Month: <span>June 2018</span>

Fermi’s Paradox: Mistake of Dramatic Timing and Other Errors

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I just finished the Bobiverse Trilogy. If you haven’t heard of the trilogy it’s a relatively new science fiction series by Dennis Taylor. The premise is that the consciousness of a guy named Bob is put into a self-replicating spacecraft (also known as a Von Neumann Probe), and sent out to explore nearby stars. As I said it’s self-replicating, meaning he can make more Bobs, thus the Bobiverse.

Like most current science fiction it has to grapple with Fermi’s Paradox, and, if I’m going to be honest, it did not do a very good job of this. Now this is not to say these aren’t good books. I thoroughly enjoyed them, they’re a quick, fun read. And despite having some major problems with how he approaches the paradox, he does tackle some other big ideas in an interesting fashion, just not that one. Also, he is not the first to make the mistake I’m about to describe, but he is the example I encountered most recently, so I’m going to be picking on him a little bit. I’m going to call the mistake that he, and others, have made, the “Mistake of Dramatic Timing”.

I’m not going to be able to discuss this mistake without a few spoilers, but I’ll try to keep them as mild as possible. In the books, the Bobs encounter aliens, and as it turns out the tech level of these aliens is basically within a few hundred years of human tech, and perhaps more importantly the aliens were within a few hundred years of encountering Earth regardless of what the humans did. This is the Mistake of Dramatic Timing, and it’s present all through science fiction. I’m sure you can probably think of numerous examples. Though once again, to be honest, I’m not sure I can immediately summon an example as egregious as the Bobiverse. (It’s actually worse than it looks, but I’d have to get deeper into spoilers to explain why, feel free to email me if you’ve read the books, but aren’t sure what I’m talking about.) Which is one of the reasons I felt compelled to point it out.

Hopefully the term “dramatic timing” is descriptive enough that people already know what I’m talking about, but even if that’s the case, putting some percentages to things helps clarify how unlikely it would be to encounter aliens in the exact fashion the Bobs did. Though, for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book, and in order to avoid more spoilers, let’s switch to one of the other examples of this mistake, the movie Independence Day. In Independence Day the aliens are after our natural resources. You can make an argument, given the insane logistics of space that this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Regardless, the point is, with this goal they don’t care if there are humans around or not. In fact it would have been much better if they had shown up 50 years earlier (before the Macbook…)

This means the only reason for the aliens to show up when they did was dramatic. They (and any other potential aliens) could have conceivably visited Earth at any point during its existence. Meaning the chances of them coming during any specific 500 year period (roughly the period from Galileo to the present day, the period during which we’ve actually cared about astronomy) is 0.00001% (500/4.543 billion).

The further probability that when they arrive, their technology will be only a few hundred years in advance of ours, is a little less straightforward to calculate, since it’s unclear whether technology will stagnate, or whether, on the other hand, it will continue to grow exponentially, but either way you’re looking at another very tiny number. For the sake of the example let’s once again use 500 years as our window of matching, and assume a modest average lifetime for a civilization we encounter of 250,000 years (it could in reality be in the billions). If we then assume that they would contact us on average 125,000 years into their existence, then we’re still looking at only a 0.4% chance of having technology that’s within 500 years of the aliens, and a 500 year difference is still pretty bad. I doubt Renaissance Florence would be very eager to fight the US Sixth Fleet. What this means is that the chance of both happening is so improbable as to be effectively impossible. Particularly given how conservative I’m being on the estimates in the differences in our technology.

I’m sure that some people are going to argue that using the entire existence of the Earth as the denominator in our equation is unfair, since there are certain conditions which need to be met before intelligent life could could arise anywhere. In particular most people argue that it’s limited by the metallicity of the universe, and because that takes time to build up (through supernova) and because that limits the number of terrestrial planets on which life could evolve. But as it turns out, terrestrial planets don’t depend nearly as much on metallicity as we thought, In fact, somewhat ironically, it actually appears to have more of an effect on gas giants. The upshot of all this is that we’ve recently discovered rocky planets that are more than twice as old as the Earth. Meaning that life on another planet would have as much time as life on Earth has had before Earth even came into existence. Accordingly, without bringing other factors into play, there’s every reason to believe that there should be civilizations out there which are billions of years ahead of us. Whether it’s exactly 4.543 billion or just a couple of billion doesn’t materially affect the percentages above.

Now of course we know exactly why Roland Emmerich (director of Independence Day), and Dennis Taylor, and all of the others did it, because despite being a mistake it’s a dramatic mistake. Having the aliens show up and stomp the living daylights out of us before we’re even aware of what’s happening (imagine the Sixth Fleet vs. Renaissance Florence only worse) doesn’t make a very good story, and consequently very few people decide to write that story. This would be fine except that everyone has absorbed these stories as the way it’s most likely to happen, and so when they imagine contact with some kind of extraterrestrial it’s science fiction aliens with better, but not ridiculously better technology (and ideally an Achilles’ Heel.) This thinking is the most obvious distortion, but as I have argued in other posts, I believe it distorts even the thinking of those scientists and academics who are paid to think deeply about this problem. In any case the key thing I want you to take away from the “Mistake of Dramatic Timing” is that IF aliens were going to show up, or more technically if aliens are ever going to be aware of us, than it’s almost certain that it’s already happened, that nothing dramatic will happen in the next few hundred years.

We have to deal with one final argument before we move on. The point I’m making is that nothing has changed in the last few hundred years as far as what aliens might be out there and what they might want from us. However, to be fair, some things have changed recently in terms our ability to detect potential aliens. And it is possible that this is a place where something might change soon. But with every year that passes this becomes less and less likely. Also as I have argued before, if aliens are out there and they want to be detected they could almost certainly figure out how to make that happen. Much harder is not being detected, and that task is much easier if you’re aware of what’s trying to detect you, which takes us back to where we were. Either aliens are aware of us now, or very probably they never will be.

As I said I enjoyed the Bobiverse, (I even enjoyed Independence Day, probably because I was less jaded back then) and they are fiction, so I entirely forgive them for getting this wrong. But fiction is not the only place where people are proposing solutions to the paradox. There are academic papers doing the same thing, and recently one was released which claimed to dissolve the paradox. Obviously this is the sort of thing that needs to be taken more seriously.

The paper doesn’t actually center on the paradox. It takes as its focus Drake’s Equation, which will hopefully be familiar to readers of this blog. If not, basically Drake’s Equation attempts to come up with a guess for how many communicating extraterrestrial civilizations there might be by determining how many planets might get through all the hoops required to get to that point (for example all planets, multiplied by the percentage with life, multiplied by the percentage of that life that’s intelligent, etc.).  And it turns out that if you multiply the average of all the terms in the equation, that you get an expected average of quite a few communicating civilizations, and yet there aren’t any, which then brings in the paradox.

The authors of the paper point out that if the distribution of the estimates is narrow, and if it looks like a bell curve, multiplying the averages would give you a pretty good idea of what the overall probabilities are. You could say something like, “We think with 68% certainty, that the number of communicating civilizations in our galaxy is between 1 and 11. With an average of 6.” Which would imply that there probably is a paradox. But if the distributions are ridiculously wide (they are) and on top of that not normally distributed (and apparently they’re not that either) then you can end up in a situation where the most probable situation is that we’re alone, even though the average number of expected civilizations is greater than one.

If we are alone, that means that there’s something which keeps other civilizations from getting to the point where they can communicate. This has come to be called the Great Filter, and what this paper and other’s claim is that, “Good News!” the filter is most likely behind us. I don’t have the time to digest all the math in the original paper, but I’m inclined to take it’s conclusions with a large grain of salt, for a few reasons:

Reason 1- As uncertainty decreases it almost always points to life being more common

The authors point out that there’s a large degree of uncertainty for all of the terms in Drake’s Equation, fair enough. But one assumes that as time goes on and our knowledge increases that uncertainty will get less. One great example of this are the exoplanets that have been discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. This has vastly reduced the uncertainty in the number of stars with planets. (Which is the second term in the equation.) The question is, as uncertainty is reduced, in which direction will things head? Towards a higher estimate of communicating civilizations or towards a lower estimate? The answer, so far as I can tell, is that everytime our uncertainty gets less it updates the estimate in favor of communicating civilizations being more common. Let’s look at three quick examples of this:

  1. There’s the one I just mentioned. According to Wikipedia when Frank Drake first proposed his equation, his guess for the fraction of stars with planets was ½. After looking at the data from Kepler, our current estimate is basically that all stars have planets. Our uncertainty decreased and it moved in the direction of extraterrestrial life and civilizations being more probable.
  2. I also talked about number of rocky planets, which relates to the term in the equation for fraction of total planets which could sustain life. As I mentioned above we used to think that rocky planets would only appear seven billion years or so into the lifetime of the universe. Now we know that they appeared much earlier. Once again our uncertainty decreased, and it went down in the direction of life and civilizations being more probable.
  3. Finally there’s the existence of extremophiles. We used to think that there was a fairly narrow band of conditions where life could exist, and then we found life in underwater thermal vents, in areas of extreme cold and dryness, in environments of high salinity, high acidity, high pressure, etc. etc. Yet another case where as we learned more, life became more probable, not less.

The trend is clear and I think it will continue.

Reason 2- The wildcard of panspermia

The next area where I have reason to doubt that the paradox has been “dissolved” is the idea of panspermia. And from where I sit, it appears that the evidence for that is increasing as well. On the off chance that you’re unfamiliar with the term, panspermia is the idea that life, in its most basic form, started somewhere else and then arrived on Earth once things were already going. Of greater importance for us is the idea that if it could travel to Earth there’s a good chance it could travel anywhere (and everywhere). In fairness, there is some chance life started on say, Mars and travelled here, in which case maybe life isn’t “everywhere”. But if panspermia happened and it didn’t come from somewhere nearby, then that changes a lot.

Further, it’s important to remember that panspermia is not accounted for in Drake’s Equation, and that makes it a wildcard for this entire question. Given the tenacity of life I’ve already mentioned above, once it gets started, there’s good reason to believe that it would just keep going. This section is more speculative than the last section, but my gut says that panspermia is probably more likely than people think. That said, I’ll lay out my reasons and you can decide for yourself.

  1. Certain things double every so many years. The most famous example of this phenomenon is Moore’s Law, which says that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years. A while back some scientists wanted to see if biological complexity followed the same pattern. It did, doubling every 376 million years. With forms of life at the various epochs fitting neatly onto the graph. The really surprising thing was that if you extrapolate back to zero biological complexity you end up at a point ten billion years ago. Well before the Earth was even around (or Mars for that matter). Leaving Panspermia as the only option. Now the authors confess this is more of a “thought exercise” than hard science, but that puts it in exactly the same category as the paper which “dissolves the Fermi Paradox”. (I would actually argue that the Moore’s Law analogy is probably less speculative.)
  2. There’s a significant amount of material travelling between planets and even between star systems. I mentioned this in a previous post, but to remind you. Some scientists decided to run the numbers, on the impact 65 million ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. And they discovered that a significant amount of the material ejected would have ended elsewhere in the Solar System and even elsewhere in the galaxy. Their simulation showed that around 100 million rocks would have made it to Europa (a promising candidate for life) and that around a 1000 rocks would have made it to a potentially habitable planet in a nearby star system (Gliese 581). Now none of this is to say that any life would have survived on those rocks, rather the point that jumps out to me is how much material is being exchanged across those distances.
  3. Finally, and I put this last because it might seem striking only to me. I came across an article recently that said the very first animal had 55% of the DNA that humans have. They ascribe this to an “evolutionary burst of new genes”, but for me that looks an awful lot like support of the first point in this list. The idea that life has been churning along for a lot longer than we think, if the first animal had 55% of our DNA already half a billion years ago.

Now, of course, even if panspermia is happening, that doesn’t necessarily make the dissolving-the-paradox guys wrong. You could have a situation where the filter is not life getting started in the first place, the filter is between any life and intelligent life. It could be that some kind of basic life is very common, but intelligence never evolves. Though before I move on to the next subject, in my opinion that doesn’t seem likely. You can imagine that if life itself has a hard time getting started, in any form, that out of the handful of planets with life, that only one develops intelligence. But if panspermia is happening, and you basically have life on every planet in the habitable zone, a number estimated at between 10 and 40 billion, then the idea that out of those billions of instances of life that somehow intelligence only arose this one time seems a lot less believable. (And yes I know about things like the difficulty of the prokaryote-eukaryote transition.)

Reason 3- To little accounting for the data we do have i.e. Earth

The final reason I have for being skeptical of the conclusion of the dissolving-the-paradox paper is that as far as I can tell they give zero weight to the fact that we do have one example of a planet with intelligent life, and capable of interstellar communication: Earth. In fact if I’m reading things correctly they appear to give pretty low probability to even the Earth existing. My sense is that when it comes to Fermi’s paradox this is the one piece of evidence that no one is quite sure what to do with. On the one hand, the history of science has been inextricably linked to the mediocrity (or Copernican) principle. The idea that Earth and humanity are not unique, we’re not the center of the universe or of the solar system or what have you. Humans are not special, we’re just another monkey, etc. And yet on this one point we are currently unique. We are the only example of intelligent life for which we have any evidence.

You might think there is no, “On the other hand”, but there is. It’s called the anthropic principle. And let’s just say I’m not a huge fan. This is not the first time I’ve talked about the anthropic principle and I would point you at one of my previous posts for a more detailed criticism, but basically it says that conscious life will only be found in places where conditions allow it to exist, therefore when we look around and find that things are set up in just the right way for us to exist, it couldn’t be any other way because if they weren’t set up in just the right way no one would be around to do the looking.

As I said, I’m not a fan. I think it’s a cop out. And in order for us to be as unique as this would imply, there would have to be something entirely unique about Earth, or a series of very improbable things that combined to create an entirely unique Earth. And so far while there’s a lot of speculation, there is no smoking gun. And, again, remember, every other time we thought we were unique, we ended up being wrong. It’s my firm belief that this time isn’t any different.

In case you’ve missed my central point, which is entirely possible, since I’m not sure I actually mentioned it, and it’s more of the central point that runs through all of my posts about Fermi’s Paradox. The point is, there’s numerous, very good reasons to think that there should be other intelligent species out there, despite people claiming to dissolve the paradox. And if there are aliens out there then there should be some evidence of it. This is unlikely to change in the next 100 years. We either already have the evidence or we never will. Based on all of this, the simplest explanation which fits everything we do know, is that we do have evidence of something beyond this earth, and we have labeled it God.

Life isn’t the only thing that can get spread really far in tiny amounts. Money can do that as well. Perhaps if instead of asking for donations, I should ask for money panspermia. That makes it sound awesome!

The 100th Post

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Many, many years ago, someone described a framework for categorizing knowledge about an individual. As with so many of these things there are two axis and four quadrants. The X axis is what the individual knows about themselves, with one column for things that are known and one column for things which are not known. The Y axis deals with what other people know about us and, similarly, there’s one row for the known and one for the unknown.

A little googling revealed that this framework is called the Johari Window. And each of the quadrants apparently has a label:

  • The Known Self: Things both the individual and others know about themselves. A preference for sarcasm for example…
  • The Hidden Self: Things the individual knows about themselves which other people don’t know. Deep dark secrets are obviously in this category.
  • The Blind Self: Things others know about the individual which the individual is unaware of. Spinach in the teeth is the classic example. But I assume that lots of self-sabotaging behavior also falls into this category.
  • The Unknown Self: Things that neither the individual or others are aware of. I once watched a whole movie which was essentially all about this. It was called Force Majeure and it involved the fallout after a father runs away from an avalanche, abandoning his wife and children. (They ended up being fine.) His cowardice had previously been part of the unknown self, and when it was revealed it surprised both the individual and his family.

As I mentioned I heard about this framework quite a while ago, but I hadn’t thought about it in many years. But as I was thinking about my topic, I was reminded of it. And what is that topic you might ask?

Well, this is the 100th post and it will be published within a few days of the two year anniversary of my first post. And thus it seems like this would be a good time to step back somewhat and take a look at where I’ve been and where I’m going. Do something of a meta-post, so to speak. My suspicion is that it will mostly end up being unreadable navel gazing (more so!) but I think I can manage, at a minimum, to move some things out of the “hidden self” category into the “known self” category. Even better would be if this post ended up moving something out of the “blind self” category. My ideal would be if someone came into the comments section and said, “Actually you’re fantastic at X! You should do more of that!” (On the other hand someone telling me I’m terrible at everything and should just give up, would also count, though it might be less useful.)

Okay now that we’re done with the psychobabble, I know that many of you are already well aware that a meta-post is a post about posting. But I actually want to go a little bit deeper. At the most basic level, the first question I have to grapple with is what does someone do who has some discretionary time on their hands? What’s the best use of that time? (For the curious the time directly involved in creating both the blog and podcast every week averages out to around 9 hours.)

Obviously I could use this time to read more, though I already read quite a bit. Another option would be to use it to play more video games. Unlike reading, this is something I actually don’t do that much of, though lately I have been thoroughly enjoying Slay the Spire. Still another option would be to watch more TV. Certainly I’m below average in my TV viewing. The list of really good TV that I haven’t watched is extensive. (I have not seen Breaking Bad, Veronica Mars, The Wire or The Sopranos.) To a greater or lesser degree, all three of these options provide very little value, particularly for people other than myself.

Reading, playing video games or watching TV aren’t my only options (though sometimes it appears that way when I look at how other people spend their discretionary time) there are, of course, more impactful options. Things like exercise, spending more time with my family, volunteering at a worthwhile charity, or doing genealogy (something which is obviously big for Mormons). If I was greedy (or maybe just prudent) I could use the time to work another job (it wouldn’t be hard to find something that paid better than blogging). Or, I could spend all of that time expanding my current business, or seeking investment opportunities.

I could go on and on but I assume that you get the idea. I have lots of options for how to spend the nine hours of discretionary time I currently spend on maintaining a weekly blog. Accordingly out of all the things I could be doing with this discretionary time, why did I decide that I should start a blog? (Eventually deciding to record that blog and release it every week as a podcast.) What was it that made me decide that this would be the best use of that time and if, in the course of this post I decide to re-examine that decision am I going to end up making the same decision again?

Before we get too far we need to establish some criteria for making a decision. Perhaps I really do want to make the best use of my time, but best according to what standard? Of course there’s the utilitarian standard, what could I do with my time that would bring the greatest benefit to the greatest number? If this is the standard I’m going for then I evidently possess that special sort of hubris which leads one to think that the greatest total benefit they could bring to the world is to let everyone know what they think, and by extension how utterly wrong they are if they don’t think the same way. We should not discount the possibility that I had exactly this much hubris, but for the moment let’s set that aside.

Instead of a utilitarian standard I could be going for a hedonistic standard. Perhaps I felt that writing a blog is what would bring me the most pleasure. There have been a couple of posts recently where I criticized people for prioritizing hedonism, so if the value system I ultimately used to decide to start a blog consisted of what made me feel good there would be a certain amount of irony there. But if it was just one factor among many, then perhaps I could be forgiven.

In what might be viewed as something halfway between the first two standards. I could be doing it because I felt an internal compulsion to do it. Many writers talk about being driven to write without necessarily getting much enjoyment out of it. Thus I may feel compelled to write but without the hubris of thinking that the world would be hugely benefited by listening to what I have to say. And I may experience relief from giving into my compulsion to write, but this relief isn’t necessarily me hedonistically seeking out the greatest amount of pleasure. This standard being that I started a blog because, ultimately, it was easier than not starting a blog. And I should mention that the pressure to start something is of an entirely different flavor than the pressure to continue something.

Possibly rather than experiencing internal compulsion, the impetus was actually external. Maybe I was feeling pressure from something or someone. And my standard was, “I just need to get these people to stop bugging me!”

I don’t want to turn this into a list of 30 reasons why I write, there are enough of those out there, And as you may have guessed I write for all of the reasons I just listed, or at least I started writing for all of the reasons just listed, but as I alluded to, the reasons someone might have for starting something may be completely different than the reasons someone might have for continuing something. Also out of the four reasons I listed, I’m the only person who can judge the success of three of them (well maybe two and a half of them). And in the spirit of unproductive navel gazing this post was always going to descend to, it’s appropriate to briefly examine whether, in my own judgement, those reasons still apply. Whether I have met any of these standards.

As far as the first standard that’s the one thing I can’t judge, so we’ll return to it once the navel gazing is over.

The second standard for starting a blog was enjoyment. Do I still enjoy it? I’d have to say that I do. In fact, I think in the long run it might actually be the most enjoyable way I can spend my discretionary time. (There are things with more short term enjoyment, but they make me feel guilty over the long run.)

The third reason was that I felt compelled to do it. Here is where there’s the biggest difference between a reason for starting and a reason for continuing. I do not feel as compelled to continue as I felt to start. Doing 100 posts has definitely lessened the compulsion. That said it’s not entirely gone, and in fact I would say that it’s stronger than I would have thought at this point. In the past I’ve had a real problem getting bored with things, and while that has happened, it’s happened to a much lesser extent then I would have thought.

The fourth standard/reason was the external one. In my case it kind of felt like a commandment. There has been a fairly consistent theme in many of the recent statements by LDS leaders (specifically General Conference talks) that Mormons need to be more active in announcing and espousing their beliefs, particularly on social media. These statements always struck me with quite a bit of force. (Though I think I may have come up with one of the least straightforward ways of following that counsel.) This is the one where, technically, I can only judge the success of my half, do I feel like I followed the counsel of the brethren? To which I would answer mostly. The other half would be whether the brethren (or just other Mormons in general) feel that I’ve followed it. That I’m less sure about.

Well then, what about the first standard? As I already said, if my standard for writing a blog is that I have decided that it’s the way in which I can be the most help to the world, then there’s a significant amount of hubris involved in that. This is somewhat mitigated by my other reasons, but not something I can ignore, so do I feel that this is really the most impactful thing I can do with my time? Is this really my area of greatest contribution to humanity?

To which I guess I’d answer, “Maybe?”

I do feel that I have something novel to say: I do think there’s some weird intersection of religion, antifragility, rationalism and futurism where there’s an enormous amount of untapped wisdom. Which is not to say I’m any good at imparting it, or even that I’m necessarily correct about its existence. And those are the two issues in a nutshell, how do I know whether I have anything worthwhile to say? To say nothing of whether spending my time in this fashion represents my area of greatest leverage? And if it is how do I get better at it? What’s the best way to spread this wisdom? (If, as I said, that’s what it is.)

I decided right at the beginning to do a weekly blog, and I wouldn’t claim that I gave these two questions much thought when I did. Fortunately, it turns out that an ongoing weekly blog is not a horrible way to go about answering those questions. If I don’t have anything worthwhile to say. If, as the expression goes, I’m “full of it.” Then putting my crap out there is the best way to have someone come along and smell it and tell me it stinks (okay this is not my greatest metaphor, I admit). As to the other question, at a minimum, I assume the more I write the better I’ll get at it.

Of course what I’m describing is basically just practice, practice in public, but if there’s one thing that’s come out from all recently in self-help literature, it’s that there are different kinds of practice, and that to get better you really need deliberate practice, and if there’s any point to this post other than naval gazing, it would probably be something along the lines of deciding that I need to be more deliberate in what I do.

What then, does deliberate practice look like when you’re talking about blogging? When I Google the term I’m informed that:

Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.

Which I must say, seems to strike pretty close to home, and not in a good way. It is certainly possible that a weekly blog is more in the “mindless repetition” category than the “purposeful and systematic” category.

It’s not like I haven’t thought about doing something different. Many of the blogs I admire the most, post when they feel like it, and only post when they have something really worthwhile to say. It’s not hard to imagine that there have been a few times (many times?) when I would have posted something better if I had posted it when it was ready rather than posting it because it was Saturday.

That said, I’m honestly worried that if I allowed myself the freedom to post when I feel like it, that I won’t feel like it very often. Also I have this Idea that perhaps someday, some publication which works on the principle of having a given writer post on a given day every week, will express interest in my stuff, and the thing that will interest them the most is that I have a steady track record of posting every week. (Perhaps rather than imagining this as some far off possibility I should start approaching these people now, particularly now that I have 100 articles under my belt.)

Also there’s this whole school of thought which says it’s better to produce day in and day out (or at least week in and week out in my case.) Then to wait for inspiration to strike. So perhaps I’m not being as mindless as it seems…

Of course whether I could be more deliberate in my writing “practice” that’s almost certainly not the place where there’s the largest room for improvement, particularly if we’re talking about “getting it out there”. The area with the most room for improvement is certainly marketing, for lack of a better term, and I’m actually pretty awful at it. Accordingly if there’s any place where I’m open to suggestions this is it.

Part of the problem surely lies in the enormous number of options for drawing attention to something, and I’m sure there’s a whole blog post to be written about how attention is now the major currency in the world (at least the first world.) I’m not sure if there’s much point in reviewing those options, but maybe doing so will spark something (either for me or for my readers.)

One thing I’ve meant to do for quite a while is create a Facebook page for the blog and cross post everything there, with perhaps some pithy observations thrown in. The primary problem there is that I kind of hate Facebook. And I’m trapped in something of a purgatory where it’s necessary for some things and yet at least once a week I think I should delete my account and never return. A possible middle option would be to go on Facebook and then spend the bulk of my time talking about how awful it is. But I can’t decide if this is edgy or a transparent and overused ploy by people who think they’re edgy .

I could say something similar about Twitter. Though I guess if I had to rank them I would rank Twitter as slightly less awful than Facebook. Or perhaps awful isn’t the right word, maybe Twitter is slightly more useful. More the sort of thing I should be doing as someone with a blog. But of course regardless of how I decide to use them both seem to require quite a bit more time and attention than I really want to spend on them. Or rather they seem exactly like the kind of constant interruption that anyone with anything to say about productivity warns you about.

The concept of time has brought us full circle. If I have nine hours a week to spend writing, why can’t I spend seven hours writing and two hours on social media, or whatever the ideal balance would be? Well first based on what I’ve seen of some people’s social media habits, it might take all nine hours and then some, but also certain things are easy to do and certain things are hard. There’s a post on SlateStarCodex that talks about how heroin addicts can find $200+ a week to support their addiction, but can’t find $100 to pay for treatment if they’re off heroin. He compares that to finding time to write, if you want something bad enough you find the time (or the money). And while I don’t think I have nearly the “addictive drive” that Scott Alexander does, I assume that something similar is going on here. Finding nine hours to write is comparatively easy, finding any time to promote that writing on social media is impossible. Which is not to say that I’m going to ignore the problem, just it’s obviously not something that comes naturally.

Okay, maybe I can’t summon the motivation to play the social media game, but I do have nine hours a week of writing, maybe I could use that more effectively, or differently? Maybe I could write shorter posts more often, with really long posts once a month? Or maybe I could shift some of my writing from blog posts to books? Or maybe my thematic focus could be tighter?

Changing things up is interesting to think about, but honestly, I’m probably not going to do any of those things, at least not soon. In fact my guess is that you won’t notice much difference between the posts which preceded this one and the posts following it. That said, to return to the topic of deliberate practice, I should be more deliberate, I should experiment more. Be more adventurous. Try some new things, even if they’ll probably fail. And hopefully you will see some of that going forward. To begin with while not a huge thing (baby steps!) I think it is time to move this blog to wordpress and a custom domain. I’m hoping to do that within the next 30 days. It’s not much, but perhaps it will shake some things up.

Finally to return to Johari’s Window. If you have anything to contribute to this discussion, any suggestions, criticisms, ideas, things I appear to be overlooking, etc. Please don’t hesitate to drop me an email or leave a comment.

For those of you reading this whether it’s your first post (which would be weird) or if you’ve actually, and inexplicably read all 100, thanks. I still have much more to stay, and the world continues to provide things to comment on even if I didn’t so hopefully we’ll both still be around for post 200 and maybe post 500 and maybe even post 1000.

One wonders if I’m going to run out of clever ways of asking for donations before I get to post 200, to say nothing of post 1000. (One could argue that I already have.) One way to ensure finding out the answer to that question is, you guessed it, to donate!

Things We Cannot Get Wrong

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Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park, and the Andromeda Strain, along with a bunch of other great books, and who, for my money, died too soon at the age of 66 from lymphoma, said many very astute things (and probably some dumb ones as well) and I’d like begin this post by relating something he said about the limits of expertise, what he labeled Gell-Mann Amnesia:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect…

I have certainly experienced this effect and I imagine the rest of my readers have as well to one extent or another. Crichton’s larger point is about the danger of speculation, but for our purposes the key takeaway is that no matter how authoritative something sounds, there’s a better chance than you think of it being mostly wrong and it may, in fact, advance a point which is the exact opposite of the truth.

I bring this up because we appear to have an example of this happening, and in an area I’m very much interested in. Just recently a Detailed Critique of the “Existential Threats” chapter of Pinker’s Enlightenment Now was posted online. It was written by Phil Torres, a noted scholar of existential risk, and having spent several of the last few posts discussing the book, and in particular Pinker’s dismissal of existential threats (combined with my larger interest in that topic). This seemed right up my alley. The critique is quite long, so I’m mostly going to focus on areas where I have something to add, or where I disagree. In particular, though this may not be an addition or a disagreement, I want to emphasis, that of all the subjects Pinker discusses, the one he (and really all of humanity) can least afford to be wrong about is the subject of existential risk. We can survive if the murder rate is much higher than he thinks, or if we got it wrong on same sex marriage, we can even survive most of the predicted outcomes of climate change, but if we get existential risk wrong, nothing else we got right is ever going to matter.

The key findings of this critique are:

  • Two quotes being used by Pinker in the chapter are in the “wet streets cause rain” category (my words) in that, their original meaning is not what Pinker claims and may in fact be “outright contradictory”.
  • The chapter spends most of its time attacking straw men.
  • Pinker’s citations are poorly vetted, and largely non-scholarly, but presented as scholarly.
  • And from those sources, Pinker ignores content which undercuts his arguments. Meaning the sources themselves are far more equivocal than Pinker represents.
  • Finally:

Overall, the assessment presented below leads me to conclude that it would be unfortunate if this chapter were to significantly shape the public and academic discussions surrounding “existential risks.” In the harshest terms, the chapter is guilty of misrepresenting ideas, cherry-picking data, misquoting sources, and ignoring contradictory evidence… Because, so far as I can tell, almost every paragraph of the chapter contains at least one misleading claim, problematic quote, false assertion, or selective presentation of the evidence.

Torres then goes on for an additional 20,000 words, and yet, in the end, Pinker’s errors are so dense, at least in this chapter, that he only manages to cover the first third of it. Obviously I have even less space available, so to start with I’d like to focus on the role of pessimism and religion. And to do that I need to identify some of the different groups in this debate.

Pinker opens the chapter by framing things as a battle between those who are entirely optimistic (like himself) and those who are entirely pessimistic. These are the first two categories. What’s interesting is that for all Pinker disparages religion, believers technically don’t fall into the category of those who are entirely pessimistic. To find people who are entirely pessimistic you have to look at people like the antinatalists, who I recently discussed or really hard-core environmentalists. Believers are optimistic about the future, particularly over a very long time horizon, they may just be pessimistic in the short term.

Torres takes immediate issue with framing the issue of existential risks in this fashion, and he points out that many of the people Pinker talks about are very optimistic about the future:

Pinker’s reference to “pessimists” is quite misleading. Many of the scholars who are the most concerned about existential risks are also pro-technology “transhumanists” and “techno-progressives”—in some cases, even Kurzweilian “singularitarians

In other words these people all firmly believe that a technological utopia is not only possible but likely. They just believe it’s even more likely if we can eliminate potential existential threats.

The fact that Pinker simplifies things in this fashion is emblematic of his entire approach to this subject. And frankly represents some pretty appalling shoddiness on his part, but that’s not the point I want to get at.

As I said I want to identify the various groups, so let’s get back to that.

As I pointed out, the first group is composed of the entirely or mostly optimistic, and I think it’s fair to put Pinker in this category. The group of people who believe that things have never been better and in all probability these improvements are going to continue. To put it in terms of my overarching theme, these are people who believe that technology and progress have definitely saved us.

Our second group is the entirely or mostly pessimistic. I already mentioned the antinatalists, but I would also include people who are convinced that the earth will be made uninhabitable by climate change, or that the holocene extinction could lead to some sort of global tipping point. Pinker puts people concerned with AI Risk and those concerned with the possibility that genetic engineering could make it easy to create superbugs in this category, though Torres argues he probably shouldn’t. That said, there are certainly people who believe that technology has definitely doomed us (and that there is no religious salvation around to mitigate this doom) it’s just not clear how large this group is.

As Torres points out in the quote above, there is a third group which contains those who experience a mix of optimism and pessimism. Those who feel that the future is incredibly promising, but caution must be exercised. They believe that technology can save us and hopefully will, but that if we’re not careful it could also doom us. Given that the majority of these people don’t expect any religious salvation you could see why they’re particularly worried about getting it right. For myself, despite not falling into this group it seems clearly superior to group one.

The fourth and final group also contains those who see reasons for both optimism and pessimism, but in this category the optimism is primarily based on faith in a divine being rather than being based on faith in technology and progress. Here, I imagine that Torres and Pinker might set aside their disagreements to declare this group the worst of all. Obviously I disagree with this. And before the end of this post I’ll get around to explaining why.

I suppose it’s not entirely accurate to label that last category as the final group, since there is, of course, the largest group of all: people who never really give much thought as to whether they should be optimistic or pessimistic about the future. Or rather, they may give some degree of thought to their own future, but very little to humanity’s future. The big question is how much influence do they wield? Part of the reason why Pinker writes books and why Torres writes rebuttals, is that it’s hoped that the future will not be determined by this group, that it will be determined by people who have taken the time to read books like Enlightenment Now (and even better people who might have read rebuttals like Torres’) though that’s by no means certain. Still, I guess I too will make the same assumption as Pinker and Torres and say no more about this group.

Pinker wants to frame things as a battle between groups one and two, and while I agree that there is a group of hardcore technology pessimists, I don’t think they’re that large. Also, all (or at least the majority) of the people Pinker call out more accurately belong in group three. Which is another way of saying that this is a good example of the strawmanning Torres is complaining about.

If we set group two aside, both because it’s too small, and also because of its relative lack of influence then we end up with most of the attention being focused on the contest between groups one and three. As I said I think group three is clearly superior to group one, but it’s useful to spend a moment examining why this is.

The first big question is what are the risks? I mentioned that this is one thing I want to focus on, in fact it’s the point of the title. The risk of being wrong about existential hazards, are, from a certain perspective, infinite. If we make a mistake and overlook some risk which wipes out humanity, that’s basically an infinite risk, at least from the standpoint of humans. If you’re not comfortable with calling it an infinite risk, then it’s still an enormous risk as Torres points out:

…This is not an either/or situation—and this is why Pinker framing the issue as an intellectual battle between optimists and pessimists distorts the “debate” from the start.

(i) given the astronomical potential value of the future (literally trillions and trillions and trillions of humans living worthwhile lives throughout the universe), and (ii) the growing ability for humanity to destroy itself through error, terror, global coordination failures, and so on, (iii) it would be extremely imprudent not to have an ongoing public and academic discussion about the number and nature of existential hazards and the various mechanisms by which we could prevent such risks from occurring. That’s not pessimism! It’s realism combined with the virtues of wisdom and deep-future foresight.

This is the position of group 3, and as I said I think it’s pretty solid. The risks of not paying attention to existential hazards is enormous. On the other side what is the argument for group one? What are the risks of paying too much attention to existential hazards? Here’s Pinker explaining those risks:

But apocalyptic thinking has serious downsides. One is that false alarms to catastrophic risks can themselves be catastrophic. The nuclear arms race of the 1960s, for example, was set off by fears of a mythical “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified by the uncertain but catastrophic possibility that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons and planning to use them against the United States. (As George W. Bush put it, “We cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun-that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”) And as we shall see, one of the reasons the great powers refuse to take the common-sense pledge that they won’t be the first to use nuclear weapons is that they want to reserve the right to use them against other supposed existential threats such as bioterror and cyberattacks. Sowing fear about hypothetical disasters, far from safeguarding the future of humanity, can endanger it.

Honestly this seems like a pretty weak argument. And Torres points out several problems with it, which I’ll briefly recap here:

  1. There’s a big difference between, for example, the warnings about AI provided by Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking and whatever it was Bush was doing.
  2. This overlooks all the times when people warned of catastrophe, and it turns out we should have listened. Exhibit 1 for this is always Hitler, but I’m sure I could come up with half a dozen others.
  3. This also overlooks times when warnings were acted upon, and the problem was fixed, sometimes so well that people now dismiss the idea that there was ever a problem in the first place. Pinker offers the Y2K bug as an example of techno-panic, and Torres goes to show it really wasn’t, I don’t have to time to get into that, but Pinker seems to assume that warnings of catastrophe are never appropriate and always bad, which is almost certainly not the case.

To this list I’ll point out that neither of his examples are particularly good.

  1. The Iraq War was bad, and in hindsight, almost certainly a mistake. But it wasn’t a catastrophe, certainly not compared with other potential catastrophes throughout history. Perhaps when considered only from the perspective of the Iraqis themselves, it might be, but I’m not sure even then.
  2. If the nuclear arms race had lead to World War III, then Pinker would certainly have a point, but it didn’t. However mistaken you think the arms race was, we avoided actual war. This despite the fact that many people were pushing for it. (I think the number of people who thought it might be okay went down as the numbers of nukes went up.) How sure are we really, that a world where the arms race never happened would be better than the world we currently have?

Pinker brings up other risks, which Torres covers as well, but none of them, when set in the balance, outweigh the colossal risks of potential existential hazards.

Before we move on there’s another argument Pinker makes that deserves to be mentioned. One of the key points which determines how risky technology has made things, is the ease with which an individual or a small group can use it to cause massive harm. Pinker claims that technology’s interconnectedness has made it harder. He makes this claim primarily based on the increase in the number of intersecting technologies, all of which would require separate areas of expertise in order for an individual to cause any harm. He concludes that this makes harm less likely than in the past, and that we have been mislead in this respect by the hollywood image of a loan genius. That, rather, it would take a whole “team of scientists” and that maybe they wouldn’t be able to do it either.

This certainly doesn’t match my experience of things, and Torres take serious issue with it as well and goes on to provide nine counter-examples of small groups either causing massive harm or having done all of the work necessary to cause massive harm but stopping in advance of any actual harm. If you read nothing else from the original paper, I would at least review these nine examples. (They start on page 31 and go through page 33.) They’re quite chilling.

The overall feeling I came away with after reading Pinker’s chapter on existential risks, a feeling Torres appears to share, is that Pinker thinks that people who are pessimistic about technology aren’t acting in good faith to prevent some disaster, but rather they’re doing it as part of some strange intellectual exercise, a weird game perhaps. Here’s an example of Pinker expressing this sentiment:

The sentinels for the [old] horsemen [famine, war, etc.] tended to be romantics and Luddites. But those who warn of the [new] higher-tech dangers are often scientists and technologists who have deployed their ingenuity to identify ever more ways in which the world will soon end.

Torres joins me in thinking that this makes it sound like people who are concerned with existential risk, are: “devising new doomsday scenarios [as] a hobby: something done for the fun of it, for its own sake.” and goes on to state, “That’s not the case.” So far Torres and I are in agreement, but I would venture to say that Torres makes a similar claim about people who are worried about some sort of apocalypse for religious reasons, and in a couple of places in his paper he goes out of his way to put as much distance as possible between his worries about existential risk and the apocalyptic worries of traditional religions. And here’s where we finally turn to group four: the religious pessimists (who nevertheless hope for divine salvation).

I’m not an expert on the status of apocalyptic beliefs among all the world’s religions, but I get the impression that it’s pretty widespread. Certainly it’s a major element Christianity, the religion I am the most familiar with, but regardless of how widespread it is, Torres wants to make sure that his worries about existential risk are not lumped in with the apocalyptic concerns of the religious.

The question is why? Why are the religious fears of an apocalypse different than the fears Torres is defending? Torres takes objection to the idea that researchers in existential risk, are “devising new doomsday scenarios [as] a hobby” but where does he suppose that religious apocalyptic fears come from? Is he copying Pinker now, and assuming that this was the hobby of early Christians? Something to spend their free-time on while undergoing persecution and attempting to spread the gospel?

I suppose that’s possible. That if it was, not exactly a hobby, that it at least, served no useful purpose, that it was just pointless baggage which for some reason accumulated within Christianity and did nothing for either the religion in which these ideas accumulated or for the followers of that religion. As I said, this is possible, but it seems unlikely.

Another possibility is the Talebian possibility, that there was something in these beliefs which made those who held them less fragile. It’s not hard to imagine how this could be the case, if apocalyptic beliefs led those who held them to be more prepared for eventual (and historically inevitable) disaster, then it’s easy to see where those beliefs came from and how they might have persisted. This possibility would appear to make a lot more sense than the first possibility.

Of course there’s one final possibility, that there is in fact a religious apocalypse on it’s way, and John of Patmos was actually warning us of something real. But if you reject this possibility, as I assume Torres does, then the second possibility still makes a lot more sense than the first. Which is to say, that it could be argued that it’s a huge support for Torres’ point.

The central argument between Torres and Pinker boils down to a question of whether it’s a net negative to worry about future apocalypses (Pinker’s view) or whether it’s a net positive (Torres’ view). To which I would argue that historical evidence suggests that it’s definitely a net positive, because that’s basically what people have been doing for thousands of years, and it’s safest to assume that they had a reason for doing it. Particularly given the fact that, as I’ve been saying, this is one of those things we cannot get wrong.

In closing I have two final thoughts. First, I think one of the benefits of bringing religion into the discussion, is that it allows us to tap into thousands of years worth of experience. Contrast this with Pinker (and to a lesser extent Torres), who are arguing about a world that has only existed for the last few decades. It’s really difficult to know if we’ve recently reached some new plateau where existential risk is so low that worrying about it causes more harm than good. But if you bring in religion and tradition more broadly the answer to the question is, “probably not”. We probably haven’t reached some new plateau. There probably is reason for concern. The last 70 or so years are probably an anomaly.

Second, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Torres ends his paper by referencing The Great Silence, which is another name for Fermi’s Paradox, and points out, as I have on many occasions, that if we don’t have to worry about existential risk, then where is everyone else? Sure, we all agree that there are lots of potential explanations for the silence, but one of them, to which we have no counterfactual, is that Pinker is horribly, fantastically wrong, and that technology introduces a level of fragility which will ultimately and inevitably lead to our extinction, or in any case will be inadequate to save us.

If you think there’s some point to religion, consider donating. If you think there’s some point to being worried about existential risk, consider donating. If you think Pinker could use more humility consider donating. And finally if you think it’s a tragedy that the Netherlands is not in the World Cup, consider donating. Because it is…

Crime in 2018 (Or Why Are There so Many Homeless People?)

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Last week I decided to order some pizza for the family to eat while we watched Touching the Void. Before going any further I should say that Touching the Void is far and away my favorite documentary, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly, though there is a significant amount of swearing, albeit in contexts where swearing is entirely appropriate. In any case the pizza…

I ordered pizza from Papa John’s (not sure in this day and age if that’s important or not.) When it arrived I took the pizzas from the delivery driver and handed them to my son. From there he handed me the credit card slip so that I could sign it. As I was signing it I noticed that a car had pulled up next to the car of the delivery driver (who had parked across the end of my driveway). I didn’t think much of it, there was another car parked across the street and I assumed the recently arrived car was just squeezing in between the two before parking in the driveway across from me.

When I next glanced up the car of the delivery driver was in motion, at which point I figured something weird had to be happening and I said, motioning towards the car, “What the heck is happening there!” The delivery driver turned and said something along the lines of “Hey bro! Don’t steal my car!” and began running after him. A second earlier and he might have got in front of him because the thief had to turn the car around to get out of my neighborhood, but by the time I pointed it out the thief had already backed into my driveway and from there he roared off. (I wonder what would have happened if I’d paid with cash? Maybe the delivery guy could have stopped it, or maybe he just would have gotten run over?)

I assume the delivery driver left his keys in the car or left it running, I honestly don’t remember if it was the latter. He also left his phone in the car, along with another order of pizzas he was supposed to deliver after mine. Anyway, I lent him my phone and he called the police. He unfortunately couldn’t remember his license plate number, and I assume one of the first things the thief did was take off the Papa John’s topper, since if he had left that on he would have been pretty easy to catch.

A police officer showed up pretty quickly, fast enough that the driver was still on the phone with Papa John’s explaining to them that they were going to have to make some more pizzas. But once he got off the call and gave me my phone back the policeman told me I was good and I went back inside to eat. I’m a little bit annoyed that I’m not in the loop on things. I’d like to know how it ends up getting resolved, though I’ll definitely be asking the next Papa John’s driver who shows up about it. (Assuming they don’t put me on some kind of blacklist.)

In any event all of this got me to wondering about the state of crime and other social indicators, like the number of homeless people. This particular crime seemed fairly brazen and unusual, and also the delivery driver assured me that he had been doing pizza delivery for a long time (though to be fair he looked like he was at most in his late 20s) and had never heard of this sort of thing happening. And one assumes that if he had, he wouldn’t have left himself in a position for it to happen to him. I had certainly never heard of it happening, nor do I know anyone who’s even had their car stolen, period, that I can think of, at least not anyone I know well.

In other words you have an unusually brazen crime, happening right in front of my house. Is it just an exceptionally rare thing that I just happened to witness by chance? Or is it part of some larger trend of increasing lawlessness. You probably already know where my biases lay: towards it being part of some larger trend. And, of course being biased, I immediately started looking for something else that might be an example of that trend. The thing that immediately came to mind was homelessness. Which seems to be getting worse and worse despite the New York Times apparently running out of words to describe how good the jobs numbers are.

Most of the time when I start one of these posts I have a pretty good idea of what my conclusion is. Either because I’ve already come across some piece of evidence which represents a smoking gun, or I have some point of my own that I’m hoping to arrive at. That is not the case with this post. Having just read Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, I’m predisposed to think that crime, like most things has been getting better. (I’m guessing that the hapless delivery driver would disagree with me.) Is crime getting better along with everything else? If so, then what’s up with the increasing number of homeless people? And shouldn’t homelessness and crime track pretty closely? These are the questions I’m setting out to answer, and at the moment I’m not sure how it’s going to fall.

Speaking of Pinker, I thought I might as well start with him, and I would have thought that among his 75 figures that there would be one on the decrease in crime, though I had no specific memory of one. And it turns out the reason that I have no specific memory of one is because he didn’t include one. He covers murder, but he doesn’t get into property crime. In fact there is no entry for crime in the index at all. I’m not sure if I should be surprised by this or not. The graphs one does find in this area definitely show a decrease in all sorts of property crime, though since Pinker likes to credit “enlightenment values” with the decrease I think he prefers to be able to show that the decrease started at around the time of the enlightenment. As such many of his graphs start in the 1700 and 1800’s, with some going back much further (with one graph on GDP going all the way back to 1 AD).

Of course not all of the things he wants to talk about have data available going that far back so oftentimes his graphs start much later, but only because he doesn’t have the data to go back any further. In this case he has the data, but it doesn’t show the nice smooth downward slope of most of his charts, a chart of property crimes starts off really low in 1960, then rises steadily before reaching and staying at a peak through the 80’s and then starting to decrease around 1990, though even after a decrease of over two and a half decades things are still not to the level they were in 1960. In other words, this graph does not quite fit the narrative Pinker is going for in his book, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he didn’t include it.

Besides not fitting his narrative, one additional reason for not including it might be that no one is entirely sure why crime has been falling since 1990. Certainly Pinker can’t easily map “enlightenment values” to this data as an explanation, though that may be only explanation that hasn’t been offered. ran an article listing 16 possible reasons for the decline in crime everything from an aging population, to video games, to abortion, and lead are suggested. I know that lead has been a favorite of many people, though just recently someone pointed out that despite horrible lead pollution in Eastern Europe under communism there appears to be no evidence of increased criminality there.

In any case, whatever the cause for the decrease in crime, the graph doesn’t fit Pinker’s narrative, but it also doesn’t fit my narrative very well either. I find no evidence that there has been a recent surge in car thefts, Car thefts have in fact been falling, though at this point it’s important to talk about the role of technology in preventing car thefts. Cars are, in general, much more difficult to steal these days than they have been in the past. With stuff like locking steering wheels, immobilizers, GPS tracking, and similar, the only way they were able to steal the delivery drivers’ car is that they had the keys. So technology has made car theft much more difficult, but that may have nothing to do with the “base rate” of criminality in society.

Okay, so it appears, despite the dramatic nature of my own experience, that there hasn’t been any increase in property crimes, or car theft. Which takes us to the next questions, has there been an increase in the number of homeless people and if so why has there been no corresponding increase in the amount of crime?

Here again, I’ll once again start out by describing my own experience. My memory is that homeless individuals and panhandlers in general were pretty rare when I was growing up. In 2000 I moved into my current house, and I don’t remember seeing any homeless panhandlers in the area, that is until the financial crisis of 2007-2008, at which point I started seeing them everywhere, especially on a particular corner near my house. My initial assumption was that the sudden increase was due to the housing crisis and the economy cratering. This would make sense of course, if unemployment shoots up and people find themselves suddenly unable to make their mortgage payments, then it’s only to be expected that the number of homeless would increase. But when the economy improved, there didn’t appear to be any corresponding decrease in the number of homeless. Just this month the current period of economic expansion hit nine years, and on top of that I recently saw that the number of job openings exceeds the number of people looking for employment for the first time since 2000. And yet, despite all this, there appear to be as many homeless people and panhandlers as ever, if not more. Why is that?

Of course the first step is to see if my observations match reality. It’s entirely possible that I’m just suffering from confirmation bias, that I’ve developed this theory of an increase in the number of homeless people and consequently I pay particular attention to them. Or maybe Salt Lake City just has it especially bad for some reason. Obviously we need some hard numbers, but as it turns out even when we look at the data the picture is mixed.

First up we have a report from HUD which says that the number of homeless, after falling from 650,000 in 2007 to 550,000 in 2016, rose for the first time in 2017. (Good summary here from BBC.) And apparently much of the gain is in LA because a booming economy has increased the cost of housing. Unfortunately the numbers only go back to 2007, so it’s impossible to say if the numbers are still historically high, or if we’re back to the level of homelessness which existed in say the mid 90s…

On the other side there are reports of homelessness increasing among children and students. We could certainly reconcile the decrease mentioned above with these numbers, but only by assuming that children and students are becoming a greater percentage of the total homeless population, while the number of homeless adults is declining, which isn’t exactly great news.

New York City appears to have the best data on homelessness of any source and here the situation is unambiguous. The rate of homelessness in New York is skyrocketing. There were 12,000 homeless people in NYC in 1984 and now there’s 63,000. Five times as many, even though 1984 was in the middle of New York’s crime and murder epidemic. Additionally much of that increase has come just since 2012, when we were already three years into the recovery. Now of course when speaking of New York (or anywhere really) you can have an argument about to what extent the leadership at the time was responsible. Many people feel that Bloomberg was horrible for the homeless and De Blasio has done much better. But you’re still looking at a huge increase in the numbers no matter how you slice it.

Moving farther afield there are numerous stories about the increasing problems with homelessness from all over the country:

  • Starting in my own backyard, we have conflicting reports:
    • Here’s an article saying that Salt Lake City has reached a critical mass of homeless people and wonders how we got into this state. This was written in 2016.
    • Here’s another article written 10 months before the first one, claiming that SLC had reduced the population of the chronically homeless by 91 percent. (Certainly that’s not my impression, though the chronically homeless are only 20% of total homeless.)
  • Then we turn to an article about Anchorage’s homeless problem. One feels like Anchorage could just buy all their homeless people a bus ticket, and have that problem solved, who wants to be homeless in Alaska, particularly in the winter?
  • Next, here’s an article from just this week about a neighborhood in Las Vegas that’s overrun by homeless people, despite numerous attempts to deal with the problem.
  • Speaking of stories from this week I found the following stories about Seattle. First Seattle voters are fed up with homeless spending, homelessness in Seattle is increasing and it has reached a horrific tipping point. Perhaps voters are fed up with spending because it doesn’t appear to be doing anything to solve the problem?
  • Finally there’s the situation in LA. The report I mentioned earlier, about homelessness increasing for the first time in 2017, placed much of the blame on LA. The number of homeless in LA jumped a staggering 23% in just the last year, and this is despite billions in taxes which have been earmarked to fight the problem.

After working through all of the above, it would appear that the only real outlier to a picture of increasing homelessness is the HUD report, and even it shows a recent uptick. What would have been really useful is if their data went back farther than 2007. Is the 2016 number of 550,000 still really high from a historical perspective, or is that number actually as low as it has ever been? If so homelessness should be added to Steven Pinker’s list of things that are perpetually improving, but all of the other evidence suggests that this is probably not the case. That whatever else can be said about the number of homeless people in 2016, one can not say that it represents some sort of historical nadir.

This seems particularly borne out by the NYC data, which has the advantage of going all the way back to the end of 1984. Having this additional historic data, allows us to see not only that the current rate is five time the rate back then, but also that the “Great Recession” didn’t seem to have much of an effect on homeless rates. That rather than going up during that time and then falling back down once the economy improve that instead, homeless rates, for some reason have skyrocketed during the last few years even though the economy has been expanding.

Pulling this all together it appears that it’s going to be difficult to say what the true number of homeless people is, and whether that number has recently increased slightly, increased dramatically, or decreased slightly (I see no reason to believe it’s decreased dramatically). That said, it does seem safe to conclude that it’s extremely high. Certainly higher than it’s been for many decades. (I could certainly imagine that it was higher during the Great Depression.) And this is all happening during a time with very low unemployment, an expanding economy, and presumably, more money being spent directly on the problem than at any point in history (and this does include the Great Depression.) How do we explain this apparent paradox?

Honestly I don’t know. Though I can certainly speculate. Here are some possibilities:

Maybe homelessness is inversely correlated with the economy. Homelessness isn’t bad in spite of a good economy it’s bad because of a good economy. As I mentioned with respect to LA, some people think that this is the problem. That robust economic growth has increased the cost of housing. So, perhaps homelessness always increases when the economy is booming because “homes” are more expensive. Certainly this could be a contributing factor, but if you look at the New York numbers, I don’t see any obvious correlation between, for instance, the annual increase in GDP and the homelessness rate.

Alternatively, perhaps this is just the far left end of the advancing spread in inequality. That, yes the economy is doing well, and there are lots of job openings, but that most of the economic gains and most of the jobs have gone to the top 5% and things just keep getting worse for the bottom 5%, which is reflected by the increase in the number of homeless people. That not only are the poor getting poorer, but also, despite more jobs than job seekers, there are no entry level jobs. There is some marginal evidence for a decline in entry level jobs, but as far as I can tell McDonald’s is almost always hiring. At least in my neck of the woods.

Of course, we shouldn’t overlook the opiate crisis. Perhaps the increase in the homeless rate is just an increase in the number of people who are addicted to heroin or meth and consequently can’t hold down a job. Once again I’m sure it’s a factor, but I’m also not sure how big of a factor it is. This page claims that only 26% of homeless people abuse a drug other than alcohol. (To be honest that sounds low.) If the number of homeless people had only increased by 26% over the last few years and previously no homeless people were addicted to drugs other than alcohol, then this might make sense, but neither of those things are very likely to be true. The homeless rate in NYC more than doubled from 2006 to today, and I’m reasonably certain that the homeless have have been abusing drugs as long as there have been drugs and homeless people.

Finally, it may just be that people don’t have the support structure they used to. Families are smaller, single mothers are more common. All of this means that there are fewer people to catch you “on the way down.” I saw this process play out with my college roommate. He had bad health and couldn’t keep a job. This was unfortunate, but on top of that he was an orphan with no siblings. He stayed with some friends for awhile, and he stayed with his uncle for awhile, he even got the Mormon Church to pay for his apartment for a while (despite not being Mormon). Somewhat tragically, he actually died of alcoholic hepatitis before actually becoming homeless, but my guess is that at that point it was only a few months away, and even if it had taken longer, I think he surely would have eventually ended up homeless if he hadn’t died. I think if his parents had still been alive, or if he had had any brothers and sisters, the story would have been quite a bit different.

To conclude, I’ll repeat again, I don’t know why homelessness is so high despite an economy that by all appearances is doing great. Of the four things I mentioned, I suspect that inequality, the opiate crisis, and lack of support all contribute, but I don’t think they’re sufficient. Also I’m going to say it doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with the strength of the economy and high housing costs. And I’m willing to predict that if the economy does start tanking, that the situation will only get much worse.

I am not in any danger of becoming homeless, but if you want to help me avoid that danger anyway, no matter how tiny it is, consider donating.

Skin in the Game, Survival & Religion

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I mentioned in the past couple of posts that I was working my way through Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest Skin in the Game. Well I just finished it. As long time readers of this blog might guess it would be difficult to overstate the impact of Taleb’s ideas on my thinking, and knowing that, you might be surprised it took me this long to finish his new book. I’m not sure why I didn’t read it the second it came out, certainly I had a copy of it on it’s release date, but I guess I already had a queue, and it got placed at the end. But perhaps more importantly, I had read a review of it in the Economist which began by claiming that there were two Taleb’s one who was “idiosyncratic and spiky, but with plenty of original things to say” and one who “indulg[es] in bad-tempered spats with other thinkers”. Going on to say that:

A list of the feuds and hobbyhorses [Taleb] pursues in “Skin in the Game” would fill the rest of this review. (His targets include Steven Pinker, subject of the lead review.) The reader’s experience is rather like being trapped in a cab with a cantankerous and over-opinionated driver.

Thus part of my delay was that after reading this, I was a little bit nervous, and of course the question is: Was the Economist correct? Was it “like being trapped in a cab with a cantankerous and over- opinionated driver”? I would say no, at least not for me. For me it was like sitting down to dinner with an old friend who was getting increasingly fed up with the world, but fed up about things we both were dismayed by. Did he seem more cantankerous than usual? Probably, but I’m feeling pretty cantankerous about the world myself, and Taleb seemed appropriately cantankerous, if not maybe a little bit restrained.

That said, if I’m being honest, Skin in the Game didn’t feel quite as tight, or quite as full of “original things” as his previous books, but then again he’s covered a lot of ground already and the original things he has said are some of the most original things I’ve ever read (and also ironically some of the most traditional.) Would I recommend Skin in the Game? Absolutely. If you’ve never read any Taleb should you start with Skin in the Game, absolutely not.

(If you’re going to only read one of his books it’s a toss up between The Black Swan and Antifragile, if you think you might eventually read all his books, then just start at the beginning with Fooled by Randomness,)

I would argue that nearly all of the problems people have with Taleb is that it’s so rare these days to see someone that actually has unshakeable principles. I think for most people principles are vague things they don’t think about very much and which in practice do very little to guide their actions. (Assuming they haven’t abandoned principles entirely as something quaint and outdated which might restrict their ability to have unlimited sex.) But for Taleb his principles really do guide his actions and one of his core principles, his motto in fact, is, “If you see fraud and don’t shout fraud, you are a fraud”. And let’s be honest, there is a lot of fraud out there right now, accordingly Taleb shouts, a lot.

The Economist review mentions Steven Pinker as one of Taleb’s many feuds. Given that Pinker wrote the last book I reviewed in this space (though I’m not sure if you can call what I do a review), the same book the Economist mentioned, Enlightenment Now, you might reasonably expect that I would be able to comment on the feud and whether Pinker is a fraud. Well, if you read that review or my review of one of his other books, Better Angels of our Nature, you know I have a lot of problems with Pinker. Whether he’s a fraud is a level beyond saying that he’s wrong about things, and as far as I can tell it largely comes about because Taleb thinks Pinker’s math is crap while Pinker thinks Taleb’s math is crap, and my math, while okay, is not so good that I can tell at a glance which one is correct. In fact, I think it would take hours and hours for me to approach knowing who’s math is better, and at the end it might still not know. Rather I’ve decided to take a different approach, one I feel that I borrowed from Taleb to begin with. What if Pinker is right and Taleb is wrong?

Well, then as I said when I reviewed Enlightenment Now, there’s not much for me to do, except defend enlightenment values, which if you’ve read my posts on free speech and freedom of religion I already do. However if Taleb is right and Pinker is wrong, then we don’t merely need to avoid breaking the current system, we have a system which is already horribly broken and nearly everything anyone is doing is making it worse. All of which is to say, as I have so many times, if Taleb is wrong, no big deal, but if Pinker is wrong it’s a very big deal, thus I take any claims that Pinker is wrong much more seriously.

But that doesn’t exactly answer the question of whether I think Pinker is a fraud. Though insofar as that question hinges on completely understanding the math, I would argue that I’m unqualified to say. Beyond that I guess I would not say that Pinker is a fraud, I would say that he is less objective than he thinks and blinded by a very specific and hard to see set of biases. These include having a bias against religion and a blindness for black swans. They also include, the intellectual echo chamber he inhabits as a member of a particular elite group. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it includes the point I made a couple of posts ago, that he prioritizes happiness over survival. I suppose all of those together might make him a fraud, but I think “fraud” implies a level of hypocrisy I haven’t really seen, though, as I said if he’s calling Taleb’s math bad and it’s his own math that’s bad, then that would probably count.

In any case back to Taleb and the book. Taleb is cantankerous, and my guess is that self-important people who are used to be treated as barely less than divine find him to be nearly intolerable, but from everything I’ve heard he’s very nice to average people, doormen, cab-drivers, etc. My one interaction with him, which somehow I have never mentioned in this space (at least that’s what a search says…) consisted of me sending him a short email asking if I could write a book on the subject of antifragility (guess I still need to do that) and his reply was: “Of course it is an open topic I am flattered.” I understand that’s a single data point, but it’s a good one, also I have no reason to doubt any of the above. And, in the final analysis, it’s much more important from the standpoint of morality to be kind to the average person than it is to be kind to Steven Pinker, or Ben Bernanke, or, especially, Paul Krugman.

I already covered one of the key messages of Skin in the Game in a previous post: survival as a core value. Though I think it’s important enough to reiterate. Taleb (and to a much, much, lesser extent, myself) represents one of the many idealogic camps of the modern world, and you could do worse the defining this camp by that point, that much of the issues of modernity come from ignoring survival in favor of something else. From this there are three possibilities:

  1. We have passed the point where we need to worry about survival. Our intelligence and technological prowess is such that we can focus on other things without worrying about how it will impact our chances of survival.
  2. We may need to worry more about survival, we may be living on the accumulated “survival capital” of those who came before. And maybe certain things (like enlightenment values in Pinker’s case) need some buttressing, but a most there will be a small correction.
  3. We need to worry a lot more about survival. Not only are we living on accumulated “survival capital”, but by the time it’s run out we will have gone so long without focusing on survival that we will have forgotten how to, leading to the possibility of a very large correction.

My impression is that people like Pinker are strongly in camp 1, with a toe in camp 2 (as I pointed out). While Taleb is pretty solidly in camp 3, or at least in the camp of, we should definitely worry about 3, even if the chance is low because the consequences of it happening would be so great.

If we all should be in the third camp or at least worried about it, how does that play out? What is the rational thing to do? As it turns out that final word, “do” is the key. Taleb says over and over again, not only in this book, but in all his books, that talk is cheap, talking about something does not represent “skin in the game”, it’s easy to say nearly anything, where it counts are someone’s actual actions. Along these lines he asks us to consider the following three maxims:

Judging people by their beliefs is not scientific.

There is no such thing as the “rationality” of a belief, there is rationality of action.

The rationality of an action can be judged only in terms of evolutionary considerations.

That first maxim talks about revealed preferences. This is the idea that if you ask someone about something they may say one thing, but if you then observe what they actually do they may end up doing something entirely different. For some reason an example that always comes to my mind when I think about this phenomenon is the story of Al Jazeera America. I don’t know if you remember this but Al Jazeera the Qatari based news station decided to try and break into the American market. Before doing so they decided to conduct some market research and based on that research they determined that Americans were starving for sober, “unbiased” hard news coverage. Think the opposite of CNN. So that’s what they did and then, as might have been predicted by someone who had met an actual American, they promptly went out of business. This is because, when you ask people what kind of things they like, they imagine the person they want to be, which is someone who watches a three hour in depth documentary on the situation in the Gaza Strip, but when they actually get home from a long day at work, what they really want is an update on the Kardashians. Which is why Kim Kardashian has a net worth of $175 million and Al Jazeera America is out of business.

The second maxim is a point I’ve made on several occasions, though perhaps in a slightly different form. The best example was my post on religion as a framework as part of my review of Rationality: AI to Zombies. In that post I explained that it doesn’t matter if your philosophy has considered all possibilities, if it’s completely rational, and basically the best thing since sliced bread. If no one can understand it, let alone act in the matter it recommends, then it’s not going to, in the end, accomplish much good. I pointed out that this was a particular problem with modern rationality. Religion says things like love one another, if you screw up, you can repent, etc. Things anyone can understand. Rationality says things like, you need to win and the best example of that is to one-box the Newcomb problem, or that the second virtue is relinquishment.

Taleb instead approaches this same issue from the idea of revealed preferences. In other words, when looking at people who claim to be rational it’s far more important to look at what they do, than what they say. This is particularly the case if rationality is tied to survival. To return to my recent post on anti-natalism, David Benatar may think that once you’ve decided that there is zero utility to future happiness then it’s rational to wish for the instantaneous extinction of all human life, but for anyone who ties rationality to survival, or as Taleb puts it, to “evolutionary considerations”, would say that’s the least rational thing ever, and interestingly enough, the vast majority of people even with no training in rationality, would agree.

Which takes us to the third maxim, that rationality should be judged in terms of “evolutionary considerations”. I have thus far been using survival and “evolutionary considerations” almost interchangeably, though there are obviously some differences, for example the continued survival of someone who’s past the point where they can reproduce has a different value than the continued survival of someone who is still reproducing if you’re just considering things from an evolutionary perspective, which is to say not all survival is equal. (Taleb has an entire hierarchy in the book, which I don’t have time to get into.) But I don’t think these small differences change the argument to any great extent.

The only possible argument against rationality being judged based on a standard of evolutionary considerations is if evolutionary considerations no longer apply. This can only the case if:

  1. We decide it’s better to not exist at all (antinatalism).
  2. We decide that evolution no longer has any bearing on our continued existence, That we are post-evolutionary, for example.

I think I have talked about the problems of antinatalism enough. (At a minimum I can’t imagine further discussion would change anybody’s mind on the subject.) Which just leaves possibility number two. As I do so often, let’s for the moment assume that it’s true. That evolutionary pressure no longer applies to humans. This is a pretty bold claim to make, particularly given the fact that at its most basic evolution is basically tautological. But even if we ignore that, being post evolution would carry all manner of second order effects, most of which would be difficult to predict, and many of which would be very bad. But just look at it from a high level view, life has been engaged in the “game” of evolution for billions of years. If we assume that this game no longer applies to us at the macro level, then we’re saying that the game has changed, or possibly gone away entirely. Meaning that we have this entire bundle of skills, attitudes, biases, and compulsions which have suddenly become entirely pointless. I can’t imagine this being anything other than catastrophic.

As an analogy imagine the NBA finals, which started this week. Now imagine that the Cavaliers and the Warriors showed up to the Oracle Arena on Thursday to find out that instead of playing basketball, they were playing water polo. Not only would it be a ridiculous spectacle, but it’s not inconceivable that someone would die. (Are there any NBA players who don’t know how to swim?) But even if there weren’t any fatalities you would certainly expect lots of very strange and unexpected things to happen. I would imagine that post evolution humanity would be in very similar position. As a species we are highly trained in one sort of game, and switching that around would lead to lots of flailing around at a minimum, and it just might result in death. So far I think we’ve avoided an increase in deaths, but I can’t help but notice a lot of flailing around currently. I certainly hope that I’m wrong about the cause, that we have not already moved into some world in which the rules of evolution changed, because if we have, I think we’ve got a pretty rough transition ahead of us.

I hope the rules of the game have not changed, that we’ve just gotten really good at playing it. That survival is important, but we’re just so smart that it we don’t have to pay attention to it anymore, or to extend the metaphor, we may have a bad season or two, but once we start re-emphasizing the fundamentals we’ll be right back on top. If, on the other hand, technological progress has led us to a completely different game than certain of the most basic qualities will transfer (overall fitness for example), but many things are going to have to be learned from scratch, particularly if we don’t know how to swim.

Of course there is the option that the game has ended, not changed. But I’m not sure that’s any better. Returning to our metaphor, can you imagine the reaction of all the players and fans if they showed up at the arena to find out that there were going to be no finals, or worse yet that basketball was no longer a game anyone played? Of course that may be stretching the metaphor too much, the key point is that if evolution is still happening than survival is still important, and if it’s not still happening we may have bigger problems.

After all of this we are left with four possibilities:

  1. Survival isn’t important at all. We should be devoting all of our attention to some other value, like happiness.
  2. Survival is important, but technology has taken us past the point where it needs to be the most important value, i.e. we have conquered the old challenges to survival and no new ones have arisen to take their place.
  3. Survival continues to be just as important as it always has but technology has caused the rules to change (global warming and nukes vs. famine and disease).
  4. Survival is and always has been the most important value, and to the extent that we’ve started to minimize things that have traditionally helped us survive, that’s bad.

Number one is the example of the game being entirely over, and I don’t think it’s as good a thing as people might imagine, and to this add all of the other problems I’ve mentioned with an exclusive focus on just happiness.

Number two is where Pinker and similar individuals are. Personally, I disagree strongly that no new challenges have arisen. And will once again reiterate that deprioritizing survival is not something we can afford to be wrong about.

Number three is the example of basketball being replaced by water polo, and I worry that if this is what’s happening that no one is paying any attention to it. That those in the best position to do something, all feel like we’re actually in situation number two.

As far as number four, It would be nice if this were the case, that it’s the same game it’s always been we just need to reemphasize the fundamentals. Unfortunately there seems to be even less attention being paid to this than to possibility number three. Of course I’m talking about religion, and this takes us to the final topic from Skin in the Game I want to cover.

Taleb says this about religion:

It is therefore my opinion that religion exists to enforce tail risk management across generations as its binary and unconditional rules are easy to teach and enforce. We have survived in spite of tail risks; our survival cannot be that random.

We’re out of space to argue over whether this is actually how religion works, and in any case I’ve made the argument many times before. This quote is important for several reasons beyond that:

1- It was obvious that this argument followed from all of Taleb’s previous books, but I don’t think he ever made the point as clearly as he did in Skin in the Game.

2- The point about “easy to teach and enforce”, is huge, and something that 99% of people miss when they talk about standards for human behavior.

3- As he points out the alternative to viewing religion as a tool of survival is to view survival and religion as totally random, which doesn’t make any sense at all. And, of course, some people go even farther towards viewing religion as actively harmful which makes even less sense.

In conclusion, if you haven’t you should definitely read Taleb, if you have read some Taleb, you should definitely read this book. And if you take nothing else away, remember that survival is important and having skin in the game is necessary because it assists with survival.

It may be that many of the things that helped us to survive up until this point, like skin in the game and religion are no longer valid, because the rules have changed, but I suspect there’s some overlap. I suspect that being entirely in shape to play basketball, makes water polo easier. And that assuming we can let ourselves get fat and out of shape (i.e. abandon religion) because the game is changing or ending, is actually the worst possible strategy of all.

Donating to this blog is a very minor example of skin in the game, and we just heard that having skin in the game is good, therefore donating to this blog is good. Check and Mate!