Tag Archives: History

Best Combos Are Robust

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a future world of ems would be like, and in doing so I’ve been naturally drawn to a simple common intuitive way to deal with complexity: form best estimates on each variable one at a time, and then adjust each best estimate to take into account the others, until one has a reasonably coherent baseline combination: a set of variable values that each seem reasonable given the others.

I’ve gotten a lot of informal complaints that this approach is badly overconfident, unscientific, and just plain ignorant. Don’t I know that any particular forecasted combo is very unlikely to be realized? Well yes I do know this. But I don’t think critics realize how robust and widely used is this best combo approach.

For example, this is the main approach historians use studying ancient societies. A historian estimating Roman Empire copper trade will typically rely on the best estimates by other experts on Roman population, mine locations, trade routes, travel time, crime rates, lifespans, climate, wages, copper use in jewelry, etc. While such estimates are sometimes based on relatively direct clues about those parameters, historians usually rely more on consistency with other parameter estimates. While they usually acknowledge their uncertainty, and sometimes identify coherent sets of alternative values for small sets of variables, historians mostly build best estimates on the other historians’ best estimates.

As another example, the scheduling of very complex projects, as in construction, is usually done via reference to “baseline schedules,” which specify a best estimate start time, duration, and resource use for each part. While uncertainties are often given for each part, and sophisticated algorithms can take complex uncertainty dependencies into account in constructing this schedule (more here), most attention still focuses on that single best combination schedule.

As a third example, even when people go to all the trouble to set up a full formal joint probability distribution over a complex space, as in a complex Bayesian network, and so would seem to have the least need to crudely avoid complexity by focusing on just one joint state, they still quite commonly want to compute the “most probable explanation”, i.e., that single most likely joint state.

We also robustly use best tentative combinations when solving puzzles like Sudoku, crossword, or jigsaw. In fact, it is hard to think of realistic complex decision or inference problems full of interdependencies where we don’t rely heavily on a few current best guess baseline combinations. Since I’m not willing to believe that we are so badly mistaken in all these areas as to heavily rely on a terribly mistaken method, I have to believe it is a reasonable and robust method. I don’t see why I should hesitate to apply it to future forecasting.

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The Poor Wore Color

A year ago I posted on how ancient buildings are usually depicted as colorless, even though they were brightly colored, and suggested this is because we think about the distant past in far mode. I’ve argued similarly about future images and colors.

We also tend to think of the clothes of the past poor as colorless; here are some typical images:


ColorlessBoysBut not only did the poor smile, they wore a lot of color:

“Threads of Feeling” is an exhibition of the thousands of textile tokens left with the children at London’s Foundling Hospital from the middle to late 18th century. The 3-by-4-inch fabric swatches are the largest collection of 18-century common textiles from Britain, preserved for a heartbreaking reason. In 1739, wealthy patrons created the Foundling Hospital, a nice name for a large orphanage, to adopt and take care of abandoned babies being left at churches and on sidewalks across London. This orphanage took in thousands of babies left at its doors from 1739 to 1770, with the hope that mothers would ultimately return to claim their children if their monetary circumstances changed. So when the mothers left their babies, they often attached a small fabric swatch to identify the child. Often, the swatches were cut from the mother’s clothing, and included ribbons, embroidery and brightly colored materials that represent the textiles of the poor in 18th-century Britain.


Though not a traditional textile or costume exhibition, the trove of fabrics recasts much of working-class London in a vibrant, colorful light, opposing the drab, gray palette depicted in the writings of Samuel Johnson and his contemporaries. The men who chronicled life in London rarely described the attire of poor women; when they did, the colors of smut and sewage seemed to cloud their eyes and words. But the women, by and large illiterate, lived life in florals, needlepoint and intricately dyed fabrics. John Styles, curator of the exhibition, said 18th-century textiles of the poor were rarely preserved, because most peasants sold old fabrics and clothes to be made into paper. …


Since the practice of leaving children at hospitals was so common, many historians once believed wrongly that women and parents were less attached to their children. Indeed, narratives of hardened mothers abandoning their children were documented in texts at the time, making children seem dispensable. But what illiterate women couldn’t chronicle in books about life in London, they could weave into carefully crafted tokens of love for their infants. Some mothers illustrated enduring love with hearts and butterflies, symbols of innocence that displayed their deep attachment to their children. The most wrenching part of the exhibition is the mostly unrealized hope that mothers would return to claim their children. Of the 16,282 infants admitted to the hospital, only 152 children were reclaimed. (more)

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French Fertility Fall

Why do we have fewer kids today, even though we are rich? In ancient societies, richer folks usually had more kids than poorer folks. Important clues should be found in the first place where fertility fell lots, France from 1750 to 1850. The fall in fertility seems unrelated to contraception and the fall in infant mortality. England at the time was richer, less agrarian and more urban, yet its fertility didn’t decline until a century later. The French were mostly rural, their farming was primitive, and they had high food prices.

A new history paper offers new clues about this early rural French decline. Within that region, the villages where fertility fell first tended to have less wealth inequality, less correlation of wealth across generations, and wealth more in the form of property relative to cash. Fertility fell first among the rich, and only in those villages; in other villages richer folks still had more kids. The French revolution aided this process by reducing wealth inequality and increasing social mobility.

It seems that in some poor rural French villages, increasing social mobility went with a revolution-aided cultural change in the status game, encouraging families to focus their social ambitions on raising a fewer higher quality kids. High status folks focused their resources on fewer kids, and your kids had a big chance to grow up high status too if only you would also focus your energies on a few of them.

It seems to me this roughly fits with the fertility hypothesis I put forward. See also my many posts on fertility. Here are many quotes from that history paper: Continue reading "French Fertility Fall" »

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Imagining Futures Past

Our past can be summarized as a sequence of increasingly fast eras: animals, foragers, farmers, industry. Foragers grew by a factor of about four hundred over two million years, farmers grew by a factor of about two hundred over ten thousand years, and the industry economy has so far grown by a factor of about eight hundred over three hundred years. If this trend continues then before this era grows by another factor of a thousand, our economy should transition to another even faster growing era.

I saw the latest Star Trek movie today. It struck me yet again that such stories, set two centuries in our future, imagine a unlikely continuation of industry era styles, trends, and growth rates. At current growth rates the economy would grow by a factor of two thousand over that time period. Yet their cities, homes, workplaces, etc. look quite recognizably industrial, and quite distinct from either farmer or forager era styles. The main ways their world is different from ours is in continuing industry era trends, such as to richer and healthier individuals, and to more centralized government.

While this seems unlikely, it does make sense as a way to engage the audiences of today. But it leads me to wonder: what if past eras had set stories in imagined futures where their era’s trends and styles had long continued?

For example, imagine that the industrial revolution had never happened, and that the farming era had continued for another ten thousand years, leading to more than today’s world population, mostly farming at subsistence incomes within farmer-era social institutions. Oh there’d be a lot of sci/tech advances, just not creating much industry. Perhaps they’d farm the oceans and skies, and have melted the poles. Following farmer era trends, there’d be less violence, and longer term planning horizons. There’d be a lot more thoughtful writings, but without much intellectual specialization having arisen. Towns and firms would also still be small and less specialized.

Or, imagine that the farming revolution had never happened, but that foragers had continued to advance for another two million years, also reaching a population like today. They’d still live in small wandering bands collecting wild food, but in a much wider range of environments. Maybe they’d forage the seas and the skies. Their brains would be bigger, their tools more advanced, and their culture of participatory dance, music, and stories far more elaborate.

These sound like fascinating worlds to imagine, and would make good object lessons as well. Our future may be as different from the world of Star Trek as these imagined worlds would be from our world today.

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Goldilocks Disruptions

A society’s history of climatic shocks shaped the timing of its adoption of farming. Specifically, as long as climatic disturbances did not lead to a collapse of the underlying resource base, the rate at which foragers were climatically propelled to experiment with their habitats determined the accumulation of tacit knowledge complementary to farming. Thus, differences in climatic volatility across hunter-gatherer societies gave rise to the observed spatial variation in the timing of the adoption of agriculture. ….

Conducting a comprehensive empirical investigation at both cross-country and cross-archaeological site levels, the analysis establishes that, conditional on biogeographic endowments, climatic volatility has a non-monotonic effect on the timing of the transition to agriculture. Farming was adopted earlier in regions characterized by intermediate levels of climatic volatility, with regions subject to either too high or too low intertemporal variability systematically transiting later. Reassuringly, the results hold at different levels of aggregation and using alternative sources of climatic sequences. (more)

For the industrial revolution, the analogous disturbance might have been war and invasion. Were the first adopters of the industrial revolution the places that suffered an intermediate level of war and invasion? Enough to keep folks from getting too comfy in their old ways, but not so much that everything gets destroyed all the time. I’m not sure, but it sounds plausible.

Today the main disruptions are economic; societies rise and fall due to changes in the economic fortunes of particular industries or economic styles. Thus a lesson for the next great revolution might be that it will first benefit the societies that have adapted to dealing with an intermediate level of economic disruption. Which ones are those?

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A History Of Foom

I had occasion recently to review again the causes of the few known historical cases of sudden permanent increases in capacity growth rates in broadly capable systems: humans, farmers, and industry. For each of these transitions, a large number of changes appeared at roughly the same time. The problem is to distinguish the key change that enabled all the other changes.

For humans, it seems that the most proximate cause of faster human than non-human growth was culture – a strong ability to reliably copy the behavior of others allowed useful behaviors to accumulate via a non-genetic path. A strong ritual ability was clearly key. It also helped to have language, to live in large bands friendly with neighboring bands, to cook and travel widely, etc., but these may not have been essential. Chimps are pretty good at culture compared to most animals, just not good enough to support sustained cultural growth.

For farming, it seems to me that the key was the creation of long range trade routes along which domesticated seeds and animals could move. It was the accumulation of domestication innovations that most fundamentally caused the growth in farmers, and it was these long range trade routes that allowed innovations to accumulate so much faster than they had for foragers.

How did farming enable long range trade? Since farmers stay in one place, they are easier to find, and can make more use of heavy physical capital. Higher density living requires less travel distance for trade. But perhaps most important, transferable domesticated seeds and animals embodied innovations directly, without requiring detailed copying of behavior. They were also useful in a rather wide range of environments.

On industry, the first burst of productivity at the start of the industrial revolution was actually in the farming sector, and had little to do with machines. It appears to have come from ”amateur scientist” farmers doing lots of little local trials about what worked best, and then communicating them to farmers elsewhere who grew similar crops in similar environments, via “scientific society” like journals and meetings. These specialist networks could spread innovations much faster than could trade in seeds and animals.

Applied to machines, specialist networks could spread innovation even faster, because machine functioning depended even less on local context, and because innovations could be embodied directly in machines without the people who used those machines needing to learn them.

So far, it seems that the main causes of growth rate increases were better ways to share innovations. This suggests that when looking for what might cause future increases in growth rates, we also seek better ways to share innovations.

Whole brain emulations might be seen as allowing mental innovations to be moved more easily, by copying entire minds instead of having one mind train or teach another. Prediction and decision markets might also be seen as better ways to share info about which innovations are likely to be useful where. In what other ways might we dramatically increase our ability to share innovations?

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USA, Beware 2020

Both Nature and New Scientist recently covered the work of Peter Turchin, who suggests, based on prior trends, that the US is in for a new period of political instability peaking around 2020. He finds that historically US instability has peaked about every fifty years:

He also found this 50 years cycle in Roman and French history, but not in Chinese history. This evidence seems sufficient to mildly raise my expectation of instability at that time, relative to what I would have otherwise thought. Turchin also sees a 150 year cycle in six (de-trended) parameters that suggest instability:

This suggests a US peak in the decades surrounding 2040. Other civilizations have had such long waves, but with widely varying periods. This also mildly raises my expectation of instability in that period.

Even so, the strongest trend we see is a long term worldwide decline in such things. So my strongest expectation is for a continued long term decline in instability. But yes, let’s watch out for the US in 2020.

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Inequality /=> Revolt

Famous historical revolutions were not consistently caused by high or rising income inequality:

[French income] inequality during the eighteenth century was large but decreased during the revolutionary period (1790-1815). … When industrialisation began about 1830, inequality increased until sometime in the 1860s. (more)

In 1904, on the eve of military defeat and the 1905 Revolution, Russian income inequality was middling by the standards of that era, and less severe than inequality has become today in such countries as China, the United States, and Russia itself. (more)

In 1774 the American colonies had average incomes exceeding those of the Mother Country, even when slave households are included in the aggregate. … American colonists had much more equal incomes than did households in England and Wales around 1774. Indeed, New England and the Middle Colonies appear to have been more egalitarian than anywhere else in the measureable world. Income inequality rose dramatically between 1774 and 1860, especially in the South. (more)

So why do most people so confidently believe that revolutions were caused by high or rising inequality? I’d guess its because it feels like a nice way to affirm your support for the standard forager value of more equality.

Added 24Sept: OK, I see that the French data isn’t so relevant to my point.

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Fairy Tales Were Cynical

A recent New Yorker article on fairy tales fascinated me (quotes below). Apparently the fairy tales once “told at rural firesides” were for adults, full of sex and violence, and cynical – they did not often affirm common ideals. This stands in sharp contrast to most fiction genres today, especially today’s fairy tales targeted at kids. Why were long ago stories so much more cynical? They remind me of some joke genres, like dead baby jokes, and of the crudeness often found off the record in many close social groups.

Here’s my homo hypocritus explanation. Our forager ancestors evolved intricate capacities to affirm standard ideals when what they said or did might be visible or reported to distant observers, and to coordinate to violate such ideals when they were less visible. Shared private rejection and violation of wider ideals can signal close bonds with associates, and reveal more about ourselves to intimates.

So when stories become more visible, such as by getting published in books, stories had to become more ideal. Similarly, when kids were taught in schools, with a curriculum visible to all, that curriculum had to become more ideal. And as law enforcement has become more visible, it has been held to higher standards.

Today harassment laws make it harder to be very crude and cynical at work, and divorce custody battles punish parents who act this way around their kids. Today, more interactions are governed by officially idealistic norms: teachers around students, doctors & lawyers around clients, etc. What costs do we pay for this panopticon-like suppression of our natural crude/cynical styles? We are probably less able to form very close social groups where we can more clearly see each others’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities. But what else?

Added 26Aug: Another contributing factor may be that in general our idealism just rises with rising wealth.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Fairy Tales Were Cynical" »

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Is World Government Inevitable?

Several sources lately incline me to think of world (or solar) government as very likely in the long run. First, I read Betrand Russell, in a 1950 essay The Future of Mankind, advocating violence to make a world government:

Before the end of the present century, unless something quite unforeseeable occurs, one of three possibilities will have been realized. These three are:

I. The end of human life, perhaps of all life on our planet.
II. A reversion to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of the population of the globe.
III. A unification of the world under a single government, possessing a monopoly of all the major weapons of war. …

A world government is desirable. More than half of the Amerian nation, according to a Gallup poll, hold this opinion. But most of its advocates think of it as something to be established by friendly negotiation, and shrink from any suggestion of the use of force. In this I think they are mistaken. I am sure that force, or the threat of force, will be necessary. …

The governments of the English-speaking nations should then offer to all other nations the option of entering into a firm alliance, involving a pooling of military resources and mutual defense against aggression. In the case of hesitant nations, … great inducements, economic and military, should be held out to produce their cooperation. … When the Alliance had acquired sufficient strength, any Great Power still refusing to join should be threatened with outlawry, and, if recalcitrant, should be regarded as a public enemy. The resulting war … (more)

Russell was right that Americans then favored a world government:

In March 1951, nearly half (49%) of Americans thought the United Nations should be strengthened to make it a world government with power to control the armed forces of all nations, including the United States, while 36% thought it should not. (more)

Seems they still favored it in 1993:

In a [1993] telephonic survey financed by the WFA, 58% of 1200 adult American citizens polled thought that to have practical law enforcement at home and abroad, a limited, democratic world government would be essential or helpful (with 35%) disagreeing). For effective enforcement of laws, 66% of those questioned felt there should be a world constitution, more than double the number who disagreed. … 82% of respondents felt the UN Charter should be amended to allow the UN to arrest individuals who commit serious international crimes, and 83% felt that leaders making war on groups within their country should be tried by an International Criminal Court. (more)

In 2007, much of the world also agreed:

A total of 21,890 people were interviewed between July 2006 and March 2007 [in 19 nations: US, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Armenia, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, France, Pales. Terr., Israel, Australia, S. Korea, Thailand, China, Indonesia, India, Philippines, Iran.] …

■ Large majorities approve of strengthening the United Nations by giving it the power to have its own standing peacekeeping force, regulate the international arms trade and investigate human rights abuses.
■ Most publics believe the UN Security Council should have the right to authorize military force to address a range of problems, including aggression, terrorism, and genocide. (more)

Finally, the history of China suggests that, once started, “world” government becomes hard to stop:

This study explores the ways in which the Chinese imperial system attained its unparalleled endurance. … I do not pretend to provide a comprehensive answer. … Rather, I shall focus on a single variable, which distinguishes Chinese imperial experience from that of other comparable polities elsewhere, namely, the empire’s exceptional ideological prowess. As I hope to demonstrate, the Chinese empire was an extraordinarily powerful ideological construct, the appeal of which to a variety of political actors enabled its survival even during periods of severe military, economic, and administrative malfunctioning. …

Centuries of internal turmoil that preceded the imperial unification of 221 BCE … were also the most vibrant period in China’s intellectual history. Bewildered by the exacerbating crisis, thinkers of that age sought ways to restore peace and stability. Their practical recommendations varied tremendously; but amid this immense variety there were some points of consensus. Most importantly, thinkers of distinct ideological inclinations unanimously accepted political unification of the entire known civilized world—“All-under-Heaven”—as the only feasible means to put an end to perennial war; and they also agreed that the entire subcelestial realm should be governed by a single omnipotent monarch. These premises of unity and monarchism became the ideological foundation of the future empire, and they were not questioned for millennia. (more)

Even if a world (or solar) government is inevitable, it is still probably best to not start it too early, before we are able to coordinate sufficiently well.

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