Friday, May 27, 2011

Happiness as a Multiparametric Optimisation.

Men usually find some degree of happiness in the satisfaction of their desires. The hungry man is a happy when fed, the thirsty man, after a drink, the poor man in the achievement of wealth. Human nature being what it is, is made up of a multitude of desires which are frequently in conflict with one another. For example, our desire for leisure is against our desire for for wealth which we achieve through work. Our desire to look attractive is opposed to our desire to eat lots of sweets, and so on.

Our happiness then can be thought of as the degree to which we have satisfied our desires. Considering the multifaceted nature of our desires, each "facet"being a parameter of happiness, our degree of happiness can be considered as a sort of reflection on the  multiparametric satisfaction of our desires.

As said before, some of our desires are in conflict with each other and therefore satisfaction of parameter X may come at the expense of parameter Y.  Philosophically speaking, the task at hand is similar to that of the engine designer; how do you optimise for happiness given conflicting human desires.

From a systems point of view, system optimisation will occur somewhere between the extremes of the conflicting parameters. In other words, total system optimisation will occur at a point where the individual component parameters may not be completely satisfied. Now this is very important, since it explains a lot of human cognitive pathology and folly.

Consider human sexual satisfaction. The hedonist may argue that sex is the ultimate pleasure and that satisfaction of this one parameter will lead to happiness. (This of course is a simplification, but bear with me). Consider the following "Sexual Happiness Decay curves", for three hypothetical women, a 10, an 8 and a 5 respectively.

We see that sex with a "10" is much better than sex with a "5" but over time, due to factors such as familiarity and habituation, over time  the pleasure from each act tends to diminish. There is nothing like the rush of the new. The natural strategy to then to optimise sexual pleasure is to try and recreate the "rush" of the new.  The following graph illustrates this strategy. (Each new curve is a new partner)
The theory being that by changing the partner a recreation of the initial satisfaction state can be achieved. In reality, the easier the "prey" is to catch the less pleasure that one gets from it. The strategy then for the sexual hedonist is to achieve a steady supply of new lovers to keep his sexual satisfaction at a high state. The problem is though, most humans do not live on sexual satisfaction alone, and need other things such as companionship and love from others. Now true abiding love, seems to be a time dependent phenomenon. A love/satisfaction curve could hypothetically be drawn as below.
(N.B love as opposed to infatuation)

Now consider a man who meets a "10" and sticks with her, a graph of the sexual pleasure/love curves could be visualised as follows:
Now note, his system happiness is greater than his potential sexual happiness after a while. Compare this to the "player approach":

By optimising for one parameter, sexual satisfaction, he has traded this off for deep abiding love. The rapid turnover of partners never lets deep abiding love develop. There is no doubt that he may be sexually more satisfied than than the man above, but his total "system" happiness is less than in the above graph. This is the dark side of "Game"; it's a uniparametric optimisation of the multiparametric human system.

Of course these graphs are simplifications, but they illustrate the logic behind a lot of human folly. The systemically optimised man, at any given point finds that any one of his particular desires remains unsatisfied, if he is unable to see the "big picture view" of his condition, he may be tempted to focus on one parameter at the expense of all the rest.

The thing to realise about earthly happiness is that it is not a satisfaction of every human desire, but a balance of them. A lot of human misery is caused by seeking a uniparametric solution to the problem of unhappiness. In trying to satisfy every one of our desires, or even one fully, happiness eludes us.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


In the post on engine design, commentator R Brockman made the following comment;

The interesting question is whether there are multiple stable equilibrium points. What happens when a society goes outside the set of parameters that it was "designed" for? Advanced technology has radically changed our life -- do the Old Design Rules still work?

I think that this warrants some further elaboration. It's my belief, and a cursory examination of history will confirm, that it is possible to have different type of societies (i.e equilibrium points) but only only within certain limits. The whole point about the "Tao of Life" is that there is more commonality amongst enduring societies than than there are differences.

I suppose the reason why there is limited range of equilibrium points within a human societal "system" is because the material from which human society is built, human nature, puts constraints on types of societal structures that can be maintained.  Human capabilities with regard to jealousy, trust, fear, love, friendship, etc. are the limiting factors with regard to human interaction.  In the same way that the parameters of car performance are derived from the properties of materials, so is human society limited by human nature.

A classic example of this is with regard to sexuality.  Most men naturally desire variety, and it would be expected that given this nature, societies would develop which would cater to this fact. Yet it's pretty obvious that any advanced polyamorous societies have failed to develop, since sexual activity occurs in the context of other parameters such as reproduction, love and investment. Any society that attempted to institute such a practice would be torn apart by feuds, lusts, jealosy etc.  Likewise, Communism, a great idea in theory, fails because it ignores the fact the human nature responds to incentives.

What we do tend to see however, is that amongst primitive peoples there does seem to be more latitude with respect to human nature and stable "society", but as a society becomes bigger and culturally advances, the potential for alternative normative behaviors lessens.

Indeed a theoretical plot could be made with regard to a societies proximity to the Tao Ideal and its advancement.

What we see here is the closer a society approximates the Tao point the greater its advancement and stability. Ancient Rome at its apogee possessed a different culture to Ancient Rome in its decline. It appears that in order for a society to survive and flourish it has to overcome a certain degree of barbarism or primitiveness. But once it establishes itself, it has to protect itself against decadence which destroys societal stability. Note, that a bit of primitiveness or decadence may not be too bad, but once the line is crossed, so to speak, the rot sets in. The trick in keeping a society stable, is in keeping it within a proscribed deviation from the "Tao point".

However, another point needs to be considered. Getting a society to within the desired range of the Tao point will get it only so far.  What I mean by this is, with the exclusion of Western Civilisation, the level of societal and technological advancements of all the other advanced civilisations of the world were roughly the same. The Chinese may have eaten and dressed differently to the Romans, but their societies were more alike than different. No, the one society that really stands out of the pack with regard to its "performance curve" is Western Society, compared to the others, it's supercharged.

Several books have been written about this phenomenon. What's so special about the West that made it the predominant power, not just militarily but intellectually, economically and artistically as well over the past five hundred years?

Well the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was asked by their government to look into this very thing. An anonymous scholar provided their conclusions:

He said: “One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world.

“We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.

“Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system.

“But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful.

“The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Digression.

To tell the truth, I'm not actually that interested in the Dominiqe Strauss-Kahn controversy. High powered officials have a long history of being stupid, especially when it comes to sexual matters. However what really struck me as absurd, is that the head of the IMF is a Socialist. In fact; a former communist.

It would be like putting Trotsky in charge of the Fed.

Life is stranger than fiction.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Engine Design.

Modern auto engines are marvelously complex pieces of machinery. Over a century of improvement has resulted in engines that are lighter, more powerful, more fuel efficient and more reliable than their original predecessors.

The engine designer has a hard task. He is usually given a design brief which on closer inspection is contradictory. For a given engine capacity, his engine must produce maximal power and yet he is also told to minimise fuel consumption, which is directly related to power output. He is told that the engine must be light and reliable, but in order to improve reliability he must make some of the parts heavier than what is needed. The engine must be cheap and simple to manufacture, but the high temperatures and pressure needed to achieve fuel efficiency mean more expensive alloys and cooling. And so on.

In the end, engine design like most other mutiparametric design, is an exercise in compromise amongst competing independent parameters. Things are a trade off.

Once a multiparametric system has been optimised for a certain state, system integrity is dependent upon the system operating within certain design parameters. Operating mulitparametric systems outside their design parameters may result in loss of system integrity,  reduced system life or suboptimal system performance. Now most robust systems usually allow for some minor variation outside design criteria, but this becomes harder the more complex the system is.

For example and engine may have the following design criteria. (I've made these up)

1) Fuel consumption of 20mls @ minute at idle.
2) Cylinder head temperature not to exceed 160 degrees Centigrade.
3) Coolant flow at 10 liters a minute.
4) Oil temperature not to exceed 90 degrees Centigrade.
5) Maximum 9:1 fuel compression
6) Oil change every 200 hours of operation.and so on. 

The system, in order to be viable, has to stick to its rules of operation.

Car engines, for a given class of car, are more similar than different since the parametric constraints placed by by materials science and thermodynamics mean that there are only a limited number of compatible mutiparametric solutions to the engine design problem.

This does not apply just to cars. Cake mixers, bicycles, pens, passenger aircraft, etc. are more alike than different, its because as the state of the art improves and matures, it becomes apparent that there are only a limited number of viable solutions to the design problem. Initial ideas which were promising are found to be impractical from a variety of perspectives.

(There is rumour that the Volkswagen 1.4 TSI engine, a novel solution to engine design requirements, is going to be discontinued because it is too expensive to make. )

Now the point about all this is that society can be considered a multiparametric system, being composed of multiple competing and interacting elements, and as such, society can be looked at from a systems engineering perspective.

It was Jim Kalb's writings that got me thinking about looking at society this way. His battle against modernism is based upon a traditionalist perspective. The argument, as I see it, being that traditional cultures such as Islam and Chinese Confucianism have lasted because they cater towards human beings better than modernism does. After reading this, I asked myself the question, given the stability of Confucian and Islamic society, what sort of rules of operation produce a systemically stable society?

When you look at it from a systems engineering point of view you see that stable and relatively advanced societies seem to operate under a relatively narrow systems of rules; what C.S. Lewis called the "Tao of Life." In fact these rules can be don't actually have to be divinely inspired, rather they are relatively self evident to any man of moderate reflection. Christian writers would have called these operating parameters Natural Law. Anyone who is really interested should have a read of C.S. Lewis's Abolition of Man, where he quotes similar passages from Hindu, Norse, Egyptian, Roman, Jewish, Greek and Chinese texts.

Some of these rules of system operation can be summed up as follows:

The existence of a morality which is independent of the individual.
A belief in objective truth.
Censure of some kind for transgression of the rules.
Benefit of some kind for concordance with them.
Just and fair dealings with others
Consideration of others in our actions.
Preference for our own kind.
Sexual restraint.

The fact that these cultures, which lasted for centuries, separated both temporally and spatially should have broad common approaches to their operation suggests that stable complex societies may only be possible if run according to these broad principles. The fact that large scale promiscuity, institutionalised lying and moral relativism have not stood out as organising principles amongst surviving cultures suggest that from a systems perspective, these operating rules may be inimical to system stability. Relatively advanced stable societies may only be possible under a narrow set of system parameters.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Engine Failure.

In the previous post, I tried to illustrate, using the engine example, of how optimising for one paramenter in a multiparametric system, may result in a deterioration of the the system itself. The question is, why does this occur?

Most stable systems have negative feedback loops, in that any perturbation from the designed state is met with immediate corrective action by the system itself to ensure its stability. The real danger arises when there is no negative feedback system, here the system progressively deviates from the desired state to a point of self destruction.

Now an engine motor, like society, is a human designed thing, and its operation is effectively under supervision. It follows then that the human operator is part of the system itself and being a intelligent and sentient being, why doesn't the human recognise the dangers beforehand and take corrective action?

In the first instance, the human operator may not care about the system integrity at all, and may actually wish the system to fail. Marxists, for instance, pursued active policies to destroy traditional bourgeoisie society which were wildly successful. The Marxists believed they could build a better engine.

In the second instance, the operator of the system may be operating it under ignorance, either deliberate or innocent, and does not recognise that the system is in dangerous territory.  Perturbations from the desired state which are obviously malignant are easily recognised and corrected, but perturbations which in the short term appear benign, or positively beneficial, are the most dangerous. Here the danger is not recognised, and in instances where there is apparent positive benefit, actually encouraged, accelerating the system decline.

All societies recognise the socially destructive effect of murder and make prohibitions against it. Very few societies see the socially corrosive effects of inflation and sexual liberation, seeing them as a benign or even positive perturbations of the system.  Improvements in the same way that "chipping the engine" improves system performance.  Its all win-win until it isn't.

Here in Australia, we are very sexually liberated. Our statisticians tell us that only 75% of people will marry, and of those that do 50% will divorce. That's a lot of emotional pain, loneliness, disrupted childhoods, domestic violence, etc. Most people cannot see the link between "bonding failure" and sexual liberation, but it's there.  Great party, hell of a hangover.

Sexual repression was in many ways a bad thing, but sexual liberation, may in the long run, turn out to be a very, very bad thing. The problem with long run damage is that it is not noticed by short term minds.  Especially whilst the corrosion is "pleasant".

"Pleasant" corrosion is perhaps the most dangerous corrosion at all. In democratic societies, the mob, fixated on the here and now, refuse to believe that what is pleasantly beneficial and without consequence currently, will turn out to be malignant.

America's economic golden age spanned from the beginning of the 50's to the end of the 60's. The chairman of the Fed at the time was William McChesney Martin, Jr.  He was the man who saw the Fed's role as "to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going". (Negative feedback against popular approval). He was your classic mulitparametric analyst. He did not believe that the Fed could simply base its policy on a single indicator, rather its policies should be based on a thorough analysis of the economy. He was big picture man of fierce independence. Check out the Wiki link.  This point struck me as rather pertinent:
Martin was a graduate of Yale, where his formal education was in English and Latin rather than economics.
Big picture long term man.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Chipping the Engine.

Modern passenger car engines, such as this one, are conservatively designed.  Their components are not stressed to their limits in order to preserve engine life and reliability. The fact that components are not pushed to their limits gives after-market component manufactures the opportuinty to exploit this phenomena to change the parameters of the engine operation. By reprogramming the engine's computer management system, frequently large boosts in power can be achieved.

(notice the parabolic "return" curve)

An engine that has been "chipped" usually has it warranty voided. As the "boosting" of the engine usually comes at the expense of engine life and reliability.

A primitive form of "chipping" was used during  WW2.  Some military aircraft had War Emergency Power setting. This setting pushed the engine beyond its intended design parameters with the following results;
In normal service, the P-51H Mustang was rated at 1,380 hp, but WEP would deliver up to 2,218 hp.[3] The Vought F4U Corsair, not originally equipped for WEP, later boasted a power increase of up to 410 hp (17%) when WEP was engaged.[2] ............. All WEP methods result in greater-than-usual stresses on the engine, and correspond to a reduced engine lifetime. For some airplanes, such as the P-51, use of WEP required the plane to be grounded after landing and the engine torn down and inspected for damage before returning to the air. (My italics)
The point about all this is that engines are mulitparametric systems and stability and long life expectancy is achieved by designing the engine within conservative parameters. The inbuilt "margin of saftey" in component design can allow at times for quite significant excursions from the usual design parameters but come at the expensive of system life and integrity.

Now human society can be considered a multi-parametric system that only maintains its long term cohesion as long as its constituent parts operate within conservative limits. The conservative limits can be pushed for a time, and given the large degree of "conservatism"in the system, can appear "apparently stable", much like an engine that's been chipped.  With the same consequences: the engine breaks down suddenly and without warning.

The intrinsic problem with systems with a large degree of component redundancy is that fatal changes in system operating parameters can occur and initially appear quite innocuous and beneficial, their true malignancy being manifest sometime later on.  Intelligent men who understand the system will try to take corrective measures to restore it to its initial state. But to the man possessed of a short time horizon or inability to extrapolate in the future(most of humanity), the "boost in system power" is without consequence as he cannot see that the "engine" is rapidly wearing away. Likewise many social changes are accepted by the bovine masses because they are pleasant and unable to see how they can be harmful in any way. When the critics of the social changes point out that the system is going to fail, they look around them and see everything working perfectly and dismiss them. Until it doesn't

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Law of Parabolic Returns.

There are several intellectual assumptions which I feel are at the root of many of society's maladies. One of the them is what I would call is the misattribution of linearity.

The erroneous logical process runs as follows. Let's say something called X is good, then even more by implication, is better. It's  runs on the assumption that systems are linear and predictable. It's common error that's seen in many facets of life. Take for example vitamins.  Small doses of vitamins are definitely beneficial to individuals who are vitamin deficient, but at ever greater doses, the effects become  negligible and some instances harmful.  Likewise with exercise, many people,  especially sportsmen, are of the the opinion if a little bit of exercise is good for you even more is better and you can never really get too much of it. Public policy makers, who view education in the same light as motherhood, extrapolate its benefits in the same way.

It's a common intellectual pathology and it exists amongst both the left and right to varying degree.

Very few systems of any complexity are linear in their effect. In fact, most systems obey what I call the law of parabolic returns. Here, what happens initially, is there is a bit of a linear effect which after a while peters out and then finally becomes negative. The more you think about complex systems, the more you recognise the effect.

My interest is as to why this phenomenon exists in the fist place. After thinking about it for a while I believe that it is due to three things:

1) Limitations in intelligence. (That is the ability to process information)
2) Limitations in knowledge, which can either be from ignorance or from a lifetime of specialisation.
3) Superficial thinking. (Sentimental thought)
4) Ideological bias. (Thought-filtering)

Understanding multi-parametric systems is hard and therefore, given the relative scarcity of deep and broad thinkers in our community, linear thinking is more likely to be the predominant mode of thought. Hence, in community based decision systems, there will be a deep bias towards linear explanations of complex phenomena. The simple solution is more easily grasped than the complex one, especially when it needs to be explained by the moronic media to the bovine masses.

Ontologically, linear models frequently bear some relation to reality under some conditions, in other words, there usually is a degree of truth to them. This is why some of the claims of Marxists, Libertarians, Keynesian's etc have some validity; they are not outright fantasy. The problem is that their model is only valid under a limited set of conditions.  Conservatives err when they dismiss leftist claims reflexively; sometimes there is a degree of truth to their claims.  In doing so they make themselves look stupid.

The phenomenon of linearity also explains a lot of the idiotic polarisation in our society at the moment.
Take for example, the two extremes: Communists and Libertarians.

Both of them engage in a denial of reality. The communists fail to see that collectivisation has negative consequences just as much as the rabid libertarians can't see that individualisation is just as socially destructive. In many ways they are similar having the same cognitive blinders, just different cognitive models.  As the general levels of intelligence decline and Facebook becomes the information source for the majority of the voting population,  simplistic solutions to complex problems will assume greater political force.

Charles Munger, Warren Buffet's partner, was a meteorologist prior to him becoming a lawyer. Meteorology is hard probably the ultimate multi-parametric discipline He describes the problem of linearity as the problem of "the man with a hammer". To a man with a hammer every problem is a nail. He has written and excellent and easily readable essay on the importance of multi-parametric knowledge: Academic Economics: Strengths and Faults After Considering Interdisciplinary needs. It's well worth a read.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

An Interesting Article.

One of the reasons why I think the Modern West is in decline is because the political theory upon which it is premised is based on a misunderstanding of human nature. One of the great fallacies which is incorporated into western political and legal theory is the myth of the "rational man". By which I mean, the theory that the average man is a sober and reflective judge when it comes to political judgment. The myth is actually a composition of two fallacies:

1) The effective doctrine that each man's political deliberation is just as valid as another's. This denies the validity of experience, study and IQ.
2) The myth that men are impartial judges of data. Whereas in reality both conservatives and liberals "filter" away data that is inconvenient and effective have a rationalisation hamster that justifies their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence.

One of the hardest things to do, when attempting to think, is to try and eliminate one's biases from one's reasoning. It is possible, but what it requires is a devotion to the totality of data present and not filtering data away which is inconvenient.

For example, I am an anthropogenic climate change skeptic. Not because I have some emotional agenda which I want to keep intact, rather its because the totality of the data that I have seen makes the CO2 argument appear a bit weak. Now the Medieval warm period had lower CO2 levels than today. This in itself does not invalidate the CO2 argument, since it is quite possible that there are several mechanisms of climate change, and good scientist  trying to understand how climate actually works will acknowledge this. He will not try to deny data which is inconvenient to his preferred theory, rather he will modify his theory to incorporate the data. When a scientist tries to "hide the decline" I know that he is more committed to his ideology than to understanding the truth.

Its not a scientific paper but a good article (from the left wing perspective) of how a lot of people are "biased" when it comes to processing information.

The truth of the matter is that the majority of the population "feel-think" instead of "truth-think" and and any political theory or constitution which fails to take this into account is a bit like an civil engineering course which neglects soil mechanics: It's going to eventually fail.

Our political process has not been corrupted as a result of outright conspiracy, the problem is more fundamental. As political power is passes from the few to the many, the likelihood of policy being decided on sentiment instead of reason becomes greater. Feel good policies become predominant over are-good policies. 

Perhaps the reasons why democracies eventually fail is because, by becoming every more inclusive, they become incapable of making the hard decisions that ensure their survival. Universal suffrage paves the way for political instability.