Two Pieces of Food for Thought

August 30, 2011

Looks like I haven’t posted in a while, and this post will be on the shorter side. However, here are two interesting ideas I’ve come across recently that are definitely worth sharing:

1) Money: The Unit of Caring – Eliezer Yudkowsky. Yudkowsky says it quite bluntly –

In our society, this common currency of expected utilons is called “money”. It is the measure of how much society cares about something.

This is a brutal yet obvious point, which many are motivated to deny.

And that is true. Many people complain that those who donate money “don’t care.” It does seem callous, donating money. You just thrust your hand into your fat wallet, grab a greasy handful of crumpled green pieces of paper, and walk away and enjoy the rest of the day, having “done a good thing.” What’s there to love? A social worker who gave a talk at my school once said, “There’s a difference between involvement and commitment. In eggs and ham, the hen’s involved but the pig’s committed.” And so on.

Yet at the same time, those greasy crumpled notes aren’t magically appearing in your wallet to opaquely sustain your opulent first-world lifestyle. You’re working for those bills. You paid a lot of money for a college education (might still be doing so), and you work in a job that you are specifically qualified for in order to maximize not only the wealth of yourself but that of your employer and society on a whole. Yudkowsky notes that a lawyer volunteering at a soup kitchen is a total waste because they could instead spend that hour working and then donate an hour’s pay to fund someone to work for 10 hours. Perhaps in a hunter-gatherer society, caring could only be expressed in direct actions, but in a market economy, it may be abstracted through currency, but its impact is very real.

I was glad to see this article. I got tired of my old school’s community service model which was 90% fundraising. But looking back, wasn’t it better to get lots of money from some really rich kids (it’s their parents’ money, they don’t care) rather than force them to do something they’re bad at and don’t want to do but still “help?”

2) Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis – we may share 99% of our genes with chimps, but is anyone really denying that we aren’t vastly more intelligent than they are? But the source of this exponential intelligence/brain size explosion still requires full explanation. An interesting theory is the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis  – social intelligence brought about intelligence in general. There’s a book, Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes which argues that escalating social manipulation and shifting coalitions among advanced primates fueled human evolution because intelligence became so essential to survival along with physical strength. The MIH agrees with the theory of “modularity of the mind” that I blogged about earlier – that humans are much better at solving abstract problems when they concern someone cheating in a social situation than when they have to do with something trivial like playing cards. So there you go. We’re all Machiavellians at heart.

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Black Swans, the “Ludic Fallacy”, and Bayesian inference

June 28, 2011

A few days ago, I finished reading The Black Swan by Nicholas Taleb, which goes in-depth on topics such as judgment under uncertainty and the issues relating to unrealistic models which deliberately ignore unlikely but possibly highly influential phenomena in order to stay simple. Taleb emphatically argues against the use of the Gaussian bell curve, or the GIF (“great intellectual fraud”), as he likes to call it, pointing out that it forecasts events several standard deviations from the norm as extremely unlikely. He points out that an event 4 SD away is twice as likely as 4.15 SD, and that “the precipitous decline in odds of encountering something is what allows you to ignore outliers. Only one curve can deliver this decline, and it is the bell curve (and its nonscalable siblings). Nassim instead expounds scalable “Mandelbrotian” curves, which, like all things Mandelbrotian, are fractal – The speed of the decrease of odds as one moves from the mean is constant, not declining. So the odds of having a net worth of over 8 million pounds is 1 in 4,000, for higher than 16 million pounds it’s one in 16,000, for 32 it’s 1 in 64,000, etc. So not only does the Mandelbrotian curve put more importance on outliers (“Black Swans”, or unpredictable but highly influential events such as stock market crashes that Gaussian models miss), but any small portion of the graph resembles the larger curve in a fractal sort of way.

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