Can a Tralfamadorian make predictions?

Tralfamadorians are four-dimensional alien beings able to travel anywhere in time as well as space. Or so Kurt Vonnegut reports, quoting one as saying:

"I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all bugs in amber."

My question for the day: could a Tralfamadorian make predictions? Short answer: yup, totally. Longer answer -->

Our root for the word 'prediction' wouldn't make sense to a native of Tralfamadore. It literally means pre-show - to "say or estimate that (a specified thing) will happen in the future".

This has always seemed a bit odd to me, only half of how we actually use the term. Looking at things from a Tralfamadorian perspective makes this more obvious: the word 'forecast' has no meaning on Tralfamadore. All past and future events are accessible to them. There's no such thing as a Tralfamadorian weather forecast. They don't bet on horse races. They can't try and game the stock market. They can't actually have a stock market.

But they could still make the kind of predictions we consider among the most important: what Gregor Betz calls an `ontological prediction'.*

Here are three famous ontological predictions (one mentioned by Betz). One: the existence of Neptune deduced from oddities in the orbit of Uranus (I see you snickering...). There was either another planet or Newton was wrong. It turned out there was another planet. Then two of Einstein's: light should appear to bend as it passes through gravity-warped space; and the existence of gravity waves. The first was famously (though not uncontroversially; see also this) confirmed by Eddington during an eclipse.** Confirmation of gravity waves is brand spanking new. Immediately, they are cosmically awesome, able to dig deep into the universe to solve the riddle of where some of the heaviest elements like gold come from (neutron stars colliding... whoooaaa).

So - those were all predictions, yes? And each did provide statements on the future - but only kind of by default. The future is the only place we can test our theories. On Tralfamadore, that's not true. Tralfamodorian Einstein could come up with his theories, look up a suitable eclipse in the seventeeth century on his four-dimensional road map, pop over to meet Newton for a bit of co-corroboration, maybe nipping to Papua new Guinea in 1698. (Probably best not to over-think it... wouldn't all Tralfamadorian predictions instantly propagate everywhere/when? So everything would by necessity be known instantly leaving nothing to be discov... oh, they're just a fictional device for making a point, OK then. Phew.)

All of which is a slightly belaboured way of saying: ontological predictions are fundamentally different to forecasts. They are timeless (though the realities they seek don't need to have always existed). They are about seeing things that were already there but we didn't know to look for.

The fact we have to test our ontological predictions in the future doesn't change how different this is to a forecast. It's unfortunate our definitions reinforce the idea that `predict' and `forecast' are the same. Of course, the two are dependent on each other: actual forecasts need underlying theory, and discovering that theory is an ontological-prediction job. But there is conceptual clear blue water between the two of them. New forecasts using an existing method don't require extra ontological prediction. You could also, for instance, improve weather forecasting independently of ontological prediction by throwing more powerful computation at it or some novel refactoring, without making any deeper discoveries about the underlying physics.

Why does this matter? Well, this is all a pre-amble to another post: after reading another attack on a cartoon version of Milton Friedman's argument about model assumptions, I feel like having a proper go at exploring why those (seemingly very popular) arguments miss the point, and why that's important. tl;dr: he never said "assumptions are irrelevant". He did say predictions are the ultimate arbiter - but it's hard to get very far without being clear what prediction actually is.

Once you start digging into this, it also ends up saying something about how different disciplines see themselves, how the public sees them, and how we frame the entire research enterprise in applied versus non-applied terms.

It's also a trope used by many people to reassure themselves that the entire edifice of economics is clearly stupid. That's annoying, wrong and that used to be me. But it's also used by people who should know better to bolster their economics-heretic credentials, and that's especially annoying. So, more at some point before 2019, I hope, or possibly before now if I can find a Tralfamadorian to work with. Thoughts gratefully received in the meantime: does this two-part distinction in prediction scan?

--
* Note Betz also thinks a prediction is a "statement on the future".
** Skipping over gravity having Newtonian effects on light - look, a black hole prediction!) Though if I'm reading that right, it's based on light being a particle with mass.

Don't cling to a mistake just because you have spent a lot of time making it

"The chances of the government admitting that austerity has been a failure are precisely zero. That would mean telling voters that all the sacrifices since 2010 had been in vain." (Larry Elliott)

"Don't cling to a mistake just because you have spent a lot of time making it." (Banksy)

There's a school of thought that says ideas are like Soufflés - if you don't give them just the right care when you're baking them, letting the scaffold form as it should, they collapse in a gooey mess. I used to bake a lot of this kind of thing. I didn't get better, I just stopped trying - too ashamed of all the sad little sticky puddings. But I figure I'm a bit older and, if not wiser, more cautious now. Just throw some stuff out there, poke things a bit and see what happens. Do the thing and all that. Nothing may come of any of it, but then nothing will come of nothing if nothing's all that's done. Profound. So that said...

I've got this notion that it should be possible to show how the economy works in a way that's both robust and accessible. I don't mean accessible just from a three minute glance, infographics-style. But it should be possible - for example - to drag otherwise murky arguments about austerity out into the light where you can test views based on what's actually known, obvious, possible. You'd aim for reducing the range of ambiguity to something much less overwhelming. Expanding the little pool of clarity into something much more vivid.

The reason this draws me in is pretty simple: the 'sacrifices' Larry Elliott talks about - they're almost impossible to grasp. The things that have happened, are happening right now, to people, institutions, all apparently to right a listing economy - there seems to be a very strong case this was all totally unnecessary, literally counter-productive and utterly wrong-headed. And the arguments aren't all that abstruse - it shouldn't be that hard to mark out their boundaries. (Hah - note that for later.)

I'm not naïvely imagining there's some process of alchemy that can transform how the austerity debate is seen (or macro more generally). There's a whole bunch of people that are obviously inaccessible to what I'm talking about, not least those ideologically opposed to the idea of any state action who've seen the crisis as an opportunity. They'll continue to push whatever sophistry furthers that aim, of course. There are also people on both sides who Just Know and nothing could possibly convince them otherwise. (I like to pretend I'm not one of those, though don't we all?) Others won't have anything to do with quant of any kind, especially economics-plus-quant: for them, it's an elite-wielded tool propping up power. That's one to come back to - I have some sympathy for this but it's confusing the tool and the user.

That leaves a whole swathe of people who can meet and converse, given the right space and tools. Have no truck with the convenient lie about post-truth. The global response to Trump pulling out of the Paris Accord shows it's the idea of post-truth that's the danger - something well understood by regimes like Russia. (Paul Mason nails this brilliantly in his stage take on 'why it's kicking off everywhere'.)

I'm not saying there are always right or wrong economic answers, but you should be able to set out what the spread of rightywrongyness looks like. And if I'm talking about a tool, this would mean transparency in how it's built too. Code would need to be accessible, assumptions up-front, well commented and explained. The way models are perceived (even by many modellers) leaves a lot to be desired - I'd see this kind of open process as a chance to talk about that as well. It couldn't be something you went away for years to build - the building process itself would need to be a conversation. It couldn't be - initially at least - some single overarching model (h/t Jon Minton).

But that conversation would need a starting point, which brings me back to the beginning of this post. There's an argument that I should wait until I've got a little working example - I know what the first simple dynamic is I want to look at - but I'm bored of waiting for that. I just want to put something out there to taunt me with past versions of myself who'd annoy friends by trying to drag them into grand visions that I had absolutely no way of ever accomplishing. I think I might have learned how to start small and let things change as they hit reality. We'll see I guess. Hmm, just realised the Banksy quote I meant for austerity applies to me too.

Tasered by Trump, plus some vague thoughts on melting ideologies

Maybe Donald is exactly what the Earth's biosphere needs. As Robert Orr put it, regarding his pointless Paris tantrum (the agreement's entirely voluntary Donald - exactly what costs were being imposed?):

The electric jolt of the last 48 hours is accelerating this process that was already underway. It's not just the volume of actors that is increasing, it's that they are starting to coordinate in a much more integral way.

People who might previously have been thinking, 'aah, the government's probably got this covered' are realising - not so much. They've been tasered by Trump. And that integral coordination he mentions - that's a marvelous, essential thing. If Elinor Ostrom was right, it's also the only thing that will work. (Oh look, an entire paper of hers on climate polycentrism.)

It'll be intriguing to watch what happens in the US as that coordination ramps up and builds links with the rest of the planet: a different model of the voluntarism already built into the agreement might form something a lot more Ostromy. I feel a lot more hopeful about that than anything involving global agreements that include techno-pixies like BECCS. (If a polycentric world actually demonstrates something that works, that's another matter, but let's not rely on non-existent things, huh?)

Which is not to say that large-scale, often government-supported, things aren't necessary - we're not going to be short of those though. But anything that's an electric jolt out of someone-else's-problem-itis has to be a good thing. (A little thing got done here, even, that I managed to find a way to contribute to, after the actual US-election jolt. More on that some other time.)

One of the main things I'm mulling at the moment goes back to all that political compass stuff. No, it's more than that - it's about how we break out of assumptions that keep us cemented to the spot, when we need to be learning to move. Hmm - not explaining this well.

David Mitchell's take on climate change is actually a pretty good way into talking about this. He does it in a slightly more sarcastic way than is perhaps ideal, but still... And take this first sentence with a pinch of hey-its-comedy-so-its-OK:

It seems such a pity that the clear fact of climate change is seldom expressed by people who don't seem just a little bit pleased by it. Similarly, sorting it out is always presented as an opportunity or a pleasure or as something we ought to have been doing for years anyway. In fact, it's just a thing - a really depressing thing that's happening, but the people who tell us so always seem to be radiating one or both of those old parental stand-bys: I warned you this would happen - or, hey! Clearing up can be fun!

There are also often slight undertones of disparagement about industrial pioneers and the human urge to innovate in general. As if poor old George Stephenson should have known perfectly well that when he got that kettle to travel along rails it would lead inexorably to planetary jeapardy. Well, take that to its logical conclusion and you're labelling the first caveman who ever fashioned an axe as a cross between Dr. Oppenheimer and BP.

There's a whole load of other quotable stuff in there (the point about Clarkson driving to the North Pole in a 4x4 drinking G&T being obviously more fun than sorting out the climate, for example...)

I can only just start writing about this now, but let me just note for myself what I want to come back to. If climate change straightforwardly slots into your existing political worldview, you're not questioning that worldview enough and you're probably alienating a bunch of people in the process. The Age of Stupid do that here, for example. Naomi Klein's obviously done it: oh look, climate change proves I was right all along about the need to overthrow capitalism.

I'm, not quite, saying this is all wrong. That's not my point. I think I probably want to have a go at any ism at all, any totalising way of thinking. Which may be a problematic argument given that we seem to run on stories as a species, and stories generally need some coherence to them for us to not slip into a ditch of horrific depression.

Let me just put this here as a working hypothesis - something I want to think about and may well end up completely reversing my position on: I suspect there are very, very few political worldviews that couldn't survive in a climate-constrained world in some form not too distant from its ancestors. (Most ideologies are flexible enough to survive new circumstances.) Which means, logically, it's also possible to have the same arguments we've always had about those. To the extent that climate change becomes umbilically linked to the victory of one particular worldview, that stuffs any real chance of genuine dialogue to solve it.

At the same time, that doesn't minimise the profundity of the situation we're in. I'm some way through Clive Hamilton's Defiant Earth - as well as being one of those rare writers with the ability to be crystal clear, it's also a fantastic deep dig into the anthropocene with subtle, mercurial thinking. We need more of that and less 'climate change confirms that my existing worldview must conquer all or we fry.'

I think, maybe. Err. More mulling needed. Lack of conclusion or perfection no reason not to post on blog!

Great recession caused the dirty oil boom? (plus bonus self-indulgent whinge about writer's block)

Here's something (PDF) I didn't know: monetary easing (QE and near-zero or even real-terms-less-than-zero interest rates) might have been responsible for the dirty oil boom and the subsequent price drop. (That's via a little summary of Helen Thompson's book).

It does also make the 'recessions always correlate to oil price hikes' claim you'll see being made by people I might call oil determinists. As she does here, even the recent mortgage credit related crash looks like an oil-triggered thing through this lens. Others, however, see e.g. the 70s oil crisis being made much worse by governments whacking the steering wheel in the wrong direction in reponse to what happened.

But this story about how massively expensive dirty fuel exploitation got going makes sense - and fits with the kind of up-down pattern we can probably expect without anything to counter it. Though I'm trying to picture how that ends and can't - if, for example, renewables continue to undercut fossil fuels, demand for them drops, their price drops... and what's the new equilibrium? How do you eventually see the end of an old energy source, as we have several times before?

Dunno. But I'm going to post this anyway, and try and post anything else interesting I find, as all I've been doing recently is writing abortive chunks of whinge about how I can't write any more. The first thing I need to do to fix that is (a) post little things like this even when this new 'you don't know enough about this' warning light I seem to now have courtesy of academia starts blinking in the cockpit and (b) even when I write horrific sentences like this, still post it because that's better than filling folders full of words that never get posted (well, maybe not for anyone reading...) and (c) work up slowly to the larger topics I keep on trying and failing to find a way to articulate.

I do want to write about what's happened to the writing (and thinking etc) because there's something important there. But it needs working up to and I'd feel better about doing it if I've got the wheel going a little under its own inertia.

The short of it seems to be: I used to love writing but I'm not sure a love of writing can survive in academia. No, correction: not sure my love of writing can. If there was some way for me to find a happy marriage of my own needs and what's required of me... but there, starting to whinge about it, I'll save that for later.

Let's see if it's another year to the next post.

Letter mainly to myself, post-Donald

I think I've probably finished the reading the internet now. Eyelids peeled back, unable to look away, scratching the wallpaper off to get at whatever thoughts or feelings might help shift this... matter through my digestive tract without rupturing something. It's ongoing. In the meantime, as for so many others, dream and reality are in some godawful state of twizzler. Panicked braincells scramble to hide behind each other, desperately straining to avoid the incoming signals.

Which is of course all angel delight to the right-wing maw. As a friend once said after they inflicted a vicious chess defeat that I'd poured everything into: "I wear your pain like a crown."

Well fuck them, obviously. (Not the friend - they're quite nice really.) Paul Ryan's vacant little Mona Lisa smile as he refuses to acknowledge that an appointed 'chief strategist' is clearly Voldemort - that's pretty much all we need to know about these people. "Evil overlord, you say? Hmm. Will this get me more power? Mmmmm."

I've been shocked into doing something. Pretty messed up that it should take this, but there's some comfort knowing exactly the same thing must be happening to thousands, millions of others.

There are a bunch of luxuries we no longer have. We don't have the luxury of much self-doubt. Or rather, it'll always be there - everyone has it - but you're not allowed to let it stop you. Them's the rules now. Do something. Anything from contacting people you haven't in a while, hugging a friend, donating, volunteering, painting, singing, plotting, inventing an entire utopia. Don't make a utopia in your spare room all alone though, and don't be silly and try and do it all on the internet. Come out and play. Bounce that stuff off other people - the one thing we need more now than ever is to connect with others in every way we can.

Sure, your mind may scowl: "you Walter Mitty peabrain, what the hell makes you think you can make any difference to anything? Remember all those things you fucked up? That's the real you. Drink your effing beer, stuff this Netflix into your eyeballs and SHUT UP." But... your mind can fuck off as well. And notice just how useful that bit of your mind is to those aforementioned power-mad eejuts. They want you to do nothing. Fuck them also. I said that already.

Because there are really very sound reasons why you should do the thing and not not do the thing. Jane Jacobs nailed it: anything good that ever happens or gets made is just accident fuelled by intention. It's a lot of people with ideas and bits of stuff they're making and trying, doing the thing - and usually finding out the thing doesn't turn out anything like how they thought. But then this other thing happens - Jacobs realised, in fact, that it happens without fail when we get together to do stuff. It's what humans do. Some magic mix of evolution and artistry: person A goes - hey, that thing you just did? What if I just bodge that in with this other thing? Oh sweet Christ, we've discovered a better way to organise the city! How did that happen?? Accident fuelled by intention, ladies and gentlemen.

But it needs the intention. You need to turn up, do the thing and - this bit is especially important - not not do the thing. Not doing the thing: that's self-doubt's job description. Spotting little green shoots of maybe doing the thing and yanking them up before you have a chance to get out the door.

And you do at least sometimes need to get out the door: do the thing where other people are doing things too, or take the thing out for a visit now and then.

So - for myself - I'm fucked if I'm gonna let some colossal tango-faced bullshit queen, centre of a venn diagram made from a blow-up sex doll and an obese geriatric ginger tomcat, mess with everyone else's amazing work on stabilising carbon output. It should probably have been obvious this couldn't be done without one or two countries going the full man-toddler on us. A puncture on the road is predictable enough - you've just got to roll your eyes, fix the damn thing and press on, even if you can see the little shits who threw the tacks laughing their asses off.

Put aside any eensy niggles about nuclear obliteration - as Nick Fury so wisely said, "until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on". The planet's future is somewhere on a distribution and, like these poor lushes trying to get to the pub across a bridge over a terrifying ravine of certain-ish doom, there is no point at which it's OK just to say: ah sod it, let's just stumble forward unconsciously and hope for the best. The odds are worsening with every year, but there are - for a good while yet - always odds worth taking. Here's Alex Steffan:

It’s a fight for every 1/10th of a degree. If we fail to hold to 2ºC, we have to fight for 2.1º; failing that, we battle on for 2.2º. With millennia of impacts at stake, we never get to give up, even if we end up in 4ºC. For future generations, 4º is still better than 4.1º. "Game over" is neither realistic nor responsible.

And there isn't a shortage of other stuff to get stuck into. At the root of it all, connecting with others is the prime directive. For anyone who believes every person of any sex/gender/skin-colour/age/wealth/size/shape/geolocation/dress-sense deserves our deepest fucking respect and our care, that we all owe that to each other - that act of connection is the most fundamental and sacred thing we can do. Fucking cliché, I know, but you know that cliché about things being clichés for a reason? That.

To summarise:

1. Fuck them. (Obviously.)

2. Do the thing. Do not - and I really want to be clear on this point - not do the thing.

3. Be excellent to each other.

Now get on with it.

p.s. sorry I was rude about you Donald. I'm really cross with you right now.

Resilience, Yochai Benkler-stylee

A superb close to ouisharefest2016 by Yochai Benkler. This in particular:

It's not enough to build a decentralised technology if you do not make it resilient to re-concentration at the institutional, organisational or cultural level. You have to integrate for all of them.

His attack on what happens when all your institutions have homo economicus built into their DNA is sweet and to the point, putting all the words I waste chewing over this stuff in its place.

p.s. 7 out 17 target blog entries? Not gonna complain, that was the biggest sustained burst of non-academic-focused writing for a good while.

Moloch

A random thought arising from the Panana papers release - I'll save ranting about the obvious stuff for another time. Looking at a map of 'where the money is hiding' I was reminded of money's mercurial nature. This has been buzzing round my brain for a number of years - not just that it's mercurial, but that it has its own internal logic that gifts it with something that, if you squint, could look like intention.

What the hell do I mean? First-up: my idea of the meaning of 'intention' comes directly from work I did on programming an evolving system of predator/prey 'boids' (this wayback machine link being the only remaining write-up). Both types of boid start out with completely random behaviour. As that article said:

"this means that to start with, some predators, on seeing a preyboid, will try and run away from their food. These poor sods, therefore, don't eat. If predators don't eat, they eventually die of hunger. (Prey only die if they're eaten.) Equally, prey can go for the Darwin award if their random rules send them happily into the jaws of a predator they see."

As they evolve, however, predators learn to chase and prey learn to fly away. And, for me, that's enough to ascribe intention - of the most elemental, blind form, but I think that label fits because, when broken down into its consituent parts, our own intention is nothing more than this.

Michael Pollan's take on corn (vid also) is another way of looking at it: humans are just 'pawns in corn's clever strategy game to rule the Earth'. It has 'domesticated' humans to its own ends and now rules unassailable across vast swathes of the Earth's landscape. Intention? Not the same as humans', but the same basic dynamic is at play - the corn that survives is the corn that carries its genes on. Growth and continuity is the only determinant of success.

See, nice little segue into money there. The idea that humans might be serving money and not vice versa is hardly new. I'm just wondering if thinking about it this way - and considering how something as apparently static as money that couldn't exist at all beyond human support (yet...) could be considered to be pursuing its own goals.

It's an idea that teeters alarmingly close to complete gibberish and madness, all getting a bit Ginsberg. "Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money!" (This is a fun piece looking at Moloch as an agent, among other things.) But I think it's still possible to flip the human/money intention view without being too stoned and see something interesting. It's visible in, say, the way that taxis move around a city and stop for people: money looking for ways to move, the driver co-evolved to pilot the machine that does it. As one gets closer to money's most obvious homelands, in the banking sectors, so the human-money symbiosis creates all sorts of bloated weirdness.

And maybe humans aren't really needed for that much these days. Most money movement has nothing to do with us any more, it's all machine-managed, feeding off nanosecond differences in the wires. That we still leave this system actually connected to the human economy may come to be seen as complete insanity - about as wise as trying to keep warm by setting a fire in your front room using all your furniture.

This is obviously nonsense on some levels. Money's own intention looks suspiciously human. If money only wanted to grow, why would it slink off into the rivulets of global tax havens? Tax is still money flowing, after all, and states are plenty good at spending. So yes: there's either (a) something here worth thinking about more or (b) I might as well be stoned.

Still, carrying on with the stonedness... that Moloch article has this goddess/human dialogue:

Everyone is hurting each other, the planet is rampant with injustices, whole societies plunder groups of their own people, mothers imprison sons, children perish while brothers war.

What is the matter with that, if it’s what you want to do?

But nobody wants it! Everybody hates it!

Oh. Well, then stop.

This notion that emergence or corn or money might have its own agenda helps explain why 'just stopping' might be beyond us. We're wedded to various different kinds of symbiotic partners who squeeze those parts of us that they know will keep us doing what we do. We are not sovereign.
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New year's earnestness 7/17. Ten more by the end April? Err. Well, let's see about hitting double figures...

Humans: nought but shipping containers that need to sleep at night

On the theme of economic reductionism / turning flesh and blood human beings into cold robot calculators: the central theme running through the PhD and the last project was the effect of distance on economic choices: what people buy, where they buy it from, what/where organisations buy, how they change buying/selling and location together as a single choice set. Which is more-or-less a definition of spatial economics.

One of the ideas that turned out to be very useful for thinking about it is value density. As I use the concept, this is just the ratio of an object's value over 'cost to shift it a unit of distance'. So if it's selling for five pounds and you need to ship it ten miles at fifty pence a mile, its full cost is going to £10 and its value density is ten.

In the usual use of value density, the focus is on weight and bulk. Weight hasn't really been a part of recent spatial economics, even if it's obviously continued to be essential for actual logistics planning. Weber's is the classic work that looks at optimal siting giving inputs, weights and distances - but it's past a hundred years old now and 'proper' spatial economists dismiss it as mere geometry. ('That literature plays no role in our discussion' is all it gets from Fujita/Krugman/Venables.)

But shifting the idea of value density to 'how much it costs to ship per unit of distance' alters this: weight/bulk are important only for how they change that cost. Value density as I'm defining it can also change if, for example, fuel costs go up - which is why the idea ended up being superbly useful. It gets more complex if one starts to factor in time issues (the main reason containerisation transformed the planet was due to its impact on time, not distance) - something that, up to now, I've studiously avoided - so in true quant style, since it's difficult, let's just pretend it doesn't matter for now...)

Value density is a concept that, as far as I can tell, only gets used in the logistics literature - a very applied setting where analysts support decisions about actual production networks. I first heard it mentioned by Steve Sorrell and thought, "wossat then?" Because of this, it doesn't seem to have been used as a 'how do spatial economies work' tool.

It's the 'value' part that makes value density interesting. Because the value of something is determined mostly by its economics, only very minimally by its physical weight/bulk/distance-cost, it can be changed by anything that can add or decrease that value. From a non-spatial point of view, that's trivially obvious: something's real cost drops if, for example, wages rise. But when these two are combined, value density means that changing something's real value also changes how far it can economically be moved. That puts it right at the centre of how spatial economies wire themselves.

So where Weber cited the weight of certain primary inputs as the reason they don't move very far, logistics folks know that's not it. This can be seen along whole production chains: primary inputs will often need to be close to the first stage of production. At each following stage, more labour is added - and hence more value. Extra value can be added anywhere that extra economies of scale can be squeezed out. This is possibly what determines the dropoff of UK domestic trade (see pics) I dug out of the transport data: low value-density cement, sand, gravel, clay at one end, manufactures at the other (though there are likely plenty of other factors at play, since it's just domestic movement).

This leads to what, for me, seems like a rather startling conclusion: it's the ratio of value to per-unit distance cost, not either alone, that determines the spatial reach of economic networks. This was a very useful idea for the last project as it meant I only needed to determine one number, not two. Again, if we're talking about value versus weight - not a shock, huh? It's when fuel costs or other per-unit distance costs change that it gets interesting. You can increase the spatial reach of your economy by decreasing fuel or time costs - or by increasing value. That can happen through, for example, a more educated workforce with higher wages, through new production methods, through Jacobs-style diversity externalities caused by diversifying clusters - whatever pushes value up.

But there's an exception. There's one input into the production process, one feedstock into the great grinding millstone of the economy, that doesn't quite work in the same way. Human beings. Superb quote:

Humans remain the containers for shipping complex uncodifiable information. The time costs of shipping these containers is on the rise because of congestion on the roads and in the airports while the financial costs of so doing are also rising due to increases in real wages of knowledge workers who are the human containers. (Leamer/Storper, the Economic Geography of the Internet Age, Journal of Intl Business Studies, 2001 p.648).

So humans can be value dense, just like anything else you shift on a truck and back into a factory. But, as production inputs, they have some idiosyncracies that set them apart from coal or crankshafts or hard drives. At the top of the list: with some exceptions (i.e. people who don't stay in one place) they all need to be within a few hours' radius of the place they input their labour. They also have a range of other functions - some of them not even economic! - that determine their spatial patterning. A whole range of essential inputs, for instance, are required to guarantee creation of the next generation of shipping containers for complex uncodifiable information.

Putting aside my flippancy, this is sort of car-crash fascinating to me. It is actually possible to see a quite generalisable theory of value density that just includes some of these tweaks to humans. After all, there's nothing novel about the approach: humans are one side of the most commonly-used production economics idea, the Cobb-Douglas, with capital on one side and labour the other. And we've mostly become blithe to the presence of 'human resource' teams in all large workplaces. But this is a little more specifically economising, isn't it? Not only labour, but an input with certain ratio of value to per-unit distance cost, just with the addition of some tweaks.

I think it works though. That's the marvelous thing. It's this fundamental difference - something explored in detail by Glaeser, for example - that is determining the shape of modern cities. Decreasing distance costs, either relatively through increasing value or otherwise, increases the value density of us lot.

What I'm still not clear on, and why I'm writing all this down: we know that theories change reality. I go on about that all the time. They also change how we see the world individually - obiously, really. Even if there was some clean way of separating out my analysis of how society's structured from my daily world-view, how would that make sense? Don't we try and learn about the world specifically to change how we see it, both as people and collectively?

So I find myself asking the Dr Malcolm question ('Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should'). Not because, of course, it'll actually make me turn off the computer and walk away. At least not yet. But I do wonder - the kind of reductionism I've just laid out might produce genuine insights, but at what cost? I've been wibbling recently about the inseparable link between language networks/production, and this stuff is just another version of that. The cosmology of economics creates some kind of productive landscape - but is it one we want? Should I be comfortable in promoting the use of that language, justifying it with claims that simplifying produces useful views of reality?
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New year's earnestness 6/17. If Eddie Izzard's having to do two marathons on his last day, I should be able to catch up on the blog target in eight weeks, right? Hmm.

The modeller's Hippocratic oath

Via this excellent Slate piece on the ethics of big data and machine learning (at the top of my mind after watching a DWP presentation on their forays into the field), there's this article by an ex-finance-worker-now-professor. Three lovely bits. First, their modeller's Hippocratic oath:

  • I will remember that I didn’t make the world, and it doesn’t satisfy my equations.
  • Though I will use models boldly to estimate value, I will not be overly impressed by mathematics.
  • I will never sacrifice reality for elegance without explaining why I have done so.
  • Nor will I give the people who use my model false comfort about its accuracy. Instead, I will make explicit its assumptions and oversights

This seems especially relevant at the moment as I'm finishing off something I know only tells a partial story, but I also know may be used by some people with an axe to grind. I'm not quite sure what's going to happen yet. Hopefully nothing.

Derman also says:

Unfortunately, no matter what academics, economists, or banks tell you, there is no truly reliable financial science beneath financial engineering. By using variables such as volatility and liquidity that are crude but quantitative proxies for complex human behaviors, financial models attempt to describe the ripples on a vast and ill-understood sea of ephemeral human passions. Such models are roughly reliable only as long as the sea stays calm. When it does not, when crowds panic, anything can happen.

This reminded me of Scott's forest parable: in this case, if the sea doesn't stay calm, perhaps there are ways of calming the sea rather than admitting the model might not be up to scratch. When does the model make the world?

Lastly, Derman quotes Edward Lucas:

If you believe that capitalism is a system in which money matters more than freedom, you are doomed when people who don’t believe in freedom attack using money.

Trump's Nevada win made this seem prescient. A man whose only real distinction is to be very, very wealthy (perhaps despite, rather than because of, his own efforts) ... well, we'll see. This year could end up pretty terrifying.
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New year's earnestness 5/17. Nearing the end Feb?? Uh oh!

What would happen if new age ideas were left alone to evolve? And other language-related wibble.

We think of language as a tool for understanding the world - the instruction set used to construct a rational world view. Language and logic have come to be intimately tangled.

But language didn't evolve as a tool for understanding the world - at least, not in the way I've just described - any more than ant pheromone trails did. So there's actually no a priori reason to expect a venn diagram of language and logic to have any overlap. There is a sense in which highly evolved systems can be said to represent an 'understanding' of the environment they're embedded in, but that's not what I mean.

The common thread in the adaptive landscape examples is a mix of adaptation and 'magic' - a web of concepts and speech acts that tie people, place and worldview into a coherent, functioning whole. Lansing in particular does a superb job documenting how an imposed, abstract set of modern ideas about rice-growing were unable to 'see' the Balinese reality because it placed it all the 'superstitious gibberish of no possible value' category.

Those systems make perfect sense if language is seen as a social phenotype like ant pheromones. Yes, there is now a strong bond between language and logic that has gifted us with a collective ability to build a coherent, systematic view of the universe, and one that we can accept as real. There really are billions of stars in the milky way, billions up billions of galaxies in the visible universe. None of that is accessible to us without that bond.

But this social ability of ours should have the power to shock us - as should, say, our ability to read. What on earth prepared the brain for that astounding leap? Converting marks on paper, in neat rows, into comprehensible language? HOW? What else could we do collectively with our language tools?

What I'm trying to get at: there was nothing inevitable about these language features we now take for granted that got built on top of our evolved abilities. And the ones we now have perhaps blind us to the possibility of others emerging. More than that, they may rip them from their mulch just as they're producing the first fresh leaves of growth.

It always amuses me to imagine this happening to New Age ideas - perhaps left alone for long enough, some of them could develop into a genuinely functional social technology, a 'living, breathing, evolving thing: a creature whose sinews were made up of people, story and land'. All the rational snottiness directed at the logical ridiculousness of the ideas involved would be completely missing the point.

Not quite sure I really buy that argument! But that example does highlight why that maybe can't happen. How much scope for organic growth can there be in a world dominated by other, much more powerful social phenotypes that would lay on it like a thick blanket blocking out the sun? On a planet encased in a twenty-four hour clock and so many of us marching so precisely to its pattern? (And anyway, so many New Age ideas are entirely with the grain of that system: commoditised, accessorised, usually appropriated from long-dead cultures in which they may have had actual life.)

There's a cosmic implication too! It's a super-exciting time to be looking at the skies as we're discovering possibly habitable worlds. (That one may be tidally locked - someone's bound to have written some sci-fi about a world with a permanent dark side, right?) And it's fascinating to see how much our search is directed at discovering any other form of life - bacteria, whatever. We don't want to be alone. We want to be part of a much larger story.

To get back to the theme: the Fermi paradox tells us we should, by all rights, be part of a teaming galactic neighbourhood of civilisations. A possible reason I think we're not - perhaps a cross between 'humans are not listening properly' and 'no other intelligent life has arisen' - is due to our misunderstanding this unique, ever-so narrow path language has taken us on.

We see a parochial sliver of the universe, abstracted to the level of our symbolic understanding. This leads us to naturally assume logic and reason must necessarily emerge, as rivers flow to the sea (hence the content of the Arecibo message). But other worlds' views of the cosmos could have taken such radically different paths that, say, the double-slit experiment could be quotidian experience not worth noticing and no form of systematic logic may be part of them.

I'm going a bit 'life Jim but not as we know it' now, but... yeah, that. A famous sci-fi horror story I won't spoil by naming is about a space-faring species who were fiercely technologically advanced but essentially animals. They'd found a particular survival route that built on none of the things we assume must be its predicates.

Plenty of species have independently evolved distributed phenotypes. But as Terrence Deacon says right at the start of the Symbolic Species, when a child asks him why no animals have rudimentary versions of language, humans' particular social phenotype turned out to have some thoroughly unique properties. Life may emerge in many places in the universe - but perhaps this particular ability is phenomenally rare. And even then, there appears to be no reason to expect a smooth slope from language-as-adaptive-landscape to a social lens for seeing the entire cosmos.
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New year's earnestness 4/17. We'll see if I can catch up on the missed week!

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