Monday BS #7: 11.10.21
Something on complexity and ergodicity
Dear Monday BSers,
Those of you who read my accompanying note to A Load of BS with Joe Fattorini last Thursday will have noted that Sunday BS is now Monday BS. No drama, same premise, but now you'll have your Prairie Oyster to tingle the neurons as the dawn rises on the working week rather than the Sunday slumbers.
This week, I'm thinking about ergodicity, complexity and the shape of my penis. Have you ever written that sentence? Are you feeling uncomfortable? Great, let's begin.
In part today, I'm going to build on some Nassim Nicholas Taleb ideas on skin in the game and antifragility as well as previewing my podcast with experimental psychologist Jesse Bering, PhD and Director of the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago.
A month ago, I shared some high level (meaning superficial rather than profound I'm bound to say) BS on COVID antifragility, the risk of coddling (c.f. Jonathan Haidt) and the narrow vs. broad problem solving mindset through the lens of Freeman Dyson's birds and frogs analogy.
I'm going to try and go a little deeper now, mainly circumvent the mathematics lying in wait, and explain why ergodic systems are so important to our societies and institutions and why complex systems are so dangerous. And there's still one thing I've left hanging... evolutionary taboos.
Let’s get to it… 👍
1) Ergodicity and oatmeal
Till recently, the only ergo in my life was Ergobaby (diversionary clickbait) but since interviewing Rory Sutherland and diving into the work of Ole Peters at the London Mathematical Laboratory and Santa Fe Institute, I felt the need to understand the mysterious notion of ergodicity better.
Taleb references it lightly in his books Skin in the Game and Antifragility although its principles are central to his writing. It's difficult to grasp but much of the world we see around us contains elements of ergodicity and if one understands it, one sees the world fundamentally differently.
For textbook definition, a system is ergodic when the time average (one trajectory repeating itself multiple times) and ensemble average (many trajectories averaged over a fixed time) of the quantities in a system are equivalent. Or rather when, over time, the dynamics of a system even themselves out, 'normalise'.
Coin tossing is ergodic as the probability of heads or tails is always 1/2 regardless whether I play the game many times or lots of us play it once. It’s a fair game. Hang in there.
But let me veer rapidly away from the maths, as my greater interest lies in the real application and meaning. Let's take a bowl of porridge (real meaning he says?!) which you pour milk into and stir. As you stir it, any particle of milk/oatmeal might be anywhere. By stirring, you thoroughly mix it; there is randomness, balance and equality, and this system is ergodic.
On the other hand, if I mix oil and water, they tend to separate. They appear well mixed initially but over time, the oil rises and the water falls. This is a system where what's on top reverts back to being on top. Most systems are non-ergodic like this; things tend to separate by weight, density or some other property.
How does this relate to real life? Government policy (include UK policing policy to be topical) is meant to improve lives, but it often doesn't. Unintentionally or otherwise, it creates malfunctioning systems and inequality. Don't we often hear policymakers harp on about concern for the underrepresented or wealth distribution? Jeremy Corbyn did a lot of this when he wasn't painting murals, and it's quite fair enough. The problem with solving inequality is that the system has to be ergodic for it to work - i.e. the people at the top have to be able to fall off the top towards the bottom (c.f. oil and water).
Nietzsche said "'Sympathy for all' would be harshness and tyranny for thee, my good neighbour." Sympathy for all in the sense that keeping anyone from falling prevents anyone else from rising. You have to let some fall to the bottom of the bowl of oatmeal! If you think of your own organisation, those lower down will never rise unless those at the top have some risk and vulnerability. To quote Taleb, they must have skin in the game. Otherwise, if they have nothing to lose, others have nothing to gain.
There is so much more to unravel here, so I'll pause with this idea for now and talk about complexity.
2) Complexity and the Alan Blinder problem
Let's continue thinking about skin in the game. Regulation is a good example of a complex system. Regulators have strong incentives to make their regulations as complex as possible. The more complex the regulation, the more bureaucratic the organisation, the more a regulator knows their way around the loopholes, the greater opportunity there is for arbitrage and personal gain down the line. Taleb's encounter with Alan Blinder, American economist and former Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve, exemplifies this issue.
Regulation is often therefore a path dependent non-ergodic system. The result is negative for the rest of society who struggles to comply with the intricacies of the rules. The upside goes to the insider. Complexity serves those who create complexity and this status quo makes a system less likely to learn from experience and makes it over time fragile. Regulators overwhelm us with text and arcane terms so that voluminous information can hide failures. The more information we have, the easier it is to hide failure. I touched on the data fallacy last week.
Large organisations with purported ambition to innovate are like this too (I have scars!). Deliberately or not, they resist disorder and experimentation/learning for quick results. Taleb coined the term 'Intellectual Yet Idiot' (IYI) in an eponymous 2016 essay (a chapter in his book ‘Skin in the Game’) for the minority who run our agencies and organisations, people with plenty of knowledge but little wisdom, who think linearly and miss complexity. Taleb posits that they don't understand complex systems, incentives and interdependencies. They have an over confidence that things can be controlled and predicted. They are narrow and short-term:
'The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn't understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are "red necks" or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term "uneducated". What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: "democracy" when it fits the IYI, and "populism" when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences.'
The conclusion parallels the ergodic oatmeal story above - we want leaders who have something to gain (incentives) but also something to lose (skin in the game). This way, our systems become stronger through stress, they learn and become antifragile. Without skin in the game, they become progressively fragile and eventually break.
3) Why is the penis shaped like that and other stories?
I'm interviewing Jesse Bering soon for A Load of BS and it's forcing me to think about evolutionary taboos in a more rounded manner. As well as a leading scholar, Jesse is also an award winning essayist and science writer specializing in evolution and human behaviour.
His writings include a collection of Webby-award nominated essays, Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? and Perv: The Sexual Deviant in all of us, a taboo-breaking work that was named as a New York Times Editor’s Choice. His most recent book was A Very Human Ending focusing on suicide and he is now working on Dead Minds, an exploration of the psychology of the afterlife.
Taboos on sexuality, sexual mores and other polarising subjects are knotty and curious. We think about many of them regularly, engage in them and yet find talking about them awkward. Why is this so? Social humiliation and self-consciousness are emotions more particular to humans and the lines of acceptability are subjective and various.
You may remember the case of journalist and broadcaster Jeffrey Toobin who accidentally exposed himself during a New Yorker Zoom call in the run up to the last US election. Clearly, this was an unwanted, unpleasant experience for his fellow Zoomers; it's difficult to judge if he should have lost his job for the indiscretion (was this an act of harassment?). He has since made a comeback but isn't it at least curious that, while some commentators did brush off his error as highly unfortunate, it was otherwise described as shameful, inexplicable and indefensible; for an act that most people conduct, admittedly in private.
As an aside, the hypocrisy in the criticism from the US right was notable in light of their defence of Trump bragging about bona fide sexual harassment.
You can watch some of Jesse's appearances on the US chat show circuit here (Conan) and here (Chelsea Lately). Subscribe if you'd like to get this interview and others. It will be eye opening.
Till next time.
This BS community is starting to pick up steam and the membership is growing faster than I could have hoped. Thank you for being a part of it. I put longer than I imagined into my writing and podcasts!
Referral is the most powerful recommendation. 68% of you are here via a ‘share’. If you liked this, why not share on Twitter or with a friend? It’s a kindness I always appreciate 😃
Have a great week!