Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Hostage to Fortune (2)

Since Rudy's departure has blown away my first prediction for the presidential race (Clinton v. Giuliani; Giuliani wins), it's time for another one.

The first guess was made between Iowa and New Hampshire. This one comes after Florida and before Super-etc. Tuesday. Hillary still seems to have the better odds on the Left, but McCain has been winning media mind-share, so:
Clinton v. McCain; McCain wins.
It's a toss-up among the Democrats. There is another strong possibility:
Obama v. McCain. Obama wins, but is assassinated within two years.
Of course, the Dems may self-destruct at the convention with an Obama/Clinton tie, leading to a brokered nomination:
Gore v. Any Republican; Any Republican wins.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The futility of technology forecasting

I have at last come across the source of a key insight about the futility of technological prediction, e.g. as practiced by Ofcom (and economists passim) when trying to establish the net present value of a long future stream of innovation. Simply put: if you could predict the future well enough for a technology prediction to be meaningful, you would know enough to already have the technology in hand, thus vitiating the prediction.

I’ve come across this trope in various places; I now believe the idea originated with Karl Popper. Charles Pigden, a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Otago referred to it in a Philosopher’s Zone podcast about conspiracy theories. (It’s a great podcast, by the way.)

Popper outlines the argument in the preface to The Poverty of Historicism (available on Google Book Search) as part of a refutation of historicism. Popper contends that he had shown in a 1950 paper, “Indeterminism in Classical Physics and in Quantum Physics,” subsequently updated in a chapter on indeterminism which is part of the "Postscript: After Twenty Years" to his Logic of Scientific Discovery, that, for strictly logical reasons, it is impossible for us to predict the future course of history. He sums up the argument in five statements:

  1. The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge.
  2. We cannot predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our scientific knowledge.
  3. We cannot, therefore, predict the future course of human history.
  4. This means that we must reject the possibility of a theoretic history; that is to say, of a historical science that would correspond to theoretical physics. There can be no scientific theory of historical development serving as a basis for historical prediction.
  5. The fundamental aim of historicism methods is therefore misconceived; and historicism collapses.
The key step is (2). Popper contends that it is self-evident that if there is such a thing as growing human knowledge, then we cannot anticipate today what we shall know only tomorrow. He provides a logical proof in the papers mentioned above; in short, it amounts to showing that no scientific predictor (human or machine) can possibly predict, by scientific methods, its own future results. Since this logical argument applies to a predictor of any complexity, including societi4s of predictors, it means that no society can scientifically predict its own future states of knowledge.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Factoid: Half of all Americans fall into poverty for a year at some point in their lives

This is a striking reminder of the fragility of daily life, and a selfish reason for everybody to care for the poor.

Source: Mark R. Rank & Thomas A. Hirschl, 2001. "Rags or Riches? Estimating the Probabilities of Poverty and Affluence across the Adult American Life Span," Social Science Quarterly, The Southwestern Social Science Association, vol. 82(4), pages 651-669.

From the abstract:
Between the ages of 25 and 75, 51.1 percent of Americans will spend at least one year below the poverty line, 51.0 percent will encounter a year of affluence, while only 21.0 percent of Americans will avoid either of these economic extremes.
The research is based on an analysis of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). Poverty is defined using the US Census Bureau criteria. Affluence is defined as ten times the poverty levels. For more on income volatility, see here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Pandering to the Man

Essay contests played a central role in the intellectual life of the 18th century, as Robert Darnton relates in George Washington's False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century (2003). Taste was arbitrated by centralized authority – how different from the blog rolls and technorati ratings that are needed to vault a blogger onto the A-list today.

Jacques-Pierre Brissot, who gained momentary fame – cut short by the guillotine – as leader of the Girondists during the French Revolution, was a pathetically persistent self-promoter. He was an obscure hack, a lousy writer, and too outspoken to be published in France. He scorned academies in his memoirs, yet groveled to be represented as “member of diverse academies, known ... by a memoir ... crowned last year at the Académie de Châlons.” Darnton describes a cache of Brissot’s letters which show him “seeking introductions, cultivating endorsements, trying to get his name in journals, soliciting favorable reviews, demanding special treatment in essay contests, and maneuvering to get elected to academies.” [Chapter 8, The skeletons in the closet: How historians play God.]

The academy also figures in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s epiphany during a tramp from Paris to Vincennes, which in his own telling triggered the breakthrough of Discourse on the Arts and Sciences: he was transfixed by a question posed by the Academy of Dijon for an essay contest. [Chapter 5, The Great Divide: Rousseau on the route to Vincennes]

The competition for visibility is fiercer today than ever, but writers are now at the mercy of the mob, rather than the mandarins. Page views make or break a blog, though referrals from the superstars can help. The elites still have their perks, but have to share power with the plebs.

Writing contests are still around, feeble scions of a once-proud house. Book prizes can still make the front page in Europe, but in the US they’re relegated to the book jacket blurbs. The London chatterati probably know who won last year’s Man Booker Prize; care to name this year’s fiction Pulitzer?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Seriously weird numbers

In his article about transcendental numbers for New Scientist, mathematician Richard Elwes suggests that Cantor’s work on the topic had profound consequences: “It means that the range of numbers that human brains and computers are equipped to handle - essentially those easily derived from the integers - are actually just an infinitesimal sliver of the numerical universe. Swarming around the integers and fractions is an infinitely larger collection of transcendental numbers. They are the "dark matter" of mathematics: they constitute the overwhelming majority of numbers, yet known examples are rare.” (e: the mystery number, New Scientist, 21 Jul 2007, p. 38)

Transcendentals are numbers that cannot be related to the integers by any sequence of ordinary arithmetical operations like addition, multiplication, or raising to powers. The square root of two can’t be written as a fraction, and the Pythagoreans found that outrageous enough; but it just multiplying it by itself gets you back to 2, an integer. The number e was proved to be transcendental in 1873, pi less than a decade later. However, finding more examples has proved remarkably difficult.

The article implies that being able to call on a geometric intuition – that is, one that can be referred back to the concrete world – is important even to mathematicians. It mentions that work by Alain Connes that offers deep insights but “defies all usual geometric intuition and is disconcertingly difficult to get to grips with”; however, some more recent work promises to “demystify Connes's extreme levels of abstraction” and provide “a raft of techniques for understanding Connes's abstract geometry in a more intuitive way.” It’s reassuring that not only cognitive scientists like Lakoff and Nunez feel that the practice of even mathematics has to be grounded in the physical.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Eight business technology trends to watch

Three McKinsey consultants have compiled currently fashionable business ideas into a list (registration required); gee, it must be New Year or something.

Nothing very surprising here, but the article does function as a decent annotated bibliography of trendy business books, listed in the "Further Reading" sections.

The list:

Managing relationships

1. Distributing co-creation (Benkler, Chesbrough, Surowiecki, Von Hippel)

2. Using consumers as innovators (Prahalad & Ramaswamy, Tapscott & Williams)

3. Tapping into a world of talent (Florida, Pink)

4. Extracting more value from interactions (Johnson et al., Beardsley et al., Malone)
Managing capital and assets
5. Expanding the frontiers of automation (Hagel, Heinrich, Ross et al.)

6. Unbundling production from delivery
Leveraging information in new ways
7. Putting more science into management (Davenport & Harris, Riedl & Konstan, Thomke, Weinberger)

8. Making businesses from information (Varian and Shapiro)

Hostage to Fortune (1)

I fully expect to be surprised by the outcome of the American presidential primaries, and election. I also expect to be less surprised than I ought to be, because I will have conveniently forgotten just how wrong my prognostications along the way actually were.

The world is a lot less predictable than our memories make it out to be.

To make this a little more more visible to myself, I'm going to record my predictions along the way. (Feel free to join in.)

Today, just before the Iowa caucuses, my forecast is:
Clinton v. Giuliani; Giuliani wins.
"He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief." Attributed to Francis Bacon (1561-1626), "Of Marriage and Single Life".

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Poetry Corner

In Memoriam Netscape Navigator, Internet Browser

So. Farewell
Then Netscape

You lingered
Much longer
Than we expected –

With your air

eJ Thribb (2 ¾) (internet years)

(For work by E.J. Thribb, see Private Eye.)