carbon taxes help us incorporate negative externalities into the price system of a free market whereby polluters carry the costs of their negative externalities, but also whereby the price reaches equilibrium as the costs of pollution are measured accurately against the benefits.

That way, those negative externalities are compensated for by the fact that they increase utility to a level greater than their costs. For example, a timber factory and a roadside diner on the outskirts of a city add some pollution to the environment, but they make up for those negative externalities by providing goods and services that people want.

Where they are a benefit is when carbon taxes intervene in the price system to ensure that future costs of transactions are thought to be worth paying for present benefits. The rate of carbon tax is roughly commensurate with the future cost of pollution, incorporated into the price system to justify the benefits now – it is a tax that attempts to ascertain the benefits of pollution.

Carbon taxes are far from simply being about lowering emissions, although as I argue here, they will likely change future behaviour as businesses innovate to be greener with improved technology.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Tying One Arm Behind Your Back

It's very frustrating reading all the opinions about what kind of Brexit we will have in relation to trade effects, and whether being outside the EU's customs union will incur the penalty of this or that tariff. For those that don't know, a customs union is a politically constructed trade bloc within which member states trade without tariffs, and outside of which other nations have tariffs imposed upon them. A free-trade area is a politically constructed trade bloc whose nations have signed a free-trade agreement that has very few or sometimes no trade barriers.

The existence of tariffs is infuriating to anyone who understands economics, because they do harm in virtually every area of society. Governments impose them because it gives them a bit of extra revenue, and because there are enough uninformed people in the country who think that by making imports harder the government makes exports and domestic business easier, leading to the domestic economy being better off (an asinine misapprehension that I blogged about here)

The reality is, by increasing the cost of imports, tariffs hurt all domestic economies, as they lead to a decline in consumer surpluses. A really obvious case is seen with the EU's tariffs on agricultural products, which make agricultural products more expensive for EU consumers by putting up barriers to competition. Restricting competition doesn't just inflate prices, it also diminishes quality for the consumer, because if your industry is protected from competitors it is shielded from the need to increase efficiency. And that's to say nothing of the wider costs of tariffs to developing nations trying to compete in a global economy, and all the additional costs to consumers when trade partners retaliate with their own tariffs.

Tariffs are a horrid political interference in free trade, and the harm they impose is hugely frustrating, as seemingly few people ever really stop to question their existence and challenge politicians to put a stop to them. Such are the benefits of free trade that even if every country is imposing tariffs on us, we'd still be better off domestically by not imposing tariffs on foreign exporters. Hearing our political elite spitting and spluttering about negotiating their way out of numerous political interferences is one of the saddest reminders of how frivolously politicians impede and retard all the prodigious benefits of free trade.  

Sunday, 11 December 2016

A Cost-Benefit Analysis Of Cheap Fame

Ask Tom the economist whose favourite three bands are The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Radiohead whether he likes manufactured pop music and with his artistic hat on he’ll probably say no. Ask him whether he likes manufactured pop in terms of what’s good for society and with his economist hat on he may well say yes.

What’s the difference between the two evaluations? The answer is that one is a subjective personal argument and the other is an objective economic argument. As a credible music lover, Tom possibly sees the likes of Westlife and Boyzone (or whoever the modern day equivalents are) as lacking musical credibility, complicit in cultural degradation and producing faux-icons that are unworthy of adulation.

As a credible economist, he understands that lots of people are willing to spend money listening to manufactured pop. The economist is generally less bothered about whether someone is right or wrong, wise or unwise to like something – he or she is primarily concerned about market signals that convey information about people’s wants, needs and preferences.

To put it another way, what is being considered is whether the market for fame (like the market for laptops, beds and cars) is succeeding or failing. Save for price controls and government interference, nobody questions whether the market for laptops, beds and cars is failing, because we don’t wonder if we’re getting the wrong kinds of products. Yet with celebrities we do – we find ourselves wondering whether famous music stars are credible songwriters or artificially manufactured bubble gum pop stars, and whether the latter has any artistic validity.

It’s here that economics explains why by and large we have the right number of all kinds of celebrity too, at least in terms of what people perceive to be socially valuable. It’s easy to be critical of people who look at the benefits of the minimum wage, rent controls and import tariffs and stay blind to all the costs. Therefore we should do the same with celebrities; that is, identify the costs, but also realise the benefits too, even if they are not our own personal benefits. Because, you see, a big part of doing economics well is about perceiving the benefits to others that are not immediate to ourselves.

One obvious criticism of the present day celebrity culture is that fame is cheap and that there are a plethora of celebs competing for attention in an excessive pool. But equally, one benefit of fame being cheap is that society has more celebrities and entertainment for less money. For people that like inexpensive and accessible entertainment, the celebrity world is a bit like discovering a bargain bucket that contains some treats you end up liking but didn’t know you would. On top of that, the associative products that are concomitant with the marketing of celebrity – everything from TVs, CD’s, DVDs, audio-visual equipment, websites, fashion, shows, critics, advertisers, promoters and agents - share in the value of celebrity markets.

Another societal benefit that the celebrity culture engenders, as with all kinds of art and expression, is the way it brings people together for topics of conversation, mutual appreciation, and fashion influences. And given that fame brings valuable diversity to society, there is going to be beneficial cooperation from a wide range of people, where if value isn’t created they could no longer earn a living. In other words, if the world of celebrity gives people something they desire more than the money then it shows that consumer surplus is occurring.

What you have to consider is that when you walk into Waterstones, or log on to Amazon, the products competing for your attention are there at the expense of other products that could be competing for your attention. This means that in commercial terms a lot of people think this stuff is worth your while purchasing, which piques our interest to consider that, say, out of all the new books in the ‘out now’ section, there might well be something we’ll like.

The same is true of celebrities paid handsomely to endorse products – it’s a marketing trick to convey the following message: look, we’re sure you’re not convinced that this celebrity really loves the product, but if we’re willing to pay him or her all the money to say they do we must have confidence many of you will like it. On balance, the benefits of cheap fame probably outweigh the costs.


Thursday, 8 December 2016

This Is One Of The Most Bizarre Of All The Human Obsessions

Apart from for reasons of envy and insecurity, the obsession the left have with inequality is truly bizarre. We are more evolutionarily primed to keep up with the Joneses in the same socio-economic group as us than we are the Joneses in socio-economic groups high above us. If you're going for a job at Burger King it's more natural (not to mention sensible) to care about competition from other people going for the same job at Burger King than whether the Chief Executive of Burger King has two or three more cars than you do.

Everyone understands this when the example in question is a nightclub. If you go into a nightclub on the pull, the greater the number of attractive single males there are inside the less chance you have of pulling. Just like in evolutionary biology, men in nightclubs should be concerned about their status in comparison with other men, and women with other women. But they should not be concerned about all men equally, because those concerned about their status should be most concerned with other men in their selectability range - that is, those with pulling power similar to them.

If super handsome Charles increases his pulling power by an extra percentage point after having an even better hairstyle or a few extra sessions at the gym, that will disadvantage his nearest super handsome rivals more than it will disadvantage average Tony, who is more concerned about the pulling prowess of average Andy and average Darren. In the same way, if a low-skilled immigrant comes into the UK and joins the job market, he doesn't disadvantage Alan Sugar or Claude Littner; he disadvantages fellow migrants and low-skilled British people.

Seeing the regularity with which the champagne socialist social justice warriors blather and whinge about inequality, take to the streets with their placards, sit on debating panels and write their confused missives in left wing newspapers - I really do find it one of the most absurdly peculiar obsessions that humans have. The fact that a small proportion of society has made a lot of money by creating value in society for a large proportion of society (something very few people have the skill and ingenuity to do) should not be a reason for masses to get on their hobbyhorses and scoff at the 'horrid injustices' of inequality. The huge wealth gulf is precisely the kind of power law we should expect to see in a society of freely made commercial decisions.

It's an irony missed by so many, but the main way that less well off people ought to care about rich people is in the fact that they are often the investors and job creators who can give them a living (and in many cases lift them out of poverty). Suppose a corporation sets up factories in Mozambique and can afford to employ 3000 workers out of a possible 5000. If you're one of the 5000 in contention, you are going to care more about the other 4999 people in your own city than you are a millionaire in London or New York. But you also care about millionaires in London or New York because if you're one of the unfortunate 2000 that do not get taken on then one of those millionaires might just be the next investor who can put you and the remaining 1999 people to work.

There is an intelligent conversation to be had about possible problems that may occur if power and influence becomes heavily concentrated in the hands of a very few, to the extent that a tiny proportion of people in the world end up controlling the global economy, the media, the laws that govern us, and eventually our freedoms and liberties. But the trouble with that hypothesis is twofold:
Firstly, there is absolutely no evidence that that is happening or will happen, and there are plenty of reasons to think the opposite. And secondly, you really do get the impression that this future dystopia is not really a big factor in many people's thinking - they appear to be just bitter and envious about the rich because they live under a misapprehension that if the higher-skilled workers earned less it would somehow magically mean that lower-skilled workers suddenly earned more - an idea that just isn't based on reality, because wages are conditioned by the marginal product of labour not the fanciful whims of the populists, and because the economy is not a fixed pie, meaning just because someone has lots it does not mean they are taking your share.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Black Is The New Black Is The New Black Lives Matter

I have just finished watching the very interesting Black Is The New Black series on BBC2. It was beautifully shot, with great close-up filming of so many beautiful males and females with awesome skin – something I’m very familiar with as my wife, who is Rwandan-born dual heritage, has absolutely awesome skin. While it was lovely to hear from the contributors about the inspirations and progressions they've enjoyed, it was upsetting to hear of the many cases of racism and prejudice to which they’d been subjected, even in the UK in recent times.

While this country is definitely on an upward trajectory in terms of respect, acceptance and tolerance, the recent Brexit vote reminds us that there are still many nasty elements lurking in the societal sub-ducts. If I were to make a prediction, I think each passing generation will continue to see improvements, and it will probably be about another three generations henceforth before things get much better.

Here's why. When it comes to those who still lag behind in terms of being accepting, tolerant global citizens, there are two main groups in this country. The first and by far the largest group are the older generation of racists, bigots and xenophobes - people who grew up in this country when white indigenous Brits were the overwhelming majority, and who have never been enlightened or educated about the enriching benefits of a diverse, pluralistic society. The second group are the two generations of family that have followed on from the first group; they are almost equally similar in their views and prejudices, but many of the younger ones are far more used to diversity in society than the older folk. 

I'd say by and large in another generation hereafter most of the first group will have died out, leaving many of the second group as the new oldie racists, bigots and xenophobes. But by then Britain will be even more tolerant, accepting and diverse, and the newest group will be born into a society that makes them even less likely to be as bad as their grandparents and great-grandparents' generation. Consequently, I think it will take another couple of generations after that before things get a lot better. In the meantime they will continue to get a little better.

Last point on the programme. Listening to some of the contributors, it was interesting, how one or two said that it’s bad when there isn’t the black representation on TV shows, but there were a couple of complaints about shows that picked a select black person, making it obvious they were filling a quota. At the shorter term level, it’s an interesting duality of opposites, because it’s difficult to satisfy one desire without failing to satisfy the other. If it’s not desired that minority groups are deliberately selected to fill a quota then there is the danger that they will be left out; and if there is not the desire that they are left out, some kind of deliberate selection is likely.

As you've probably worked out by now, I want to live in a world in which programme makers feel absolutely free to make whatever programmes they wish, having any kind of representation they choose without the slightest fear of reprisals.

I also want to live in a world in which faulty arguments and bogus reasoning are exposed as being unhelpful to the people they are trying to help (as cases in point here and here and here demonstrate). To add to those examples, let's talk about an example of where this is happening in the black communities.

What of Black Lives Matter?
You've probably seen all the headlines in 2016 regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. My own view is that black lives matter, sure, but that is because all lives matter. Once we have (hopefully) agreed that all lives matter, I'd now like to you to agree with me that statistics matter too - or at least, they matter when they provide key data about a situation that many are overlooking. Black Lives Matter is described on Wiki as the following:

"Black Lives Matter (BLM) is an international activist movement, originating in the African-American community, that campaigns against violence and systemic racism toward black people. BLM regularly protests police killings of black people and broader issues of racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system."


The key words above are 'systemic racism'. While we can all agree that if there is systematic racism it should be stamped out, we should also agree, I hope, that when systematic racism is wrongly attributed it should be called out. I don't think there are many who would deny that systematic racism is still present in society, I think the disagreements are about how much systematic racism exists. I don't know the precise answer, but I think I can give an indication of places where it is being mis-attributed.
The fact that black people are getting stopped and searched, arrested, put in prison and murdered more than white people may give indication of strong systematic racism. But it may not. In fact, a little knowledge of some concomitant statistics suggests not. Here is some compelling American data:
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, data shows that 93 percent of black homicide victims are killed by other blacks. Blacks commit violent crimes at 7 to 10 times the rate that whites do. Blacks committed 52 percent of homicides between 1980 and 2008, despite composing just 13 percent of the population.
Across the same timeframe, whites committed 45 percent of homicides while composing 77 percent of the population. In New York City, blacks committed 75 percent of all shootings, 70 percent of all robberies, and 66 percent of all violent crime, despite only composing 23 percent of the population. Finally, according to a post I read a while ago, blacks are 18.5 times more likely to fatally shoot a cop than vice versa. Evidently, while no one would deny there are huge problems in inner-city America, it's not all about racism as is being made out by some - the higher rates of crime among black Americans are highly likely to be in some way behind the higher rate of incidences for blacks being shot by cops.
Just recently I was reminded of a conversation I had with a chum at school. I remember I wasn't very interested in sport (or very good at it), and I recall the school football team used to play other teams from other schools, and one of the teachers from the home team would be the referee (usually in our case a chap called Mr. Harty).
Far from being biased in our favour, I noticed that Mr Harty seemed to be more likely to favour our opponents. I understood why - if people are keeping an eye on you for biases in favour of your own team, the best way is to overcompensate by being slightly biased against them. I said to a friend that I thought that Mr Harty was showing bias towards the opposition, to which he pointed out that that couldn't be the case because Mr Harty often seemed to call slightly more fouls against the opposition than his own team.
I pointed out that this doesn't prove he's not biased. Here's why. The corollary is that if Mr Harty is more lenient towards the opposition by, say, 15%, then the opposition can afford to be 15% more aggressive when Mr Harty is referee. This shows that it is perfectly possible that Mr Harty could call more fouls against opposition players and yet still be heavily biased in their favour. If the opposition players are 15% more aggressive but only get 5% more fouls called against them then there is a clear bias.
There is an analogy here to the key factor in why the accusations of systematic racism very much depend on the ratio of criminals. If the ratio of black males to black criminals is greater than the white ratio, you would expect more black males to be stopped, arrested and shot by the police. I will illustrate by considering two islands, Island A and Island B. 
Suppose Island A has 50 black criminals and 50 white criminals among the population, and the ratio of blacks to whites getting shot, stopped and searched or convicted is 7 to 3. Under those conditions you could infer probable discrimination. Suppose Island B has 70 black criminals and 30 white criminals among the population, and the ratio of blacks to whites getting shot, stopped and searched or convicted is 7 to 3. Here you could infer a perfectly fair police/judicial policy consistent with the statistics.
Statistics matter, but here is the other important thing. Citizens on Island B, if they were unapprised of the fact that there are 70 black criminals and 30 white criminals on the island, may be protesting on the streets at the supposed 'discrimination' largely because they do not realise the ratio of black crime compared to whites.
Using the above logic, it's even possible for the police to be slightly biased in favour of blacks (perhaps to avoid appearing racist) yet still accused of racism by the black community. For example, if there are 70 black criminals and 30 white criminals on the island, and the ratio of blacks to whites getting shot, stopped and searched or convicted is 6 to 4 or 13 to 8, the ratio of police action against blacks is less than the ratio of black criminals compared to white, yet still, without the vital knowledge of the stats, giving the appearance of unfair discrimination.
Finally, one key subtext, though, which is really an overarching factor, is that murder rates astronomically peak at 18 to 24, and then tail off as young males get older. This also happens to be the period of their lives at which they are competing for mating opportunities - they have a biological legacy of selected attributes that serve the interests of species, and competing is a large part of that.
Obviously there are other concomitant factors, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of murder are young, unmarried men seeking to improve their status against sexual rivals is played out in virtually every region of the USA and Europe. It is a pattern transcendent of cultural determinism.


Friday, 2 December 2016

Irrreducibly Complex Society, Biology & All That Mathematical Jazz

In response to my recent blog on evolutionary emergence and the fecundity of bottom up localised decisions, a friend, and excellent blogger, Tim Reeves, shared his thoughts in the shape of his mathematical spongeom sketch of evolution, and in the shape of a comment in which he claimed that:

"There is no way to distinguish between right and wrong in the trial and error computation which ultimately must make the appropriate selection, except to say that top-down transcendent constraints skew the statistics in favour of certain classes of outcomes."

As Tim rightly says, evolution requires a physical substrate of active information on which to run, and a constraint of the physical laws to do so (this is something I've written about in more depth before). However, I don't think the comparison is the best objection to the social elements I covered in the evolutionary emergence blog. Let me explain.

What’s happening in biological evolution underneath that layer is that there is a huge biochemical morphospace that has a connected structure through which evolution’s reducible complexity can traverse. Take, for example, irreducible complexity and reducible complexity - they refer to the arrangement of stable organic structures in evolution’s ‘morphospace’, but they cannot most primarily be understood at the level of the organism, because morphospace is not an adaptive landscape where we visualise the relationship between genotypes (or phenotypes) and reproductive success, and model fitness on the height of the landscape.

Morphospace is a mathematical model of the form of connectivity between patterns – so a reducibly complex morphospace means that the biological structures that populate the evolutionary landscape form a connected group. The notion of a gigantic sponge made up of very tiny fibrils that connect the evolutionary structure together sits fine with me. If the connection has no broken off parts then the random walk of evolution can move across the whole structure.

In fact, this is a particularly good illustration because sponges are composed entirely of mobile cells which can move about between different layers of tissue and reallocate themselves to take on different tasks. Sponges have totipotency, which as you may know, is the ability of a single cell to divide and produce all the differentiated cells in an organism. This allows any fragment of a sponge to regenerate into a self-sustaining organism.

A good analogy for markets?
I'm afraid though, the analogy of every tiny fibril representing the complete structure of the entire world’s biochemistry causes me problems when we get onto markets. You have to remember, no one is saying markets don't evolve without a top structure. What is being said is that activity at a local level is, just like natural selection, producing complex and sophisticated outcomes that look too well cultivated to have occurred by Smithian localities, and there we find a good analogy to the 'naturalism' of biological evolution.

You’ve probably heard of the term irreducible complexity in relation to the debate about intelligent design. The ID debate uses a fairly rudimentary definition of irreducibly complexity in relation to the evolvability of organisms (as per my definition above). At a deeper level, at the level of computation, if a system can only exhibit the full extent of its output by running it then we can say that system is computationally irreducible. Obviously we humans cannot understand the full implications of this when it comes to the entire universe, but the universe is a nexus of activity which has an underlying story that we may define as being computationally irreducibly complex.

What this means is that to simulate a like for like model of the universe would involve computation of universe-size proportions, just as to simulate the whole history of biological evolution would involve computation of the whole 4.5 billion years of biological evolution.

Extending the analogy to society, consider human history (let's call it H) as the sum total of everything that has happened in the vast search space, just as morphospace is the totality of the search space in the biochemistry that facilitates evolution. If we imagine H to be a computational model representing every piece of data and information linked to humans, then we can say that H is computationally irreducible, because H is locked together by every contingency (that is, all the constituent facts contained within H) so the removal of one fact would change H to something that isn’t H.

I realise that if you're unfamiliar with this kind of talk, notions like computational irreducible complexity are going to be quite conceptually opaque to the mind, so hopefully a simpler illustration will help, in the shape of what's called a magic square. A magic square, if you not familiar with it, is a configuration of numbers that give a beautifully succinct illustration. If you look at the square of numbers below, you'll see that the removal of one number from a global size magic square would change the whole structure. 

 1   35   34   3   32   6
30  8    28   27 11   7
24  23  15   16 14   19
13  17  21  22  20   18
12  26   9   10  29   25
31  2     4   33   5    36

What’s significant about the magic square is that its numerical structure totals 111 when summing columns, rows and the diagonals. When added together each sequence of six will obtain 111 each time. Change any one of the lines and the magic 111 will be thrown out. In other words, altering the configuration will disrupt the overall connectivity of the square. Mathematics has conceptual forms that entail magnificent symmetry, and the removal of any of those proprietary parts means it falls down like a house of cards in a gale force wind. 

Returning to human history (what we called 'H'), obviously H by definition can only be one computational set because the only way to change that set would be to produce an alternative history, and we can’t do that, because we are then talking about some other kind of H. Altering the configuration of the magic square will disrupt the overall connectivity of the structure – and that must be what the human story is like – you cannot change one constituent part without changing the whole. 

Obviously, constituent parts could be changed with seemingly no effect on the whole, but that’s not really happening – it’s only because we see reality through the tiny lens of our first person perspective that we don’t see the change to the whole.  Pretty much every word you speak to others, every decision you make, and every course of action you take has implications far wider than you can imagine. 

Let’s take a fairly extreme example to illustrate. Say you go back to April 20th 1889 and kill baby Adolf Hitler; it is obvious that the whole human story will be inexorably altered from that point onwards.  The 20th century would look unrecognisably different, even if at the time your act didn't appear to have global consequences. Using Hitler is only an extreme way of describing what would apply at smaller levels too.  Suppose you just want to go back in time and stop the little girl who lives down the lane getting run over.  Even that small intervention would have vast ramifications beyond your scope – you’d start a social butterfly effect that impinges on the rest of the human story. 

The H we call human history is irreducible, because the removal one component makes it something other than what it is. History tends to be viewed first off at a local level (one’s own history perhaps) and those local connections are woven into the standard cause and effect relations that make up the bigger picture. 

Just recently a young cyclist was knocked down by a car on the roundabout near where I live. With local introspection it is hard to imagine that this event had any real bearing in China or Brazil, but it would do – not immediately directly of course, but given H it must have an effect somewhere down the line.  Because things are not immediately obviously connected to us, each event in the global structure of H appears local and disconnected, whereas all events are actually woven together in an interconnected whole.  Clearly though not every event has global relevance – if I suddenly scratch my nose for 3 seconds that won’t have any bearing on China or South America will it (butterfly effect notwithstanding). 

I said that reality is seen through its of conceptual layers – well just as overall human history is incompressible, at the individualistic level the history of a person's life is the same – change one bit of it and it is no longer that unique system.  So in that sense even the rubbing of my nose is part of a unique personal history for me.  I am in my 40th year of being alive on earth, so my life's history amounts to around 14,500 days, or 350,000 hours, or 21 million minutes, or just over 1.2 billion seconds and counting. 

Of course we can work with a compression based on how much time I've been asleep in that time, or eating, or driving, but just like with evolution, the history of my life can only be fully analysed with the same 1.2 billion seconds computation time.  In other words, even if such a project were possible, to run a program of my life to see how my thoughts, feelings and emotions had changed and developed from birth to now would involve factoring in every single experience and influence and neuronal processing, and that's what I mean at a wider level by history being incompressible. 

To change one element of it means changing the totality of the whole thing. On a grander scale the world's history of the socio-personal is the same - to set up a computation mapping every event, the influence of those events on people, and the cognita processing those influences would take a timescale of the same length as the world's socio-personal history.

The perceived format of the magic square and the irreducibly complex nature of mathematics, the universe, evolution, human history, and whichever lens we choose to gaze through, provides us with a great metaphor for life – reality appears to us locally, and it can be extended into a much broader multilayered picture of interconnected stories – be they social, historical, biological, physical or mathematical. And what appear at the local level as a collection of separate and somewhat disconnected mini narratives actually weave a global pattern, which is itself embedded in an even bigger mathematical object that we only sparsely sample through this brilliant narrative we call physical reality. 

Now we get to the nitty gritty of Tim's question in relation to the freedom of markets and where it's beneficial for them to be artificially interfered with. As a reminder:

"There is no way to distinguish between right and wrong in the trial and error computation which ultimately must make the appropriate selection, except to say that top-down transcendent constraints skew the statistics in favour of certain classes of outcomes."

What you have to really consider is what in societal terms is the overall transcendental physical regime that constrains possible behaviours/outcomes? Society is constrained by all sorts of overarching authority figures (rule of law, regulations, mandatory exchanges of money, etc) but the question at hand here is not to deny their existence, it is to locate areas where they are excessive and counterproductively interfering in our beneficial transactions and our liberties (as per my recent paper on trade).

So to put it in algorithmic terms, the debate is about whether the algorithmic means by which the seek, find, reject and select computation is carried out in human behaviour better at a local level, or whether it is better imposed by authority figures. Given that local behaviour is concomitant with local knowledge and local incentives, it is fairly evident that there are many areas of society in which the authority figures are constraining the societal value (the consumer surpluses + the producer surpluses) at a level lower than would be the case without their interference.

Society is, of course, subject to physical constraints – most notably, energy, labour and knowledge – that limit the rate of progress and the directions society can take. But as we've covered before, many decisions made locally have knowledge-based and incentive-based advantages that top-down command decisions do not have (see here for example)

As a bonus, if you don't mind ending on a tangent, the whole sponge is computationally irreducible notion also demonstrates what is it that the Intelligent Design school have got wrong about irreducible complexity about irreducible complexity being unevolable in biological morphospace. Using the fairly standard scaffolding example that is often posited as an illustration – once you've removed the scaffolding and the cranes from, say, a Gothic cathedral, and destroyed any knowledge of cranes, cathedral construction becomes irreducibly complex. If we look for examples of this in biology and use a comparison between heavy stones in cathedrals and cells in organs, whereas with the Gothic cathedral the stones are simply too heavy to have been hoisted there, there are similar occurrences in biology where if subsequent mutations remove the antecedents of symbiotic systems there is no way to logically regress the path of a complex evolutionary adaptation.

If one component was removed then it could not function, and this seems to be due to two possibilities: The proteins (or protein complexes) have been modified further since the addition of the hypothetically removed part. If such modification creates dependence on this more recent part then its removal would be detrimental. Secondly, as we’ve said, the structure evolved with 'scaffolding'. It is hypothetically possible that a structure could only be stable when complete, but that it could also be stable if another structure is present.  Remove this second structure, just as scaffolding is removed when building work has finished, and the first structure remains stable. However, remove a single part of the structure and the scaffolding is needed for support again, if it is not there the first structure collapses.  Both of these are ways in which irreducibly complex structures can evolve – but crucially they describe irreducible complexity in the biological patterns of morphospace, not in the computational ‘sponge’ whole. 

The problem with the IDists idea of irreducibly complex systems is that if morphospace does contain lengthy leaps that refute reducible complexity such large leaps taken would never be stumbled upon because they would be too computationally complex. You see, the Intelligent Design school is thinking of Irreducible Complexity in terms of subtraction of functional elements which leads to “instability” in the organism. But if we think back to our pattern of morphospace with the sponge, those concepts of “scaffolding” (and everything else in the biological patterning) will be embedded in such a complex configurational nexus that biological irreducible complexity could only be found in morphospace with a computation of the same length. So the IDists are barking up the wrong tree with their version of irreducible complexity.

N.B: Point of clarity: logical incompressibility is different from morphospace because it is dealing with a different heuristic. Logical incompressibility has to do with equations and algorithms used for data compression, although in mathematical terms it is true that physics effectively defines a set of stable structures in morphospace. The subject we have dealt with is tricky because we are looking at how mathematical patterns are configurations of laws over physical systems, and it is easy to confuse mathematical patterns with the physical systems they support.