I’m finding lots of interesting nuggets from following author Matt Ridley recently. He just posted a review of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (WSJ and blog versions). I have not read this book myself yet, but Ridley provides a synopsys of Taleb’s thesis which goes something like this: bottom-up trial and error produces more robust systems (anti-fragile, as in the title) compared to top-down planning and applied theory. Or, to quote Taleb, “We don’t put theories into practice. We create theories out of practice.”
I suspect my description is over-simplified as I am summarizing a longer review of a much longer book. However, Ridley includes a variety of Taleb’s examples from restaurant food and pharmacological medicines to the industrial revolution and the U.S. Federal Reserve. Any regular reader of my articles on innovation may think this kind of thesis fits nicely within my own experience and policies as far as driving innovation. They would be wrong.
[Updates at bottom on Matt Ridley response]
Author Matt Ridley has written much about the economics of evolution and sexual selection (Red Queen, The Origins of Virtue, Genome, The Rational Optimist). He is a very good writer and I do recommend his books. Unfortunately, he occasionally slips in snippets of what appear to be political ideology that are often non sequiturs or that only address a single side of an issue that might have competing considerations that seek a balanced view rather than single, simplistic answers.
Ridley’s latest Wall Street Journal and blog article shows signs of such incomplete analysis of a highly political topic, but he does present a very intriguing question, “Does sexual selection explain dislike of inequality?”. It is also interesting that the WSJ article, despite the same content, poses a different title question, “Does survival of the sexiest explain civilization?”. (I suspect an editor sets the WSJ title.) Both questions rely on the hypothesis that sexual selection of males by females pushes men to acquire more resources and display this status for females via flaunting their wealth, referred to as conspicuous consumption in fields of evolutionary behaviours. This hypothesis is certainly not new itself (Darwin originally proposed it) and there is much evidence for it.
Perhaps the most interesting side story coming out of the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election is the repeat success of analytical election models, for which Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight New York Times blog is the best known. Nate got all 50 states votes correct, an improvement of 1 from his 49 in 2008, plus D.C., and made the accurate predictions in the face of heavy pundit mockery.
It would be nice to get that sort of forecasting accuracy in Canada. Don’t count on it though; the math just doesn’t add up the same north of the border. No, it has nothing to do with the metric system, universal healthcare, or translating it into French; the problem lies in our different election process and wider variety of choices. The U.S. system is much easier to model and measure.
Yesterday I read a lot of stories celebrating the big winner of the U.S. 2012 Presidential Election. No, not Barack Obama. That was pretty much a given. I’m talking about Nate Silver, or more generally about model-based election predictions.
For those of you hiding under a rock, Nate runs the FiveThirtyEight election blog at the New York Times. He correctly forecast 49 of 50 states in the 2008 Presidental Election and this week got all 50 states correct in the 2012 election. His predictions are based on a rigorous statistical analysis of polls, trends, historical accuracies and biases, and their relationship to the Electoral College votes that actually elect the President.
Mr. Silver took a lot of punditry heat this election due to his reported high probability given to Obama’s win, peaking at about 90.9% right before the election. Given the polls showing a neck and neck race between Obama and Romney, many pundits completely dismissed Silver. Perhaps the mostly widely discussed case was MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough commenting that
"Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they’re jokes."
While Silver was not alone - several other model-based predictors had similar and possibly more accurate results - he has become the name attached to this rigorous approach to election predictions.
Jason Pontin at the MIT Technology Review wrote a great article on what is wrong with our model for innovation. My summary: without direction, market-driven venture funding chases and creates what is, essentially, profitable techno-fashion. It has become speculative gambling on the trendy and, paradoxically, aimed at incrementally irrelevant changes that make money in volume.
I wholeheartedly agree with Jason that we’re missing out on something important here. Disruptive innovation is being lost. Problem-solving is being lost, at least in the grand sense. Real, tangible value is being lost. The enormous effort of the bulk of mankind’s best technological minds is going to developing trendy trinkets and real-time knowledge of everyone’s daily habits, largely because it’s easier and more profitable to fund and brand wildly popular toys, and make people want them, than to solve hard problems with real, tangible value to real human lives.
It’s no secret that I find the whole concept of “natural” and “organic” foods a bit baffling and backwards, and effectively a branding effort that exploits a host of cognitive errors. I’ve found it even more fascinating when “natural” foods are competed against each other for which one is more “natural” and, hence, following the cognitive errors, perceived as more healthy.
It’s also no secret to those who know me that I’am not a huge fan of the taste of coffee (even so-called “good” coffee). I never drank the stuff until my mid-thirties after my first child was born, and boy did I need it then, or at least the caffeine it contained. I never really acquired a taste for it (though with enough cream and sweetener it’s as fine as anything with enough cream and sweetener), I mostly switched to sugar-free energy drinks.
I’ve since gotten a few comments that such drinks are unhealthy compared to coffee because of all the “chemicals” in them. (There is no bigger cue to me that somebody holds an ideological position on foods over an educated one than by calling the ingredients of foods as “chemicals”, also typically indicating they don’t understand chemistry, pharmacology, or metabolic biology.) I found these comments interesting because it set up quite a paradox; these energy drinks, at least the ones I drank, were labeled as a “natural health product” and contained things like ginseng, yet the objections were based on them being filled with “chemicals”. While I found that contradiction fascinating, I also knew coffee was a massive brew of both helpful and harmful chemicals so I set out to actually see which one was healthier.
— Bill Clinton, on the Daily Show, 2012-09-20.