Non-linearity

Complex Adaptive Monetary Policy

Complex Adaptive Monetary Policy (CAMP) is, in essence, a reconciliation of Keynes’ top-down view of macroeconomics with Hayek’s bottom up view.  The particular details of the proposed policy below are not as important as the recognition of the fundamental forces at play and empirical evidence that we are at a very dangerous chaos point in history.  Both Keynes and Hayek have deep truths to tell, and we discount one or the other at our collective peril.  For those who want a primer on the great debate, this rap battle sums it up better than any text book could.  Now on to the idea…

The fragility of the global financial system (as measured by the US dollar) is a function of the gap between rich and poor.  In the past, only a small ruling elite could decide to use capital to purchase all of the following: food/clothing/shelter; savings; insurance; personal free time; investment; starting a business; buying a private jet; leverage/volatility; political influence; fame.  Today an …

The New Scientific Enlightenment

There is a massive paradigm shift occurring: beliefs about the nature of scientific inquiry that have held for hundreds of years are being questioned.

As laypeople, we see the symptoms all around us: climatology, economics, medicine, even fundamental physics; these domains (and more) have all become battlegrounds with mounting armies of Ph.D.s and Nobel Prize winners entrenching in opposing camps.  Here’s what’s at stake:

. . .

Scientific Objectivity

In 1972 Kahneman and Tversky launched the study into human cognitive bias, which later won Kahneman the Nobel.  Even a cursory reading of this now vast literature should make each and every logically-minded scientist very skeptical of their own work.

A few scientists do take bias seriously (c.f. Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong).  Yet, nearly 40 years later, it might be fair to say that its impact on science as a whole has been limited to improving clinical trials and spawning behavioral economics.

In 2008, Farhad Manjoo poignantly illustrates …

Biological Immortality

There’s a scientific paradox in the world of nutrition about what the optimal diet is.  A new theory may resolve the paradox.  Oh, and help you live forever too.

The majority consensus is the “post-agricultural revolution diet” is best, which says that a majority of your intake should be vegetables and fruits, and that you should severely limit your animal product intake, especially red meats.  Some proponents (like T. Colin Cambell of China Study fame) go as far as claiming that a strictly vegan diet is best.

The other camp argues for the “paleo” or “caveman” diet, which says we need to eat what our paleolithic ancestors ate: lots of foods high in animal fat and animal protein, and avoid industrialized grains altogether (some fermented natural grains are fine).  Fermented foods in general are encouraged, honoring the fact that before preservation, refrigeration and pasteurization we evolved a symbiosis with bacterias that are critical for our digestion and processing of nutrients.

Both sides agree that processed …

The Age of Radical Transparency

On Tuesday I went on Annie Duke’s internet TV show to talk with her and Jason Calacanis about Wikileaks and what the implications are for the future of privacy.  I made some radical claims:

  1. Privacy is dead: it’s only a matter of time now before we all have to face this eventuality.
  2. In a radically transparent society, personal willingness to share everything is a source of power/wealth; unwillingness is a personal liability.
  3. In a world with strong privacy rights, the exact opposite is true.
  4. We’re all better off in a radically transparent world than one with strong privacy rights; this is true whether you look at the individual, the corporation, or the sovereign nation.
  5. Worse than both extremes is where we are now, in transition, where some have privacy and others don’t.
  6. Those who insist on having privacy will have to pay an increasing price for it; and because of #5, this is a good thing.
  7. In the mean time, as the walls of privacy

The Adjacent Possible

Stuart Kauffman has a concept called the Adjacent Possible which I find incredibly useful in understanding the world.  Simply put, if you think of the space of possibilities from the present moment forward and just concentrate on those that are achievable today — adjacent to the present moment — that’s the Adjacent Possible.

What’s interesting about possibility-space is that tomorrow’s Adjacent Possible depends on the actions and choices we make today; it’s not symmetric and it’s nonlinear.  Certain actions generate more future possibilities than others.  In my experience, those actions tend to be the cooperative ones, ones that produce network effects: financial, social and otherwise.

Due to our evolutionary heritage, having come from a resource-constrained world, we may be predisposed to see the more competitive actions which tend to shrink the Adjacent Possible.  Whether or not this is a bias or an actual state of affairs, much of our thinking is based on scarcity, so we are drawn to actions that become self-limiting.

Here’s …

Name That Financial Debacle!

The following quotes are from a book describing a real set of events:

[The incident] is an extraordinary example of what happens when you get… a dozen people with an average IQ of 160… working in a field in which they collectively have 250 years of experience… employing a ton of leverage.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of a [government-led] rescues of a private [corporation].  If a [company], however large was too big to fail, then what large [company] would ever be allowed to collapse?  The government risked becoming the margin of safety.  No serious consequences had come about in the end from the… near-meltdown.

Was the incident:

a) The savings and loan scandal

b) The collapse of Enron

c) The sub-prime mortgage meltdown

d) none of the above

First correct answer gets to invest in an exciting new bridge project I’m involved with in New York!…

Best Reader Comment Award

I’m giving my “2009 Q1 award for most concise, lucid comment” to Paul Phillips for this gem:

Viewed from a thousand miles, the financial system has a incalculably large incentive to fail catastrophically as frequently as it can do so without killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

As long as there is such a thing as “too big to fail” and trillions of dollars are available for siphoning, according to what logic can this cycle be dampened? Nobody has to explicitly pursue this outcome (although there are many who will) for it to be inevitable; the system obeys its own logic above all else.

[ commenting on Alfred Hubler on Stabilizing CAS ]

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

A few articles on the economy that were sent my way recently.

The Good: After Capitalism (Geoff Mulgan)

The era of transition that we are entering will be disruptive—but it may bring a world where markets are servants, not masters.”  I urge you to read this entire article, and leave your ideological biases at the door.  Despite the title, this is no polemic.  Here’s the punchline:

Contemporary biology and social science has confirmed just how much we are social animals—dependent on others for our happiness, our self-respect, our worth and even our life. There is no inherent contradiction between capitalism and community. But we have learned that these connections are not automatic: they have to be cultivated and rewarded, and societies that invest large proportions of their surpluses on advertising to persuade people that individual consumption is the best route to happiness end up paying a high price.

Alfred Hubler on Stabilizing CAS

With his permission, I am posting an email thread between myself and Alfred Hubler.  I had contacted him on the recommendation of John Miller when Kevin and I were posting on the possibility of dampening boom-bust cycles in the financial markets through policy or other mechanisms.  Here’s what Hubler had to say:…

Cold Fusion

I remember reading this Wired article in 1998 suggesting that the “debunking” of cold fusion may have been way premature.  Last night, 60 Minutes did a pretty convincing piece claiming that more than 20 labs around the world have reported “excess heat” from cold fusion experiments:

Click here for the full story. Watch here.

It’s interesting to me that the best skeptic they could find on the subject (Richard Garwin) was thoroughly unconvincing, simply asserting that there must be a measurement problem, without he himself daring to go measure.  You’d think it would be worth a looksy.  More interesting still was the independent expert in measuring energy (Rob Duncan) who came in as a total skeptic and came out as a believer.

But my favorite part of the story is near the end when Fleischmann (co-discoverer of cold fusion) appears to be having both a literal and figurative last laugh.  Man, what a bad beat he and Pons got.

Besides Garwin, who are the …

Chasing the Dragon

Kevin just posted about a great article by Felix Salmon in Wired.  I underlined three quotes in my reading of it:

  1. “Correlation trading has spread through the psyche of the financial markets like a highly infectious thought virus.” (Tavakoli)
  2. “…the real danger was created not because any given trader adopted it but because every trader did. In financial markets, everybody doing the same thing is the classic recipe for a bubble and inevitable bust.” (Salmon)
  3. “Co-association between securities is not measurable using correlation…. Anything that relies on correlation is charlatanism.” (Taleb)

Symposium Proposal

There is a proposed symposium on “Complex Adaptive Systems and the Threshold Effect: Views from the Natural and Social Sciences” on Nov. 5 – 7, 2009 in Arlington, VA.  According to the details, “A final determination for scheduling this event will depend partially on the amount of interest from the community…”  If you want to learn more or express your interest, email tedsaid@gmail.com.…

The Conflict Between Complex Systems and Reductionism

The following is a recent paper by Henry Heng published in JAMA.  I’ve linked concepts mentioned in the paper to corresponding explications from this blog.


JAMA. 2008;300(13):1580-1581.
The Conflict Between Complex Systems and Reductionism
Henry H. Q. Heng, PhD
Author Affiliations: Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Descartes’ reductionist principle has had a profound influence on medicine. Similar to repairing a clock in which each broken part is fixed in order, investigators have attempted to discover causal relationships among key components of an individual and to treat those components accordingly. …

Predicting the 2008 Presidential Election

I am a fan of prediction markets.   They have typically done much better than polls at predicting the outcome of elections.  Why?  Here’s a thought experiment.  Consider who you think is going to win the election (not who you want to win).  Now consider that I was going to bet you $10,000 of your hard earned money on whether your prediction comes true.  Did that change your thinking at all?  Some of you might have even switched candidates once money was on the line.  That’s the difference between a poll and a prediction market.…

Notes from TED

Here are some notes that I took at TED 2008.  I have a bunch more on each of the speakers individually which I may post as time permits.  Let me know if you want me to expand any of the notes below into a full post.

Parrondo's Paradox and Poker

Parrondo’s paradox is the well-known counterintuitive situation where individually losing strategies or deleterious effects can combine to win…. Over the past ten years, a number of authors have pointed to the generality of Parrondian behavior, and many examples ranging from physics to population genetics have been reported. In its most general form, Parrondo’s paradox can occur where there is a nonlinear interaction of random behavior with an asymmetry, and can be mathematically understood in terms of a convex linear combination.

From Developments in Parrondo’s Paradox (Derek Abbott)

Seeing Sigmoids

One of the most basic but misleading heuristics that the human mind uses is that of linearity. If we see a progression (say 0, 1, 2), our first instinct is that the next step follows linearly (namely 3). But there is no a priori reason to prefer the linear interpretation to any other, say quadratic (which would suggest the next step in the sequence is 4). For whatever reason – probably due to the relative simplicity of linearity – our brains seem wired to prefer linear explanations to non-linear.…

Autism and Mercury

A recent study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta claims that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used for many years in vaccines, is “not associated with problems in speech, intelligence, memory, coordination, attention, or other measures of childhood development.” For those unaware of the thimerosal controversy, it has been claimed by many that it causes or is a factor in the development of autism. Michael Goldstein, vice president of the American Academy of Neurology said of the CDC study that it was, “enough to convince me that this small amount of mercury … was not harmful to the children.”

However, there is a glaring problem with this study. While it seemed comprehensive with respect to thimerosal exposure, it apparently did so by combing health plan records, not by attempting to measure levels of mercury in the actual bodies of the children or their mothers during pregnancy.…