Living in a simulation – Part 2

Suppose you are living in a simulation and you wanted to discover the theory of everything. What would that theory be? Probably in your (simulated) mind it would be the set of laws that govern all physical phenomena in your (simulated) observable universe. You would also want to understand how your universe came about and where it will end up. Let’s suppose that the programmer of your universe came up with a set of physical laws and let it run. As I discussed before, the programmer really can’t be sure what will happen in his simulation but let’s say he was inspired or lucky and hit upon something that led to a universe that produced an inhabitant that could ask about the theory of everything. Continue reading

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Absolute versus relative wealth

There is a debate among sociologists, political scientists and economists on whether or not absolute wealth or relative wealth is more important. There seems to be a trend recently that happiness is linked more to relative wealth than absolute wealth. The number of people who say they are happy has not gone up with a rise in standard of living, and in fact it may have even come down. Also, a paper in the journal Science last year reported that activation in brain areas related to reward responded more to relative differences in wealth than absolute amounts. I recall reading an article recently about Silicon Valley millionaires feeling poor and unsatisfied because of the billionaires in their neighbourhood. There was a difference between being rich and being “plane”-rich.

However, the current economic turmoil is uncovering a more complex (or maybe obvious) interaction at play. The anti-correlation between the performance of the economy and the likelihood of a Democratic US president seems to indicate that there is a threshold effect for wealth. Happiness does not go up appreciably above this threshold but certainly goes down a great deal below it. For people above this threshold, other factors start to play a role in their political decisions and sense of well being. However, when you are below this threshold then the economy is the dominant issue. Continue reading

Genetic basis for political orientation

I was listening to a podcast of Quirks and Quarks yesterday that featured an interview of political scientist James Fowler on his recent work showing that the likelihood to vote was partially genetic. (Fowler is the same person who recently argued in New England Journal of Medicine paper that obese people tend to have obese friends.) The likelihood that genes may play a role in politics has come up before most notably in a paper by John Alford, Carolyn Funk and John Hibbing in 2005 that argued that political leanings are heritable. That study looked at identical and fraternal twins and found that the heritability of political ideology was about 50%. The work didn’t say that genes could predict party affiliation just how a person stood on the left-right divide on a number of issues. Fowler hypothesized that the reason politics has a genetic basis is that back in our hunter-gatherer days, figuring out how to divide the spoils of a hunt would be important to the survival of the troop. Continue reading

Genetic basis for political orientation

I was listening to a podcast of Quirks and Quarks yesterday that featured an interview of political scientist James Fowler on his recent work showing that the likelihood to vote was partially genetic. (Fowler is the same person who recently argued in New England Journal of Medicine paper that obese people tend to have obese friends.) The likelihood that genes may play a role in politics has come up before most notably in a paper by John Alford, Carolyn Funk and John Hibbing in 2005 that argued that political leanings are heritable. That study looked at identical and fraternal twins and found that the heritability of political ideology was about 50%. The work didn’t say that genes could predict party affiliation just how a person stood on the left-right divide on a number of issues. Fowler hypothesized that the reason politics has a genetic basis is that back in our hunter-gatherer days, figuring out how to divide the spoils of a hunt would be important to the survival of the troop.

Following Fowler, I can imagine how early humans could take two approaches to how to divide up a downed mastodon. The paleo-leftists would argue that the meat should be shared equally among everyone in the tribe. The rightwingers would argue that each tribe member’s share should be based solely on how much they contributed to that hunt. My guess is that any ancient group that had approximately equal representation of these two opposing views would outcompete groups that had unanimous agreement of either viewpoint. In the rightwing society, the weaker members of the group simply wouldn’t eat as much and hence would have a lesser chance of survival reducing the population and diversity of the group. The result may be a group of excellent hunters but perhaps they won’t be so good at adapting to changing circumstances. Now in the proto-socialist group, the incentive to go out and hunt would be reduced since everyone would eat no matter what. This might make hunts less frequent and again weaken the group. The group with political tension may compromise on a solution where everyone gets some share of the spoils but there would be incentives or peer pressure to contribute. This may be why genes for left and right leanings have both persisted.

If this is true, then it would imply that we may always have political disagreement and the pendulum will continuously swing back and forth between left and right. However, this doesn’t imply that progress can’t take place. No one in a modern society tolerates slavery even though that was the central debate a hundred and fifty years ago. Hence, progress is made by moving the center and arguments between the left and the right lead to fluctuations around this center. A shrewd politician can take advantage of this fact by focusing on how to frame an issue instead of trying to win an argument. If she can create a situation where two sides argue about a tangential matter to the pertinent issue than the goal can still be achieved. For example, suppose a policy maker wanted to do something global warming. Then the strategy should not be to go out and try to convince people on what to do. Instead, it may be better to find a person on the opposite political spectrum (who also wants to do something about global warming) and then stage debates on their policy differences. One side could argue for strict regulations and the other could argue for tax incentives. They then achieve their aim by getting the country to take sides on how to deal with global warming, instead of arguing about whether or not it exists.

Complexity of art and science

There seems to be a consensus that art cannot be compressed. A plot summary of Hamlet is not the same as Hamlet. A photo of Picasso’s Guernica is not the same as the actual painting in Madrid. Music is a particulary interesting case. A Bach partita can be written down in a few thousand bits but reading the music is not the same as hearing it played by Heifetz or Menuhin. One could even argue that one performance by the same artist is not the same as a recording or even another performance. Continue reading

Modeling the financial crisis

There is an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times this week by physicist and science writer Mark Buchanan on predicting the current financial crisis. His argument is that traditional economists were unable to predict or handle the current situation (Nouriel Rubini notwithstanding) since their worldviews are shaped by equilibrium theorems, which unfortunately are either incomplete or wrong. Buchanan writes: Continue reading