Evolution’s black swans

Nature must want us to be bad at understanding black swans. (I am still, sort of, listening to The Black Swan.)

The guy who discovered that carrots are edible didn’t really think, “Hmm, there is a small chance that this is a strange variety of hemlock and I will die and thus my family will die as I won’t be there to feed them, but the odds are that I will be fine”*. The man who ate the first carrot was playing Russian roulette, like the guy who lived across the way from Nero Tulip.

Evolution is playing her own game and worries more about the species rather than the individual. Hence, it is in her interest to instil into us a blissful ignorance for hidden risks and a strong hope for hidden rewards. She stands to lose, what, just a few individuals? – but to gain a carrot-induced reproductive boost! And of course, our enterprising caveman introduces carrots to the wider populace, takes a nice cut for himself and his genes.

It’s like that old adage they pass around in finance classes: what is the best way to make money in the casino?

Answer: own it.

* It’s quite possible that his other option was certain death by starvation, which legitimises his decision entirely.

** Just something that came out of a reddit debate:

It is more correct to replace the word “species” with “kin group” and my point still stands (and I guess a species is just a large kin group). Any group that produced the risk-taking individual (phenotype) is likely to still have those genes in its gene pool (genotype). Thus, if it benefits the group, they expand in number. If such a group were basal to all modern humans, it would explain why we view risk in a way that the average insurance broker would disagree with. Consider 2 options, A and B, where A has a higher expected value. A would seem to be the right choice, but if B has a huge payoff, then an individual who does the WRONG thing and gets lucky will be selected for and expand his lineage very quickly. Yes it will be disadvantageous in the long run, but i) nobody said humans are built for the long run and ii) if he has extinguished his rivals’ lineage by sheer weight of numbers by the time luck runs out, and then there is a mutant descendant that corrects his “genetic mistake” and becomes risk averse, it doesn’t matter if all the other descendants do badly, he has still propagated his genes into the future in a way he would not have been able to had he evolved to always make the correct decision based on expected value.

If you don’t think that eating carrots is an evolutionary jackpot, think about rice. The man who discovered rice did very well genetically. But how many like him died eating random stuff?

Btw, I am not attributing a metaphysical guiding hand to evolution.

Critical thinking or empathy?

Another thought experiment, inspired by a conversation with this blogger*.

If you had to live in a world where, compared to this one, people had

A. 50% more critical thinking and 50% less empathy

B. 50% more empathy and 50% less critical thinking,

which would you choose?

I would choose A. I sometimes find myself in situations where I can barely talk to people who others consider “aww, they’re so nice!”… Makes me feel like I am a cold b*tch, but it is because these people would choose to live in A.

In B, you side with the first person you meet.

Empathy, today, is being used as a word for kindness, but it isn’t. Kindness is an outcome. Neither is empathy conflict-aversion. Some have began talking about effective altruism as an upgraded version of empathy. Problem is that effective altruism is as close to empathy as effective evilness. Empathy is just the ability to understand the feelings of another person. It leads to a congruent emotional response.*

People assume that once one understand how someone feels, one will immediately want to side with them. That simply can’t be.

Spite is the ultimate proof of this: you need to understand your opponent very well in order to be spiteful. The most spiteful are the most empathetic, not the most psychopathic. Psychopathy isn’t necessarily evil and empathy isn’t necessarily good.

Who is the most caring person in your life? Have you ever seen them being spiteful to anyone you know?

A resident of B wants better outcomes for people they feel a kinship with. In other words, they feel spite for people they don’t feel close to – there is no other way in a zero sum short term scenario. They are the ultimate tribalists.

An empathetic person with deficient critical thinking can never agree to disagree.

Good critical thinking is not exactly a solution to a lack of empathy. It’s virtually impossible to become part of a tribe if you’re a deficient in empathy. Critical thinking also loses its potency if you can’t understand the other guy’s feelings. The decision making process is much slower in an unempathetic person. A lot of problems, in short.

Daniel Goleman talks about how members of the “dark triad” become great at social skills because they learn the stigmata of common emotions which is a legitimate way around it for unempathetic people.

It’s like hardcoding vs proper code. Empathy is hard code: quick, unconditional and generally correct.

I know some people who are almost 100% empathetic, but I’ve never met anyone who has 0% empathy, which makes me think empathy is an older, more important trait (quick decisions, Kahneman’s system one, etc)

Obviously, you would prefer to be optimally capable at empathy and critical thinking, but if you had to choose, which would you choose?

Some other places talking about empathy:

The Atlantic, ViceThe Guardian

* I made the point that non-religious people can be “religious” about certain things, e.g. politics, e.g. in WW2. He made the point that it’s down to a lack of critical thinking.

** George F.  brought up the point that the definition of empathy is not only the understanding but the sharing of a feeling. I think that’s a step too far if taken literally. There is some intermediary step where a person can appreciate the feelings of another and either decide to take them as their own or else to revel in their misfortune. We don’t just literally take other people’s feelings as our own, we just get a good insight into them. The most empathetic of people would be rather harmful if they literally shared the feelings of someone in need of help.

A little thought experiment

You’re about to open results of psychological tests comparing atheists and agnostics. What do you expect to find?

I wonder if agnostics are more conflict averse, better at abstract thinking and have a sense of humour.

Also, how do atheists who have children deal with the concept of Santa? Santa is a real world conspiracy theory – and possibly a much more pagan one than a Christian one. I imagine that there has to be a “herd immunity” for the concept of Santa to survive in creches and primary schools. Do religious parents arrive at the door step of atheists and be like, stop your child from spreading heresy!..

P.S. It is snowing in Ireland. I was in the Midlands today and it’s a Winter Wonderland.

IMG_7942

 

Turning wine into water

I was watching Troy with somebody who happens to know a lot of useless things (his words, not mine). The Trojans and the Greeks were having a feast and he mentioned that they used to dilute their wine.

So we read into it. The natural max alcohol content in wine is 15%. Apparently, the Greeks used to dilute it up to 9:1, as in 9 parts water, 1 part wine!

I decided to try it with a 13% Montepulciano to get that full-bodied Mediterranean taste that opens sweet and ends earthy. We decanted it for an hour.

diluting wine with water
50 ml wine in each, 2:1, 1:1, pure

As a baseline, it was rich, sweet, with an astringent end-note.

At 1:1 (1 part water, 1 part wine), it was very sour with the astringent aftertaste.

At 2:1, it was sour, like pink grapefruit juice, the astringent aftertaste was lighter.

At 4:1, it was like lemon water with a mind astringent end-note. Sort of refreshing.

At 6:1, I couldn’t tell there was alcohol in it.

I don’t think I will be trying it with red again. I think white will come out more with the dilution.

 

Appearance vs reality

Sometimes I get tired  and retreat into a safe echo-chamber where everything will agree with me. On that note, I downloaded The Black Swan and bought a paper copy of The Bed of Procrustes.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but The Black Swan seems dated and overly reliant on Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

I will share some gems from The Bed of Procrustes when I am done, but for the most part it doesn’t have the insight porn quality that I was looking for.

On another note, I noticed some autumnal waistline creep and decided that I should take measures.

During a moment of intense boredom with a hint of sadness, I complained that had I not been watching what I eat, I could have had a chocolaty pick-me-up, alas I am on a diet, so I will just sit here and be sad.

I was and am fully aware of how pathetic that is, but I figured sharing my feelings is better than comfort eating.

The reason I am sharing with you now is the response I got, which was:

How will food make it better?

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

I guess normally I would have said, it would make me feel better. However, I was just after writing an essay on appearance vs reality in Macbeth and the idea that the reality won’t be better crystallised for me.

The world weighs a little heavier since that realisation, but maybe I won’t.

 

On a scale of 0 to Christmas, how much alcohol do you drink?

December is a month when people drink a lot.

Ireland and Russia are countries where people drink a lot.

These two things have a multiplicative effect. So just for my own information I decided I would track how much alcohol I drink in December. Then I gathered it would be nice to share my method.

You can go though life thinking that you only have the odd drink, but then you look at this calendar and realise that drinking a glass of wine on a Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and a cocktail at a Sunday brunch means you drink most of the time!

I made 2 versions. Download, print, colour in. Or indeed write in the number of units…

December Alcohol Tracker Wine

PDF: December Alcohol Tracker

December Alcohol Tracker

PDF: December Alcohol Tracker 2

Cool, as of 1528

Sprezzatura [sprettsaˈtuːra] is an Italian word originating from Baldassare Castiglione‘s The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined by the author as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”. It is the ability of the courtier to display “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them”.

Sprezzatura has also been described “as a form of defensive irony: the ability to disguise what one really desires, feels, thinks, and means or intends behind a mask of apparent reticence and nonchalance”. (Wikipedia)

The word has entered the English language; the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “studied carelessness”.

It would be the Italians who would come up with something like this and it would be in Oxford that they would make it sound so lame… Why couldn’t they just say cool?

I think swans have a significant amount of sprezzatura.

Sprezzatura is my excuse for not publishing the results of how I got on with the plans I set in September. It is also one of the great things I learnt from Taleb’s The Bed of Procrustes. I recommend it.

P.S. An existential question for WordPress bloggers. Why WordPress and not Instagram or Facebook? Why not Medium?