He begins with the curious case of color in dreams. When people today are asked whether they regularly dream in color, most say they do. But it was not always so. Back in the 1950s most said they dreamed in black and white. Presumably it can hardly be true that our grandparents had different brains that systematically left out the color we put in today. So this must be a matter of interpretation. Yet why such freedom about assigning color? Well, try this for an answer. Suppose that, not knowing quite what dreams are like, we tend to assume they must be like photographs or movies — pictures in the head. Then, when asked whether we dream in color we reach for the most readily available pictorial analogy. Understandably, 60 years ago this might have been black-and-white movies, while for most of us today it is the color version. But, here’s the thing: Neither analogy is necessarily the “right” one. Dreams don’t have to be pictures of any kind at all. They could be simply thoughts — and thoughts, even thoughts about color, are neither colored nor non-colored in themselves.
Modern economic practice appears to be doomed due to our artificially high discount rates on the future. Simply put, people that aren’t alive yet can’t participate in pricing at the present. This primarily effects depletion rates of things that take a long time to naturally regenerate, such as the environment, natural resources, sovereign credit, etc. Individuals fail to price in the preferences of great-great-grandchildren, let alone the soon-to-be massive developed middle class of China and India. In theory, an artificial intelligence could solve our problem, assuming friendliness is possible and is achieved. Somewhat paradoxically, it seems our pricing would improve and thereby reduce the chances of market failure and extinction (due to running out of resources before we can leave the planet) by extending lifespans of living humans.
It is important to remember that the dwindling supply of a resource does not cause a problem as long as a market has time and ability to function freely and prices adjust to approximate value. The market will never run out of supply if there exists a demand and pricing is able to incorporate all market participants. See: whale oil
This kind of stuff makes me think the next (last?) world war will surely be triggered by a tragedy of the commons scenario — most likely environmental, or possibly resource scarcity. People thought another “great war” was unthinkable after WW1, just like our current view of major international conflict post-WW2.
How does every grass farmer in Norway and Sweden afford two new BMWs?
I have been spending a fair amount of time thinking about the costs and benefits of population changes and Tyler Cowen’s examination into the effect of population on technology is an interesting one. I like his immediate focus on the impact on growth rather than technology and ideas just for their own sake (largely useless in the grand scheme of things).
One variable that seems oddly left out is the effect of availability and efficient allocation of capital. The data and theory behind investment and growth are pretty solid. And what kinds of things make investment and efficient allocation of capital possible? Population is largely a prerequisite, since it allows for specialization of labor and increases efficiency to the point where we can stop chasing animals around all day and instead plant crops (that was the first step). But it’s not sufficient. We also need a sufficiently liberal governing body to protect the physical and intellectual interests of the people without excessive interference into the allocation of capital. This seems to explain relatively cleanly why some states experience more growth than others.
Bookstaber is on point as usual in his post about the impact of technology on our lives. His conclusion is obvious to most technologists and futurists, I would bet, and its refreshing to see a policy maker having this in mind. He is far from the first person to note the massive collapse in lifestyle difference between the extremely rich, merely well off and even the middle class. We spend most of our time with the same cheap gadgets and electronic toys (well, most people do). Wealth doesn’t buy you the enormous conveniences and life improvements that it did 100 or even 40 years ago.
As simulation and brain stimulation technology improves exponentially over the next 20-40 years, we will have the ability to cheaply simulate any stimulus we like directly into our brains; the sci-fi dream machine. This is wireheading in a pretty pure form, and most people will eat it up. Just as Africa jumped from lack of electricity directly to cell phones, the emerging middle classes will likely be able to skip Playstations and cocaine directly to total immersion pleasure machines.
The real thing will take a long time to flesh out and come down in price enough for the masses, but here’s an example of where we’re headed in the interim. Not much different in practice.
I definitely agree with Justin on sense of self. There is no real self. We think and act as a function of our past experiences and current real-time stimulus. We are constantly in a state of change, and present a different side of ourselves in different environments (with friends, acquaintances, strangers).
A life strategy of self-improvement (which is essentially just changing our ‘self’ to correspond to something we aspire to) appears to be highly correlated with happiness and even health. While the ideal situation seems to be to become content with what we currently have and who we are (to disassociate from a sense of self altogether), the human brain is very easily pleased — and perhaps thats the problem, it’s easy but a short term fix — with incremental improvements and successes. So, if you’re not willing to invest time in meditation and aren’t willing to hone your abilities in self control, you should find parts of yourself that you want to change, enter a strict regimen of incremental improvement, and enjoy the thrills of the small successes.
The only thing better than conditioning a response using a reward is to randomize the delivery of the reward. Anyone who has played an RPG or a slot machine can confirm this. Monkey studies show dopamine spike is maximized when the reward delivery odds in response to an action are 50%. HabitJudo is an interesting concept and a very simple system for habit formation along these lines.
Laziness accounts for most of the reason why I don’t read many books, especially not old non-fiction ones by famous smart people. A lot of really intelligent people have really wrong beliefs (Nobelists promote homeopathy, Newton was first and foremost an Alchemist). Unless you take the time to become an expert in a field, or are reading just for curiosity and poorly formed ideas, it can be hard to differentiate where someone else’s expertise ends and nonsense begins.
As FX Ron once said, “only listen to Gary when it comes to trading and computers.”
After not writing anything for like 3 weeks, I think I have some thoughts on habits. I’ve been trying to start a few habits and stop a few others, with varying success. I haven’t read any literature on the topic other than common sense stuff which relates, so do let me know if there’s something I’m missing.
Humans, and most creatures (mammals at least), are creatures of habit. We get into patterns and repeat them. This appears to be mostly an evolved adaptation to preserve resources expended by trying new things and figuring out things from scratch; instead we just record what worked in the past and replay the actions. In a similar vein, when we don’t know how we should act (such as, in response to something happening in front of us), the first reaction of most people is to see what others are doing. It is pretty expensive to do the necessary cognitive calculations and overrides in order to do something not necessarily obvious or normal.
So, it seems that if we can only get something sufficiently embedded into our daily routine it will maintain itself. An object in motion remains in motion, and all that jazz. I have seen a couple methods which are pretty successful at doing just this, such as setting up a reminder or having a calendar where you mark off every day that you perform your desired habit. After a month or two it should be sufficiently ingrained if performed daily. Just beware vacations and other exogenous prolonged breaks which could disrupt your rhythm before it’s truly a part of your life. Also, if something is truly just a chore that you see little/no tangible benefit from, it appears one will have a tendency to lose the habit. You can probably force yourself to eat oatmeal every morning instead of regular cereal, but if you absolutely hate oatmeal you will not keep this up since there is almost no visible or tangible health or other benefit of oatmeal over cereal. Or a more direct example I tried; doing pushups every morning. I was able to maintain it for about 3 weeks. Interestingly, this is right around where I hit a wall and couldn’t increase my number much, if at all (I think it was around 60; yea I’m ripped). More on this later.
There appears to be a direct correlation between visible/tangible results from an action (or attempted new habit) and your ability to maintain it. As long as you perform the action regularly and you are able to shortly recognize the benefits the action is likely to remain ingrained. When I first started flossing (less than a year ago!) the first few days I was shocked at how good it felt and how clean my teeth felt after. This habit took no effort at all to maintain and right away it felt weird when I skipped flossing.
How about exercise? It seems to come easily for some and harder for others. I do get that “good feeling” from exercising, its just my laziness seems to overwhelm it in most cases. That’s obviously not the case for other people. A potential solution could be to give yourself some kind of direct feedback to encourage the behavior. Tracking performance might work, as long as you don’t get discouraged and are knowledgeable enough to change up your routine when you stop progressing. The best thing I can think of here would be doing a set of random lifts and cardio exercises and recording your initial performance (X reps at N weight, Z minute mile, etc.). Then going forward you start to focus on individual areas and record your performance over time. You will see considerable improvement for a short period until you plateau out. Instead of quitting, you could then switch to another area and go right back into improvement. It’s not ideal for building muscle, etc. but its much better than nothing.
Some things are obviously harder to track. I’ve tried to meditate daily for the past 5 months. I have managed to keep it up relatively well; I average 15 minutes per session about 3-4 days a week. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of tangible benefits here although I have been pleasantly surprised with interesting thoughts that come into my head pretty well developed already (like this one), as well as a general feeling of clarity and energy following a session (like now). Another habit which I’ve been hoping to start but haven’t yet is the idea of a personal review. I write down a lot of ideas and thoughts that I start developing but quickly abandon as I run into resistance. I think there is definite value in going over everything I’ve left aside to see if fresh eyes can find a solution to previous road blocks, but its hard to find time when I could be looking at or thinking about new things. Part of this process could be reviewing habits that were attempted and monitor how well they have been maintained, and why or why not.
A major problem with science is that we’re largely spoon fed the process by way of others’ results. It is important to learn to perform science on oneself; perform experiments in your life and try to understand the underlying processes. Record results and form new hypotheses, which again must be tested.